Mythology for the Millennial: Soma, the moon god, and why you should raise a glass to him next time you're drinking

It's a shame that the god Soma was a victim of increased puritanism. Soma was Hinduism's Bacchus, our Amy Winehouse, they tried to make him go to rehab, he said no, no, no and eventually was shunted out of his duties as the god of all intoxicants, to become the god of the moon instead, a gig no one else wanted.

I've talked about soma before — the drink made out of a plant, some say unidentified, although WJ  Wilkins' Hindu Mythology says it's a creeping plant, almost without leaves, and with small white flowers. From the Encyclopedia Britannica, we know that the stalks of this plant were crushed between stones, the juice filtered through sheep's wool and mixed with water and milk. It was used in a lot of Vedic sacrifices, and after it was offered to gods, the cup got passed around to the priests and the person doing the sacrifice, and everyone got very high, in an LSD kind of way, because it was a hallucinogen. (Interestingly, there's also a Zoroastrian ritual called haoma, which is so similar to the soma sacrifice that it's quite possible there was a shared Indo-Iranian mega religion back in the day before the main branches splintered off and did their own thing.)

How important this high was — almost spiritual, just ask anyone who has tried a modern-day ayahuasca trip — can be seen by the several verses dedicated to Soma (the god) and soma (the drink) in the Rig Veda. A sample (it's no Jim Morrison, but you can see the guy who wrote it was “really feeling the words, dude”):

Be thou best Vṛtra-slayer, best granter of bliss, most liberal:
Promote our wealthy princes' gifts.

And

O Soma flowing on thy way, win thou and conquer high renown;
And make us better than we are.

somameme 2 825

It goes on in this vein for some time, all indicating, as Wilkins also says, that at one point, Soma-the-god was a big deal. Soma was the creator of the gods, before Brahma, and Indra, king of the gods, was a devout worshipper.  Apparently, before Soma came to live with the gods, he had several gandharvas (or forest sprites, again a parallel with Bacchus' fauns and nymphs) for roommates, a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves situation. Of course the gods weren't having that, they wanted to try the magic drink too — so in two separate versions, two goddesses volunteer to go retrieve him.

In version one, it's Vach, goddess of speech and Indra's wife who tells them, “The gandharvas love women so I'll go and hang out for a bit and get the plant juice for everyone.” In the second version, it's less loving: the goddess Gayatri turns into a bird to try and steal the plant, the guards shoot at her, but she escapes and lets one feather drenched in soma fall to the ground which becomes the palasha tree (flame of the forest to you and me, bastard teak to people who really care about wood).

Anyway, eventually the soma reaches the gods, and obviously it is not enough and no one is satisfied with just a teaspoon each, so they decide to race each other, and Vayu beats Indra narrowly to the finish line. Indra's like that kid in your class who always whined that it wasn't fair, even though you clearly lost that game, KARAN, so he asks Vayu to split it with him. Vayu's like, “No chance” but eventually gives up some of it.

Eventually Soma switched from being the Lord of the Highs (sorry, not sorry) to becoming the God of the Moon, like I mentioned. This was somewhere round the Vishnu Purana (either sometime in 500 BCE or 200 AD), where any intoxicants were forbidden. But Soma didn't completely reform either. He decided to seduce Tara, the wife of Brihaspati, guru to the gods. A massive epic war followed — and somehow you don't read about that as much as the Mahabharata, but it still sounds very exciting. Tara eventually asks Brahma to save her, and he does, but then he realises she's pregnant and Brihaspati is Not.Having.It — he doesn't want her to come home until her child is born, to determine paternity, I guess? So thanks to godly intervention, Tara immediately has her baby, a little boy, who is so startlingly beautiful that both Soma and Brihaspati start to quarrel over who sired him.

Tara was too embarrassed to say anything, so the baby gets up — I imagine like the dancing baby in Ally McBeal — and tells her to immediately confess who his daddy is, or he'll curse her. Tara, very ashamed, confesses it's Soma, peace is restored to all, except probably Brihaspati. Tara, by the way, is cited on all sorts of blogs about Hindu mythology as the “unchaste and unsatisfied wife” but I'm happy that she managed to escape, even for a little bit. Living with a sage couldn't have been as fun as living with a god, especially if that god still had some of his contraband drugs about him.

That's Soma's story — maybe you'll raise a glass to him and the full moon, the next time you're drinking.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2018 12:51:43 IST

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