Soma
A term found in the hymns of the Rig-Veda, one of the four
sacred scriptures of ancient India (the others are the Sama
Veda, Yajur Veda, and Artharva Veda). The essential teachings of
the Vedas were recast in the form of the Upanishads, of which
there are 108 principal scriptures and a number of minor ones.
The ninth chapter of the Rig-Veda comprises 114 verses in
praise of soma, the ambrosia of the gods and the elixir of immortality.
It is clear that soma was also an intoxicating drink
(possibly made from the milk-weed asclepias acida described in
the Yajur Veda as a dark, sour creeper without leaves). This
drink was offered by the priests as a libation to the gods, much
as wine is used sparingly in the sacraments of the Christian religion
for symbolic purposes.
In the twentieth century, several writers, most notably R.
Gordon Wasson in his book Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality
(1968), have speculated that soma was the amanita muscaria
(a mushroom with hallucinogenic properties) and that Hindu
mysticism arose from intoxication of the priests. This suggestion
stemmed from Wasson’s research in Mexico, when he discovered
a Mazatec Indian religious practice based on the use
of a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Wasson’s soma theory became attractive during the psychedelic
revolution of the 1960s, and it became fashionable to expand
upon Wasson’s view to assert that transcendental revelation
had always been stimulated by the use of psychedelic
drugs. Another writer, John M. Allegro, suggested in his book
The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1970) that the crucifixion
story of Jesus was a symbolic myth of the ecstasy produced by
a psychedelic drug.
Intoxicating (as opposed to psychedelic) beverages have certainly
been known since ancient times in Egypt, India, Greece,
and Rome. Warnings about intoxication abound in ancient
writings, notably in the Bible, in the Proverbs of Solomon, in
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea. In the Christian religion,
the apostle Paul complained of drunkenness at the agape, or
love feasts, celebrated in common. Novatian, a Church father
of the third century, spoke of Christians who, in the morning
after fasting, began the day by drinking, pouring wine into
their still ‘‘empty veins,’’ and were drunk before eating.
In India, the Manava Dharma Shastra (Ordinances of Manu),
a code of religious and civil duties, prohibited intoxication on
the part of Brahmin priests and made it clear that the soma
drink was from a plant, not a mushroom. This plant is sometimes
called the ‘‘moon plant,’’ and soma was traditionally associated
with the moon.
Yoga treatises on meditation suggest that the true soma, or
elixir of life, is the union of the twin currents of kundalini energy
in the human body, culminating in higher consciousness.
Some Hindus believe in kundalini as a latent energy situated
at the base of the spine that is activated in normal life in sexual
activity, but which may also be drawn upward in subtle channels
of the spine to a center in the head, illuminating the consciousness
with mystical awareness. The goal of some forms of yoga
practice is often referred to as the union of the sun and moon,
the fiery and cool kundalini currents in the spinal column. At
the junction of these currents, the blissful condition is described
as ‘‘drinking the soma juice,’’ and the energy flow as
‘‘amaravaruni’’ (wine drinking).
The elaborate symbolism and metaphor of Hindu mysticism
has often misled commentators into literal interpretations.
While intoxicants and hallucinatory drugs may produce transcendental
experiences, throughout history great prophets and
mystics, as well as scientists and geniuses, have been inspired
by a higher consciousness that owed nothing to intoxication or
hallucinogenic mushrooms. The twentieth-century discovery of
psychedelic drugs and their power to transform normal consciousness
have misled many people into vastly overstating the
role of such substances in the history of mystical experiences.
Critics of drug use have also complained that the use of drugs
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Soma
1435
for mystical purposes has yet to ‘‘produce a single inspiring
statement on the philosophy and meaning of life comparable
with the wisdom of the prophets and mystics of history.’’
In the 1960s, several groups were formed in the United
States to promote the idea of the religious use of psychedelics,
but most of these dissolved following negative court actions.
Outside of these circles, as recently as 1988, a short-lived attempt
to defend the psychedelicsoma connection was made in
the journal ReVision (vol. 10, no. 4, spring 1988). There was little
positive response and a strong rebuttal by Gene Kieffer, a
follower of Indian teacher Gopi Krishna.
Sources
Allegro, John M. The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. London
Hodder & Stoughton, 1970; Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday,
1970.
Gopi Krishna. The Awakening of Kundalini. New York E. P.
Dutton, 1973.
Iyangar, Yogi Srinivasa. Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika of Svatmarama
Svamin. Adyar, Madras, India Theosophical Publishing House,
1933.
Kieffer, Gene. ‘‘An Appeal for Common Sense.’’ SFF Newsletter
[Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship] (October 1988).
———. ‘‘It’s Not the Soma that the Brahmans Know!’’ SFF
Newsletter [Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship] (September 1988).
———. ‘‘ReVision Revisits the Sacred Mushroom.’’ SFF
Newsletter [Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship] (August 1988).
Masters, R. E. L., and Jean Houston. The Varieties of Psychedelic
Experience. New York Delta, 1967.
Rele, Vasant G. The Mysterious Kundalini The Physical Basis
of the ‘‘Kundalini (Hatha) Yoga’’ in Terms of Western Anatomy and
Physiology. Rev. ed. Bombay, India D. B. Taraporevala, 1950.
Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality.
New York Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism Sacred and Profane. London Clardenon
Press, 1957. Reprint, Galaxy Book, 1961.

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