Soma – The Energy Drink of Ancient India

No separate introduction is needed for Soma. A drink, a booster of energy, a giver of energy, wealth and health, a God. There are many dimensions to a single name. Owing to it’s ample references in the Rigveda and all other post-Vedic scriptures, we can conclude that Soma surely was an important constituent of Yagyas and for pleasing Gods.
An entire 9th Mandala of the Rigveda is dedicated to Soma. Soma is the third-most mentioned noun in the Rigveda with nearly 1500 mentions.  Almost in every Yagya, an oblation is offered to Soma. Apart from that, there are separate Soma-Yagyas. The Soma was either consumed by the people, believed to be consumed by Gods like Indra,Varuna,Mitra or offered to the fire, Agni. It depended on the usage of the plant.
Soma Characteristics 

It becomes important to discuss characteristics of Soma.

  • Soma is a plant found on mountains. That is why Soma has adjectives like Parvatavrudha and Giristha. Rigveda (RV) 9.18.1 clearly mentions that Soma was found on mountains. So does Atharvaveda (3.21.10).
  • A proper description is given by well-known Ayurvedic scholar Sushruta in his Sushruta Samhita saying that Soma is found growing on mountains like Himalayas, Sahyadri, Mahendra, Malya, Arbuda, Devgiri, Vindhyas,etc. It also mentions that Soma grows in aquatic habitats like Sindhu (Indus) river, Manas Sarovar, etc. This just proves that there were many varieties of Soma whihc were used.
  • Since the varieties existed, the color also varied. Colors like brown,green, ornage and bright red existed.
  • The confirmation also comes from Avesta, in both Yasna and Vendidad, where Haoma ( i.e Soma) is said to be growing on mountains. The Avestan and Vedic rituals were quite common in those days like fire worship, sun worship and Soma consumption.
  • There is a lot of debate among modern day scholars regarding the actual Soma herb. Various species like Euphedra, Sarcostemma, etc
  • The description of Soma plant comes in the commentary of Dhurtaswamin. It says Soma is dark,sour, without leaves, milky and fleshy, produces phlegm and vomiting and is a food for goats.
Preparation of Soma
The preparation of Soma also finds mention in the Rigveda. It is mentioned throughout that the Soma plant is pressed and the juice is obtained. The stalk of the Soma is pressed as mentioned in RV (9.67.28) and RV  (9.74.2). The Sanskrit name for stalk is Amsu. The stalk is said to be pressed with stones RV (10.94.1). The stones are 4 in number and the Rigveda mentions that the Soma flows like a ‘flood’ after being pressed.
Now the juice is not consumed just like that. Proper purification is required for making it consumable. RV (9.3.9) mentions that the Soma is passed through woolen straining cloth for purifying it. At other places, a fleece or a sieve is also used. The Soma that is thus purified is called Pavamana or pure Soma. This pure Soma is given to Indra. The Soma is mixed with water or milk and consumed by others. Oblations to other Gods are offered by mixed Soma.
The Soma is collected in Darbhas or pots and it’s oblation is offered in Grahas or vessels. The Soma is either directly fed to fire RV (1.94.14) and RV (8.42.11) or is drank like that by the priests and the Yajamana. An instance mentioned in the Bhagvata Purana where king Marutta of Vaishali dynasty had conducted a never-like-before Yagya. The priests and Indra himself were given infinite Soma and they got intoxicated by it.  Ashwini Kumaras had no right to drink Soma but rishi Chyavana gave them Soma to drink in return of them granting him youth. Other kings like Dasharath, Nimi, Sharyati,etc have also performed Somyagyas.
Vaivasvata and Trita Aptya, both composers of Rigveda, are said to have excelled in the preparation of Soma.
Eulogies and Allegories of Soma
Pertaining to it’s important position in the rituals, certain eulogies were created in the name of Soma.
  • Soma bestows supreme energy. Indra is said to drink Soma and under it’s intoxication, goes on a war with Vritrasura and defeat him.
  • The person who drinks Soma becomes pure at heart as it washes away the sins.
  • Soma drives away all the enemies and prevents it’s drinkers from coming in contact with any unwanted tribe. Besides, it bestows the best of health.
  • Treasures like cows, wealth,etc are received.
  • Soma is said to be brought on the Earth from the heavens and thus it pleases the Gods the most. Soma is said to be like a smell that spreads everywhere and attracts the Gods towards it, thus inviting the Gods to bless the Yagya being performed.
  • Being the best of all the herbs, Soma is also said to be the king of all herbs (Vanaspati). He is also called the king of people.
  • Soma is also considered to be the moon or Chandra with the 27 Nakshatras as his wives.
  • Soma also is equated to trees, birds, cows, mind,etc at different places in the Rigveda.
soma
Lord Soma or Chandra with his chariot driven by an antelope
Soma-Yagyas or Somyaga
Since Soma has such an important position in Yagyas, let’s talk something about Somyagas. Every Yagya is not a Somyaga. Soma is offered only in specific Yagyas to Gods like Indra,Mitra,Varuna,etc. We find that Somyagas have continued from the Vedic period right till the Brahmana-Sutra period.
There are 3 types of Ygyas mainly – Pakayagya, Haviryagya and Somyagya. Each has 7 types. The 7 types of Somyaga is mentioned by different rishis like Gautama, Satyavrata Samashrami and Dhurtaswamin. They are –
  • Agnishtoma
  • Atyagnishtoma
  • Ukthyah
  • Shodashi
  • Vajapeya
  • Atiratra
  • Aptoryamah
Different scriptures like Yajurveda, Ashvalayana and other Grihya Sutras deal with Somyagas and the rituals and verses to be recited there. Let’s not go deep in the rituals of Somyaga. But one thing to note is that in almost every ritual you have one Soma hymn from Rigveda being recited to please Soma.
For example – In the Sankhyayana Grihya Sutra (1.26.3), depending upon the star in which the child is born, oblations are given. Oblation to Soma in a Yagya is given if the child is born in the Mrugashirsha star.
Apart from this, we also find in the Grihya Sutras an option to using Soma like Kusha needles,etc. It could be because of the decline in the use of Soma as also it becoming less available.
The rituals might show slight variance, but the concept of using Soma in Yagyas has lasted for centuries and continues even today. The Yagyas are done for the betterment of general public or for specific purposes.

Ashutosh Kulkarni

Ashutosh is a graduate mechanical engineer and a history enthusiast. He tweets on @PrachinVaani

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