The Cannabis Soma/Haoma Theory: A Synopsis Based on the Latest Textual and Archeological Evidence | Cannabis Culture


CANNABIS CULTURE – This is part 2 of a series on The Soma Haoma Question, exploring the identity of the ancient Vedic and Avestan entheogenic sacrament. Other articles released thus far in this series include:

  1. The Soma-Haoma Question, which gives the reader a backgrounder into the story behind this mystery and explains who the authors of the Vedas and Avesta were.

This article will summarize some of the most important points in identifying the suggested role for cannabis in the Vedic Soma and related Avestan Haoma traditions, based on the latest textual and archeological information. This synopsis is based on material from my 2010 book Cannabis and the Soma Solution, along with the most current discoveries and research.

This article is part of a series on the identity of the ancient plant behind these Vedic and Avestan mysteries. The Vedic tradition’s soma  and the Avestan’s haoma were plant based ritual drinks that inspired their imbibers. A Common origin is attributed to both. The texts describe the preparation of soma/haoma by means of extracting the juice from a plant, the identity of which is now unknown and debated among scholars. In both the ancient Vedasand the Avesta, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. Various plant candidates have been suggested for Soma/Haoma. This article is part of a series of Papers regarding the Soma-Haoma Solution, that also examines other candidates such as Syrian Rue, and various Psychedelic mushrooms as well.

In opening, I want to be clear, so I am not guilty of cultural appropriation, that the view that soma was likely cannabis, has been held by a variety of Indian scholars and much of my own research in this area is built upon their earlier contributions, particularly in regards to descriptions of the plant soma in the Vedic material, and in identifying descriptions of its preparation, as well as understanding the various texts that indicate the original plant’s prohibition and its later replacements. It should also be noted in this regard, The Mushroom Soma Theory, which will be discussed in a later article in this series, is the creation of Western researchers, and I know of no prominent Indian sources that agree with that identification.

Pointing out the wide spread religious use of hemp throughout the ancient Near East, amongst the Babylonians, Assyrians, Scythians and Hebrews, as well as the early spread of its cultic use from northern Europe, to Siberian Asia, China, India, Asia minor and Southeast Asia, the famed anthropologist Weston La Barre, suggested that “cannabis was part of a religio-shamanic complex of at least Mesolithic age, in parallel with an equally old shamanic use of Soma…” (La Barre, 1980). 

La Barre mentions soma, an ancient psychoactive beverage that was the source of the Vedic religion in India, and the Avestan religion of ancient Persia, where it was known as Haoma. This ancient sacrament was one of the most widely used entheogens of the ancient world. The identity of Soma-Haoma has been a long time matter of debate. La Barre, however, accepted R. Gordon Wasson’s identification of Soma, as the Amanita muscaria mushroom, which has remained the prevailing view since the early 1970s. As well, David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwartz have hypothesized that the Persian Haoma was Peganum harmala, or Syrian rue, and this identification of haoma is wifely held to be equally as strong as that of Wasson’s identity of soma. But what if one were be able to show that these identifications were incorrect, and that the ancient Soma-Haoma, was in fact cannabis? This would mean that Hemp was the most celebrated religious sacrament in the history of humanity, and that its use would be twice as widespread as La Barre has suggested for either cannabis or Soma alone!

As botanist Mark Merlin noted close to 50 years ago, in his short but commendable presentation on the subject:

…[W]hat was the famous Soma plant that played such an important part in the formation of the Vedic civilization? Was Soma really the hemp plant? There are many evidences to suggest such an identification…. [I]f it were possible to substantiate, beyond any doubt, that the plant source of Soma juice was Cannabis sativa, the diffusion of hemp into India would seem to be deeply significant. (Merlin, 1972)

Writing in the early seventies, when so little information on the matter was available in the West, Merlin lamented that “even with all the circumstantial evidence that I have collected and will list to support this identification, it would be extremely naive and in a real sense impetuous to dogmatically assert this theory” (Merlin, 1972). As for this author, let’s just say I am feeling slightly more impetuous close to 50 years later about the information laid out in this article, and I am confident the reader will fully understand why by the time they reach the closing paragraphs….

The Cannabis Soma Theory

I propose that the combined sacramental use of soma and haoma, grew out of the common Indo-European ancestry of both the Vedic and Avestan authors, and an earlier widespread cultural and cultic use of cannabis. It has been suggested that the root word for cannabis, is proto-Indo-European, and was around before the Indo-European language even developed, and split of with their different variations of the cannabis root word ‘kanap‘. It has been reported that in 1997, a hemp rope dating back to 26,900 BC was found in Czechoslovakia. and this gives us some idea of how far back its relationship goes with even proto-Indo-European cultures.

The late British archeologist Andrew Sherratt pointed to the use of tripod bowls which he suggested were used to burn cannabis in the Ukraine region. Sherratt also speculated that the wide spread evidence of corded wear culture, which spread throughout from the Rhine on the west to the Volga in the east, occupying parts of Northern Europe, Central Europe and Eastern Europe, was evidence of hemp cord pressed pottery jars that held a cannabis drink. As noted in my book Cannabis and the Soma Solution, which serves as the basis for this synopsis:

The authors of The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture note that “Hemp has not only been recovered from sites in Romania but also from a Yamma burial at Gurbanesti (Maldova) where traces were found in a ‘censer’ (a shallow footed bowl believed to have been used in the burning of some aromatic substance). It has been found in a similar context from an early bronze age burial in the north Caucasus…. Ceramics were more elaborate than those of the Yamma culture and included, especially in female burials, low footed vessels interpreted as ‘censers’, presumed to be used in rituals involving some narcotic substance such as hemp” (Mallory, et al., 1997). “It seems, therefore, that the practice of burning cannabis as a narcotic is a tradition which goes back in this area some five or six thousand years and was the focus of the social and religious rituals of the pastoral peoples of central Eurasia in prehistoric and early historic times” (Sherratt, 1995).

Sherratt suggested that the cannabis burning braziers eventually went to the way side, and were replaced by a beverage, although he believes that cannabis use continued through this cultural shift. The “disappearance of ceramic braziers in northern and western Europe” was followed “by the appearance… of prominent forms of pottery drinking vessels. Corded-ware beakers and early bell-beakers are ornamented with impressions of twisted cord: if these are hemp fibres, then the decoration may indicate that their contents were connected with cannabis” (Sherratt, 1995). A view shared by other researchers: “As cannabis can also be infused, i.e., served as a component in a drink, it has also been suggested that the spread of cord-(hemp?) decorated pottery from the steppe westward may also have been part of this same complex” (Mallory, et al., 1997).

More recently Russian researchers have been making similar suggestions, specifically about the Aryan ancestors of the Vedic Indians. In the article ‘Aryan settlements in the Urals: A precursor to Indian Civilisation?‘, Strong archaeological evidence which indicates that the Aryans lived in Arkaim, by the Urals, before they went to India via Central Asia. The article quotes the archeologist Sergei Malyutin:

Malyutin says that the Aryans came here from the west, probably from the Volga, and then moved to Central Asia and then India. He believes that their sacred drink included cannabis boiled in milk with an addition of ephedrine [i.e., ephedra].

“Why do you think they are the same Aryans that later came to India and Iran?” I ask Sergei Malyutin.

“The Rigveda and Avesta contain descriptions of the place where the Aryans came from – it has birch trees and climate looking like ours,” he says. “They had similar burials and the skeletons are of the Indo-European anthropological type… There is another, key feature, chariots, which were used only by the Aryans at that time.” (Konstantinov, 2012) [emphasis added]

It was this sort of high mobility that led to the spread of cannabis throughout the ancient world, and in fact the development of hemp rope has been attributed to the harnessing and domestication of the horse.  is unclear that archeologist Sergei Malyutin, was basing his research on the work of Prof. Victor Sarianidi at BMAC, which we will discuss later, or came to his theories about the drink of the Aryans, based on another group known for both burning and drinking cannabis preparations, that came out of the Russian steppes, and spread across much of the ancient world, Western Europe, Persian, Israel, Egypt, India and even deep into central China, a series of Indo European tribes, now known to us collectively as the Scythians. As we shall this group as well has its important part to play in understanding the mysterious identities of soma and haoma.

Cannabis was also part of the earliest trade routes we know of as well, as noted in ‘Cannabis in Eurasia: origin of human use and Bronze Age trans-continental connections’, indicating it would have been part and parcel of any “Aryan” migration. “A marked increase in cannabis achene records from East Asia between ca. 5,000 and 4,000 BP might be associated with the establishment of a trans-Eurasian exchange/migration network”. (Eurasia is the largest continent on Earth, comprising all of Europe and Asia).

The highly nomadic Scythians have been credited with spreading the use of cannabis along with the root word kana, throughout much of the ancient world, Herodotus, the 5th century BC historian, wrote of the Scythian funerary ritual that involved placing heated stones in bronze vessels, that were placed inside teepee like structures and had cannabis thrown on them to inhale the smoke captured in the tent “hot box” style. Archeologists in the last century, recovered such implements and the carbonized remains of burnt cannabis, at a number of Scythian sites, confirming  Herodotus account.

The highly mobile nomadic Scythians are credited by many scholars with the spread of cannabis around the ancient world.

In Cannabis and the Soma Solution I wrote about the various finds of well preserved ancient cannabis in central China,in the Tarim Basin and Tian Shan mountains involving the Indo European Jushi (also Gushi) culture, who inhabited the area from about 2,000 BC -400 BC when the indigenous Han Chinese are thought to have chased them out of the region. This cannabis was found in various tomb locations, and the caucasian mummies that were with them, have drastically changed what we thought we knew about the contact with these various cultures. this archeological discovery has also altered the dates of the Silk Road, and we know realize it was being used about a millennia before it was thought to have prior to this discovery.

A woven basket that contained over 2 pounds of cannabis leaves and flowers, a mortar used for grinding cannabis. Found in tomb with a Indo-European shaman in China.

In Xinjang, China, archaeologists found a basket of female THC rich cannabis flowers buried alongside the mummified remains of a middle age man, as well as a mortar and pestle that was used for grinding the plant matter, bringing to mind the mortar and pestle of the Haoma priests. Likewise The Rig Veda 8.4.4 reads “May the drops gladden thee, rich Indra, and obtain bounty for him who pours the juice.
Soma pressed in the mortar didst thou take and drink, and hence hast won surpassing might.”

Additional finds of bundles of Ephedra at similar sites of mummified Caucasian remains in the orient have caused more than a few researchers to view this discovery as evidence of the Bactria Margiana Haoma cult extending into China. NBC news reported on this find ‘World’s Oldest Marijuana Stash Totally Busted: Two pounds of still green weed found in a  2,700 year old Gobi Desert grave‘:

Nearly two pounds of still-green plant material found in a 2,700-year-old grave in the Gobi Desert has just been identified as the world’s oldest marijuana stash, according to a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Botany.

A barrage of tests proves the marijuana possessed potent psychoactive properties and casts doubt on the theory that the ancients only grew the plant for hemp in order to make clothing, rope and other objects.

Still green after all those years, 2,700 year old cannabis and cannabis seed, found with a Indo-European shaman at a Chinese tomb.

The mummified remains found at these sites have caused a lot of controversy, as they were not those of the Oriental people generally assumed as the indigenous inhabitants of the area, but were rather of Caucasian descent. In a news story ‘Researchers find oldest-ever stash of marijuana’, Dr. Ethan Russo, arguably the leading authority on the history of cannabis medicines, is quoted in in regards to this amazing find, noting that other evidence of cannabis use from the area also exists:

The substance has been found in two of the 500 Gushi tombs excavated so far in northwestern China, indicating that cannabis was either restricted for use by a few individuals or was administered as a medicine to others through shamans, Russo said…. “It certainly does indicate that cannabis has been used by man for a variety of purposes for thousands of years.”… The region of China where the tomb is located, Xinjiang, is considered an original source of many cannabis strains worldwide. (The Canadian Press, 11/27/08).

