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 4 - The Synchronization of Rituals and Myths of Soma

[Full title: A Study on the Synchronization of Rituals and Myths of Soma]

Myth and ritual are two central components of religious practice. Myth is commonly taken to be words often in the form of a story. Myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual. Myth is not just a statement but also an action. Rituals are actions that synchronize the world with myth. Rituals carry the performer into the world of myth. The law of synchronization is called Rita (derived from the root √ri to go) meaning the law of movement or creativity. That all the devatas adhering to Rita are participating in ritual has been the key-note of the entire Vedic poetry and has been beautifully presented in the hymns of the Veda. Myth and ritual are centre components of religious practice. Myth originated from ritual performance. Thus ritual came before myth and myth depends on ritual for its existence until it gains an independent status as an etiological story.

In Vedic thought, myth and ritual have both been regarded as very follow up to each other. Both are so homologous and redundant that even the ancient Indian scholars found it difficult to discriminate between the two. All the Samhitas have ritualistic texts (Brahmanas) attached to them which texts propound again and again that the poetry of the Vedas is limitless in the scope of its meaning and the mythical figures as well as the rituals have indirect or symbolic meaning. So, whatever the form of the myth or the ritual, it has an inwardly known aspect. Both myth and ritual have underlying truths regarding the inner nature of the universe as well as human life. The various components of ritual are also supposed to have indicative association.

The Brahmanas have demonstrated the possibility of multifold interpretation of the Vedic myth. The Vedic ritual also has similarly been interpreted at various levels. The third Kanda of the Shatapatha Brahmana. describes and analyzes the Soma ritual and the whole ritual is viewed at various levels[1]. The components of the yajnika pattern are seen as corresponding to the various organs and faculties of a human being and the co-ordination of mind, intellect and speech is desired for the performance of the ritual.

We find a myth of the theft of the Soma by the eagle in the Rigveda[2]. It belongs to a series of Indra-hymns (Rigveda 4.16-32) which are attributed to the seer Vamadeva. We also find a number of other allusions to this mythical exploit scattered in other hymns of the Rigveda[3]. The eagle (suparna, shyena) steals the Soma from afar, from the mountain or from heaven. The hymn, which is address to Indra, simply states that the eagle brought the Soma for ‘you who desired it’[4] He brings back the Soma, holding it in his claw (foot) pada[5] . On the way, an archer named Krishanu[6], usually interpreted (according to the later testimonies) as a Gandharva, the guardian of the Soma shoots an arrow at him. One of the eagle’s feathers, shot off by the arrow, falls in mid-air[7]. The eagle gives the soma to Indra[8]. Thanks to the possession of the soma, Indra gets a standing among the gods, and, in the intoxication of the soma, he is able to perform several of his well-known exploits, notably slaying Vritra. Alternatively, the eagle is said to give the Soma to Manu or mankind, so that men can perform rituals with it[9]. But in this case too, its ultimate recipients include Indra (as well as other gods, of course), the receiver of the oblations and the Soma-drinker par excellence. One more theme which is implied in this mythical account, is that the Soma was originally in the possession of Indra's enemies, since it is protected by an archer and either the eagle or the Soma are kept guarded in a hundred metal forts to prevent the theft: shatam ma pura ayasirarakshannadha "a hundred metal forts guarded me"[10] ; perhaps these enemies are the older Gods or Asuras, who are afraid that Indra, once in the possession of the Soma, will usurp their position of supremacy.

We find the myth of the Soma-theft in the following texts of the later Veda, mostly in texts belonging to the black and white Yajurveda[11]. These different versions present certain variations. Some of these passages briefly state that the Soma is in the third heaven. The Gayatri meter (sometimes assuming the form of a shyena or bird) fetches it. On the way back, one of the Soma's leaves (parna) is cut off, and it becomes a parna -tree. That is why, if a person makes the oblation -spoon (juhu) out of parna -wood, then his oblations become similar to Soma[12] or, if his sambhara consists of parna wood, then he obtains a draught of Soma[13] or, whoever drives the calves away with a parna -branch obtains Soma[14] ; alternatively, if the sacrificial post (yupa) is made out of palasha- (parna) wood, a pashubandha ritual performed without soma becomes equivalent with one performed with Soma[15].

