The Soma Code, Part III: Visions, Myths, and Drugs

  • Philip T. Nicholson (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


In this final paper of a three-part series on the interpretation of luminous vision metaphors in the Rig Veda (RV), we consider several implications raised by the hypothesis that vision metaphors in the RV refer to the meditation-induced (and meditation-destabilized) phosphene sequence described by the author in Part I. First, we show that there is a remarkable continuity in the description of luminous visions in the RV, the Upanishads, and yoga meditation texts in the Hindu, Tantric, and Tibetan- Buddhist traditions. Second, we show that similar types of meditation-induced phosphene visions are also reported in studies of contemporary shamans and prehistoric rock art attributed to shamans. Since it is likely that shamanistic practices were widespread at the time the RV was composed, we examine evidence that the Vedic priests practiced shaman-like trance induction rituals and that the visions they induced were used as the basic organizing structure for Indo-Aryan myths that describe the attributes of gods and define the gods' roles in the trajectory of cosmic events. Third, we show that the hypothesis that luminous visions in the RV represent phosphene images is relevant to the current debate about the identity of the original Soma plant. If luminous visions refer to phosphene images and not to memory-based hallucinations with dream-like content, this would exclude Syrian rue, which contains hallucinogenic harmaline alkaloids, as a likely candidate. The leading alternative, Ephedra, contains an extract (ephedrine) that is an adrenaline-like stimulant that does not induce visions. But if the original Soma ritual required an all-night vigil, as some scholars suggest, then the attendant sleep loss would likely create a strong sleep-rebound effect and increase the incidence of sleep-onset seizures when the priests reactivated sleep rhythms by trying to meditate just before dawn when the sleep rebound effect would reach maximal levels. If the priests also drank ephedrine to keep themselves awake, this would potentiate the sleep deficit and also add the risk of overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which, in extreme cases, can trigger a temporary collapse and install a state of parasympathetic dominance, the final common outcome of many different trance induction rituals.