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  • How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of SomaAuthor(s): FRITS STAALSource: Social Research, Vol. 68, No. 3, Altered States of Consciousness (FALL 2001), pp. 745-778Published by: The New SchoolStable URL: .Accessed: 25/06/2014 07:00

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  • How a Psychoactive Substance Becomes a Ritual: The Case of Soma / BY FRITS STAAL

    Introduction: Vedic Peoples

    JL HE Rigveda, the earliest of the four Vedas, describes Soma in three forms: as a God, a plant, and a beverage extracted or pressed from that plant.1 All are endowed with extraordinary powers. A few centuries after the Rigveda was composed, Soma juice began to occupy the central place in the ritual ceremonies of the Yajurveda and Sama chants of the Samaveda. More recently, in the latest stage of its career so far, Soma has become a topic of discussion and controversy among Vedic and other scholars and scientists. The bibliography in Sanskrit and mod- ern languages is vast. In English, it begins with a note to a Bha- gavad Gita translation of 1784 (Doniger O'Flaherty, 1968: 102). The most recent treatment in book form is a two-volume work on the religion of the Veda, published in German and largely devoted to Soma texts and mythology (Oberlies, 1998-1999). But Soma is more than either, and it is its real world features on which I shall concentrate.

    To understand Soma, we have to begin with the peoples for whom it was important. We may refer to these as "Vedic peoples" but when we use terms such as "Vedic" we must be careful to be clear about what we mean. Almost all our knowledge of Vedic peoples comes from the four Vedas, compositions by priests and poets that have been orally transmitted, along with their ritual

    SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Fall 2001)

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    Fig. 1: Scholarly Conversation in Front of a Soma Vessel.

    -8 i

    performances, until the present day. Often regarded as mythol- ogy, the Vedas abound in concrete information, conveyed not only by geographical data such as the direction of rivers but also through their language. The geography points to the Indus Val- ley or greater Punjab that now covers a good part of Pakistan and northwest India. The earlier Rigveda calls up mountains and rivers farther north and west, suggestive of Afghanistan. Its lan- guage is Indo-European and some features are closely related to language, such as its poetic style and techniques. The Athar- vaveda is similar in these respects but seems to reflect a different social stratum and is not concerned with the rituals that I will describe. The middle Vedic language of the later Yajurveda and Samaveda is also Indo-European, but Rigvedic poetics has virtu- ally disappeared from it.

    A disconcerting feature about the Vedic peoples is that they left few archeological traces. It is true that some have been related to excavated pottery such as the Painted Grey or Black-and-Red Wares, variously dated to the late second millennium or early first millennium B.C. This could be of interest in our present context

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    because Soma liquid is still transported, kept in, and poured from pots and vessels that are characterized by traditional shapes. Fig- ure 1 shows a scholarly conversation that took place in 1975 in a small village in Kerala, southwest India, iri front of a large Soma vessel made from clay and about to be used in the performance of a Soma ritual.2 But there are no connections between any of these ritual shapes and the excavated varieties. This is not sur- prising because, even in a highly ritualistic culture, most pots are used not during ritual performances but in the kitchen. The gob- lets from which Soma is drunk or offered left no traces because they were (and still are) made of wood.

    Fig. 2: Wooden Goblet for Soma Drinking.


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    Greek, Latin, Hittite, S ' ' Tocharian

    Gothic, Slavic, French, V v'- ' German, English, Irish, ' ' ' Italian, Scandinavian, etc.

    ' ' ' ' ' f V Indo-lranian

    Iranian Indo-Aryan

    Fig. 3: Indo-Aryan, the Language of the Vedas.

    The fact that the Vedic peoples left few traces has led to much speculation, but the solution to that apparent mystery is not dif- ficult. The Vedic peoples did not form a distinct racial group but were made up of various tribes and lineages that were in contact with each other and spoke or adopted the same Vedic language or closely related languages and dialects. The earliest Vedic peo- ple were seminomadic and almost always on the move. Their lan- guage was gradually adopted by others who were more sedentary. That gradual settlement is illustrated by several Vedic words and phrases. One is grama, which, in early Vedic, referred to a train of herdsmen, roaming about with cattle, ox-carts, and chariots in quest of fresh pastures and booty. Subsequently it came to denote a temporary camp for such a train, made of bamboo poles and reed mats that could be quickly assembled and taken apart. Grama denotes "village" for the first time in late Vedic, that is, after 700 B.C., and continues to be used in that sense today (Rau, 1997). A disjunction exists between the Rigveda and later Vedic litera-

    ture. Both share a Central Asian background, but the Rigveda is closer to it. The evidence is primarily linguistic. The language of the Rigveda is the earliest form of Indo-Aryan, one of the two

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    main branches of Indo-Iranian. Indo-Iranian is a subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The sketch in figure 3 has been drawn with the language of the Rigveda in mind. Some Indo-European languages of Europe have been stuffed together. The position of Tocharian, the easternmost member, is attested late, in Buddhist manuscripts from the end of the first millen- nium A.D. that have been discovered in Xinjiang, northwest China. For reasons that will become apparent later, I have assumed that it split off early.

    Indo-Iranian speakers trekked, east of the Caspian Sea, in a southern direction. Speakers of Iranian moved into Iran. Those who spoke Indo-Aryan trickled across the high mountains in a southeastern direction and composed the Rigveda between 1600 and 1200 B.C. A few Indo-Aryan speakers went west, all the way to Anatolia (now Turkey and northern Syria). They left traces on Hittite clay tablets of circa 1450 B.C. that mention Indo-Aryan numerals and carry names of Vedic deities. It may explain the relatedness of Greek and Vedic geometries, which both derive from ritual constructions (Staal, 1999, 2001d). The bulk of Vedic culture moved east. The Yajurveda and Samaveda were composed in middle Vedic dialects and later, around 1000 B.C., when the sociopolitical center had shifted to the Kuru "supertribe" or state not far from modern Delhi (Witzel, 1997a, 1997b).

    The Vedic language preserves a few words that are not Indo- European (Witzel, 1999). Animal names such as camel, donkey, and panther, and terms of material culture associated with agri- culture and brick-built settlements may be traced back to a lan- guage spoken by citizens of the "Bactrian-Margiana Archeological Complex" (BMAC) (2300-1500 B.C.), who used bricks to con- struct fortified towns. About a hundred sites have been excavated by Russian archeologists (especially Viktor Sarianidi) on both sides of the Oxus, the most important Indo-Aryan river (just as the Indus became important for the Vedas and the Ganges for later Hinduism). Since speakers of Indo-Iranian passed through

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    that region, it is not surprising that a BMAC language left traces in their languages.

    Vedic Soma is not a name but derives from a root su, which means "press" or "extract." Its Iranian counterpart is haoma and the reconstructed Indo-Iranian form is *sauma (the asterisk denotes that the C/rform has been reconstructed by linguists). It refers primarily to the juice and perhaps also to the plant from which it is extracted. Its Indo-Iranian cult may be connected with the Indo-European usage or cult of madhu, an Indo-European word used in the Rigveda that is related to English mead. As far back as 1859, Adalbert Kuhn drew attention to these and other similarities and E B. J. Kuiper (1970: 283-4), regards it as a "rea- sonable conjecture" that the Indo-Iranian speakers, "having become acquainted with the practi