Other versions[16] present a more developed and complete form of the story, which can be summarized as follows: Kadru (the Earth) and Suparni (Speech;sometimes the Sky) hold a bet. Which Suparni loses. Kadru tells her to get for her the Soma, which is kept in the third heaven, to pay for her freedom. Suparni sends one after the other her three children, the meters Jagati, Trishtubh and Gayatri. (Alternatively, the Gods and rishis request the meters to get the Soma which is in heaven[17]. Only the Gayatri, although she is the smallest meter, manages to bring back the Soma, holding two pressings in her feet and one in her beak. Some of these versions have one common point with the Rigvedic account, namely that a Soma-guardian (a Gandharva named Vishvavasu or Krishanu) cuts off either a Soma-leaf, or a feather (or claw) of the Gayatri, as she flies away with the Soma. This leaf / feather/claw undergoes certain transformations when it falls down. Alternatively, in an interesting reversal, the Soma is stolen from the Gayatri by a Gandharva who is not the Soma's legitimate guardian. The Gods, knowing that Gandharvas are fond of women, send Vac (Speech), who is a woman, in exchange for the Soma. The Gandharvas agree to this exchange, but Vac does not want to remain with them. The Gods and Gandharvas vie with each other for her, exchanging their respective roles, the Gandharvas chant the Vedas and the Gods to charm her. Vac is pleased with the gods' singing and goes back to them.

The myth which introduces and explains the necessity of the fivefold ritual in the agnicayana is complex, proceeding by means of elaborated reflections made by Prajapati himself which perhaps mirror the perplexity of the liturgist who found himself obliged to include it in the Soma ritual. The general features of the myth lead us to think that important though it may be because of cosmological doctrine. Pravarga, as a unit, was originally a morning offering to the Ashvins and perhaps only at a later stage in the Indian tradition was it officially incorporated into the ceremony of the pressing of Soma. Indeed, to judge by the myth which presents it to us, this incorporation did not take place without opposition on the part of the more traditionalist. The myth is very significant in this respect.

The myth, as it is presented the Shatapatha Brahmana., starts with the session (satra) for a Somayajna held at Kurukshetra on a night of full moon, by a select group of Gods including Indra, Agni, Vishnu, Soma, Makha, Vishvadeva, but not–and this said explicity -the Ashvins[18]. All these Gods are connected, in one way or another, with pravarga and especially, the absent Ashvins, the heavenly twins, who were its first beneficiaries. Agni is the receiver of the first pressing in the morning because he is the sacrificial God par excellence; Indra is the receiver of the second pressing, at midday, because he reconquered it from Vishnu, Vishnu is the receiver together with the other of the following upasad, because he conquered the sacrifice first. Soma is present because it is in his pressing that the pravargya is offered and Makha is there because it is the sacrifice’s head. The Ashvins, who are so drastically and explicitly excluded, are the receivers of the pravargya itself.

After the usual preparations, the Devas desire a deeper knowledge of the ritual they are about to perform. So, they enter into a contest among themselves to see who will succeed in being the first to attain the end of the ritual. The means to be used are the usual religious ones: tapas, yajna, faith and asceticism[19]. The palm of victory will be luminous glory to be then shared by the rest of the group[20]. The winner is Vishnu, a God relatively new to the Pantheon, who begins to acquire prominence precisely because of this victory (tad vishnuh prathamah prapa)[21], for which he became the sacrifice (sa yah sa vishnur sah)[22]. But Vishnu is puffed up by his triumph which sets him on his way to becoming the Supreme God and forgetting the agreement to share his glory with the rest of the group, he takes up his bow and three arrows for self-defense and withdraws to a place apart, waiting and at the same time resting, erect and with his head reclined on the end of the bow. The other Gods, defeated, sit around him, keeping a respectful distance from him, not daring to reclaim their share of the glory[23]. Then, some ants (varmi), of the upadika species, offer to help them to recover the lost ritual in return for the gift of finding food and water even in the desert[24]. The Gods agree. So the ants secretly approach Vishnu and start gnawing away at the bowstring. Finally it snaps, and the end of the bow on which Vishnu is confidently resting his head, is suddenly cut loose and severs his head clean off (vishnoh shirah pracicchidatuh)[25]. With a ‘ghrn’ sound, the head falls and becomes the Sun (tad patitvasavadityobhavad)[26], while the rest of the sacrificial body of the God lies stretched out (pra-vrj) pointing towards the East[27]. Hence the names ‘gharma’ and ‘pravargya’. Vishnu, still resplendent even though decapitated is admired by the Gods and finally recognized to be the great hero;hence the name mahavira[28].

