Soma in Vedic Mythology and Ritual (study)

by Anjana Chakraborty | 2017 | 51,491 words

This thesis is called: A study of the evolution of Soma in vedic mythology and ritual. It represents a thorough discussion on the characteristics of Vedic Gods, Soma and Vedic rituals. As the ritual plays a very important role in Rigveda it is only natural that Soma, the plant, the juice of which is so much used in the ritual is deified as one of ...

Chapter 2(a) - Characteristics of the God Soma

God Soma is one of the prominent Deities of the Veda. Soma has various characteristic features. These are described as follows:

Soma is the God of inspiration, the intoxicant who stirs the minds, lures the Gods and brings them to the place of worship. The God Soma is one of the prominent deities of the Veda. He is the one of the most popular Gods of the Rigvedic hymns;the entire Ninth Mandala of the Rigveda is dedicated to him. Since the Soma sacrifice forms the main feature of the ritual of the Rigveda, the God Soma is naturally one of the most important deities of that Veda. In the Rigveda, the Soma held the third position following Indra and Agni from the point of view of the total number of hymns dedicated to them. He is also known as Indu or Pavamana; he brings joy into the lives of people. He gives strength not only to mortals, but to the Gods as well. Because of him, Indra was able to slay Vritra. Because of him Agni maintains his sway. Soma caused the Sun to shine[1], caused the lights of the sky to shine[2] and produced the Sun in the waters[3]. He caused the Sun to rise, impelled it, obtained and bestowed it and caused the dawns to shine. He makes his worshippers participate in the Sun[4] and finds light for them[5]. He found the light and wins light and heaven.

Being the most important of herbs Soma is said to have born as the lord of plants[6] or as their king. He receives the epithet Vanaspati, ‘lord of the wood’[7] and is said to have generated all plants. He with the plants is invoked to remove sin and confers bliss[8].

The Soma plant is once in the Rigveda described as maujavata[9], which according to later statements would mean produced on Mount Mujavat. Soma is also several times described as dwelling in the mountains (giristha) or growing in the mountains (parvatavridh)[10]. Mountains are also called ‘Soma backed’[11], a term which, perhaps by ritual symbolism, is applied to the pressing stones (adrayah) in the Rigveda. All these terms point to the abode of the Soma plant being on terrestrial mountains[12]. Since the Soma plant actually grew on mountains, it is probable that this fact is present to the mind of the poet even when he says that ‘on the vault of heaven sweet tongued friends milk the mountain dwelling bull’[13]. Terrestrial hills may also be intended when it is said that ‘Varuna has placed Agni in the waters, the Sun in heaven and Soma on the rock[14] or that Matarishvan brought the one (Agni) from heaven, while the eagle carried off the other (Soma) from the rock[15].

The abode of the Soma plant being on terrestrial mountains. Though Soma is a terrestrial plant, it is also celestial[16], in fact its true origin and abode are regarded as in heaven. Thus it is said that the birth of the plant is on high; being in heaven it has been received by earth[17]. The intoxication juice is the ‘child of heaven’[18], an epithet frequently applied to Soma.

The Soma plant may be classified into twenty-four species according to the difference of their habitats, structures, epithets and potencies. They are as follows: Amshuman, Munjavan, Candramah, Rajataprabha, Durva-Soma, Kanjavan, Shvetaksha, Kanakaprabha, Pratanavan, Talaurinta, Karavira, Amshavan, Svayamprabha, Maha-Soma, Garudahrita, Gaya-trya, Traishtubha, Pamkta, Jagata, Shamkara, Agnishtoma, Raivata, Yathokta and Udupati. All these kinds of Soma secure for the user a mastery of the Gayatri and are known by the above auspicious names mentioned in the Vedas.

A Soma plant of whatever species is furnished with fifteen leaves which wane and wax with the waxing and the waning of the Moon. Thus one leaf grows every day in the lighted fortnight attaining the greatest number (fifteen) in the night of the full moon and then the leaves begin to decrease in number dropping one by one every day till the bare stem of the creeper is lift on the night of the new moon. The growth of the plant depends upon the luner phases of the Moon. The leaf develops one by one during Shuklapaksha and become fifteen leaves on fullmoon and subsequently lose leaves one by one during Krishnapaksha and it remains leafless stump at Amavashya that is no moon day.

The branches of the Soma plant were used for the extraction of the juice but not the fruits[19]. The part of the Soma plant which is pressed is called amshu, shoot or stalk[20]. The shoots swelling give milk like cows with their udders[21]. As distinguished from the stalk, the whole Soma plant seems to be intended by andhas[22], which is said to have come from heaven[23] and to have been brought by the eagle[24] ; it is even called food and very often honey, a term which is applied also to milk and to ghee.

