Rṛgvedische Lichtaufnahmen: Soma botanisch, pharmakologisch, in den Augen der Kavis

  • Rainer Stuhrmann (Author)

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Capturing Light in the Rṛgveda: Soma seen botanically, pharmacologically, and in the eyes of  the Kavis

The nature of the intoxicating substance Soma, as found in the Rṛgveda, has not yet been decided. After a period of intensive research, though, the majority of Vedicists again tend to favor Ephedra, a stimulant that keeps one awake and alert. The present study, however, will show, after a brief overview of the history of research, that the arguments for the Ephedra theory rest on erroneous textual interpretations of the Rṛgveda. They neither agree with an exact analysis of those textual clues that are botanically utilizable nor with the pharmacology of the intoxication effects, as described by the poets of the Soma hymns. Rather, a detailed investigation of the Soma ritual indicates that Soma must have been Amanita muscaria orpantherina. The data about preparing and consuming this mushroom fit all technical details of the Soma ritual, and the effects of intoxication, including its dreaded damaging side effects, match best those of Amanita as described in toxicology and pharmacology.

Next to general euphoria—sometimes, however, also fear—and a sensation of immortality, the most salient hallucinogenic effects of intoxication are an intensive perception of light and of changes in the dimensions of perceived sensory objects. Soma inebriation is expressively glorified by the poets of the Soma hymns as an important source of their poetical inspiration. The intensified perception of light is cosmologically interpreted as the creation of light by God Soma. The hallucinogenically caused changes in the size of perceived objects is developed as macroscopy of the sensory details of the Soma ritual itself. Poetical daring creates a web of seemingly fantastic pictures that are the key to the ‘obscure’ Soma hymns and their ‘bizarre’ cosmology. The experience of hallucinogenic inebriation was understood by the poets and the participants of the Soma ritual as an actual, true world, higher than reality. For the poet-seers Soma was, in the first instance, a drink of truth that unfolded hidden truths and illuminated the cosmic principle of truth. The powerful effect of the Soma ritual rests on the actualization, by overcoming reality in inebriation, of this cosmic principle. At the same time, Soma inebriation was interpreted as a temporary voyage into the world of immortality.

In the late Rṛgvedic period, Soma intoxication went out of practice. The original, hallucinogenically effective mushrooms were substituted, due to increasing settlement in the riverine plains and the expansion toward the east, by other plants that had different effects. While the original hallucinogenic experience of inebriation gradually was lost, the high reputation of the Soma ritual was employed as a pattern that was usable in ritual for sacrificial speculations and for models of macrocosmic explanations of the world. The spiritual synthesis of the hallucinogenic Soma intoxication can be understood well in the Rṛgveda, but the history of traces of intoxication in post-Rṛgvedic time has not yet been written, and Soma’s echo in Indian intellectual history has not yet been grasped.

Translated by Michael Witzel