Again the Gods enter into a contest to take possession of the beheaded yet glorious sacrificial body of Vishnu. The winner this time is Indra who reaches him first and stretching himself out of him, limb on limb, takes on himself the glory of Vishnu[29]. Makha does the same and is, in his turn, taken on by Indra. Hence the latter’s Vedic name of Maghavat which is explained as being the exoteric form of Makhavat (possessing Makha)[30]. The Gods, then, now in possession of the ritual through Indra, their leader, proceed to toil round it (shram) and enjoy the headless body as it is[31]. Indeed, it seems that they take their delight precisely because it is headless. They divide it into three distinct parts: the morning-pressing, the midday-pressing and the afternoon-pressing which they then share among themselves in accordance with their needs. To the Vasus and Agni is offered, with the Gayatri, the morning one; to the Rudras and Indra, with the trishtubh, the midday one; to the Adityas and Vishvadeva, with the Jagati, the evening one[32].

While the Gods go on, thus satisfied with their headless ritual (apashirshna yajnena), there appears on the scence a rishi of the Atharvan family, Dadhyanc Atharvan, who having spied on the Gods from afar, now knows about the mystery of the sacrificial decapitation (dadhyan haya atharvanah etam sukram etam yajnam vidancakara yatha yathaitad yajnasya shirah pratidhyete yathaisa kritsna yajno bhavati||)[33]. He knows too how to put the head back on the Soma ritual and offers to demonstrate it to the Gods. These, however, there and then turn him down. What is more, far from permitting him restore the head to the ritual, Indra forbids the rishi from divulging the secret for otherwise he would cut off his head (sa hendrenokta asa | etam cadan yasma anubruyas tata eva te shirashchindyam iti ||)[34]. Indra is overheard by the Ashvins who, we recall, were absent from the Somayajna and understanding that Dadhyanc Atharvan knew a great liturgical secret went to him and insistently begged him to disclose to them the secret of how to make the sacrificial body whole again. The rishi hesitates for he fears, the anger of Indra, now the Lord of the Gods. But the ingenious Ashvins devins a stratagem by means of which they replace the rishi’s head with that of a horse[35]. So that when Indra, enraged at the transgression of his command, makes good his threat and cuts off the talking head, they, the heavenly doctors, can easily return him his original head[36]. When Indra sees that the secret is now out, he accepts in his own name and in that of the other Gods, even though reluctantly, the re-incorporation of the ‘head’ in the Soma ritual by means of the pravargya rite. Still, he demands that the yajamana should not perform this rite until at least his second or third ritual of Soma under penalty of having himself and his possessions burnt to ashes (tam yat prathamayajne pravriniyat | eshosya taptah shushucanah prajan ca pashunsh ca pradahed atho akuh pramayuko yajamanah)[37]. He also lays down severe conditions for the eventual selection of disciples to be initiated into this secret knowledge[38].

Even though the myth does not directly concern us, it is significant enough to have it narrated in such detail. It seems to refer to the time when pravargya a simple morning offering to the Ashvins was incorporated into the whole complex of the Soma ritual offered to other Gods. It also reflects the resistance to it on the part of the traditionalists who maintained that it was possible to continue performing the Soma ritual as they had always done, without any addition of any sort. They had always regarded the rite of the three Soma-pressings perfectly complete in itself without needing any ‘head’ to be joined to it. Moreover, the inclusion in a rite already so potent by itself, of still another rite which is as potent as pravargya, could give rite as in fact happened to an excess of sacred power causing problems within the performance of the rite.

It is but natural that, in a world where it is believed that the sacred energy of the rite must be maintained in equilibrium, there should be feared a danger in fusing two rites, each one of which is already full by itself of sacred energy. But if one wants, in spite of this, to have the two together, it is essential that this equilibrium is no disturbed. Thus, the innovators take recourse to a stratagem and present pravargya as the head of Soma ritual. But, in so doing they implicitly suggested that the Soma ritual was itself without head and in need to have one. Hence, the myth of the falling of the head of Vishnu with the consequent restoration of it in the form of pravargya. In fact, there would have normally been no reason to consider any Somayajna which is perfectly complete in itself, lacking anything, let alone a head! On the theoretical level, the explanation as to how the principal ritual came to be deprived of its head is, therefore, left to the myth. To the explanation given by the myth, there is added another: Agnishtoma (or any other kind of Soma ritual) normally consisting of three principal pressings. Since the ritual is thus divisible by three, it was not difficult for the mantras of liturgy to present it as incomplete, lacking as it does the fourth. This ‘fourth’ is the element which is more subtle, spiritual and mysterious than the other three and is none other than pravargya.