Soma is the name of a mysterious plant from which a drink is pressed that is said to have a certain effect on the mind. Soma juice is glorified as a drink of longevity. The Ninth Mandala of the Rigveda contains a number of references to the colour of Soma. The colour of the plant and juice as well as of the God is narrated as brown (babhru) or ruddy (aruna) or most often tawny (hari) and in accord with this, it is the rule that the cow, with which in the rite the Soma is purchased, must be brown or ruddy and that any substitutes used for Soma must be similar to it in colour. It has been described as ever green and green hued. Its colour has also been described as golden hued. The plant is made to yield its juice by being pounded with a stone or pressed with stones, which lie on a skin and seem in contravention to the ritual usage to be placed on the altar. It is quite possible that these variations in colour may have been due to the specific variety of the Soma plant available and the process of extraction and stage of storage. Whatever the colour, there is no doubt that the juice radiated feelings of power, potency, divinity. The Rigveda describes it as bright and shining[25]. Soma is narrated as purified with the hands[26], by the ten fingers[27] or figuratively by the ten maidens who are sisters[28]. Soma is the lord of the wine of delight, the beverage of immortality. Like Agni he is found in the plants, the growths of the earth and in the waters.

In the Rigveda the ninth Mandala comprises incantations sung over the tangible Soma while it is pressed by the stones, flows through the wooden strainer into the wooden vats in which it is ultimately offered on a litter of grass to the Gods as a beverage sometimes in fire[29] or sipped and drunk by the holy priests. Soma in creeper from is crushed for procuring its juice for its useful role in the ritual. The portion of the Soma plant which is compressed is designated as amshu, i.e shoot or stalk[30]. The shoots swelling give milk like cows with their udders[31].

Soma is pressed out by the pressing-stone which has a close symbolic connection with the thunderbolt, the formed electric force of Indra who called Adri. The pressing of Soma with the help of stones was the usual method in the period of the Rigveda the pressed drops are poured upon and pass over the strainer of sheep’s wool[32]. For it purifies Soma, so that he proceeds cleansed to the feast of the Gods[33]. Soma is simply described as flowing in a river of delight to the Seat of the Gods, to the abode of immortality. The purified (unmixed) Soma juice is often called Suddha (pure), but much oftener sukra, or suci, ‘bright’. This unmixed Soma is offered almost exclusively to Vayu and Indra, the epithet sucipa ‘drinking clear (Soma)’ being distinctive of Vayu, but is admixed with milk for Mitravaruna and with honey for the Ashvins.

Soma is identified in the Rigveda as having three classes of admixture (tryasir)[34], with milk (gavasir), sour milk (dadhyasir) and barley (yavasir). The admixture is figuratively called a garment (vastra, vasas, atka) or a shining robe (nirnij)[35]. Soma is described in the Rigveda as pressed three times in the day.

The abode (sadhastha) of Soma is referred to frequently and once, however, mention is made of three, which he occupies when purified[36], the epithet ‘trisadhastha’, having three abodes, being also applied to him. These three abodes may already designate the three tubes used at the Soma ritual. The epithet ‘tripristha’ three backed is peculiar to Soma. Being dedicated to the juice at least once probably refers to the three admixtures[37].

The dualism in the character of Soma appears in the two quite different accounts of his birth, in heaven and on the mountains. The mountain birth of Soma is seems to point to mount Munjavant. But it is by no means certain that the rock from which the eagle brought Soma, is to be so taken; it seems rather to refer to the clouds and to point to his celestial form. Of the celestial abode of Soma there is abundant evidence of all kinds; he is the bird in the heaven, his home is in the highest heaven, but the contact with the terrestrial is clear in the fact that Soma going over the filter is also Soma on the summit of the sky. So much of the mythology of Soma is clear enough; the actual plant lies immediately behind the God and explains his characteristics. But there are other traits which show that the plant is a very powerful one. The waters which are mixed with the Soma give rise to many metaphors and Soma is said to be the producer of the waters and to be born of the waters.

Based on the mixture of water with the juice, the connection of Soma with the waters is expressed in the most varied ways. Streams flow for him[38]. The waters flow his ordinance[39]. He flows at the head of streams. He is lord and king of streams[40], lord of spouses[41], an oceanic (samudriya) King and God[42]. The waters are his sisters. As leader of waters, Soma rules over rain[43]. He produces waters and causes heaven and earth to rain. He streams rain from heaven[44]. The Soma drops themselves are several times compared with rain[45] and Soma is said to flow clearly with a stream of honey like the rain charged cloud[46]. So too the Pavamana drops are said to have streamed from heaven, from air, on the ridge of earth[47].