More recently, a number of braziers for burning cannabis have been discovered that these Chinese sites and the belief is they were used in similar funerary rituals similar to those suggested for the Scythians. One difference being the Scythians used bronze braziers, whereas at the Tarim Basin sites, hard wood braziers made from Juniper were used. They also left processed or whole cannabis flowers with the person buried in some cases, and these, because of the dry cold conditions of the area, serve as the best preserved cannabis from the ancient world. Moreover, it was likely hybridized for its resin content.

Indo-European mummies found in Chinese tombs.

A Jushi mummy wearing a conical hat, a style attributed to the Scythians, as were other manners of the dress and culture.

The authors of the academic paper on this extraordinary find of cannabis braziers, ‘The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs’  offer some challenges to the cannabis soma theory, as well as dismiss much of the finding of previous researchers, although they do reference my own work in regards to Zoroastrian references to cannabis.

An important piece of evidence in regards to The Cannabis Soma Theory, is the discovery of a number of temple sites in the outer regions of Afghanistan known as the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC) where the Russian archeologist Professor Victor Sarianidi found 3 temple sites that he believed were devoted to the preparation of the haoma/soma beverage, and claimed evidence of cannabis, ephedra, and poppy, in use in this context, preserved in fossilized gypsum and impressions in clay shards.

A Reconstruction of one of the Soma/Haoma Temples at the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex

Professor Victor Sarianidi on site at BMAC

Prof. Sarianidi  stated that these “excavations documentally proved that poppy, cannabis and ephedra were used for making the soma-haoma drinks, and thickets of these plants were found in excess in the vicinity of the excavated temples of Margiana” (Sarianidi, 2003). In his article Margiana and Soma-Haoma he writes:

In the Zoroastrian religion haoma had a triple image, that is haoma as the ritual narcotic drink, haoma as the plant used for making the intoxicating drink, and haoma as the diety or legendary priest: the personification of the plant and drink…. so far only in Margiana and Bactria there were found material proofs of the usage of the alkaloid plants (ephedra, cannabis and poppy) for the preparation of the intoxicating drink of the soma-haoma type. And finally, it should be mentioned that only in Margiana the local tribes built monumental temples in honour of the intoxicating drink soma-haoma (more precisely, in honour of the Soma-haoma god), which do not leave any doubts about its divine status.

Another proof of the divine character of Soma-haoma is the fact that three out of four Margianian monumental temples were dedicated to the cult of this drink. It is clear that the above-mentioned direct archaeological proofs make one believe that the soma-haoma cult in the Zoroastrian religion found its origin among the related cults that were spread in “Iranian paganism”, precisely in Margiana and in Bactria in particular. At the same time one should not concentrate only on these two historical regions. The area where this cult drink was spread includes the whole of “Outer Iran” from eastern Iran and up to the Indus valley. (Sarianidi 2003) [Emphasis added]

As I discussed in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, another group of European researchers were unable to reproduce the evidence of cannabis and ephedra that Sarianidi and his team recovered from the sediments in pots from the site (Bakels, 2003). A situation that Sarianidi claimed was due to old material that had been exposed to sunlight being used in the tests, but still others have agreed with the findings. As Professor Mark Merlin, who has also explored cannabis as a possible soma candidate (Merlin, 1972), pointed out in regards to these criticisms of Sarianidi’s findings in his paper Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World (2008):

According to Miller (2003), photographs of the Ephedra, Cannabis, and Papaver, and archaeological specimens presented in the Togolok-21 report by Meyer-Melikyan (1990), appear to be consistent with the respective species; however, the determination of the Papaver species needs further study to confirm that it is P. somniferum. (Merlin, 2008)

Implements found at BMAC that Sarianidi saw as related to soma/haoma and its peparation and consumption, such as strainers and drinking vessels.

Clay shards with fossilized sediments that Sarinaidi’s team at BMAC identified as cannabis seed impressions.

Despite that, and although Sarianidi and his team maintained his identification of cannabis, ephedra and in some cases poppy at BMAC, there remains a shadow of questionability surrounding this find. It should however be noted that historically, there have been indication of the use of cannabis in intoxicating beverages in this region. “The gelotophllis of Pliny… a plant drunk in wine among the Bactrians, which produced immoderate laughter, may very well be identical with hemp, which still grows willd in the country around the Caspian and Aral Seas” (Houtsma, et al., 1936/1993).  Pliny (23-79 a.d.) quotes the following description from Democritus:

Taken in drink it produces delirium, which presents to the fancy visions of a most extraordinary nature. The theangelis, he says, grows upon Mount Libanus in Syria, upon the chain of mountains called Dicte in Crete, and at Babylon and Susa in Persia. An infusion of it imparts powers of divination to the Magi. The geolotophyllis, is a plant found in Bactriana [i.e. BMAC], and on the banks of the Borysthenes. Taken internally with myrhh and wine all sorts of visionary forms present themselves, excite the most immoderate laughter.

The authors of the Chinese brazier paper seem unaware of other finds and evidence that support Sarianidi’s views, such as the discovery of Scythian Golden cups, which contained residue of cannabis and poppy, two of the 3 plants listed by Sarianidi, it is unclear if they tested for ephedra. We also know the Scythians were active in the BMAC region, as shall be discussed.

As well, the team behind the Brazier paper, seemingly dismiss all earlier finds, on the basis of the rich THC content they were able to show for their cannabis, and the lack of this sort of analysis of previous finds, and on this basis it has been called the “first evidence” of cannabis smoking. However, many of the earlier find took place before that sort of technology for testing was around, and/or the material found was too decomposed for that sort of testing, or relies simply on ancient textual references. Moreover, I would suggest the very similar style of braziers used by the Scythians and Jushi, albeit the Jushi used wood and the Scythians  bronze, and the over all style and method of inhalation being the same, as well as the context – funerary rituals, all, identify an ancient and common means of spiritual ecstasy among the ancient Indo-European people. I will say however,  that these Chinese braziers are the best finds of ancient cannabis use yet though, and represent indisputable evidence of cannabis use in the ancient world.

depictions of items used for cannabis fumigation at Scythian tombs

A Scythian fumigation tent

The wood braziers of the Jushi, used in similar funerary rites as the Scythians

A number of researchers have seen a connection with the Haoma Cult of the Bactria Margiana Archeological Complex (BMAC), with the Tarim Basin culture in China where these ancient finds of cannabis were located. As  Elizabeth Wayland Barber explains in her book on the subject, The Mummies of Urumchi:

 …[W]e know that early oasis hoppers were experimenting with hashish and opium… New cross-cultural archaeological data shows that the oasis settlers set up major ties to the south as they worked their way eastward. Thus the cult of the White room [BMAC] had ready avenues for a rapid southward spread across the Iranian plateau. (Barber, 1999)

This connection of course brings us to the Bactrian oasis hypothesis for the Tarim Basin  mummies. As noted in the paper (2004), ‘Horse-mounted invaders from the Russo-Kazakh steppe or agricultural colonists from Western Central Asia? A craniometric investigation of the Bronze Age settlement of Xinjiang‘ “Proponents of this model assert that settlement of this region of western China came not from nomadic pastoralists of the steppe, but from sedentary, agriculturally based populations of the… Bactrian-Margiana archaeological complex (BMAC)” (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004). The suggestion here is that the archaeological evidence indicates that the initial colonizers of the Tarim Basin were agriculturalists from the BMAC region, rather than nomadic pastoralists from the Russian steppe. The evidence for this theory “not only includes irrigation systems, evidence of western cultigens such as wheat, and bones of sheep and goats, but also evidence of carefully bundled bags containing Ephedra sp. found accompanying many Bronze Age Xinjiang burials” (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004):

Use of ephedra is well-known in… [BMAC] and Sarianidi… found evidence of specialized areas known as “white rooms” where it is believed a ritual drink, known as haoma in Iranian and soma in India, was consumed… Ephedra does not grow on the Russo-Kazakh steppe, nor is it associated with either Afanasievo or Andronovo cultures. (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004)

So here we have both cannabis and ephedra, used by an Indo-European culture, in China and thought to be connected with the BMAC site of Prof. Sarianidi. In relation to this Chinese connection with the pre-Zoroastrian cult of magi that prepared the sacred Haoma at the BMAC site, it is interesting to note the etymological sleuthing of Victor Mair, who has shown that the old Chinese word m ag, derives from the Persian magus, also source of English magic. The Chinese term m ag identified powerful individuals in the Chinese court, who Mair states, “were primarily responsible for divination, astrology, prayer, and healing with medicines,” all traits of the Persian Magi.

Prof. Victor Mair with one of the Tarim Basin mummies he is credited with first identifying the caucasian features of.

By the way, Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, who is largely credited with identifying the caucasian features of the Tarim Basin mummies, had this to say about my book on Soma: “If you are interested in the history of the Indo-Europeans, the history and identification of soma / haoma, or the history of cannabis as a hallucinogen, you owe it to yourself to read Chris Bennett’s substantial tome.”

One of the groups that travelled between these regions, is believed to have been the Scythians, who were also known by various names, such as Saka, in the Persian regions.

These highland populations may include those who later became known as the Saka and who may have served as ‘middlemen’ facilitating contacts between East (Tarim Basin, China) and West (Bactria, [BMAC], Uzbekistan) along what later became known as the Great Silk Road. (Hemphill & Mallory, 2004)

Now as the Scythians, here referred to by their persian name, the Saka, also were known by other names, one of these is the Haomavarga, the haomo-gatherers, and it was recorded that they burnt haoma as well as drank it, just as they did with cannabis! Numbers of scholars have suggested that it was this group which transported goods between the Tarim Basin in China, and soma/haoma temples postulated by Sarianidi in BMAC. In Cannabis and the Soma Solution I noted a Scythian leather wine flask the contained residues of cannabis, and a bone cup were discovered in a Paryzyk tomb, which botanist Robert C. Clarke describes as “8 inches tall, crafted from neatly sewn plates of steamed and bent horn – contained ceremonial drink *includes cannabis, -light, -portable, unbreakable” (Clarke, 1998). Making this connection more clear, and adding support to Sarianid’s claims, as noted, more recently elaborate gold cups that contained chemical residues of cannabis and opium, were found at a Scythian burial site. Both of these plants were recorded at BMAC, it is unclear of the researchers tested for ephedra. At least one of the archeologists involved Anton Gas, has claimed they vessels were for drinking haoma…. And again the Scythian Haomavarga, were believed to have exported and imported goods, between the Chinese Tarim Basin, and BMAC in present day Afghanistan.

Image of one of the Scythian gold cups that contained residue of both cannabis and opium. Some researchers have suggested these vessels were for drinking haoma, and the some scythians were known as the Haomavarga, the haoma-gatherers,

The Scythian Haomavarga, from a relief in Persepolis

Now, this takes us to a core part of the cannabis-soma/haoma theory as I laid it out in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, how different variations of Chinese words for cannabis, such as hu ma (Iranian hemp) became the Avestan term, Haoma, and later as the Aryans entered India, through further dialectic changes, to soma.

Lets look at the Chinese names for cannabis which have been connected to the Scythians and the Iranians where the haoma cult that grew out of BMAC dominated. Mia Touw, in her essay The Religious and Medicinal Uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet (1981) that “it was hu-ma, or fiery hemp (as the meaning has been construed by some etymologists), which also meant Scythian hemp (Stuart1911) and this latter kind was held to be especially potent” (Touw, 1981).  Professor Mark Merlin as well notes “It is interesting that the Chinese character hu, which refers to barbarians or foreigners of the West, can be connected to the character for hemp (hu-ma) to indicate western or foreign hemp and the potent female hemp plant” (Merlin, 1972).

With the recent discoveries in China in the Tarim Basin and surrounding area, of cannabis amongst the Indo-European Jushi, with their ties to the cannabis using Scythian ‘Haomovarga‘ and trade into the BMAC soma/haoma cult, I think we can star to imagine where these Chinese names for the sort of potent cannabis found at these sites most likely originated.

