Soma cult, the popular cult of Ancient India

The gods in the Vedic religion are classified under three spheres namely aerial, celestial and terrestrial. Of the popular gods of the Vedic religion, Indra belonged to the aerial or atmospheric sphere, Varuna to the celestial sphere and Soma to the terrestrial sphere. In the Vedas the word Soma has two meanings, God and plant/juice. After Indra and Agni, Soma has the highest number of hymns addressed to him and the ninth mandala of Rig Veda has about 114 hymns addressed exclusively to Soma. These hymns were composed by rishis most of them who figure as authors in other mandalas as well but a majority of the hymns of Soma were composed by the rishi family of Kashyapas who probably were specialists in the Soma cult. He is also praised in other mandalas.

The Soma cult was one of the oldest cults in the Vedic religion existing even prior to the Indra cult. Soma is described as the father of Indra and other Vedic gods and Indra is described to be an enthusiastic worshipper of Soma. In the Rig Veda Soma sacrifice is described as the oldest and anterior to all sacrifices and the Soma juice as the favourite drink of the gods from ancient times. As a deity Soma was a wise seer, a poet who stimulates thoughts and inspires hymns. He is the lord of plants or the lord of woods (Vanaspathi). Soma is said to be divine, immortal and had the power to confer immortality to gods and men. Being connected with Indra in his conflict with Vrtra, Soma is described as a great fighter, the most heroic of heroes and a slayer of the wicked. He is also called the treasure or the wealth of gods and bestower of all the wealth of heaven and earth.

The Pre-eminence of Soma

In the pantheon of Vedic gods, the sun occupies the most prominent place. The ancient Vedic people greeted this god with hymns of praise and offering of Soma juice. The Vedic people were divided into various clans and each clan had a special name for sun and worshipped him in that name. One clan recited hymns in praise of Varuna, another in praise of Indra and another in praise of Vayu, but the Soma juice remained a common offering for every clan and it created a bond that linked the diverse clans. The word Soma was first used to mean a creeper, then it meant juice of the creeper Soma. As juice is water Soma meant water and then rain and as it is the sun responsible for rain, Soma came to be identified with sun. Later the Vedic people began to worship Soma in place of other solar deities and Soma reigned as the Supreme God.

Soma’s identification with other Gods

According to Hillebrandt at the beginning of the Agnistoma sacrifice Soma is treated as Varuna and a considerable amount of Vedic literary and ritualistic evidence shows that in the mind of the Vedic thinkers Soma and Varuna were quite identical. Dandekar opines that it was a conscious attempt on the part of the later Soma priests to glorify Soma by bringing him into contact with Varuna, the world sovereign. Similarly, effort was made to bring Soma and Pusan together though the Pusan cult was an independent cult promoted by the rishi family of Bharadvajas.

In subsequent time however the Soma creeper could not be procured and people in course of time forget about it and hence in post-Vedic literature one misses the word Soma altogether and, in its place, we find the word Savitri, which was accepted as Soma’s substitute. Soma was also identified with the moon.

Soma and Haoma ceremony

Rig Veda mentions Soma as a plant/oushadhi (a species of Ephedra) which was grown on Mujavat mountains around the Sharyanavat lake and on the Rjika mountains. The juice of this plant was extracted by pressing its shoots. It was then mixed with milk or curds or barley water and offered as libation in fire sacrifice. Just as the Vedic literature describes the Soma sacrifice, the Zend Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrian religion, (an off-shoot of the Vedic religion) describes the Yasna ceremony where the Haoma juice is prepared. As we have seen Soma in Vedic literature has two meaning, god and plant while in Avesta the word Haoma has four connotations- Haoma the prophet, the plant, the hero and probably the person who performed the Haoma sacrifices. How is that the Soma offering unique to the Vedic religion was adopted by the Zoroastrian religion? According to R.N.Dandekar, in the beginning of the Vedic religion Varuna was the supreme God who was latter challenged by Indra. Later there was a compromise between the followers of Varuna cult and Indra cult. But some followers of Varuna who could not accept the supremacy of Indra probably migrated to Iran and the Varuna cult evolved into a new religion later known as Zoroastrianism. In its new avatar Zoroastrianism retained many old rituals of the Vedic religion like worship of fire (Agni), offering of Soma (Haoma) and probably Varuna who had the epithet Asura was now worshipped as Ahura Mazda, the supreme God in Zoroastrian religion.

Reference

  1. R.N.Dandekar- Vedic Mythological Tracts, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1979
  2. Abinas Chandra Das- RGVedic India, Calcutta, 1927
  3. C.G.Kashikar- Identification of Soma– Research Series No.7, Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune, 1990
  4. Swami Sankaranand- RGVedic Culture of the Pre-historic India, Vol-II, Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Calcutta, 1944
  5. V.G.Rahurkar- The Seers of the RGVeda, University of Poona, 1964
  6. W.J.Wilkins- Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, 1913
  7. A.A.Macdonell – Vedic Mythology, 1897
  8. R.C.Majumdar Edited- History and Culture of the Indian People, The Vedic Age, 1951
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