The Shatapatha Brahmana identifies the amrita with the waters[48]. This identification may have given rise to the myth of Soma brought down to man by an eagle. But the celestial Soma descending to earth was doubtless usually regarded as only mixed with rain and not confounded with it. Soma is the drop which grows in the waters[49]. Hence he is the embryo of the waters or their child for seven sisters as mothers are around the child, the newly born;the Gandharva of the waters[50] and the waters are directly called his mothers. Soma is also spoken of as a youth among the waters or cows.

The sound emerging from the Soma juice during the course of its purification as it rushes into the vats (bowls) is often referred to and is compared with that of rain[51]. However, the language is generally hyperbolical. Thus the sweet drop is said to pass over the fitter like the din of combatants[52].

The noise is constantly designated by various verbs implying to roar or bellow[53]. A roaring Soma is compared with or specifically called a bull, “as a bull ballows in the wood”. He is a heavenly bull as well as of the earth and the streans[54]. Soma being so frequently called a bull (ukshan, vrishan, vrishabha) is sharp-horned (tigmashringa), an epithet especially applied to the Moon in Yajurveda which in five of its six occurrences in the Rigveda is associated with a word meaning bull. Soma is swift[55] and as an illustration of the speeds with which the pressed juice flows is frequently compared with or designated a steed.

Soma being regarded as a divine drink which bestows immortal life. Hence it is mythologically called amrita, the draught of immortality. It is an immortal stimulant[56], which the Gods love[57] and of which, when pressed by men and mixed with milk, all the Gods drink[58], for they hasten to exhilaration and become exhilarated. Soma is immortal and the Gods drank him for immortality[59]. The Gods were originally mortal. They obtained it by drinking Soma, which is called the principle of immortality[60]. He confers immortality on the Gods and on men[61]. He places his worshippers in the everlasting and imperishable world where there is eternal light and glory and makes him immortal where king Vaivasvata lives[62]. In the heavenly world Soma is united with the Fathers (The blessed dead) as the ground of their immortality[63]. Soma is called the father of the Gods; which seems to mean that as the life-giving drink, Soma is creative of the real abiding existence even of the Gods. Soma is described as equivalent to the Fathers, doubtless in the sense that the continuous existence of the blessed dead was due entirely to Soma as the principle of immortality.

The intoxicating effect of Soma most emphasized by the poets is the stimulates it imparts to Indra in his conflict with hostile powers. The Soma drink was considered the most effective of all medicinal preparations. The Soma drink was an elixir that worked both psycho actively upon the brain and nervous system to induce an altered state of consciousness as well as medicinally upon the human body to cure it of various diseases.

It is medicine for a sick man both weakness and disease disappear in the physical body immediately after one drinks Soma, a unique and divine medicine. Hence the God Soma heals whatever is sick, making the blind to see and the lame to walk[64]. He is the guardian of men’s bodies and occupies their every limb[65], bestowing length of life in this world. The juice of the Soma plant and the Soma mixtures were thought to have more magical potency than any other. The Soma draught is even said to dispel sin from the heart to destroy falsehood and to promote truth.

When imbibed Soma stimulates the voice[66], which he impels as the rower his boat[67]. This is doubtless the reason why Soma is called lord of Speech (Vacaspati) or leader of Speech[68]. He is also said to raise his voice from heaven[69]. In the Brahmanas, Vac (Speech) is described as the price paid by the Gods for Soma. Soma has all wisdom and knowledge. He surveys all things with his thousand eyes. Soma also awakens eager thought[70]. He is also spoken of as a lord of thought and as a father, leader or generator of hymns. He is a leader of poets, a seer among priests[71]. He has the mind of seers, is a maker of seers[72] and a protector of prayer[73]. As the treasure house of all wisdom, he is the source of all thoughts and songs.

Soma is the ‘soul of Sacrifice’[74], a priest (Brahma) among the Gods[75] and apportions to them their share of sacrifice[76]. Soma’s wisdom thus comes to be predominantly dwelt upon. He is a wise seer. He knows the races of the Gods[77]. He is a wise man seeing wave[78]. Soma with intelligence surveys creatures[79]. Hence he is many eyed and thousand eyed[80]. Soma is participated in the ritual. The Soma drinkers are always respected, but if the ritual is not well performed and if there are errors in its performances, the Soma drinkers become unworthy of sacrificial gifts[81]. The power of Soma is at the basis of many uses of Soma in the magical rites.