As Alan Piper noted in his insightful unpublished 2004 essay ‘Chinese Hu ma as cannabis, the Iranian Huma plant, the Vedic Huma Fire Ceremony of Tantric Buddhism and the Huma bird of Iranian folklore,’:

…[T]he clearly homophonic results of these attempts at phonetic renderings of these various words, suggest the possibility, given the shared characteristics of the subjects to which they refer, that some of these could be loan words from one Asian culture to another. (Piper, 2004)

It would seem that it was here, at this meeting place of cultures in China, that the Haoma/Soma cult may have first originated under the name hu-ma, or other Chinese variations. Cannabis has its own Indo-European name kanna, and this is derived from the proto-Indo-European language, Finno-Ugric, kannap, and eventually becoming sana in Sanskrit as it went through its various changes in other Indo-European languages cannabis names, or at least this is what many Linguists and Etymologist claim.  As we shall show, the name Haoma, may have been developed from the Chinese term.  As has been noted, there are Chinese words indicating an Indo-European origin, it would not be surprising if the “linguistic may… have been two-way… European words for silk… are related to the oldest reconstructable Chinese words for silk, *s’e(g)-” (Barber, 1999) thus the same situation could give us hu ma to haoma.

In relation, it should be noted that along with the finds of hemp already discussed, bundles of ephedra twigs found on the bodies of the mummies found in the Tarim Basin, this is may be another important piece of evidence when trying to understand the identity of the ancient soma/haoma plant, as epehdera is used to this day as haoma and soma, in rites in both Persia and India, and were part of Sarianidi’s finding in BMAC. Like the Haoma beverage which contained both Ephedra and cannabis, allied forms of the Chinese term “huang-ma” and other variations such as “ho-ma” can and have been applied to both plants. As S. Mandihassan, who has given this etymology a lot of thought and study, has noted:

In Rgveda soma is primarily a plant. But its juice, being the more important, soma usually signifies its content and the drink. Then as actually known the plant, as container, would have priority over its content, the juice. This would be the reasoning according to common sense. But here comes he specialized reasoning of the philologist who assumes that the word soma is a Sanskrit word which then must have a Sanskrit root. H could not find this better than the root Su=to press. This delivered the word soma merely signifying that what has been “pressed out”. Then it is neither the the juice, nor the plant, but merely the procedure to which the plant was subjected that has given the name soma. Moreover, the juice was named before the plant, the content before the container. Whatever may be the justification of such etymology it is imperative to know who it was that named the plant and what led to its discovery. it must be pointed out that no one seems to have taken the word soma to that early stage when the plant came to be used on account of which the plant and its juice became so popular that the plant was finally deified as the God Soma in charge of all vegetation. people seem to have ignored the earliest use of soma and it is this feature that is being emphasized here.

…before proceeding further we may consider two criticisms already offered against the name soma. Bailey clearly writes that “the plant has no reasonable name if it is traced to hau, press-out-juice that is pressed out stuff or (actually to) the (mere) act of pressing juice.” Hau would be the root in Avesta were the word is hauma or haoma, corresponding to the Sanskrit root su and its derivative soma. Then if soma had been a Sanskrit word some allied form should have been found in some other Indo-Germanic language. But Keith critically observed commenting that “Soma is derived from the root su, and merely means pressed drink, and there is no parallel word in other Indo-European languages.” Others must have realized all this but the problem was to find the best root assignable to haoma or soma.

The solution lies in taking it to Chinese which gives the meaningful name haoma in Avesta and Soma in Sanskrit…. (Mandihassan, 1989)

As S. Mandihassan explaind in ‘The Seven Theories Identifying the Soma Plant’,

…[T]his much may be said that the name soma is really SauMa, ad its original is Chinese as HauMa, which means fire– ed-Hemp. The plant which was first discovered in china had yellow stalks which resembled the fibres of hemp in shape and in colour. It may be boted that the hemp fibres are yellowish or orange coloured and there was no word for orange hence it was compared to the colour of fire. Thus soma or better sau-Ma would suggest a herb like hemp-fibres. It has therefore been mistaken for the hemp plant itself, which is also the Bhang plant. (Mandihassan, 1989)

One thing that comes to mind in this is that Mandihassan, assumes fire-hemp, identifies the color of the plant, and on that makes a connection to ephedra.  However we know the Jushi were burning it, as were the Scythians and this could well identify that, and this has been the view of other researchers on the term hu-ma. We also know in this same time period Taoist adepts were burning cannabis in incense censers and travelling to the Land of the Immortals, likely influenced by the use they were witnessing among the Jushi. Moreover the name Huang-ma favours this interpretation as in Chinese, Ephedra is actually a reversal of this Ma Huang (a situation that may address the ying yang like relationship between the two plants varying effects!). “Ephedra… has been recognized for many centuries as a medicine” (Flattery and Schwartz, 1989). And indeed species of ephedra are also native to this region, and are still harvested and exported as ma-huang or ‘yellow hemp,’ which is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Mandihassan tries to address this situation in his article with its long explanatory title ‘Ephedra as Soma  Meaning Hemp Fibres With Soma Later Misidentified As The Hemp Plant Itself‘ (1989)

The two medicinal plants, Cannabis and Ephedra, are give very allied names in Chinese; Cannabis = Huang-Ma and Ephedra=Ma Huang. These names are mirror images of each other and as such next to being identical. The similarity of these names assumes that Ephedra, Ma-Huang, was discovered later than Hemp, Huang-Ma, and that Ephedra was given the name of Hemp itself. This is so because at that early stage Ephedra had no name of its own so that the designation of Hemp was transferred onto Ephedra…. (Mandihassan, 1982)

Mandihassan notes that in later times cannabis became known under the more generally used name of Ho-Ma. Writing sometime prior to the discovery of the archeological find of remnants from both cannabis and Ephedra at the Haoma temple in Margiana, as well as amongst the Jushi in the Tarim basin, and recognizing the modern use of Ephedra in Haoma preparations, Mandihassan concludes;

Aryan ascetics must have… come into contact with those of China with the results that the Chinese name, Ho-ma, for Ephedra, as also its energizing properties, were communicated to their Aryan compatriots. As a result, Ho-Ma, as Hao-Ma is found in Avesta while Ho-ma became So-Ma in Sanskrit; it is known that ‘H’ mutates into ‘S’. This in brief is the etymology of the names Homa and Soma. It is natural to expect that the plant would be known first… and later the name of the plant Soma would be transferred on to the juice which is also called Soma. (Mandihassan 1982)

Mandihassan was very close, but contrarily, the later Margiana find “shows that Homa’s preparation was a temple activity, along with extracting of juices from poppy, hemp and ephedra. It is clear that the whole consumable was called ‘hom’ and that the word did not correspond to the name of a specific ingredient. Among the effects of the ephedra itself was to speed up the metabolism and raise the blood pressure” (Mirfendereski, 2005). (Mixed with cannabis it must have created quite a mix with the more sedative and mind bending effects of that plant.)

According to Mary Boyce a major authority on Zoroastrianism,  Homa was “prepared from milk, the leaves of one plant and the juice obtained from pounding the stems of another. The pounded plant was called ‘soma’ in Sanskrit in the Vedic scriptures and in Avestan ‘homa’, a  name which is widely agreed to mean simply ‘that which is pressed’. The identity of the original plant used by the proto-Indo-Iranians is uncertain, but it may well have been a species of ephedra as is the ‘hom’ used by Zoroastrians today” (Boyce, 2001). Note here Boyce’s statement that the homa sacrament was a mixture of one plant and another. This could account for the combination of Cannabis = Huang-Ma and Ephedra=Ma Huang Indicated in this as well as account for linguistic conundrum that Mandihassan tried to account for.  Unfortunately Boyce’s personal prejudice against cannabis has caused her to never consider it as the other plant in question.

Sarianidi’s archaeological finds in Margiana helps answer this riddle. The addition of the mildly stimulating plant ephedra to such a preparation, likely accounts for the reputation of soma to keep one awake, and was probably done in the same spirit as medieval Sufis, who would eat hashish and drink lots of strong stimulating coffee, a beverage that was a Sufi creation, then stay up all night praying and playing religious music. It also accounts for the survival of Ephedra in the modern haoma sacrifice.

It seems very probable that both Soma and Haoma were always prepared with a variety of plants, with cannabis being one of the premier constituents, along with the ephedra still used in haoma, and this mixture became haoma/soma through the ritual of preparation. This is in agreement with the  Satapatha Brahmana ,, where it explains the plant usana (cannabis) is pressed and then made “into Soma by means of consecration.” Such a description left Soma wide open to a variety of substitutions.

In RV X.89.5 we read: Soma is all shrubs and trees. This agrees with his name vanaspati and virudham pati, king of trees and plants…. Residues of Ephedra, poppy, and cannabis have been found recently in vessels and mortars in the Zoroastrian temples in Bactria, but this does not mean that the Soma-plant was identical with one of these plants. It seems more likely that these are only herbs, with which the Soma was flavoured. (Richter-Ushanas, 1997)

There are even indications of this possibility indicated in both the Vedic and Avestan literature, which seem to refer to different types of  Haoma and Soma.


And on those mountains

you grow in many varieties,

as the milky, golden-colored haoma.

Your remedies have been mixed

by the creative magic of Good Thought.


I praise all the Haomas,

even when on the heights of the mountains,

even when in the depths of the streams,

even those in the narrow passes of ravines,

in the clutches of women.


We sacrifice to tall, golden Haoma.

We sacrifice to ruddy Haoma, furtherer of living beings.

We sacrifice to death-averting Haoma.

We sacrifice to all the Haomas.


Of all the many Plants whose King is, Soma, Plants of hundred forms,

Thou art the Plant most excellent, prompt to the wish, sweet to the heart.

O all ye various Herbs whose King is Soma, that o’erspread the earth,

Urged onward by Brhaspati, combine your virtue in this Plant.

With its references to “Twins”, “Pair” and “Parents”, in the preparation of the Soma and birth like description of the prepared beverage in RV.9.93, it could be inferred that through the bringing together of the two plants Soma was “born”:


The drops of Soma juice like cows who yield their milk have flowed forth, rich in meath, unto the Shining One… He bellows with a roar around the highest twigs: the Tawny One is sweetened as he breaks them up. Then passing through the sieve into the ample room, the God throws off the dregs according to his wish. The gladdening drink that measured out the meeting Twins fills full with milk the Eternal Ever-waxing Pair… Wandering through, the Parents, strengthening the floods, the Sage makes his place swell with his own native might. The stalk is mixed with grain: he comes led by the men together with the sisters, and preserves the Head. With energetic intellect the Sage is born, deposited as germ of Law, far from the Twins. They being young at first showed visibly distinct the Creature that is half-concealed and half-exposed.

The combined etymological connection through cognate pronunciations combined with the shared characteristics of the subjects ‘Ho-Ma’ and ‘Homa’, along with archaeological and historical information, do indeed make a strong case that these could be loan words from one culture to another.  In this regard Prof. Littleton also notes “the strong probability that at least some, if not all of the folks who settled in Xinjiang and left us their mummified remains were North Iranians and passed cannabis to their Han neighbours… along with the label ‘ma’ (which may well connect with Soma and Haoma), seems highly probable” (Littleton, 2008).

According to H.H. Dubs, in The Beginings of Alchemy, the idea of an elixir of immortality came into China via the myths about the Indo-Iranian Soma and Haoma plants. Dubs believed knowledge of the plant came from the Iranian culture area into China around the 4th century B.C. or possibly even earlier (Dubs, 1947). Many researchers dismissed this claim outright, as at the time there was little in the way of evidence pointing to such early contact between the Han Chinese and Indo-European influences. However, the discovery of the Tarim Basin Mummies proves that such early avenues of contact did in fact exist, and moreover, dates back centuries prior than the date in question.  Dubs’ view was followed later by Pierre Huard and Ming Wong, who, in regard to Taoist references to immortality elixirs, also noted that “Traces of Indo-European immortality potions can be seen here: The Iranian Haoma… and the Indo-Aryan Soma… For centuries Taoists and alchemists were to seek the elixir of life in plants and pills…” (Huard & Wong, 1959: 1968). “…[T]he elixir-of-life concept came to China by way of the ancient Vedic soma tradition of the divine plant of immortality” (Philosophers, 1972).  In the article Beliefs about Aging and Longevity in Ancient China, Alain Corcos refers to some of these earlier researches, adding that Haoma and Soma, like certain Chinese immortality elixirs, contained hemp:

The idea of imbibing plant potions to gain immortality did not originate with the Chinese. Apparently, the idea came from the Aryan tradition… The sacred intoxicating drink, named Haoma by the Iranians and Soma by the Aryans in India was believed to cure disease and to confer immortality. Hemp was an active ingredient of both drinks. The Aryan belief in a miracle drug conferring immortality and curing diseases reached China in the fourth century B.C. (Dubs,1947), giving rise to the idea that there was a place where longevity could readily be achieved. (Corcos, 1981)

The ancient Shen Nung Pharmacopoeia listed cannabis as being among the ‘superior ‘immortality elixirs’” (Aero, 1980). Hemp’s association with immortality in China, was apparently quite widespread. In the Chen Kao, “Yang Hsi describes… his own experience using the Chhu Shen Wan (Pill of Commencing Immortals) which contains much hemp” (Needham, 1974). In Myths of China and Japan, MacKenzie refers to a “Rip Van Winkle story that two men who wandered among the mountains met two pretty girls. They were entertained by them and fed on a concoction prepared from hemp. Seven generations went past while they enjoyed the company of the girls” (Mackenzie, 1923).

