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Soma is a ritual drink of importance in ancient proto-Hindu-Vedic (in India) and Persian culture. It is regularly mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, which contain many hymns praising its energising and intoxicating qualities. It was probably created by extracting juice from a hallucinogenic mountain plant. In the scriptures, Soma is portrayed as sacred and as a god (deva). What Soma actually was, is not known. The plant may be Ephedra vulgaris. R. Gordon Wasson and many other researchers believe that Soma may be the mushroom Amanita muscaria. In modern versions of the ancient rituals 'Soma' is a non-intoxicating drink, consisting of rhubarb.

Soma is similar to ambrosia; it is what the gods drink, and what made them deities. Indra and Agni are known for drinking massive amounts of Soma. Mortals also drink it, giving hallucinations that are interpreted as access to the divine. The Rig-Veda (8.48) states, "We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods." The Ninth Mandala of the Rig Veda is known as the Soma Mandala. It consists largely of hymns to Soma.

The Persians called the drink 'Haoma', a dialect variant of 'Soma'. In both Persia and India, the original Soma/Haoma making rituals died out when the early Aryan forms of these religions were reformed by Zoroaster in Persia, and by later Brahminical practice in India. Zoroaster seems to have considered Haoma-consumption to be immoral.

In the hymns, the plant itself is personified as a god. The god is the plant and the drink; there is no difference. The plant is the god and the drink is the god and the plant is the drink -- they are all three the same. In art the god Soma was depicted as a bull or bird, and sometimes as an embryo, but rarely as an adult human.

However the god 'Soma' later evolved into a lunar deity, and became associated with the underworld. The moon is the cup from which the gods drink Soma, and so Soma became identified with the moon god Chandra. A waxing moon meant Soma was recreating himself, ready to be drunk again. Alternatively, Soma's twenty-seven wives were daughters of Daksha, who felt he paid too much attention to just one of his wives, Rohini. He cursed him to wither and die, but the wives intervened and the death became periodic and temporary, and is symbolized by the waxing and waning of the moon.

Soma kidnapped Tara, wife of Brihaspati. This began a war, and Brahma eventually forced Soma to let her go. She gave birth to his son, Budha.

The drink Soma was kept and distributed by the Gandharvas.

Soma and psychiatry in Huxley

The term "Soma" was used in Aldous Huxley's dystopic novel Brave New World (1932) in which it describes a drug. This is an 'opium of the people' that replaces religion in an oppressive futuristic science-based society. Soma is a pill consumed as an anti-depressant by workers who lead emotionally repressed and regimented lives. The use of the term satirically refers to the revived interest in ancient Aryan culture at the time. Huxley's society is caste based, like that of Brahminical India. Some people say that our modern, Western society has been kept under the "soma" of television for the last few decades.

Huxley's soma was taken by the Anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s as a model for their claim that anti-depressants and other drugs functioned to emotionally control people whose distress and mental illness arose from the oppressive nature of modern society.

After experiencing the (apparently) consciousness-expanding effects of mescaline and other psychedelic drugs, Huxley wrote the novel Island (1962), in which the fictional psychedelic mushrooms known as "Moksha" played a central role as an active sacrament in the spiritual lives of the citizens of a utopian society. The term 'Moksha' is also Hindu in origin, referring to the liberation of the soul from reincarnation. The social and religious roles of Soma in ancient proto-Hindu-Vedic and Persian culture were probably closer to those ascribed to Moksha than to those of the Soma of Brave New World, which was written before Huxley became closely acquainted with Hinduism and psychedelic drugs.

Other uses of the term "Soma":