Soma is a great fighter. He is a victor, unconquered in fight, born for battle[82]. He is the most heroic of heroes, the fiercest of the terrible, ever victorious[83]. He conquers for his worshippers’ cows, chariots, horses, gold, heaven, water, a thousand boons and everything. Without reference to his war like character, he is constantly said to bestow all the wealth of heaven and earth, food, cattle, horses, and so forth[84]. Soma himself is occasionally called a treasure or the wealth of the Gods[85]. Soma is a fighter against darkness. He can also afford protection from foes[86]. He drives away goblins and like some other deities but more frequently, receives the epithet of goblin slayer (rakshoham). Soma is the only God who is called a slayer of the wicked. In the later Vedic literature the statement occurs that Brahmans who drink Soma are able to slay at a glance[87].

Being a warrior, Soma is said to have weapons. Which like a hero he graps in his hand and which are terrible and sharp[88]. He is said to have obtained his weapons by robbing his malignant father of them[89]. He is described as armed with a thousand pointed shaft[90] and his bow is swift.

Soma rides in the same chariot as Indra. He is charioteer to the car fighter Indra[91]. He drives in a car, which is heavenly[92]. He has light or a filter for his car. He is the best of charioteers[93]. He has well winged mores of his own and a team like Vayu[94].

The conception of Soma comes to be extended to that of a being of universal dominion[95], who is ‘lord of the quarters’[96], who performs the great cosmic actions of generating the two worlds of creating or establishing heaven and earth, of supporting heaven and of placing light in the Sun[97].

The Soma drink enables the poetic drinker to compose a hymn. Therefore, Soma is very frequently called a kavi, poet. Soma is ‘the procreator of thoughts’[98] and is rishikrit, ‘the maker of seers’[99]. The poet Soma procreates the thought.

Soma has a romantic aspect also. He is not only lovable but also a lover and sometimes even a beloved. The daughters of the priest have adorned him as if he were a beautiful youth[100]. There are of course, the fingers. Again ten ladies have sung to him as a maiden welcomes her love[101]. Soma, the red one, blends himself with the cows that yield their fair breasts. Hence the cows themselves stand for milk[102]. Everyone does his best to beautify him. He settles down among men like a hawk moving as a lover to his beloved[103]. The fingers are the glittering maids and sisters owing Soma as their lord[104]. He flows on the skin of the sheep like one longing a bride. Apsaras that live in the waters of the sea have seated themselves within the vat and flow to Soma[105], who is their lover probably. He gives pleasure as a wife pleases her husband[106] and moves onward like a youth to the youthful maids[107]. He is sung by poets as a lover to his love.

God Soma blesses the woman, who is in search of her husband; so that she obtains proper husband. A king who has lost the support of his people is banished out of his territory. He resorts to mountains. When again the times are favorable he is installed. Soma calls him back from the mountains, where he might be resting.

In a few of the latest hymns of the Rigveda, Soma begins to be mystically identified with the Moon. In the Atharva Veda, Soma several times means the Moon and in the Brahmanas this identification has already become a common place. In the post Vedic literature, Soma is a regular name of the Moon, which is regarded as being drunk up by the Gods and so waning, till it is filled up again by the Sun. In the Chandagya Upanishad, the statement is found that the Moon is king Soma, the food of the Gods and is drunk up by them[108]. Even in the Brahmanas the identification of Soma with the Moon is already a common place. Thus the Aitareya Brahmana. remarks that the Moon is the Soma of the Gods[109]. The Shatapatha Brahmana, that king Soma, the food of the Gods, is the Moon[110] ; and in the Kaushitaki Brahmana, the sacrificial plant or juice is symbolical of the Moon God[111]. In the Atharva Veda, Soma several times means the Moon[112]. Soma is possessed of rays[113]. Thus we get the identifications of Soma with the Moon. Soma is directly called to be Candramas[114]. The stem of Soma is the lord of fighters. By name it is never deficient in anything. Therefore, he (darsha, the slender crescent of the new moon) should never make the worshipper deficient in progeny and riches. The darsha or the young Soma plant (Moon) is complete at the point and at the end. He is charming to look at. The stems of Soma are unexhausted and the Gods feed on the unexhausted.

It will thus be noticed that Soma plant is used by the Atharvavedic singer not only for ritual but also for magical and medicinal purposes. Great emphasis is laid on the power of Soma and somehow it is made to connect itself with the various amulets and charms. The identification of the plant with the moon is complete in the Atharva Veda and this naturally leads to the connection that the moon is the lord of plants and herbs[115]. Soma, the Moon whose soothing light is praised by poets the world over, is the outer symbol of ananda, the delight of existence which upholds the universe.