These mythical aspects shared between soma/haoma and the various immortality elixirs, pills and incenses, which often contained cannabis and were used by Taoist mystics, are explored in the paper by Zhang He of William Paterson University ‘Is Shuma the Chinese Analog of Soma/Haoma? A Study of Early Contacts between Indo-Iranians and Chinese‘(2011):

This study is an investigation of the Chinese term shuma 疏麻, as used in a poem by Qu Yuan 屈 原 (342–278 BCE), and its relationship to the Indo-Iranian term soma or haoma. It also considers the possibility that as early as the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE) and at least by the time of Qu Yuan (fourth–third century BCE), the Indo-Iranian rituals and beliefs associated with the term soma/haoma already had spread to northwest, central, and even southern China. Although there is no known written evidence for the term shuma in the early Zhou period, archaeological discoveries show evidence of the knowledge and use of special plants by people in the north and northwest of China, and much literature of the late Zhou dynasty (771–221 BCE) includes descriptions of active interactions between this people and the Chinese of the Central Plain. And finally, it is noteworthy that Qu Yuan’s poem uses this term to suggest a connection between the southern Chinese Chu culture and northwestern non-Chinese cultures…..

Interestingly, like the meaning of soma/haoma, the botanical identity of shuma is also vague. The very first commentary on the Nine Songs, by Wang Yi of the second century CE, annotates the term to the effect that is a “mythical hemp”; and later commentators either copy Wang’s interpretation or interpret it literally as “sparse hemp,” as if to express the feeling of people separated by a distance. Wang Yi also interpreted sun as a fragrant grass and a metaphor for Siming, Lord of Life,10 but again without a true botanical identity. The yaohua that is offered together with shuma is also an unidentified plant, interpreted by Wang Yi as a mythical “jade flower.” Later, yaohua is explained by Hong Xingzu (1090–1155) as “the hemp flower, white in color, … [that]makes one a long life if one takes it.” (He, 2011)

The connection between cannabis, Haoma, the Chinese Hu-Ma, the mountain home of the Immortals, and the mountainous origins of the Haoma/Soma Cult becomes even clearer when one looks at evidence that points to the nearby “the heavenly mountain of Tien Shan, the paradise of the Taoist immortals” and land of the Haumavarga, as the homeland of all these elements at play. In The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: Textual-linguistic and archaeological  evidence, Asko Parpola suggests that the use of “Soma might have started… in the Ferghana or Zeravshan mountains, the area of the later Saka Hauamavarga… or in fact anywhere in the vast Andronovo territory, including the Tian Shan mountains on the borders of China…” (Parpola, 1995). Indeed, just the region we have been looking at…

In line, with the theory that the names soma and haoma were imported  I noted in Cannabis and the Soma Solution,  the general consensus is that cannabis came to India, via the Indo-Europeans. “By ca. 3000 BP, Cannabis had most likely migrated west and south over the Himalayas and into India, probably coming with nomads and traders over the trade routes that crossed the region” (Clarke & Fleming, 1998). This of course is the people who brought Soma with them.

The original Aryan tribes probably introduced the hemp plant into India sometime in the second millennium B.C. These migrating invaders most likely entered the Indian sub-continent via accessible passes in the high mountainous regions bordering the area… Thus, in the early phases of Indian history, hemp probably was a relatively obscure plant for the mass of population centered on the lowland doabs (interfluves) and in the riverine valleys. (Merlin, 1972)

Vedic and Avestan Descriptions of Soma/Haoma

Vedic and Avestan texts contain a number of  descriptions that help to identify soma/haoma, and these are often discounted by proponents of The Mushroom Soma Theory  with the sort of intellectual mental gymnastics needed to maintain it. Even the stones used for grinding the soma, were invoked as a deity, the clacking of their work likened to speaking.  Note the references to the rocks pressing the soma as being turned green in the process and also the reference to soma as “the purple tree” in what seems to be a clear description of the colour of ripened Cannabis indica:

Rig Veda 10.94 – (Wilson’s 1928 translation)

Let these (stones) speak…. Ye solid, quick moving stones, you utter the noise of praise… full of the Soma juice.

They roar like a hundred, like a thousand men; they cry aloud with green-tinted faces; obtaining the sacrifice, the pious stones… partake of the sacrificial food…

They speak, they received into their mouth the sweet (Soma juice)…chewing the branch of the purple tree, the voracious bulls have bellowed.

Splitting, but unsplit, you, O stones… enjoying the Soma, flowing green (with Soma), they made heaven and earth resound with their clamour.

The stones proclaim it with their clamour at the issue of the Soma-juice,… like cultivators sowing the seed, they devouring the Soma, mix it, and do not hurt it.

….Proclaim the praise of (the stone), which has effused (the Soma-juice); let the honoured stones revolve. [Emphasis added]

Green and Purple ripe cannabis of the indica variety.

In relation to the smashing of the stones above, it is interesting to note again that a Vedic reference that uses Bhang directly as an epithet of Soma (IX.61.13) has been interpreted as indicating the term in its original connotation of “smashing, breaking through” (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989). “…[I]n the Rig Veda IX 61,13 bhanga is used when speaking of Soma, though the translators seem to render it by ‘breaker’, originating from the verb bhanj-, bhanakti ‘to break’” (Aalto, 1998).

Others see bhang as an extension of an earlier Indo-European word for cannabis. As Alphonse de Candolle noted in Origin of Cultivated Plants, “It has Sanskrit names, bhanga and gangika. The root of the word ang or an, recurs in all the Indo-European and modern Semitic languages: bang in Hindu and Persian, ganga in Bengali, hanf in German, hemp in English, chanvre in French, kanas in Keltic and modern Breton, cannabis in Greek and Latin,  cannab in Arabic” (de Candolle, 1886). As noted in The India Hemp Drugs Commission Report  “Indeed, the intimate relationship of its various Asiatic names to the Sanskrit bhanga would seem to fix the ancestral home of the plant somewhere in Central Asia” (1894). 

 Other verses also indicate leaves: “As birds perch upon the leafy tree, so the exhilarating Soma- juices filling the ladles (repair) to (Indra)” (Rig Veda 10.4.1); “In that leafy tree where Yama drinks with the gods, there the progenitor, the lord of the house, invites us to join the men of old” (Rig Veda 10.11.7). (In regards to “tree” it should be noted that cannabis can grow to a height of 20ft or more on this region). Wilson, whose 1928 translation here relates that “Soma is called ‘fifteen-fold,’ because its leaves grow during the light half of the month” so he clearly saw leaves.

Likewise the juice of soma and the press used in its preparation are tinted green from the plant. Rig Veda 10.2.7 records: Indra, accompanied by his troops… sprinkles their beards, with green (Soma-juice): he repairs to the pleasant chamber (of sacrifice) ; (the Soma) being effused, the sweet beverage agitates (his frame)…”. A description that certainly does sound like the cannabis milkshake known in India as Bhang lassi. Rig Veda 10.2.8 reads “Drink Indra, this most sweet Soma, expressed by the planks (of the Soma-press), then bestow upon riches in thine exhilaration…” A description of production that is clearly identifiable with the grinding of bhang, and like bhang, Soma is prepared with milk: “do ye worship the horse-possessing might of  Indra, whom men delight with the golden-tinted Soma- juices as milch kine (with their milk)” (Rig veda 10.8.6). We also have the epithet bhang, for soma as recorded in (Rigveda IX.61.13), along with various shared epithets:  “Bhanga is… called… vijaya (the victorious)” comparable to vrtraha, ‘victorious’ an epithet of Soma in (RV.1.91.23) and “Bhanga is… called… madini (the intoxicating)” comparable to the Avestan term  madahya (intoxicant) (Y.48.10) which is used as an epithet for the Haoma drink. These all make a great case for cannabis, but rule out mushrooms.

Indologist Alain Danielou with one of his Shaivite brothers.

Indeed, these are the sorts of things that convinced the respected Indologist scholar Alain Danielou (1907-1994) the first Westerner to be fully initiated into the cult of Shiva, at first rejected The Cannabis Soma Theory, but came to accept it in 1960, and held this hypothesis up until his death.

This ancient sacred drink was likely to resemble a drink what today is called bhang, made from the crushed leaves of Indian Hemp.  Every Shivaite has to consume bhang at least once a year.  The drink, which intensifies perceptivity, induces visions and above all leads to extreme mental concentration.  It is widely used by Yogis.  Details concerning its preparation are to be found as early as the Vedic period. The description of the way soma was prepared and its immediate use without fermentation, can only apply to bhang and is identical to the method employed today. (Danielou 1992)

Indologist Professor A. L. Basham, suggested cannabis as the identity of the Vedic soma.

Likewise, the noted historian and Indologist Professor. A.L. Basham, noted in his The Wonder That Was India:A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent before the coming of the Muslims, noted A view shared by other religious scholars as well “The drink prepared from the plant… was made with great ceremony in the course of the sacrifice, when the herb was pressed between stones, mixed with milk, strained, and drunk on the same day…. The effects of soma… are rather like those attributed to such drugs as hashish. Soma may well have been hemp, which grows wild in parts of India, Central Asia and South Russia, and from which modern Indians produce a narcotic drink called ‘bhang’” (Basham 1961).

A modern depiction of Shiva, grinding bhang with a rock, in a manner similar to that described in the Vedas for soma.

Another identification can be seen in that soma had apparent fibrous qualities as well, as noted earlier in regards to (Rg Veda 8:79), as well as other verses such as the Sukla Yajurveda (IV.10), mekhala, the girdle, is described as ‘tying the knot of Soma.’ Similarly, in the Avesta it was Haoma for whom Ahuramazda first brought the ‘sacred girdle, star-begemmed, woven by the two Spirits’” (Taraporewala, 1926). Also, the following verse has indications of rope in relation to Haoma: “May not Haoma bind you like he bound the villain” (Y.11.7). 

In this regard, it should briefly be noted that similar descriptions of Haoma occur in the Avestan literature, and these passages are all things that are carefully referenced and cited in more detail in Cannabis and the Soma Solution.