The myth itself tells us that the Gods were engaged in the Soma ritual in its normal form and satisfied with it as it was, even though, according to the myth, it was without a head. The fact that the Gods are said to still persist in celebrating the Soma ritual in the traditional way even though it is incomplete, and seek to suppress the knowledge of how to restore the head to the whole of the ritual[39], records the opposition encountered by those who wanted to introduce the new rite. However, the innovation did take place through a compromise which could at least retain the idea that, even without the addition of a new head, the ritual was once complete Pravargya can be added only after the yajamana has offered his second or third Soma ritual[40].

Another thing which is of interest in the myth is the explicit mention of Kurukshetra (sesham kurukshetram devayajanamasa)[41]. Whether the place was really that in actual fact or not, is of no importance here, but its explicit mention could perhaps be an indication that the myth wants to link this innovation in the Soma ritual to that great movement of ritual and doctrinal renewal for which Kurukshetra is so dear to both the Vedic and Epic Indian tradition. At this point it is interesting to note how a learned myth can reveal not only the actual state of affairs which gave rise to it but also all the doctrine which serves it as support. It is significant that it is during a sacrificial session held there that the Gods, mostly the traditional ones, spontaneously feel the need to acquire a deeper knowledge of what they are about to do. In this sense, the Gods associate themselves with the sentiments of a society whose religion had reached the limit of exteriorization and now feels the need both for a resystematization of its religious patrimony and for deeper understanding of its significance on an inner and spiritual level beyond the normal ritual requirements. The Gods, significantly, want to know more just in Kurukshetra where the Indian tradition says that Vyasa undertook the monumental work of systematizing the Vedas and the Mahabharata.

The myth’s purpose is not only to teach deeper saving knowledge. Its principal purpose is to justify a liturgical reform and especially to explain how it is that a sacrificial session. At the same time, the myth points out the danger in which spiritual exaltation, unless adequately controlled, can put him who experiences it. Vishnu was the only one among the Gods who was capable of reaching to the depths of the ritual and identifying himself with it, but was unable to sustain its glory (taddhedam yasho vishnur na shashaka samyantum)[42] just as many of the new ascetics were unable to do (tad idam apyetar hi naiva sarva iva yashah shaknoti somyanluni||)[43]. Vishnu became proud and decided to keep the knowledge he acquired all to himself. This is a dramatic way of expressing another consequence of the interiorization of the ritual, namely the realization that true knowledge cannot easily be communicated since it lies hidden in the depths of a live experience. Vishnu has won for himself the depths of the ritual with his personal effort, which, even if he wanted, he could not pass on to the others. Direct knowledge of the truth is now a personal experience which one needs to acquire for oneself and make one’s own. Thus in the second divine contest when the Gods rushed to the fallen Vishnu to extort the secret form him and understand the ritual[44], the victory did not entail a mystical identification with the ritual, since Indra’s knowledge was only, as if it were second hand directly of Vishnu himself but only indirectly of the ritual.

This learned myth, however, besides exposing the consequences of the interiorization of the ritual and of a deepened personal knowledge of the ritual, covers also the changes in the liturgy. In other words, it moves on two levels simultaneously, the mystical and the liturgical. This is the reason why it continues to present the Gods as engaged in the Soma ritual even though they have reached, won for themselves and assimilated, a more profound understanding of it. After having divided among themselves the traditional offerings, in the way prescribed by the rite itself, they are perfectly satisfied since they do not consider the supposed lack of anything else to be decisive. This is what was probably happening also at the human level in the great Soma ritual celebrated at Kurukshetra at the time. It was being performed, most likely, in the traditional manner, with the upasad in the first three days and the three pressings and libations of Soma three times a day. No need was felt for any additions to the ritual.