Soma is the lord of the north[116]. There is a charm for securing safety from tigers, robbers, etc. The charm to crush the tigers belongs to Atharvan and is born of Soma. The strength of Soma is at the basis of such power of the charm[117]. Soma is described to be always victorious in the battles. The plants with king Soma are praised to relieve one of his sins. Soma is invoked to purify a person from the offence that he might have committed with his eye, mind, speech, during wakeful or sleeping state. The rite of shaving or (godana) is performed under the instructions from Soma. Soma increases both power and knowledge[118].

Footnotes and references:


Rigveda 9.28.5; Rigveda 9.37.4


Rigveda 9.85.9


Rigveda 9.42.1


Rigveda 9.4.5


Rigveda 9.35.1


Rigveda 9.114.2


Rigveda 9.12.7


Atharva Veda 2.10.2


Rigveda 10.34.1


Rigveda 9.46.1


Atharva Veda 3.21.10


Rigveda 9.82.3


Rigveda 9.85.10


Rigveda 5.85.2


Rigveda 1.93.6


Rigveda 10.116.3


Rigveda 9.61.10


Rigveda 9.38.5


Rigveda 10.85.3


Rigveda 9.67.28


Rigveda 8.9.19


Rigveda 8.32.28


Rigveda 9.61.10


Rigveda 4.26.6


Rigveda 9.42.1; Rigveda 9.61.17


s-Rigveda 9.86.34


s-Rigveda 9.8.4; s-Rigveda 9.15.8


s-Rigveda 9.1.7


s-Rigveda 1.94.14; s-Rigveda 8.43.11


s-Rigveda 9.67.28


s-Rigveda 8.9.19


s-Rigveda 9.63.10


s-Rigveda 9.78.1


s-Rigveda 5.27.5


Rigveda 9.14.5


s-Rigveda 9.103.2


Rigveda 7.37.1


Rigveda 9.31.3


Rigveda 9.82.5


Rigveda 9.15.5


Rigveda 9.86.32


Rigveda 9.107.16


Rigveda 9.74.3


Rigveda 9.49.1


Rigveda 9.41.3


Rigveda 9.2.9


Rigveda 9.63.27


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Rigveda 9.85.10


Rigveda 9.86.36


Rigveda 9.41.3


Rigveda 9.69.2


Rigveda 9.95.4


Rigveda 6.44.21


Rigveda 1.4.7


Rigveda 1.84.4


Rigveda 9.85.2


Rigveda 9.109.15


Rigveda 9.106.8


Shatapatha Brahmana. 9.5.18


Rigveda 8.48.3


Rigveda 113.7-8


Rigveda 8.48.13


Rigveda 10.25.11


Rigveda 8.48.9


Rigveda 6.47.3


Rigveda 9.95.2


Rigveda 9.26.4


Rigveda 9.68.8


Rigveda 6.47.3


Rigveda 9.96.6


Rigveda 9.96.18


Rigveda 6.52.3


Rigveda 9.2.10


Rigveda 9.96.6


Rigveda 10.85.19


Rigveda 9.97.7


Rigveda 9.78.2


Rigveda 9.71.9


Rigveda 9.60.1


Atharva Veda 2.35.3


Rigveda 1.91.21


Rigveda 9.66.16


Rigveda 9.52.1


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Rigveda 10.25.7


Rigveda 9.61.30


Rigveda 9.61.30


Rigveda 6.44.22


Rigveda 9.86.40


Atharva Veda 8.8.23


Rigveda 9.111.3


Rigveda 9.66.26


Rigveda 9.88.3


Rigveda 9.86.28-29


Rigveda 9.113.2


Rigveda 6.47. 4


Rigveda 9.95.5


Rigveda 9.96.18


Rigveda 9.14.5


Rigveda 9.56.3


Rigveda 9.61.21


Rigveda 9.38.4


Rigveda 9.65.1


Rigveda 9.78.3


Rigveda 9.82.4


Rigveda 9.86.16


[???] 7.11


Shatapatha Brahmana. 1.6.45


Kaushitaki Brahmana. 7.10; 4, 4


Atharva Veda 11.6.7


Atharva Veda 8.1.2


Atharva Veda 11.6.7


Atharva Veda 11.6.7


Atharva Veda 3.27.4


Atharva Veda 4.3.7


Rigveda 1.5.6-7

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