A little research into the Iranian counterpart of the Soma, the Haoma, offers a variety of interesting insights.  As noted, Ephedra is the current plant source used in modern preparations of Haoma, but many scholars, including Zoroastrian sources, have seen this as substitute. Dr. Jehan Bagli, a Zoroastrian priest sees the Haoma as “one of the most controversial and debated rituals that forms the central sacrament of the yasna… The Haoma plant has a checkered history associated with it. Although the original identity of the plant has [been]obliterated through the antiquity, the plant is generally [now]regarded as one of ephedra species. It is clearly evident from the Haoma yasht that the consecration of Haoma is a pre-Zarathushtrian ritual” (Bagli, 2005). As Zoroastrian scholar Dr. Daryoush Jahanian has noted of the current Haoma, and the history of the plant in his essay on Medicine in Avest and Ancient Iran:

Haoma (Ephedra Vulgaris, Soma in Hindu Rig Veda) – This plant is indigenous to the Iranian plateau and its scientific name is EphedraVulgaris.  Haoma contains large doses of Ephedrine, which is effective in the treatment of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  It is a small plant with yellow flowers.  Conceivably due to various therapeutic effects, it was consecrated and entered the rituals of the pre-Zoroastrian faith, and a Yasht was composed and devoted to it.  But Haoma was not used only in herbal medicine and soon another effect was recognized.  A juice made of Haoma (prahum), was intoxicant and caused drunkenness.  Some authors maintain that Ephedra Vulgaris and the intoxicant Haoma are two different plants. (Daryoush, 2005)

In reference to this last statement Daryoush refers to the work of another Zoroastrian scholar, Dr. Ali Jafarey’s essay ‘Haoma, its Original and Later Identity’, which, identifies the original Haoma as bhang (cannabis) (Jafarey, 2000).  The physical attributes of Haoma give clear indications of cannabis as described in the Avesta:

Haoma is golden-green (Yasna 9.16 et al)

Haoma  is tall (Yasna 10.21, Vendidad 19.19)

Haoma  has roots, stems and branches (Yasna 10.5)

Haoma has a pliant stem, asu (Yasna 9.16)

Haoma is fragrant (Yasna 10.4)

Haoma grows on the mountains, ‘swiftly spreading’, ‘apart on many paths’      (Yasna 9.26, 10.3-4 et al) ‘to the gorges and abysses’ (Yasna 10-11) and ‘on the ranges’ (Yasna 10.12)

Haoma can be pressed (Yasna 9.1, 9.2)

Haoma has healing properties (Yasna 9.16-17, 9.19, Y.10.7, 10.8, 10.9)

Haoma has aphrodisiacal qualities (Yasna 9.13-15, 9.22)

Haoma can be consumed without negative side effects (Yasna 10.8)

Haoma is ‘most nutritious for the soul’ (Yasna 9.16)

Haoma bestows spiritual wisdom (Yasna 9.22)

Harvesting accounts of haoma, as well clearly indicate a plant:

Praise to Haoma, Mazda-made. Good is Haoma, Mazda-made. All the plants of Haoma praise I, on the heights of lofty mountains, in the gorges of the valleys, in the clefts (of sundered hill-sides) cut for the bundles bound by women. From the silver cup I pour Thee to the golden chalice over. Let me not thy (sacred) liquor spill to earth, of precious cost.  (Yasna 10.17)

The Satapatha Brahmana, uśana’ and sana [SSk. hemp]

An early proponent of The Cannabis Soma Theory, was Sj. Braja Lal Mukherjee, M.A., M.R.A.S., who wrote a booklet on cannabis as soma which I was unable to source, however in 1921 he wrote a letter detailing some of his findings  in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society which records some of the key elements he laid out. One of these points was in reference to a plant identified as uśana’ in the Satapatha Brahmana, that is used for the pressing of soma.

The Satapatha Brahmana, is thought to have been composed during the first half of the 1st millennium B.C., belonging to the Brahamic period of Vedic Sanskrit. The group of texts to which it belongs, the Brahmanas are generally described as occupying an intermediate position, in chronology, character, language, and mythology, between the Vedic hymns, and the Indian epic poems and Puranas. The Satapatha Brahmana is a very important text, containing accounts of Creation, the Deluge of Manu (Great Flood), as well as, in great detail, the preparation of altars, ceremonial objects, ritual recitations, and the Soma libation, along with the symbolic attributes of every aspect of the rituals. Verses and of the Madyhyandina recension of the Satapatha Brahmana refer to the plant called ‘uśana ’;

Satapatha Brahmana,

Soma is a God, since Soma (the moon) is in the sky. ‘Soma, forsooth, was Vrita; his body is the same as the mountains and rocks: thereon grows the plant uśana,’—so said Svetateketu Auddalaki ‘they fetch it hither and press it; and by means of the consecration and the Upasads, by the Tanunaptra and the strengthening they make it into Soma.’ And in like manner does he now make it into Soma by means of consecration and the Upasads, by the Tanunaptra and the strengthening.

Satapatha Brahmana,

Thereupon he proceeds with (the offering of) the cakes of the Soma feast. Now Soma is a god, for Soma was in the heaven;–Soma forsooth, was Vritra; the mountain and stones are his body: thereon grows that plant called uśana , said Svetateketu Auddalaki; that they bring hither and press.’…. when he proceeds with (the offering of) Soma feast cakes, he puts sap into it: thus it becomes Soma for him.

They all belong to Indra; for Indra is the deity of the sacrifice: that is why they all belong to Indra.

These references in the Satapatha Brahmana to uśana , are the clearest textual identification of the plant from which soma was originally made in the whole of Sanskrit literature, unfortunately this plant, as with soma, is not clearly identified, but as we shall see there is a strong case for cannabis in this, in that sana identifies cannabis, and this may be a variant, possibly to distinguish resinous cannabis from fibre cannabis, which appears in this same religious test as sana.

The Sanskrit term sana, which accounts for all but the ‘u’ in uśana, was a  well known word for ‘hemp’ and this formed the main part of Mukherjee’s case, as well as others who I cited in reference to the term, such as Joges-Chandra Ray, who in his 1939 essay about cannabis with the same title as Mukherjee’s The Soma Plant, unequivocally also connected uśana with the Sanskrtit name for cannabis, sana.

The few books I could find that offered a description of uśana did not even list any potential botanical candidate, but simply refer to its association with soma. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1872), simply lists uśana as the name of “a plant from which the Soma juice is produced”. We find a similar entry in The Penguin Book of Hindu Names (1993) and likewise Life style and technical occupations in the Vedic age (1995) by Pradyot Kumar Dutta, simply lists of uśana “a plant from which Soma was prepared”. In Ṛgveda for the Layman (2002) Shyam Ghosh says of  uśana  “The word is used also figuratively to indicate a ‘plant’ from which soma juice is extracted”. Again, in a similar fashion, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy  in The Door in the Sky: Coomaraswamy on Myth and Meaning (1997) also makes a similar connection to the term “‘Uśana’…. ‘which they collect whence and press’… i.e., the Soma… and… the plant that is actually collected is ‘not really Soma’… but only ritually made to be Soma.” This is a ritual relationship, like the Catholic prayers that put the body and blood of Christ into bread and wine of the Eucharist, but here with a potent entheogen (at least at this stage of soma history).

Uśana and sana

In Mukherjee explained, the ‘u’ in ‘uśana ’ was a prefix carryover  from the Kiratas, with whom he claimed soma  originated with, and when the ‘u’ is dropped you return to one of the original Sanskrit names for cannabis ‘sana’. “The English word hemp, Greek kanna and Latin canna-(bis) are the same as Sana” (Ray, 1948). “The name Sana is derived from Sana, the true hemp. It is the same word as Gk. Kanna from which the Latin name of the plant, Cannabis sativa is derived” (Chatterjee, 1943). As Muller and Oldenberg noted of the term sana in their Vedic Hymns (1892/2001):

The occurrence of the word sana is of importance as showing how early a time the Aryans of India were acquainted with the uses and name of hemp. Our word hemp, the A.S. haenep, the old Norse hanp-r, are all borrowed from Latin cannabis, which like other borrowed words, has undergone the regular changes required by Grimm’s law in Low-German, and also in High-German, hanaf. The Slavonic nations seem to have borrowed their word for hemp (Lith.kannape) from the Goths, the Celtic nations (Irish cannib) from the Romans… The Latin cannabis is borrowed from the Greek, and the Greeks… most likely adopted the word from the Aryan Thracians and the Scythians. KavvaBis [sic, kannabis] being a foreign word, it would be useless to attempt an explanation of the final element bis, which is added to sana, the Sanskrit word for hemp… Certain it is that the main element in the name of hemp was the same among the settlers in Northern India, and among the Thracians and Scythians through whom the Greeks first became acquainted with hemp. (Muller & Oldenberg, 1892, 2001)

Other sources that identify cannabis with the Sanskrit sana, include A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India (1889); A Dictionary, Bengáli and Sanskrit (1833): A Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin (1869); The Sanskrit Epics (1998); A Companion to Sanskrit Literature (1989); There are countless sources listing this designation including modern educational websites such as Spoken Sanskrit.

And best for our uses, the Indian researcher Joges Chandra Ray in his 1939 essay about cannabis The Soma Plant, gives a thorough rundown on the various references to sana in the ancient Indian literature, noting its connection to both cannabis and soma, the confusion caused by the shared use of the term with other fibre plants, and ending the discussion with one of the above references to uśana from the Satapatha Brahmana, and the reason for more than one name for the plant, such as “Bhanga and Sana It is well-known that one and the same plant may have more than one name, and one and the same name may denote more than one plant” (Ray, 1939).

Now despite the well known use of cannabis for its psychoactive properties, India also used a lot of what we would describe as, industrial hemp, and I am not just referring to cloth here, they plastered some of the most sacred temples in India with a preparation of hemp. During the “the 6th and 11th centuries AD, the Rashtrakuta dynasty and the Yadavs built a group of 34 caves in the north-west city of Aurangabad, in Maharashtra. Carved out of stone, each of these caves was dedicated to one of three religions— Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism” (Joseph, 2017).

…Ellora has come to be seen as a heritage site that is the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture, but recent studies by Indian archaeologists have revealed a particularly interesting tradition of the Buddhist monks who prayed in these caves. They used cannabis mixed in with the plaster that covers the shrines painted walls and ceilings, along with some clay and lime, to preserve the structure to the best of their capabilities. And it turns out that the cannabis present in the earthen mix seems to have played a key role in preventing the UNESCO World Heritage site from decaying over the 1,500 years of its existence. (Joseph, 2017)

The amount of cannabis fibre needed to plaster these ancient temple walls, must have indeed been staggering. Just as we have come to use an older generic term for cannabis ‘hemp’ to identify the plant when grown for industrial purposes, to distinguish it from ‘marijuana’, cannabis flowers, so may the ancient Indians seek terms to distinguish varieties of cannabis and cannabis products, the ‘u’ in uśana my have been for just that. In fact, the term ‘Indian hemp’ was conceived from ‘hemp’ by Dr. Robert Hooke, to distinguish the psychoactive varieties from the plant that was coming in from India, from the more inert European industrial varieties. These designation for hemp and Indian hemp have fallen by the wayside for the most part, and now we refer to Cannabis sativa and Cannabis Inidica, although we know psychoactive properties are held in both strains. However in this regard, the term sana has also been used in references that indicate cannabis’s psychoactive properties such as the Chakrasamva Tantra from the 8th-9th century AD, so sana was clearly in use for cannabis, wether for fibre or intoxicating, at this later date, but then Indrasana, a term we shall return to, occurs not long after this, possibly to distinguish the intoxicating varieties of sana from the purely industrial, as is suggested here for the earlier ‘u’ in uśana.

As I noted in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, the  Satapatha Bramana, which we have discussed at length here for its reference to cannabis (uśana) as the plant used for soma, also refers to the Brahminical thread, a ritual cord worn tied around the waste. Interestingly, the Satapatha Bramana specifically identifies hemp (sana) as the fibre to be used, and this may be an indication that the u in uśana may have been used for the intoxicating parts of the plant, and sana more generally for the fibre. “It is made of hemp [sana]. Hempen it is in order to be soft” (Satapatha Bramana)

Mukherjee suggested this ‘u’ in uśana was picked up in Tibet, and he pointed to this region for other evidence to make his case.


Murkherjee noted the use of the terms similar to “Soma” in the names for cannabis in the languages of the Tibetans, “somarasta”: and the Tanguts, “dschoma”. Variations of this term or varying translations have long been noted by a variety of other sources. The English Tibetan Colloquial Dictionary (1998) lists so-ma ra-tsa for hemp A A Tibetan-English Dictionary (2003) lists “so-ma”, as a name for hemp. The New Tibetan-English Dictionary of Modern Tibetan (2001) lists hemp, jute and flax, under soma razda, all fibre plants, but this designation could be explained by an association between fibre and hemp, and thus the name applied to other fibre plants, and this has happened with the name ‘hemp’ itself, with Manilla Hemp, which is not a cannabis species. We see both cannabis and flax under so ma ra dza as well on the English Tibetan Dictionary Online. Revival: A Tibetan-English Dictionary (1934), repeating A Tibetan-English Dictionary, with Special Reference to the Prevailing Dialects (1881) lists the following cannabis related variations of the term:

so-ma: 1. Ssk (prop. a climbing plant the juice of which was offered in libations to the gods and was also worshipped itself, on account of its intoxicating properties, hence) hempso-ma-ra-dza…. hemp linenso-ma-ra-dzai tag pa… hempen ropeso-ma nan-na zer gos…”.