This great ritual at Kurukshetra, remembered in different ways by all the later traditions as a point of transition between the preceding age and Kaliyuga, besides having unified in a systematic way the traditional cultural and religious patrimony of the Vedas was also a theatre of liturgical innovations. Thus it is no unlikely that on that occasion there was inserted into the complex of Somayajna also the offering of the gharma in honour of the Ashvins by some group of dissident rishis. The story is narrated only briefly in the Shatapatha Brahmana. and is not found in the other Brahmanas. It is also variously interpreted[45]. We cannot exclude the possibility that the fusion of the rites was an attempt to reconcile two rival groups. It is not unreasonable to see in the rishi Dadhyanc Atharvan of the myth the mediator in this dispute who offers Indra the possibility of reconciling the dissident group by inserting the latter’s rite in the main Somayajna under the title of the head Makha. But the mediation was a difficult affair. At first, the traditionalists, through Indra their spokesman refuse. Indra, at least at first, not only refuses to incorporate the gharma rite but even forbids the very idea to be made known. He threatens to have the head of whoever divulges it cut off. This drastic punishment which in the Upanishads and elsewhere becomes the penalty of defeat in philosophical disputes has a profound ritual import and already serves to give in outline the new level to which a dispute of this kind is going to be shifted. The tradionalists are convinced that what they are performing is a complete ritual with no missing head. If, therefore, the innovators want to add a new head as charged with sacred heat and full of mystical significance as is pravargya so powerful in fact that it is capable of assimilating and identifying the priest with sun this will evidently lead to a dangerous excess, which can only be balanced by the loss of the head either of the one who performs the combined ritual or of the ritual itself. The Gods and the traditionalists seek to avoid this but they are finally obliged to yield. The very existence of the myth is proof of that. The myth, in fact, is narrated by those who by now have succeeded in imposing the fusion of the two rites, so that the Gods (that is the conservatives) are already aware that theirs is a ritual without a head, without sap and intrinsic sweetness (madhu), and yet continue to delight in it as it is and do not want to admit defeat to the innovations. Nonetheless the bringing together of these rites had its advantages, especially at a time when, as we have been, it was necessary to generate much more sacred heat than in previous times when a greater faith and the immediacy of the sacred action were enough to surmount the difficulties presented by the opacity of the sacrificial matter which had to be transformed. Hence the idea of fusing the two rites, after the initial resistance to it was finally accepted with a pledge on the part of the priest to respect, as much as possible, the injunctions of secrecy given by Indra.

Here, however, a new difficulty arises. Pravargya is performed in honour of the Ashvins[46] who, as we have seen are explicitly said to be absent from the Soma sacrificial session[47]. It is to them, and in secret, that the sweet (madhu) doctrine about the restoration of the head to the ritual, is taught, which may mean that it was the task of the mediating rishi to teach the representatives of the devotees of the Ashvins themselves about the advantages and the way of this fusion. After having convinced the Gods that their own satra was incomplete, the mediating rishi has to explain also to the Ashvins that the gharma of their rite is not the only one to represent the sun[48], but also the head of Vishnu cut off by the bow has the same claim. He then equates the two rites representing the sun and presents them as the same head which has to be healed[49]. The rishi in fact knew that this was a doctrine that the Ashvins, being the physicians of the Gods, could undoubtedly value. Both factions have to see that there is a sound basis for the proposed fusion and at the same time that they have to be satisfied with this way of reconciling their differences. This fusion could produce much greater sacred energy, provided one knew how to confine it within certain limits and thus diminish its perils.

The imparting to the Ashvins of the secret doctrine of the integration of Pravargya into the body of one of the most important Brahmanic rites is, moreover, the imparting of the same doctrine, with its recondite meanings, to the priest whose task it is to perform pravargya together with upasad of Agnishtoma. This doctrine has, however, to be imparted in secret and surrounded with many precautions. A concentration of energy is extremely dangerous and only those who are spiritually strong that is, strengthened for the purpose can bear it.

Footnotes and references:


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Rigveda 4.37.1-5


Rigveda 10.144.3-5


Rigveda 3.43.7


Rigveda 10.144.5


Rigveda 9.77.2


Rigveda 4.27.4


Rigveda 10.144.5


Rigveda 10.11.4


Rigveda 4.27.1


Taittiriya Samhita 3.5.7; 6.1.6;

Shatapatha Brahmana.;;;

Aai.Br.. 3.25.-26


Taittiriya Samhita. 3.5.7


Taittiriya Brahmana.


Maitrayani Samhita 4.1.1


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Taittiriya Samhita. 6.1.6;

Kathaka Samhita 23.10;

Shatapatha Brahmana.;

Aai.Br. 3.25-26;


Shatapatha Brahmana.; Aai.Br. 3.25-26


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana. 1.1.10


Shatapatha Brahmana. 1.1.10


Shatapatha Brahmana. 1.1.11


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Br. Upanishad 2.5.16


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Kaushitaki Brahmana. 8.3


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana. 1.1.6


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Shatapatha Brahmana.


Rigveda. 1.116.12


Shatapatha Brahmana.;


Shatapatha Brahmana.

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: