The Psychological Significance Of The Soma Ritual

Dr Esther Harding

In the legend of the soma we find records of a gift, namely, inspiration or ecstasy, which leads on to the final initiation of the moon, that is into a higher stage of consciousness. This new condition comes, however, not from the Logos, the brightness of mind, or intellect, but from the unconscious.

For the inspiration of the moon comes, the myths relate, from the dark moon and from the soma drink brewed from the moon tree. It is not embodied in rational thought but in dark obscure movements, in thoughts and impulses of darkness, intoxicating like the soma drink, producing an enthusiasm which may even lead to madness. To eat the soma, or to drink the soma drink was to partake of the food of the gods, to become godlike and to share in those attributes which distinguish the gods from the mortals. These attributes are the power to transcend death, to be immortal, and the power to create, to make that which had not being before. These two gifts are bestowed by the soma drink.

In the Hindu teachings about the soma it is said: '... the moon. That is Soma, the king. They are food of the gods. The gods do eat it.' (Khandogya Upanishad 5, 10, 4.) In another translation this text reads: 'King Soma, he is the food of the Gods that Gods eat... But they who conquer the worlds (future states) by means of sacrifice, charity, and austerity, go to smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the decreasing half of the moon, from the decreasing half of the moon ... to the world of the fathers, from the world of the fathers to the moon. Having reached the moon they become food, and then the Devas (the gods) feed on them there, as sacrificers feed on Soma, as it increases and decreases.' (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6, 2, 16.) Another rendering reads: 'Just as one eats the King Soma with the words "swell and decrease" so they are eaten by the gods ... This moon is the honey (nectar) of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this moon. Likewise this bright immortal person in this moon, and that bright immortal person existing as mind in the body both are (madhu) (soul). He is indeed the same as that Self, that Immortal, that Brahman, that All.' (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2, 5, 7.) 'The person or spirit that is in the moon on him I meditate ... I meditate on him as Soma, the king, the self (Atman) (source) of all food. Who so meditates on him thus, becomes the self (source) of all food.' (Kaushi-taki Upanishad 4, 4.) Or as another translation renders it, 'becomes the Self of Nourishment.'

The soma is nourishment of the gods, and man, too, can partake of it, thereby becoming part of the Self, the Atman. This is a mystical way of expressing the belief that through this ritual there develops within the worshipper a self which is not his personal ego, but is non-personal, partaking of the qualities of the divine self or Atman. This self is unique, it is said to be 'free from all the pairs of opposites', 'it never bends the head to anyone,' 'it is immovable and homeless.' (Mahabharata, Anugita XLIII). Jung has called this nonpersonal, nonego, self the individuality, and I must refer the reader to his works for most illuminating discussions of the whole subject.

The ancient teachings about the moon state that this 'self develops in that individual who has undergone the required initiations to the moon deity, or, as we might say in psychological terms, who has related himself to the feminine principle. The 'self possesses those qualities which alone can stand against the inflooding of the chaotic unconscious. For it is said that the self is immovable, it is homeless, that is to say it is not dependent on being established or conditioned, its strength is in itself; one might also say its strength lies in its being itself. It is that which it is, and nothing else. 'It never bends the head to anyone.' The ritual of the soma drink was believed to have power to put the worshipper in touch with this aspect of his psyche, the eternal, immovable, reality of Self.

In drinking the soma the initiant gave himself up to be filled with the god. He knew that he would lose his personal, conscious control. He would become the prey of whatever thoughts or inspirations came to him out of the unknown. His mind would be the playground of strange thoughts, of inexplicable feelings and impulses. He would experience an intoxication, an ecstasy, which he believed to be a possession by God. Even those who think of God as all-good, a loving father, a beneficent spiritual being, might still hesitate before handing themselves over to His power in this way and renouncing their personal self-control through the influence of the soma drink. Even the boon of the renewal of life, which the soma is believed to give, might not be sufficient to induce them so to lay aside their personal autonomy. How much greater a sacrifice was demanded of those worshippers who believed that God, like the moon, was black as well as white, destructive as well as creative, cruel as well as kind. How great an act of devotion was needed can be sensed only when we contemplate giving ourselves up to the daemonic influence which arises within our own psyches. For in actual fact we find that the belief in the unity of the one good God is little more than an intellectual formula, counterbalanced by the theory that man is the victim of original sin which will arise spontaneously within him if he relaxes his control for a moment.

What it means, psychologically, to drink the soma and allow the inner voice of the daemon to speak within and take over the control for a space, Jung has discussed in his essay on the Becoming of the Personality. To dare to listen to that inspiration from within which voices the ultimate reality of one's own being requires an act of faith which is rare indeed. When the conviction is borne in upon one that anything which is put together, or made up, has no ultimate reality and so is certain to disintegrate, one turns to one's own final reality in the faith that it and it alone can have any virtue or any value. Jung has used the Greek word pistis to express the kind of faith in, or devotion to, the Tightness, the wisdom of that inner spark which speaks and functions of itself, quite apart from our conscious control. This wisdom was called the Divine Sophia. The Greek word sophos means wisdom and Sophia is a personification of wisdom, the Lady Wisdom, or the Goddess Wisdom. She is the highest incarnation of the feminine principle, the Moon Goddess in her function of spirit, divine knowledge. The moon goddesses were, in the majority of cases, considered to be the source of knowledge and wisdom. The words used for mental activity are associated in many languages, it will be recalled, with the names of the moon or of the moon deities, while in many cases the name for the moon deity meant far more than mental activity. Plato, for instance, says that the ancients signified the Holy Lady by calling her Isis and also Mental Perception and Prudence, for the Greeks believed that the name Isis was cognate with Isia which means knowledge. The etymology is probably incorrect but the comment shows that to the Greeks of Plato's time the goddess Isis was goddess of knowledge. The robe of Isis, Goddess of Wisdom, concealed, it will be recalled, the deepest revelation, and Shing Moo, the Chinese moon goddess, is called Perfect Intelligence, while the Virgin Mary, Moon of our Church, is also the bearer of Perfect Wisdom. To the Gnostics of Greece and Egypt, Sophia was the Divine Wisdom, the female form of the Holy Spirit. Devotion to, or faith in, this wisdom is the one motive which can make it possible for a human being, whether man or woman, to listen to his inner voice, relinquishing his own autonomy and resigning himself to the inflow of the dark powers of the moon, through partaking of the drink of soma.