Now, to get a better idea about the relationship between Tibetans and soma radza, to see how they viewed this association, lets take a look at the account of the Tibetan author Gendun Chopel (1903–1951) who spent years travelling between Tibet and India, collecting accounts from the people he met there studying their history and traditions, detailed in Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (2014):

Regarding their sacrificial rites, a fire is lit in front. In it foods are burned, from flour and clarified butter to betel leaves, in a sequence that accords with that of [food offered]to a guest. Meanwhile, verses are sung. One drinks the soma juice  and offers it to the gods as well. What they call somaraja is a type of plant that also grows in Tibet and from whose bark one is able to spin thread. Its juice is squeezed out and mixed; it has intoxicating properties. It is called somaraja “king of the moon”. In Tibetan, it is [known]in the degenerated form [soma radza]. In the Laghutantra in describing brahmin’s rites, it says, “the drink of somavalli“; that is this [drink]. It is also referred to in the Tarkajvala and many tantras as the “moon drink”. This making of offerings by burning them in fire, like the burning of incense in Bon, is a tradition that emerged in ancient times in all countries. (Chopel, 2014).

Although Chopel does not identify the fibre plant the intoxicating soma drink described was derived from, the Tibetan names make it clear this was cannabis and this account drives more home the strong association of cannabis with the actual soma in the minds of the people there.

The Atharvaveda and the ‘Kingdom of Herbs’

A number of authors have dismissed cannabis as a candidate for soma based on the Atharvaveda (cir. 1400 B.C.) where bhang is mentioned (11, 6, 15):

“We tell of the five kingdoms of herbs headed by Soma; may it and kuca grass, and bhanga and barley, and the herb saha release us from anxiety.”

In fact this is an important point, and in my opinion, it is a source of much of the confusion on this issue.  As I explained in Cannabis and the Soma Solution, not just cannabis, but rather a variety of plants had been used in the preparation of soma/haoma, and as is indicated by the Satapatha Brahmana,, the uśana plant and later, various substitutes only became soma after they were consecrated in the Vedic ritual. I would suggest that what we see in this reference in the Atharvaveda, are indications of a variety of plants being used in the ritual, thus they appear under the “Kingdom of Soma”, who besides being the Moon, and the sacramental drink, was also a God.  Barley actually appears in the Vedic recipe, as noted elsewhere in this article. As Chakraberty notes of the “kuca grass” [sic](which i am assuming is ‘kustha‘) “the elixir ( amrita Kustha… Haplotaxis auricola…). This Kustha is all healing… This herb is found with Soma (or compared with Soma as an elixir : Sakam somena tishati). It removes all kinds of fevers… and other evils)” (Chakraberty, 1944). For saha possibly SahadeviVernonia cinerea a herb mentioned in the ayurvedic pharmacopoeia for the treatment of fever, localized swelling, wounds, renal calculi, skin diseases and elephantiasis. These are of course guesses.

multiple plants under the dominion of the god Soma and then later consecrated as the drink soma, fits in well with the view of  Sarianidi, other researchers. The late British archaeologist Andrew Sherratt wrote: “It seems likely… that the drink described as soma involved the infusion of various plant products known earlier on the steppes, and there is no single answer to the soma question” (Sherratt, 1995). “In the Indian scripture of the AtharvaVeda, the fourth book of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of the Brahman religion (ca 2,000–1,400 BC), bhang (hemp) was identified as one of the five sacred plants of India.  Bhang is ‘a sacred grass’ and its use is considered to ‘preserve’ one from disease . . . and prolong the years we have to live.’”  (Hanus, 2008). Both of which are qualities of soma. Bhang appears under the dominion of the God Soma, and when consecrated, becomes soma

That there are only four plants in this Atharvaveda reference may also be indication of a special selection of herbs, as Rig Veda 10.97.7 refers to “Herbs rich in Soma, rich in steeds, in nourishments, in strengthening power”, so again an indication that more than one plant was used. However the selection seems specific, as Soma is Lord of all plants. Rig Veda 10.97.18-19 “Of all the many Plants whose King is, Soma, Plants of hundred forms, Thou art the Plant most excellent, prompt to the wish, sweet to the heart. O all ye various Herbs whose King is Soma, that o’erspread the earth, Urged onward by Bṛhaspati, combine your virtue in this Plant” and 10.97.22 “22 With Soma as their Sovran Lord the Plants hold colloquy and say: O King, we save from death the man whose cure a Brahman undertakes”.

Indian researchers who have pioneered The Cannabis Soma Theory

Interestingly, the suggestion of cannabis as soma, not widely proposed by Western researchers, has been proposed by a number of continental Indian academics. In The RgVedic Soma, the Vedic scholar Dr. N.R. Waradpande, who identified cannabis as the ancient sacred drink, suggests that based on the Vedic meaning of the words involved in the descriptions given in the 9th and 10th Mandalas of the Rig Veda, the soma plant was an indigenous Indian plant with roots, branches, leaves, and resin on the leaves and flowers on the basis of the descriptions given in the hymns of the Rig Veda verses 10.85,3; 9,86,46; 9.5,1; 9.25,2; 9.38,2; 9.67; 9.61,13; 9,70,1 .The leaf (patra) of the hemp plant is called bhanga (Hindi biarig), the flower (puspamanjari) ganja and the resin (niryasa) charas. Because of its medicinal qualities it is also called vijaya, jaja and matulai and because of intoxicating qualities it is called bhanga, madini and ganja.  Waradpande concludes that soma can clearly be identified with bhang.

In 1976, Professor B. G. L. Swamy, an Indian botanist and writer who was head of the department of Botany and a principal of Presidency College, Chennai, put forth cannabis as a candidate for soma in a well thought out, but little recognized, article The Rg Vedic Soma Plant, in the Indian Journal of History of Science.  Swamy built on the presentations of Mukherjee (1921) and Ray (1939)  noting that the Vedic descriptions of the plant indicated leaves, stalks and branches; that soma was green, hari; that cannabis grows wild in areas associated with the Aryan ancestors of the Vedic authors such as the “Caspian sea, in Siberia, in the desert of Kirghiz. It is also referred to as wild in Central and Southern Russia and to the south of the Caucasus… it is almost wild in Persia and it appears to be quite wild on the Western Himalayas and Kashmir” (Swamy, 1976); Swamy pointed out that soma was pulverized, filtered and consumed immediately as with the Indian beverage bhang, noting that it must “be borne in mind that there were three pressings in a day and that the juice once expressed was useless for a second offering”:

Therefore, the brief interval between pressing and consuming is too short a period for fermentation to set in, even should the juice be mixed with milk, curd, etc…. It was essential not only to soak them [the branches]in water but also pound the pieces with stones in order to express the juice…. The dry twigs of Soma (Cannabis) were soaked in water; crushed in flowing water; the last washing was filtered and used almost immediately…

The colour of the expressed juice is described as hari, babhru, aruna; How the same liquid appears in three different hues needs an explanation. Wasson argues that hari also means ‘red’ more or less the same shade as commonly applied to babhru and aruna. He feels that hari came to mean ‘green’ in later times. While it should be admitted that the Rig-vedic hymns were written over a course of centuries, it is difficult to convincingly distinguish the earlier and later compositions. However, their are numerous non-Soma hymns in the text where hari means only one shade, that is greenish, or green yellowish…

When the green plant is pressed, the colour of the fresh juice is greenish yellow (hari). The juice crushed from dry twigs cannot be expected to retain this shade. The tannins and other phenolic compounds stored in the plant tissue along with the brownish coloured resin impart a tawny (babhru) shade to the juice. It must be remembered the juice was stored in wooden containers and exposed to the air. It is likely the stored liquid in part became oxidized due to exposure, as a result of which the colour of the liquid became intensified into babhru and aruna shades (Swamy, 1976)

G. L. Swamy, Indian botanist and writer who was professor and head of the department of Botany and a principal of Presidency College.

Based on such clearly thought out evidence Professor Swamy rightly felt that: “The summation of evidence leads to the irresistible conclusion that the Rg-vedic Soma was prepared from Cannabis sativus” (Swamy, 1976). That Soma was cannabis has been held by a variety of Indian authors, most prominently by Chandra Chakraberty who has made this association in a number of different books; “Soma was… made of the flowering tops and resins of Cannabis sativa which is an aphrodisiac and stimulant, and a nourishing food…” (Chakraberty, 1952); “Soma…. Cannabis sativa… a nervine aphrodisiac” (Chakraberty, 1963; 1967);  Not just soma in Chakraberty’s view, but also, “Amrta, the drink of the gods, identified with Soma (Cannabis Sativa) flowering leaf-paste mixed with butter-milk and honey, known as Siddhi’”(Chakraberty, 1971).

Soma was the most important of the Vedic plants. Soma was regarded by both the Iranians (Avestan Haoma) and the Aryas as the elixir of life. Unfortunately its identity has been lost. Some regard it as Asclepias acida, Sarcostema viminalis or Vitis Vinifere…. But these suppositions find no support from Vedic descriptive statements “The golden-brownish twigs (of Soma : harir ancut : Avestan azuz V. 9, 16) is being pressed (into a paste between stones) and filtered through (a woolen cloth or a grass mat : 9. 92.1). “Two arms with their ten fingers are pressing between the stones the Soma twigs with pretty digitate leaves (somasya suhastu : compound leaves radiating like fingers borne at the apex of the petiole), and the twigs with their digitate leaves (Sugabhastir=pretty handed) from mountains are pouring forth clear pleasant juice (5,43,4). Soma is many leaved (bahutanta : 10, 42, 8), twigs with slender leaves (ancum tigman : 8. 61 (72) 2). “Press the Soma between the stones, and filter it (the pressed paste) throughby mixing it with water. Then what comes from the hollow stems (Vaksana) will be enriched with milk (8. 1, 17)”. Finest Soma grows on Mujavant, (X. 34, 1). In the midst of snowy peaks… The soma paste pressed between stones, or by mortar and pestle (ulukhala : (1, 28, 3, 5-6), and mixed with water and milk (9, 86, 11 ; 9, 91, 2) is pushed through a woolen strainer and filtered through a grass mat. Sour milk (dhadi ; X. 179. 3), barley water (Yava sirah :  1, 81 (92) 4 ; 9 168-4) and honey 9, 17, 18 are added and it is a glad and stimulating drink…. (Chakraberty, 1944)

Image preparing bhang, grinding it to a paste with mortar and pestle and straining. The Rig Veda 8.4.4 reads “May the drops gladden thee, rich Indra, and obtain bounty for him who pours the juice.
Soma pressed in the mortar didst thou take and drink, and hence hast won surpassing might.”

Chakraberty gives us a very clear description of the living plant with its finger like leaves, as well as harvested cannabis, which when sun dried can give a brown or yellowish goden hue, that has led to names like Columbian Gold and Acapulco Gold. As well the descriptions of preparation are identical with that of bhang in our modern era. In relation to his description Chakraberty indicated ancient sources described the best soma coming from a “Sacae clan” [Saka – Scythian] who originated in the desert east of the Caspian Sea and later dominated in Bacrtria, a region discussed earlier for the alleged Soma temples of Sarianidi.  Rightly Chakraberty concluded that:

It is most likely that the Soma plant is Cannabis sativa. For it harmonizes with the Vedic descriptions. Cannabis sativa is a native of Western and central Asia…it is found wild in the Himalayas… It is an erect branching herb from 4 to 10 feet… the fruiting shoots and stalks constitute the siddhi (success) or bhang which is made into a paste between stones or on a  mortar, then mixed with milk and sugar…. The… resin… is obtained by scraping the tops of the plant s growing on mountain tracts 6000 to 8000 ft. high… known as Charas, a very powerful narcotic… In intoxication exhaltation is the primary effect when imagination runs riot, disturbing ideas of time, space and personality…

Soma juice is exhilerating (9, 35, 5). Cannabis sativa is stimulating and is an aphrodisiac and a giver of delight (9, 80, 3). Like Soma(5, 43, 4) it has digital leaves (su-hasta). Its stem is hollow (vaksana; 8, 1, 17). Rudra lives in Mujavat [mountain region](X, 34, 1). The votaries of Rudra-Shiva are addicted to Cannabis sativa. From these identities it is safe to conclude that Soma is Cannabis sativa. Of course moon (Soma) was regarded as ambrosial food of the gods and manes (Ait. Br. 7, 11 ;  Sat. Br. 1,6, 4, 5…). The ancients regarded the moon-beams essential for the growth of plants. And therefore Soma plant was the representative of the celestial Soma (the moon) which they thought was full of ambrosia, for which it was called sudamsu,  and which was the food of the gods and manes. And as the gods and manes ate up and drank the moon-ambrosia, it gradually waned, then the gods and manes fest, and the moon waxes again.

