What is Soma rasa?
Is it the name of an intoxicating beverage which the Aryans used ? Or, does the word have a spiritual and mystical meaning ?
Soma, a key concept in the Vedic literature has a number of connotations, sometime based on analogies, as one may discern in the 9th book of the Rigveda and in the Samaveda. Soma is the Supreme Lord, vehicle of immortality, drop of life, supreme medicine and the elixir of gods. It is also viewed in the sense of friend, fame, ecstasy, affluence, etc. Soma is identified with all the deities with Agni, Apas, Indra, Brihaspati, Pushan, Aditi, Rudra, Varuna, Prajapati, et al. Soma is moon in the cosmic creation, and is present in all herbs. As a plant par excellence classified into 24 species, it grows on the Mujavat, Arbuda, Sahya, Mahendra, the Himâlaya and other mountains. For the purpose of juice (rasa) in sacrificial rites, it is pounded with stones or in a mortar, and then cleaned and processed. As an oblation (havih) in yajña it goes to Indra who in the metaphysical sense, is the resplendent Self, 'the soul who drinks Soma' shooting forth from the anandamaya and vijnanmaya sheaths of the subtle body. The ambrosia of Soma is fermented and distilled in the inner consciousness of one's self. Says the Samaveda
Come O strong and courageous resplendent self, spiritual elixir has been pressed out for you. May you be filled with spiritual vigour as the sun fills the sky with its rays.'
Soma-rasa, 'the conceptual beverage of gods' is not to be equated with sura (alcoholic beverage) as explained in the Œatapatha Brahmana (VI. 1.3.10). Swami Satya Prakasha Saraswati and Satyakam Vidyalankar observe in their Introduction to the Saamaveda:
While both are exhilarating at the first experience, the former is vitalizing, the later is stupefying alcohol or sura weakens the man physically, morally and intellectually. The soma is truth (satya), prosperity and light (jyotish). The sura is untruth (anrota), misery and darkness (tamas). Soma leads to gyana (enlightenment) and ananda (bliss)…. the curing characteristic of herb (soma) has been supposed to be proportional to the soma-ingredient in it….'
The Hatoha Yoga-Pradipika, a 15th century Sanskrit manual on Hatoha Yoga does not regard soma-rasa (juice of soma) as a man-made intoxicating beverage but as the exudation of nectar which a yogi partakes after mastering the khecari mudra in which the tongue is turned backwards into the hollow of the skull and the mind focused between eyebrows (arjna chakra).
'As fire is inseparably connected with the wood and light is connected with the wick and oil, so does the soul not leave the body full of nectar exuding from the soma.' (III. 45)
'Immortal liquor is the nectar exuding from the moon (situated on the left side of the space between the eyebrows). It is produced by the fire which is generated by thrusting the tongue.' (III. 48)
'He who drinks the clear stream of liquor of the moon (soma) falling from the brain to the sixteen-petalled lotus (in the heart) obtained by the means of prana, by applying the tongue to the hole of the pendant in the palate, and by meditating on the great power (kundalini) becomes free from disease and tender in the body, like the stalk of a lotus, and the Yogi lives a very long life.' (III. 50)
All this goes to prove that soma-rasa, in its spiritual and metaphysical aspects, was not an alcoholic product, as commonly believed, but a divine elixir, which a yogi or highly evolved soul, could savour after undergoing specific practices.
Prohibition of Wine in Religious Texts
Drinking-rites for the goodwill of gods, for social celebration, or in honour of the dead, have no sanction in the Vedas and the mainstream texts of the Hindus. References to the prohibition of wine occur in the Dharamasutra literature of Apastambha (1.25.3), Gautama (23.1), Bodhayana (2.1.18,19,21), Vasistha (20.19,22), Yajnavalkya and others. The Manu Smrti (XI.93) likens wine, the dross secreted from food-grains, to impure substance (mala) and prohibits both brahmins and kshatriyas from drinking it. It describes wine, meat and fermented beverages as the food of yakna, rakshasa and pisacha category of beings (XI.95). It further says that the
brahminhood of a brahmin instantly goes when he takes wine and he becomes a œudra (XI.97). As an expiatory rite, Visnu Smrti (51.1) prohibits a drinker of wine to abstain from all religious rites and subsist on grains un-separated from the husk for one year. Wines distilled from sugar, from the blossom of madhuka (mahua; Madhuka indica) or from flour are specifically disallowed to the twice-born. Intoxicating beverages which are a taboo for the Brahmins, but not so for the Ksatriya or Vaishys (if taken in moderation), are those which have been distilled from the madhuka flowers, molasses, jujube fruit, dates, bread-fruit, honey, sap of coconut tree, etc. (Visnu Smrti, 22.82).
The sins of wine-drinking, brahmin-killing or of violating the guru's bed are considered unpardonable and can be atoned only by embracing death voluntarily. The Yajnavalkya Smrti (3.253-56), for example, says: 'The man who drinks sura attains purity by dying after drinking any one of the following red-hot things: sura, water, clarified butter, cow's urine and milk … If any one of the three castes unknowingly drinks the varuni-wine, he shall undergo initiation a second time. The brahmin woman who drinks wine does not go to her husband's regions; and in the world she is born as a bitch.'
Modern Hindu movements and cults prohibit, with varying emphasis (but not denying the medical viability of some drugs), the use of alcohol, tobacco ganja, carasa, artificially produced stimulants (like amphetamines), tranquilisers (like reserpine, Chlorpromazine, benzodiazepines, amipramines and lithium), soporifics (like barbiturates), hallucinogens (like LSD) and opiates (like morphine, heroin or its unrefined forms such as brown sugar or smack). Holy men and social reformers among the Buddhists, Jainas and Sikhs have also been crusading against the increasing use of intoxicants.
The best antidotes to drugs in this stressful age are bhajana-kirtana (devotional singing), japa (recitation of holy syllables), satsanga (being in holy company), svadhyaya (scriptural reading), niskama-seva (selfless service), vasana-ksaya (annihilation of desires), and yogabhyasa (practice of Yoga) which purify the mind, strengthen will power and viveka-shakti (the sense of discrimination between right and wrong), root out fears and complexes, and harness the latent energy in a person to the extent that narcotics become an anathema to him.
Dr Satish K Kapoor
Well known scholar of Indian culture and tradition, Dr Satish K Kapoor is a former British Council Scholar, presently serving as
Registrar, DAV University, Jalandhar.