Amṛta, the nectar of immortality: what is it? – Matthew Clark

This article was written by Matthew Clark for the 4th issue of Amrita Magazine.

The transmission of the soma/amṛta cult to India 

Around 1615 BCE, the volcanic mountain in the midst of the Santorini islands, which lie around 110 kilometres north of the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, erupted. This was the largest explosion on earth since the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. Magma fell 200 kilometres from the epicenter, the tsunami went twice around the world, aborigines heard the explosion in Alice Springs in Australia, seven inches of volcanic ash covered the ground in South Africa, and the skies went dark in China for seven years, causing crop-failure and famine.

As a consequence of the volcanic catastrophe, people started migrating around Central Asia, looking for food and sustenance. In several waves, bands of people who called themselves Ārya (noble) migrated from their original homeland, in the Caucasus region of Turkmenistan, to what is now northern Iran, and subsequently to Greece in the west, and also eastwards, eventually to the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. These people spoke an ancestor of the Sanskrit language (hence the connections between the languages of northern India and Europe; the Indo-European family of languages); they had excellent horses and chariots, they loved cows, and they often engaged in battle. These Āryan migrants, who did not number more than a thousand or two when they first arrived in South Asia, did not construct permanent buildings for many centuries.

At the centre of the religious life of these people were the cults of fire and of a sacred drink, called soma in Sanskrit and haoma in the Avestan language of Zoroastrianism, the main religion of ancient, pre-Islamic Persia. (Parsi is the name of modern Zoroastrians.) The term soma/haoma refers of a juice pressed out (from the root √su / √hu) from a plant (or plants); it does not refer to any plant in particular. The most important and esteemed of the religious rituals conducted by these people are rites that entailed the drinking of soma/haoma. Sitting around sacred fireplaces, reciting long and complex sequences of mantras, and offering substances such as ghī (clarified butter) into the fire, participants would consume soma every two or three hours during rituals that may last one day or many days. 

“At the centre of the religious life of these people were the cults of fire and of a sacred drink, called soma”

The preparation of soma/haoma

Soma/haoma is praised in the highest terms in the sacred texts. It is prepared from stalks of plants, which in the Zoroastrian tradition are crushed to extract the juice in a mortar and pestle, and usually by pounding with stones on planks of wood in the tradition of the brahmans (who were priests, traditionally) of South Asia. After the juice is extracted, it is mixed with water and a milk product (usually milk but also sometimes with yogurt) and sometimes also with honey and barley groats. The fat in milk products would assist the absorption by the body of any psychoactive molecules in a plant.

These days, the brahmans of India and Zoroastrian priests continue to perform these rites. The mantras and hymns that are recited during rituals are contained in the Vedas, the sacred texts of the brahmans, and in the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrians. These days brahman priests prepare soma from either non-psychoactive plants or, sometimes, up until around forty years ago in South India, from ephedra, a bush that contains the stimulant ephedrine, which has an effect similar to coffee or adrenaline. However, the brahmans know that they are nowadays using substitute plants, which they have been doing for probably more than a thousand years, and that they are not preparing the ‘real’ soma. In the Zoroastrian domain, haoma was prepared from ephedra until several decades ago.

Soma/haoma has a very sharp (tīvra), bitter taste and is usually described either as yellow, golden, reddish, brown or tawny in colour. It is said to provide health, truth, wisdom, poetic inspiration, and immortality. It could further the power of action and also inspire warriors in battle. The effect of it could be an ordeal. It was also a purgative; it caused vomiting. Importantly, one of the many names for soma in the Vedas is amṛta, meaning ‘non-death’ or immortality. 

Internal soma/amṛta

Much later, in texts on Tantric yoga, the earliest of which date from around the fifth or sixth century CE, amṛta becomes an internal nectar, which can be produced in the head through various yoga techniques, such as the khecarī mudrā, in which the tongue is curled back and the tip enters the gap above the palate. Although these techniques are said to lead to bliss and immortality, the internal amṛta said to be activated or produced through yogic techniques has nothing to do with the extracted juice of plants. However, whether accessed through yogic practice, or, alternatively, engendered through the consumption of psychoactive plants, amṛta has the same connotation: immortality.

Theories about the botanical identity of soma/haoma

Around 250 years ago scholars began speculating and theorizing about what the botanical soma could possibly be. Dozens of theories have been published. Candidates for soma/haoma include various kinds of alcohol, datura, cannabis, the lotus plant, ginseng, mandrake, and various non-psychoactive plants, particularly Sarcostemma brevistigma and Periploca aphyla, as these latter plants are sometimes used in contemporary rituals as soma. Scholars have also proposed that soma is merely a concept, that it is rainwater, and that it was the product or ingredient of secret alchemical processes.