….Of all the plants Soma (Cannabis indica) is the king (X, 97,19). Soma plant is pressed between stones into a paste which mixed with butter, milk, honey and roasted barley powder is strained through woven cloth (9, 69, 9) and made into a pleasant intoxicating beverage. This Soma drink (Av. Haoma), Soma plant and Soma as the moon, though entirely separate, have in later Vedic times been confused into a religious ritual… the moon beams are the reflected light of the sun on the moon’s surface… Soma contains honeyed drink… fed by the gods… and the solar rays make the supply full…. (Chakraberty, 1944)

Other Indian researchers have also rmade this identification.  “…the plant now known as Bhanga in India (Indian hemp)… was used as H(a)oma or Soma” (Deva & Shrirama, 1999); “Soma (a kind of hemp)” (Ramachandran and Mativāṇan̲, 1991); “Soma was a national drink. This was a green herb which was brought from the mountain and pounded ceremoniously with stones. It was mixed with milk and honey and drunk. Probably this was a type of hemp (Bhang…) which is still drunk by some people in India” (Vikramasiṃha, 1967).

Detail from 18th century painting ‘Fakirs prepare bhang, note the straining devic

Soma/Haoma strainer found at BMAC, the bone cups with eyes were for drinking an elixir. Residues of opium were claimed.

Nihang Sikhs preparing sukkidan, their sacramental cannabis beverage, with a giant mortar and pestle.

BMAC grinding pits that Sarianidi claimed the gypsum from contained evidence of cannabis and poppy.

The Soma Trade

Now, it was not just the names haoma and soma that were imported, in the Aryan period, soma itself was an item of importation. A complicating factor in the disappearance of the soma was likely a growing public resentment over the increasing prices of soma, which in the early Vedic period, was largely imported. Evidence indicates it took some time for indigenous agriculture of quality cannabis to take hold. This situation is comparable to that of 20th century North America, where for many decades the quality cannabis was imported, it took some time for the techniques, and appropriate strains to be mastered. The restrictions and disappearance of soma, also holds some interesting analogies with the modern situation. Like the booming illicit cannabis market of today, soma was big business in the ancient world as well. For the Vedic Indians:

Cattle was their standard value and medium of exchange. Some taxes were levied on some imports, particularly on Soma (Cannabis Sativa). Some traffickers (Soma Vikrayin) became unpopular, for they charged a high price for their commodity, as on it not only royal import was levied, Soma had to be transported  also from long distance… and it changed many hands in its long transports and it beame withered, dried and often adulterated (Manu 3, 80)… (Chakraberty, 1944).

Events in far off China, may have effected the Soma trade, as the indigenous Han Chinese are believed to have chased out the Indo-European Jushi, and thus access to the high quality cannabis grown in that region, which was discussed earlier. Increasingly higher prices and poorer goods, likely compounded already existing resentments. As Haug noted in The Aitareya Brahmanam of the Rigveda: “[T]he sacrificer pays the price of a cow in money to the Brahman who brings him the Soma. To sell Soma is regarded as very disreputable. The seller is not admitted to the sacrificial compound nor invited to the great dinner which the sacrificer must give to Brahmans at the end of the sacrifice” (Haug, 1863). As noted above, cannabis had to be consecrated in a rite performed by a Brahmin, in order to become Soma, and this came with high costs. As Mark Merlin noted; “…[O]riginally knowledge of the pristine Aryan hymns and, consequently, the psychoactive sacrament Soma were restricted to the Aryan invaders themselves”:

Eventually the indigenous priestly elite usurped much of the religious authority held by the writers of the Aryan hymnal and gained control of theological interpretation and ritual. “Vedism in its formal sense was not a religion of the masses.” Apparently for some time members of the priestly clique limited the knowledge and use of Soma to their own esoteric activities. Thus a small influential segment of ancient Indian society controlled religion and the distribution of the Soma plant. The ordinary Soma sacrifice was clearly a sacrifice of rich patrons.” (Merlin, 1972)

As Swamy pointed out, this situation may have been created by shortages in supply, and this eventually lead to a variety of substitutions:

It is generally agreed that the Rig-vedic people moved out of their original home in the montane terrain and gradually migrated in the south-east direction to the Indo-gangetic-plains. The cult demanded the performance of…. the Soma sacrifice… The Soma plant which had been obviously an endemic in the mountainous home was no longer available as they moved further away from it. For a time the plant was procured from long distances and transported in carts to the place of the sacrifice. (This episode soon found codification as an integral part of the Soma rite in subsequent times). Progressive migration of the Vedists in the plains caused practical difficulties in obtaining the desired plant, as a result of which substitutes had to be looked for. (Swamy, 1976)

Other compounding factors leading to the disappearance of the original soma have been noted. Dr. N. R. Waradpande, suggested that the loss of the knowledge of soma’s identity was through the decline of the Vedic ritual, the Yajna, which came about under the influence and development of Buddhism. Sacrifice continued in the Vedic mode, but this was far different from the Yajna being in common practice (Waradpande, 1995).  Apparently, in India during Buddhist times, there was a wide spread prohibition of intoxicants, as Khwaja Hasan notes in Social Aspects of the use of Cannabis in India:

The Buddhist Age in India began in the sixth century before Christ, and Buddhism gradually supplanted Brahmanism as a national religion. Buddhism prohibited the use of intoxicants to its followers… However, Brahmanism was revived in the tenth century of our era. Modern day Hinduism, therefore, is the result of cumulative influence of post-Vedic times… Historically, the consumption of alcoholic drinks and hemp drugs is reported to be in use up to the 8th or 9th century A.D., i.e., prior to the advent of Muslims in the country. (Hasan, 1975)

Note the return of the Vedic tradition as Hinduism,  is the same time period tha we see the emergence of the name Indrasana, ie Indra’s sana (hemp), as prior India was largely under Buddhist dominion. Waradpande feels that the loss of the knowledge of soma’s identity came through the decline of the Vedic ritual, the Yajna, which came occurred through the influence and development of Buddhism, as we shall see. Sacrifices continued in the Vedic mode, but this was far different from the Yajna being in common practice (Waradpande, 1995). This is a view that has been shared by other scholars as well.

I would imagine that some of these pictures of 1970s marijuana are a little closer to the sort of cannabis that was travelling on the Silk Road. Often Sun dried. and yellow, brown or golden from, age, giving it names Like Columbian Gold. Compared to the even poorer quality domestic cannabis from that era in North America, this was a quality product back then.

Buddhist Sobriety

Buddhist prohibitions, and the suppression of the Soma cult was also noted by Badrul Hassan, some decades earlier, in his 1922 edition of The Drink and Drug Evil in India. Hassan, mistakenly considered Soma to be an alcoholic beverage, and indeed, as noted, the prohibition of cannabis as Soma is intertwined with the prohibition of alcohol, but this is rather due to the intoxicating properties of both, rather than any similarities in preparation. As Hassan explains of the prohibitions of the Buddha:

In the sixth century before the Christian era… the Brahmin oligarchy had reached an ascendency so supreme that every one from the king and the court down to the peasant and the outcast bowed low before them in abject awe. The commonest act of daily life was performed only on the advice of the Brahmins. Not only did they exercise full control in political affairs; but in ministering to the religious needs of Aryan India, they had by this time developed an intricate and costly ritual, and had assumed control over the social and private life of the people…..There were ceremonies connected with the donning of the sacred thread and the piercing of ears; ceremonies of feeding and naming; ceremonies of birth to be repeated every month; ceremonies of marriage and death; ceremonies galore. These ceremonies entailed “the indiscriminate slaughter of animals and the free indulgence of the intoxicating juice of the Soma plant”.

…Not only was abstinence compulsory in the order of monks he founded, but it forms one of the five Buddhist commandments [‘ye shall drink no maddening drink’]…. [I]n the Kutadanata Sutta… a Brahmin… questions the Buddha as to the different values of forms of sacrifice. He is told that…. “When a man with a trusting heart takes on… abstinence from strong, intoxicating, maddening drinks, the root of carelessness—that is a sacrifice than open largesse, better than perpetual alms, better than the gifts of dwelling places, better than accepting guidance.” (Hassan, 1922)

Buddha’s influence of sobriety took in some quarters, but not in all, and despite this frowning on the use of intoxicants and the complicated rituals of the Brahmins, cannabis continued to be used and consecrated as Soma, and enjoyed by both the common people and the aristocrats for at least a few centuries, until much harsher reforms, contained in The Book of Manu, seem to have effectively driven it away from the ceremonial life of the Brahmins.

However, as we can see by the various references to later Medieval Tantric Buddhist texts, the role of cannabis could not be kept at bey forever and its ritual use came into Buddhism, in at least with some of the more occult minding sects.

The Laws of Manu

Although early researchers dated The Book of Manu (aka, The Laws of Manu; The Code of Manu) as far back as 1200 BC, the more current view is that it was created sometime between 300 BC and 200 AD, although some scholars see The Book of Manu as a modern versified rendition of a 500 BC Dharma-Sutra, which no longer exists.

In the first half of the 19th century, Dr. William O’Shaugnessy, who was largely responsible for the introduction of cannabis medicine into the Western pharmacopeia, noted that “The learned Kamalakantha Vidyalanka has traced notice of Hemp in the 5th chapter of Menu, where Brahmins are prohibited to use the following substances, plandoo or onions; gunjara or gunjah; and such condiments as have strong and pungent scents” (O’Shaugnessy, 1839). In 1970, The Eastern Anthropologist, also reported that “The Laws of Manu… provided very severe penalties for indulging in intoxicating drinks and drugs.” One of the more known 20th century proponents of cannabis prohibition, Dr. Gabriel Nahas referred to this as well: “In the fifth chapter of Menu, a prohibition appears that suggests sociological implications; Brahmins are prohibited from using Cannabis” (Nahas, et al., 1999).

The Laws of Manu

In relation it is important to note, that similar prohibitions were extended towards the use and distribution of Soma. A list of items a Brahman is forbidden from selling includes: “cloth made of hemp,.. (medical) herbs,… Soma,… Kusa-grass,… [and]spirituous liquor” (Manu, 10:86-88). In Manu 3,158, the “seller of Soma” is listed amongst those who are forbidden entrance to the Sraddha (a important Vedic era ceremony for dead ancestors). The disdain for the Soma Seller is given even more explicitly, Manu says “food given to a soma seller becomes excrement” (Manu 3,180). Thus in The Book of Manu, anyone who freely partakes of Soma, formerly the source of Vedic ritual, risks not only being excluded from Vedic rites but also being made an outcaste of his society. As Badrul Hassan, recorded of the role of Soma in The Book of Manu in his own The Drink and Drug Evil in India:

The cult of Soma, probably imported from ancient Eran [Iran] where Haoma (Aryan Soma) worship flourished… [and]had at this time attained in India equal, if not larger, proportions than the Haoma worship of neighbouring Eran. Passages after passages in the Rig-Veda are given to the praise of Soma, the liquor, which was afterwards incorporated with the worship of Soma – the Moon God. Whatever the parallelism between the God and the liquor may be, and however they came to be so closely identified in one symbol, the facts remain that not only did this liquor play an important part of the worship of this and other deities, but it was regarded with an affection, and endowed with such virtues, and gifted with such properties, that even the God may have envied… which show the hold the liquor had on the Brahmins — if not the people.

