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In search of Soma, the ambrosia of the divine

A mythologist shares the legends and lore that surround this drink, the origin and preparation of which continue to be a mystery

An image of Indra with apsaras from Ajanta Cave 17. It was he, who first developed the taste for a mysterious drink called Soma. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

We just drank the Soma, we have become immortal, we have come to the light, we have found the gods. What can enmity do to us now, and what the mischief of a mortal, o immortal one?” (RV 8.48.3)

As the Rigveda narrates—brought to life by my go-to mythologist Vedant Pophale (@houseofmyths)—it was Indra, who first developed the taste for a mysterious drink called Soma. This deity would gulp down a round before battles, imbuing him with strength, alertness, clear vision, and even immortality. During the period around Mahabharata, many other gods and goddesses had also developed a fondness for this drink, Soma Amrita, an ambrosia of the divine.

Today, Soma is a mystery—one that has taken the form of a deity, a plant, and most famously as a drink of immortality referenced in both Hindu and Zoroastrian texts. Many have tried to speculate about the origins of this flora, conceived as a watery plant, with no leaves or flowers that grew by the water. The Rigveda mentions the mountains, which some interpret as the Himalayas or Hindu Kush.

When it comes to the preparation of the drink, we learn that there were often lengthy processes to turn the plant into a suitable ritual component—often months went into fermentation. Only the stalk was crushed, the juice filtered with fleece, then mixed with water, curd, or barley powder before being kept in a wooden jar.

It is this smattering of references (and civilisation’s never-ending obsession with immortality) which turned foreign attention to the identity of Soma, beginning in the 18th century. The first category of these speculations had to do with the quality of fermentation—from the Afghan grape (wine), hops (beer), and honey (mead), alcoholic beverages with their liquid courage trait have long connected with faiths world over.

Botanists, ethnologists, and the like have continued the debate since then. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Soma is an opium-like substance inspired by those who think of it to be hallucinogenic like mushrooms or cannabis. The most famous of these interpretations would be bhaang, a drink popular during the Holi festival and prepared with cannabis and milk. This is cemented in the idea of a connection between religion and ecstasy, although in the texts, these mind-altering references are few and rare.

Meanwhile, in Parsi ceremonies, a plant called ephedra is used today, one that has stimulating effects on the brain and increases metabolism. These qualities, along with the arrow-like appearance of the plant, make it a strong contender, though the unregulated use of ephedra is known to have deadly side-effects. This list of prophecies continues to include the juice of reed plants as sugar cane and even Ayurvedic herbs, squeezed into a paste. With all the diverse options, many concede that quite possibly there is no one true Soma, but different plants which were used during different ceremonies or from different geographies.

Knowing the true Soma will always be up for debate, Vedant has settled for its place as a religious artefact, a symbol of the sacrifices that were once made to Indra for vigour or virility. Most likely, it was the equivalent of a pre-historic energy drink whose properties and associations with the divine elevated the drink Soma to loftier status. Overtime, the concoction turned to metaphor of spirituality.

Or maybe, it did truly exist. The devas and asuras in the Bhagavata Purana once banded together to churn a mountain in order to obtain fourteen ratnas, or gems—the final boon being Soma. But the asuras never got their share, nor taste of the liquid. We humans, as them, might simply not be worthy enough (or lack the constitution) for such a potent beverage.

Nightcap is a weekly column on drinks. Varud Gupta is the author of Bhagwaan ke Pakwaan and Chhotu. @varudgupta

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