Looking at the sacred texts, however, it is apparent (and nearly all scholars agree on this point) that soma kept consumers awake: it was some kind of stimulant. As ephedra has been used by both Zoroastrians and brahmans as haoma/soma, probably the leading scholarly consensus on the botanical identity of soma/haoma is that it was (and still is) ephedra. Further, in many local languages in South and Central Asia, ephedra is called som /hum/hom and the like. Scholars such as Harry Falk and Mary Boyce have presented cogent arguments in favour of ephedra.

“So, if soma was indeed originally some kind of psychedelic or visionary concoction, what could it have been?”

However, other scholars have argued that soma appears in a few passages in the Vedas and ancillary texts, and in the Avesta, to have been capable of producing visionary or psychedelic effects, though this is disputed by supporters of the ephedra thesis. Nevertheless, in the Vedas there is occasional mention of how soma can transport one into the sky, into light and into the realm of immortality. In the Vedas, the term soma is frequently used in association with the term mada (or one of its variants), meaning strong, inspirational ‘intoxication’, which is not of the kind produced by drinking alcohol. The use of alcohol (surā), particularly by brahmans, was generally frowned upon in ancient India, so the idea that soma was some kind of alcoholic preparation can confidently be ruled out.

So, if soma was indeed originally some kind of psychedelic or visionary concoction, what could it have been? In 1968, the American banker-turned scholar, Gordon Wasson published Soma: The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. In this very influential book and in several subsequent articles, Wasson argued that soma was the red and white-spotted fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria). This mushroom is still consumed in parts of Afghanistan and in eastern Siberia. However, opponents of this proposition have pointed out that fly-agaric mushrooms do not need crushing with stones or in a mortar and pestle; the caps are natively consumed either whole or peeled. Also, importantly, intoxication with fly-agaric mushrooms is quite destabilizing: although capable of producing significant psychedelic effects, the mushrooms also usually cause dizziness, tremors and blurred vision. Reports of ecstatic experiences are rare. Wasson himself tried fly-agaric mushrooms many times but never had an ecstatic experience; he only felt tired and nauseous. Wasson also proposed a ‘third filter’, whereby the pee of someone who had previously eaten the mushrooms is drunk. This happens in Siberia, as the toxins in the mushrooms can be partially eliminated in the pee of the consumer. However, Wasson’s evidence of this practice supposedly alluded to in the Vedas relies on incorrect translations of various passages presented to support this idea. Nevertheless, despite these objections, a few scholars continue to argue for fly-agaric mushrooms as the ‘original’ soma.

In 1989, David Flattery and Martin Schwarz proposed, alternatively, in their learned publication Haoma and Harmaline, that soma/haoma was Syrian/mountain rue (Peganum harmala). This plant, which is widely dispersed, has a long history of medicinal use in Central Asia and elsewhere; it is also used as a red dye and as an aphrodisiac. Consumption of the angular reddish/brownish seeds produces a dreamy, and generally introverted condition. In a pioneering study conducted in 1964 of the effects of harmine and harmaline, which are the active ingredients in the seeds of rue, the researcher Claudio Naranjo described in his book The Healing Journey the effects as oneirophrenic (dream-inducing). Naranjo found the effects of rue to be conducive to psychoanalytic investigation. However, Syrian rue is not a visionary or psychedelic plant.

In summary, currently there are three theories about the botanical identity of soma/haoma that still have some scholarly support, namely ephedra, fly-agaric mushrooms and Syrian rue. It has been suggested that none of these three candidates seems to meet all the necessary requirements to be identified as soma. Other candidates that have been proposed appear to be either to weak, particularly when used regularly, or, on the other hand, too toxic. These considerations would make it improbable that soma/haoma was either the lotus plant or ginseng or any of the other dozens of identification with plants that are only mildly psychoactive, as they would be too weak; or mandrake or datura, which would be too toxic. Even though cannabis, another of the botanical candidates, can have a strong and occasionally psychedelic  effect, only rarely does it have the effect on regular consumers similar to that of a stronger psychedelic drug, such as LSD, psilocybin or ayahuasca.

There is a possibility that soma/haoma was a plant that has become extinct, perhaps due to climate change or over-harvesting. However, if soma/haoma was a single psychedelic plant of some kind, it would seem highly improbable that we haven’t yet found it.