….It must be reiterated… that at the beginning of our history, the Aryan peoples indulged in spirituous liquors, perhaps to excess, but the evil consequences and baneful results demonstrated to the thoughtful the necessity of repressing this growing habit, and brought about a revulsion of feeling, so that the later Vedas prohibited the use of spirits for gratification of the senses saying, “wine is unfit to be drunk, unfit to be given, unfit to be accepted.” A step in the right direction was thus taken, and though the use of spirits could not entirely be done away with, they were employed solely at religious ceremonies…

…[Thus] in the later Vedic period a compromise was effected by sanctioning the use of liquors at ceremonial and sacrificial functions only, whilst condemning its common usage, so that in the age of Manu, that thoughtful sage, knowing full well that, for an evil to be resisted, it must be abolished, and not confined… turned his attention to rooting out the evil.

He laid down strict rules for prevention of drinking. He held that drinking was the most pernicious of the king’s vices. He counselled the king instantly to banish sellers of spirituous liquors and to brand the drinker on the forehead with the sign of the tavern (i.e., wine-cup). For a twice-born, drinking was a mortal sin. If he did not perform the prescribed penances, he was “excluded from all fellowship at meals, excluded from all sacrifices, excluded from instruction and from matrimonial alliances; excluded from all religious duties.”  A terrible punishment, but not enough, from Manu. He was forthwith to be cast off by his “paternal and maternal relations, and receive neither compassion nor salvation; that is the teaching of Manu” [(Manu, IX, 239)]. Nor were the penances less rigorous as only death could put an end to them… even a seller of Soma—the sacred liquor—was to be avoided at sacrifices offered to the Gods and the manes, [(Manu, III, 158)] and food given to the seller of Soma became ordure, [(Manu, III, 180)].

It would seem, therefore, that, whilst previous moralist had allowed the use of liquor for religious purposes, Manu was opposed even to this indulgence and was determined to put it down. He therefore, put restrictions in the way of selling Soma by regarding a seller as a low person, and in the way of drinking by laying it down that “he who may possess (a supply of) food sufficient to maintain those dependent on him during three years or more than that, is worthy to drink Soma juice” [(Manu, XI,7)]; but a twice-born who had less “did not derive any benefit from drinking the soma juice though he may have formerly drunk it” [(Manu, XI, 8)]…. This… is conclusive proof that a section of the people, who were entitled to respect, and of weight, were opposed to the use of intoxicant. (Hassan, 1922)

The Laws of Manu created a situation where the Brahmin were virtually forbidden to use, trade or possess soma-cannabis, and as it was the Brahmins who led the complicated rites which consecrated cannabis as the soma, the rite itself had to be modified to include a non-intoxicating replacement, such as the currently used, Sarcostemma acidum, and the ritual use of cannabis as Soma came to a close.

In Life in the Upanishads, Shubhra Sharma notes os soma that “Some scholars believe it was an extinct variety of the common Indian Hemp, others that it was some other long forgotten plant found only in the Himalayan foothills. It was already becoming scarce at the time of the Brahamas and the  Aitareya Brahmana even suggests a substitute”(Sharma, 1985). This Soma replacement in the Aitareya Brahmana is also referred to by Parmeshwaranand:

Divine origin has been attributed to it [nyagrodha, the banyan tree] for making this tree a substitute of the Soma plant which did not grow in the plains of Northern India… It has been enjoined in theAitareya Brahmanathat a Ksatriya should not drink the juice prepared of the Soma plant. He may, however, take the same extracted from the airy descending roots of the nyagrodha tree…. (Parmeshwaranand, 2001)

The Ksatriya, referred to, were one of the four Varnas (social orders) in Hinduism. It constituted the military and ruling order of the traditional Vedic-Hindu social system as outlined by the Vedas and The Laws of Manu. Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, Lord Mahavira and most notably Lord Buddha all belonged to this social order. The identity of Buddha within this group, brings to mind the nyagrodha, or banyan tree, for it was under the branches of this placebo replacement of the Soma, that Buddha had his allegedly sober revelation. “Guatma Buddha received his salvation under the Banyan tree at Bodh Gaya” (Chaterjee, 1995). Considering the prohibition of intoxicants alleged to have begun in India with the Buddha, one is left speculating on some sort of connection in this switch.

In regard to the prohibition of Soma to the Ksatriya, in Martin Haug’s 1863 translation of the Aitareya Brahmanam, we find that this sacramental restriction is related to a similar celestial one which forbade the god Indra from the Soma sacrifice! Durring a priestly battle over who holds the administration of the Soma rites, a Rama Murgaveya (distinct from the God Rama) relates the following:

Why Indra was excluded from his share in the Soma. The Kshattrlya race became also excluded.

(Rama said) “I know it from the fact, that Indra had been excluded by the gods (from having any share in the sacrifices). For he had scorned Vis’varupa, the son of Tvashtar, cast down Vritra (and killed him), thrown pious men (yatis) before the jackals (or wolves) and killed the Arurmuyhas, and rebuked (his teacher) Brihaspati. On account of these faults Indra was forthwith excluded from participation in the Soma beverage. And after Indra had been excluded in this way from the Soma, all the Kshattriyas (at whose head he is) were likewise excluded from it. But he was allowed a share in it afterwards, having stolen the Soma from Tvashtar. But the Kshattriya race remains excluded from the Soma beverage to this day.” (Aitareya Brahmanam)

Thus as a result of this prohibition of Soma, the Ksatriya are directed to a substitution in the Aitareya Brahmanam:

… the following is his own portion [of the Soma rite], which he is to enjoy. He must squeeze the airy descending root of the Nyagrohda tree, together with the fruits of Udambara A’svaltha, and Plaksha trees, and drink the juice of them. This is his own portion.

….he thus obtains the soma beverage by means of a substitute; for the Nyagrohda is just this substitute of the Soma. (Aitareya Brahmanam)

The Aitareya Brahmanam, explains that with the roots of the Nyagrohda, the priest “perform for the king several ceremonies… just in the same way as the real Soma is treated”:

Then the priest gives into his hands a goblet filled with spirituous liquor, repeating… [a]mantra,… He then should drink the… [Soma replacement] when repeating the following two mantras : “Of what juicy well prepared beverage Indra drank with his associates, just the same, viz. the king Soma, I drink here with my mind being devoted to him (Soma).” The second mantra (Rigveda, 8,45, 22), “To thee who growest like a bullock (Indra), by drinking Soma, I send off (the Soma juice) which was squeezed to drink it; may it satiate thee and make thee well drunk.”

The Soma beverage which is (in a mystical way) contained in the spirituous liquor, is thus drunk by the king, who is inaugurated by means of Indra’s great inauguration ceremony (the ceremony just described), and not the spirituous liquor. (After having drunk this mystical Soma) he should repeat the following mantras, apama Somam… i.e. we have drunk Soma, andBe it propitious to us! (Aitareya Brahmanam, Haug, 1863)

Haug, in his commentary on this chapter notes “The spirituous liquor is here a substitute for the Soma, which the Kshattriyas were not allowed to drink….By means of mantras the liquor was transformed into real Soma. We have here a sample of a supposed miraculous transformation of one matter into another” (Haug, 1863). But even the ancient text clearly acknowledges this “is a substitute for the Soma sacrifice. Some spirituous liquor is taken instead of Soma, and milk. Both liquids are filled in the Soma vessels” (Aitareya Brahmanam, Haug, 1863).

Another account in the Aitareya Brahmanam refers to the altering of the celestial Soma rites in order to prevent intoxication of the Gods as well, symbolically also accomplishing in Heaven, what was first set out on Earth:

The King (Soma) made the gods drunk. They then said, “A poisonous serpent (asivishn) looks at our King! Well, let us tie a band round his eyes.” They then tied a band round his eyes. Therefore they recite the spells over the Soma squeezing stones, when having tied (round the eyes) a band in imitation (of what the gods did). The King (Soma) made them drunk. They said, “He (the Serpent Rishi) repeats his own mantra over the Soma squeezing stones. Well, let us mix with his mantra other verses.” They then mixed with his mantra other verses, in consequence of which he (Soma) did not make them drunk. By mixing his mantra with other verses for effecting propitiation, they succeeded in destroying the consequences of guilt. (Aitareya Brahmanam, Haug, 1863) [Emphasis added]

As with The Laws of Manu, in the Aitareya Brahmanam the seller of Soma is depicted as ritually unclean, and a destroyer of the senses:

…[A] seller of the Soma is… found unfit (for intercourse). For such a man is a defaulter. When the Soma after having been bought was brought to men (the sacrificers), his powers and his faculty of making the senses sharp moved from their place and scattered everywhere. (Aitareya Brahmanam, Haug, 1863)

Thus in later Indian accounts, Indra, who was so fond of Soma in the Vedas, and was the main recipient of the Soma sacrifice, transferred his love to unconsecrated cannabis, giving us the Indrasana when the Vedic religion re-emerged as the National religion in the 10th century. In the Samudra manthan or The Churning of the Ocean of Milk one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas (500-300 BC), there is an identifiable shift in worship, where Indra, at one time the King of the Vedic pantheon and Lord of Soma, sees his soma, here amrita, taken from his domination, becoming the celestial drink of the gods as they overcame the demons, and its counterpart which sprung from drops of amrita, that fell to the earth during the conflict, was holy Ganja, here now associated with Shiva, Lord of Bhang, who it could be argued is raised to the sort of prominence in the Hindu pantheon, that Indra held in the Vedic, leaving the latter in a vey degraded position from where he one sat as King of the Gods. Even the name of Indrasana for cannabis eventually falls away, and Shiva is exalted now as the God of Cannabis.

The gods and demons churn Mount Mandara like a giant pestle after putting “potent herbs” into the Ocean of milk in order to prepare the amrita. The Samudra Manthan turns soma into the amrita of the Gods, and its earthly counterpart, into cannabis, vijaya. Indrasana becomes Shiva’s body-born bhang.

Writing at the end of the 19th century, G. A. Grierson also noted in his well researched essay ‘On References to the Hemp Plant Occurring in Sanskrit and Hindi Literature(1893)  “[Cannabis]…  was originally produced, like nectar from the ocean by the churning with Mount Mandara, and inasmuch as it gives victory in the three worlds, it, the delight of the king of the gods, is called vijaya, the victorious. This desire-fulfilling drug was obtained by men on the earth, through desire for the welfare of all people.” In fact, most scholars agree, and as I have noted as well, it is the myth, where Shiva’s strong association with bhang, likely first originated.  The term Trailokyavijaya (victorious in the three worlds) particularly ties it with the heavenly amrita as well. As J. M. Campbell noted over a century ago. “Shiva on fire with the poison churned from the ocean was cooled by bhang” (Campbell, 1894).

According to one account, when nectar was produced from the churning of the ocean, something was wanted to purify the nectar. The deity supplied the want of a nectar-cleanser by creating bhang. This bhang Mahadev [Shiva] made from his own body, and so it is called angaj or body-born. According to another account some nectar dropped to the ground and from the ground the bhang plant sprang. It was because they used this child of nectar or of Mahadev in agreement of religious forms that the seers or Rishis became Siddha or one with the deity.(Campbell, 1894)

Thus, this scenario potentially explains, the origins of the terms soma and haoma; the identifications of the plant used; the development of the names soma and haoma; its method of preparation; what led to its prohibition and disappearance; and how cannabis cultic use could have continued if it was the long lost soma. As well as identifying when replacements occurred such as the non-intoxicating Sarcostemma acidum, consecrated in current Indian rites as Soma.

However, I am less clear about the situation with ephedra in regards to the Vedic soma, it does not seem to play the same role, as it does with the Avestan haoma, and i get less of an impression of its importation  and description, particularly in the later Vedic material. One possibility here, is that it was being utilized in the Iranian region prior to making it to India on the trade routes, as although there are indications of cannabis being prohibited in the haoma rites, ephedra has continued down to the modern day as the plant consecrated as haoma in Parsi rites. In a future article i will examine the Zoroastrian situation with haoma more thoroughly, as it follows a different path than soma.