In the Vedic period priests in ceremonies like those practiced in Iran, where it was known as haoma, consumed this divine substance. Soma produced a state that raised man to the union with the divine, a state, as described in texts, that was, in contemporary terms, psychotropic. The priests, the only ones privileged to partake of Soma, connected it to heavenly forces emanating from the Sun, who was also a god. “Soma is your share, accompanied by the rays that are his in common with the Sun,” says the Rig Veda, and “Purify yourself with the stream with which thou [Soma] has made the sun to shine,” etc. As the sacred drink soma possessed powers of a wonderful and awesome nature; as the food of the gods it had the character of sanctity, the deities’ most beloved nourishment raised man to a vibrant state of divine ecstasy.
Texts indicated that soma was a plant that grew in mountains alone, it was leafless, branchless, and possessed a heavy stalk. It was prepared by crushing the stem; the juice was mixed with ghee, milk, or yogurt. Soma, in color, was a golden yellow, or a morning yellow, or the color of fire, fire in the morning, and so on. This unusual plant became more difficult to obtain when the Aryans moved farther from the lowlands of the mountains in northwestern India into the burning plains of India. It was then, at some point, the priesthood appeared to have decided on the separation of soma and its psychotropic effects from ritual consumption. Other, non-hallucinogenic plants were substituted in the rituals for soma, and simultaneously the priests turned toward a psycho-spiritual technique, followed to its end, which produced another mind-elevating experience. The technique was yoga, with samadhi, union with the Divine Self, as its end.
As far as Hindus were concerned no special interest was given to the substitutes of soma. However, it the nineteenth century when Europeans began studying the sacred books of the East, the question of its identity arose. The search for the original substance became almost an obsession with some foreign scholars, which led to various suggestions as to the possible plants from which the Vedic soma was made. It is known that the Brahmins who used substitutes for the celebrations of Soma derived them from the plants of ephedrine, asclepias, and the sarcostemma families, which were the most popular. The first speculative choice from which soma came was cannibis indica, or its derivative hashish; then there were Afghan grapes, honey, mead, wine, hops, different types of palms, beer, and other plants. The American mycolophile R. Gordon Wasson identified soma as the psychotropic amanita muscaria, the agaric, which he called the “divine mushroom of immortality.”
The fly agaric is large, about the size of a man’s hand, with a thick stem and a brilliant red or yellow cap usually flecked with white knobs. The fly agaric matched every description found in the Vedic scriptures. Wasson believed the reference to the stream (see above) fits the practice if drinking the priest’s urine after he consumed the soma, for it would still retain the hallucinogenic effect. In some rites soma was given to a bull, for Soma is also a sacred bull in some texts, and the bull’s urine was consumed; a similar rite is currently practiced today where the both the urine and feces of a cow is partaken of in certain ceremonies of purification. A.G.H.
Rice, Edward, Eastern Definitions: A Short Encyclopedia of Religions of the Orient, Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1978, pp. 345-346