Soma/Haoma as an analogue of ayahuasca

“The effects include visions, seeing light, inspiration, geometric patterns, sensations of flying and immortality”

Another suggestion, which I propose in my book on this topic (The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca), is that soma was never a single plant. In the Amazon region of South America there is a living tradition in several native communities of drinking ayahuasca, a potentially powerful psychedelic potion. It is usually made from two plants, one containing dimethyl tryptamine (DMT), and one containing a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). The DMT component is usually obtained from a relative of the coffee plant, Pysychotria viridis (usually known as chakruna) and the MAOI (in the form of harmine, harmaline and tetrahydro-harmine) from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. If DMT is consumed orally it is rapidly broken down by an enzyme in the gut and has no effect. If, however, DMT is consumed together with an MAOI of one kind or another, then the MAOI prevents the breakdown of the DMT and the consumer can have a powerful psychedelic trip, if appropriate dosages are consumed. The effects include visions, seeing light, inspiration, geometric patterns, sensations of flying and immortality, and of an encounter with the force of life. Ayahuasca is a purgative and it can be a terrifying ordeal. It is also occasionally used in the context of war by some South American tribes.

Interestingly, about seventy plants are now known to contain DMT and about another seventy are known to contain MAOIs. Many of these plants are common globally. Experimentation has revealed that any combination of these plants taken together in the appropriate dosages has a very similar effect. The proposition in my book is that soma/haoma was never a single plant, but was a combination of plants that had at its base both a plant containing DMT and another containing an MAOI. The plants used would have varied, depending on geographical location and availability. I believe I have gone some way in identifying some of the plants that were used. Also, as in the South American tradition, other plants would have been added to the basic formula, as boosters or enhancers. This would explain why, in the Indian materia medica, around twenty plants are called soma: all of these plants would have been used at one time or another in the manufacture of soma, either as ‘main’ or additional plants.

Mystery rites at Eleusis in ancient Greece

It was previously mentioned that migrants from Central Asia started extensive migrations around 1615 BCE, after the eruption of the Santorini volcano, and that some settled in Greece. It is believed that the temple of Eleusis, which is about twenty kilometres west of Athens, was founded around 1600 BCE. At this temple there was an annual, ten-day festival of initiation into the ‘mysteries’, which continued almost unbroken until it was outlawed by the Roman Catholic emperor Theodosius towards the end of the fourth century CE. Initiation into the mysteries was a rite of passage that was essential if one wanted to become a Greek citizen and to vote. There were many mystery cults in the ancient Greco-Roman world, but all were based on the rites at Eleusis. The climax of the ten-day rites at Eleusis was the drinking of a bitter potion in the inner sanctum of the temple. It was absolutely forbidden to talk about the mysteries. However, it can be discerned from various scattered remarks and comments in classical sources that the experience at Eleusis was both terrifying and ecstatic. Initiates encountered death but also attained the highest beatific vision. The potion consumed was known as kykeon, which means ‘mixed potion’ in Greek. It was mixed with a milk product (sometimes cheese) and barley.

Similarly to the soma/haoma issue, scholars have proposed various theories about kykeon, some believing that no drug at all was involved in the mystery rites, that reports of ecstasies and the like were just the result of religious frenzy. Other scholars have proposed that kykeon was either psilocybin or fly-agaric mushrooms. However, probably the most widely believed hypothesis is that kykeon was made from an ergot fungus, one of the psychoactive constituents being lysergic acid amide (the precursor used in the manufacture of LSD). However, adequately eliminating the other four or five, highly toxic tryptamine molecules in the ergot fungus (which can cause gangrene and death), would, I believe, have been beyond the wit or technical capacity of the ancient Greeks, even though a few scholars have argued that it might have been possible. I suggest, alternatively, that in the late Bronze Age there was sufficient botanical knowledge, through trial and error, to manufacture analogues of ayahuasca from a variety of plants, and that these analogues were the basis of not only the soma of the brahmans and the haoma of the Zoroastrians, but also the kykeon of the Greek mystery rites.

The term amṛta and how it may have originated

It was noted that the Sanskrit term amṛta means ‘non-death’ or immortality. Similarly, the originally Greek term ambrosia derives from am brotos (‘non-death’), and nectar from nek tar (‘keeping death afar’). I suggest that experience of non-ordinary states of consciousness permit access to a reality that appears (and is) timeless; and being timeless, there is no death: one knows that one’s true Self is immortal. 

Finally, on a note of speculation, could it have been the case that over many centuries of experimentation by the religious elite of the ancient world with non-ordinary states of consciousness, that some people devised techniques of breath control and meditation to attain ‘immortal’ states, but without the use of psychoactive plants? Was this real the secret of amṛta?

Matthew Clark

Matthew is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, where he is also one of the Directors of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include a study of one of the largest sects of Indian sādhus (The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order, E. J. Brill: Leiden/Boston, 2006), a concise introduction to yoga for students on teacher-training courses (The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition),, 2018), and an exploration of the history of the use of psychoactive plants in ancient Asia and Greece (The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca, London/New York: Muswell Hill Press, 2017).

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