Soma Rasa Plant - Grand Finale - Mathomathis

This post would be the final post of Soma Rasa, as mathomathis would like to discuss on the modern concept of soma rasa, in case if you did miss out the previous article you can read it here... Read Part II

The old school of research on Soma Rasa has focussed on different species of Sarcostemma of family Asclepiadaceae, an apparently leafless plant of several feet high, with smooth cylindrical jointed stalks and pendent lateral branches and small white flowers coming out on terminal umbels. Mostly, the tender shoots are with full of juice, which are often sucked by travelers to allay their thirst. The eminent taxonomist, William Roxburgh, who identified the Soma plant as Asclepia acida (Sarcostemma sp.) has claimed that the abundant quantity of milky juice, enriched in it, was not being witnessed by him in any other plant ever before. In this context, Max Muller has drawn attention to a Sanskrit passage, which he had claimed to be of Aayurvedic presentation, reads as follows:

Soyaamalaa malaa cha nispatraa ksheerinee tvasimaamsutaa, Sslesmalaa vaminee vallee somaakshye chhaaga bhojanam.

Meaning: The creeper called Soma, is dark in color, sour, leafless, milky and fleshy on the surface. It causes phlegm and vomiting and eaten by goats. Eminent botanist I.G. Baker, expressed that the medical text cited by Max Muller clearly refers to Sarcostemma as Soma as for as his perception is concerned (c.f. Hillbrandt, 1891). Another old school has co-ordinated Soma with Afghan grapes, vine, sugarcane or some species of Sorghum, the juice of which used as ingredient for the preparation of a kind of beer (like hops in Europe) and Soma is not a beverage by itself.

This claim holds little as Soma Rasa is not a fermented product. Even there is a rejected view of identification of Soma with Cannabis sativa (Bhanga). A full length of discussion of such above facts is available in Hillbrandt’s Vedic Mythology, 1891. In course of time researcher tried to identify Soma plant with Ephedra, a gymnosperm; leafless bush of 1-6 ft. high, prostrate or erect with pine like aroma, containing the juice with strong astringent taste. The tender twigs are enriched with an alkaloid Ephedrine (1-phenyl, 1-hydroxy, 2-methiyle amino propane) which is soluble in water, colourless, odourless and gets decomposed even when exposed to air. When taken orally it stimulates the nervous system, increases the oxygen intake and acts as a restorative and mild anaesthetic agent. It dilates the pupil and contracts the uterus. Excessive intake of ephedrine causes nervousness, insomnia, headache, vertigo, swelling, nausea and vomiting (Kokate et al., 1990; Tayler et al., 1936).

Probably the aphrodisiac property of Soma coincides with the general feeling of euphoria that ephedrine may produce (Kochhar, 1996). But, this view gathers poor support from the geographical distribution of the plant, as India is not its natural habitat and the only species E.foliata grows in the plains of South Punjab and Rajashtan, is not a rich source of alkaloid containing juice. Moreover, Ephedra is not explored in Aayurvedic system. Researches on psychoactive drugs correlated with the Soma plant with a poisonous mushroom Amanita muscaria (Wasson, 1972), which is enriched with active principles like muscarine, ebotenic acid, muscimol and oxazole derivative of muscarine (Tayler et al., 1936). It has been argued on behalf of this mushroom as Vedic Soma, the divine intoxicants consumed by the Aryans, known as the oldest hallucinogen for humanity.

In fact, the tribals of Siberia and North America use Amanita as a narcotic drug. They have a curious custom of self-urine drinking to enjoy the narcotic effect several times following the first ingestion as the chemicals excreted through the renal system (Wasson, 1967, 1972; Wasson and Wasson, 1957). Corroborating the structure with Soma plant, Amanita has characteristics like fleshiness, lack of root description, bulbous base and a doom shaped red cap mottled with white warts, and a white stipe as well, on the interpretation of a specific Vedic passage on the urine drinking, Soma was ascribed as Amanita muscaria (Wasson, 1967). But, however, relating the Soma plant with a mushroom, the latter being a prohibited food for human, from Manusmruti point at view, the position of Aminata as Soma is not free from objections (Dash and Padhy, 1997).

NARRATION OF AN EXPERIENCE
 
Amongst all puzzles in Soma drinking, we came across a literature which claims the lively status of Soma drinking as experienced and described by an Indian saint (Swami Ram, 1978) in his autobiographical book “Living with the Himalayan Masters”. For the benefit of the readers few excerpts from Swamiji’s book is depicted in a box (Fig. 3). Recently, we had an interaction with an eminent taxonomist and an ethnobotanist as well (Manilal, 2002), who has expressed his interest for Soma plant and Soma Yagnya. He has witnessed an Athiratha Soma Yaga at Trichur and collected information on the plant used for the ritual as Sarcostemma acidium, which they have officially claimed as Soma plant. Prof. Manilal rectified one of our defects in our previous paper that Sarcostema acidium is the latest valid name of S. bravistigma which we have mentioned as two species (Padhy et al., 2001). Moreover, we have learned from him that the performance of Soma ritual (in Kerala state) extending to 12 days involving many Rhitwiks, needs an expenditure of 80 Lakhs. This re-ascertains the costly affair of Soma Yaga described in Manusmruti earlier.



DISCUSSION

The Soma plant was not only associated with the Rig Vedic people; but was also known as ‘Haoma’ by Avastan people. The divine power of Haoma is much praised in Avasta (the sacred book of the Zoroastrians), that it bestowed its worshippers with the best of the world i.e. the celestial world. Its medicinal property confers health and longevity, victory over the enemies and elevates the heart of everyone irrespective of the economic status. The twig known as ‘Ansu’ in Rig Veda is designated as ‘Asu’ in Avasta. The name Soma still restored in the regions of Baluchi and Pashto as ‘Hum’ and in Gilgat, Chitral, Nuristhan as ‘Sum’, which reminds the ethnobotanical aspects of Aryan culture pertaining to this plant.

The simple and sacred description of the Soma plant in Vedic literature; dicta in Manusmruti in favour of Somarasa and against Suraa; expanded research in Aayurveda to project 24 varieties of plants as Soma and 18 more plants as alternatives to Soma with rigorous treatise of Soma drinking demarcates the way that the plant being ethnobotanically associated with human life since the time immemorial. Moreover, the identification of about 20 different plants as Soma with different old and new schools of thought on morphological, biochemical, narcotic and hallucinogenic basis and from phyto-geographic and socio-cultural point of view, has opened a new vista of independent research.

Other than Soma, Indian Aayurvedic research, through centuries has identified a good number of drugs for restorative treatments. The Ginseng in China is famous for its rejuvenating property and elsewhere, such drug on regional basis as Indian Ginseng (Trichopus zeylanicus ssp. Travancoricus Burkill and Narayan) is established (Pushpangadan et al., 1995). Moreover, the modern man wonders with ‘Vigra’ to enjoy his youthfulness irrespective of age and time. In this context, the effect of Soma Rasa was said to be multidimensional; may be aphrodisiac, restorative or elevator of mental stature; but it was never intoxicating or a hallucinogenic product.

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