The ritual of the soma drink was, however, highly prized by the initiants and brought them the priceless gifts of which we have been speaking. Their confession was:

We've quaffed the Soma bright,

And have immortal grown;

We've entered into light,

And all the Gods have known.

The soma drink was believed to bring not only immortality but also inspiration and wisdom. The wisdom it brought was not the outcome of wide-knowledge, or great erudition, or of worldly experience, but was rather the wisdom of nature. It is the wisdom that knows without knowing how. A gull, for instance, can soar as no modern glider can. This unconscious bird can utilize the winds with their varying currents and velocities, it knows all about areas of high pressure and areas of low pressure without, however, knowing anything about them at all. The bird's unknowing knowledge is a picture of the moon wisdom, which we human beings have so largely bartered for our conscious rationale and exact information. Our information is a priceless achievement but it is after all only a tool of the mind and not the real content of wisdom. Again, to quote from one of the sacred books of India, in the Mahabharata it is said: 'The Supreme Lord creates all creatures ... his mind is in the moon, his understanding dwells always in knowledge.' 'When the understanding, of its own motion, forms ideas within itself, it then comes to be called Mind.' This text agrees with primitive concepts that one of the chief characteristics of the moon is her ability to give men thoughts, ideas, and inspiration 'of its own motion'. For the moon, mens, is mind, not only in the language of many peoples, but in the underlying concept as well. In Hindu thought, moon is King Soma, and soma is manas, mind.

The ideas which the moon gives, however, are far from academic thinking, with its power to dissect, organize, and formulate. These aspects of thinking belong to the sun, while from the moon come phantasies, intuitions, and strange ideas, or so primitive men and the cultured people of antiquity as well, believed.

The moon, it was thought, insinuates into man's mind ideas and intuitions which are not at all in accordance with intellectual standards but are strange and bizarre, and, because of the profound truth hidden beneath their unusual form, they may be creatively new. These ideas are filled with a peculiar emotion or with intoxicating delight, like the ecstasy of the soma drink.

Thus the moon stands for that strange kind of thinking which comes and goes apparently with complete autonomy; man's rational laws have no more power to control it than his wishes control the moon's movements high in the heavens. A man can of his own will sit down and think logical thoughts. He can say: 'Now I will work on this mathematical problem, or draw up a plan for this or that' and his thinking obeys him. But 'moon' thinking goes of itself. It is not under the sway of logic. It will not come when he bids it. It will not go at his command. It does not originate in his head. It rises rather from the lower depths of his being and befuddles his mind, like the intoxicating drink, soma.

Thinking of this kind is despised among us, but it has been highly esteemed in many ages and many civilizations. It is thought to be due to a possession by a divine power. Even in extreme form, as in the case of lunacy (lune is moon), primitives and the ancients thought that a god spoke through the man's delirium. Today in modern art we find again the cult of that which goes of itself. Our artists seek, painstakingly, to express that which is not rational and indeed unfolds of its own volition. There is to us, in this twentieth century, undoubtedly a value concealed in the irrational, in that which is not controlled by rational laws. It will be recalled that the wisdom of Isis, when searching for the lost body of the dead Osiris, was represented as coming to her in quite irrational ways. She was first guided by the babbling of little children, then by the instinct of the dog, and lastly by the word of her own daemon voice. These three stages represent ways through which men and women, today, may listen to the voice of the moon wisdom, much as Isis did. The babbling of little children represents, perhaps, taking note of the irresponsible phantasy which flits by beneath the contents to which conscious attention is directed; the instinct of the dog will represent those things that the body, the animal part of the human being, tells one. These intimations are also disregarded in large measure, by the average person, as being too trivial for serious consideration. And thirdly, the inner voice still speaks, although it is usually drowned out by the clamor of personal interest and the insistent demands of the world, during the daytime. It is more easily heard in the dreams and visions of the night.

To pay attention to these things is by no means easy, to do so requires the renouncing of personal autonomy over one's own thoughts for the time being and allowing dark, unknown ideas to take possession of one's mind. Usually a man in whom 'moon thinking' arises feels that there is something inferior about the whole process, something uncanny, something not quite clean, by which he is besmirched. He feels that such thinking is not a masculine but a 'womanish' sort of thinking; and he may add that women think in that confused way most of the time. But certain women, if they were asked, would say that the thoughts and inspirations which come to them from the depths of their being are likely to be right, can be relied on, and can be acted on with confidence. When a woman thinks in her head as a man thinks, she is often wrong; she is very apt to be deceived by ready-made opinions, to spend her time on side issues; and her thinking, when of this kind, is usually unproductive and uncreative. Ideas formed under the moon, inferior though they may seem to be, yet have a power and compelling quality which ideas originating in the head rarely have. They are like the moon in that they grow of themselves. They demand an outlet; if a suitable one is not provided they may become obsessive and produce, as the primitives would say, 'moon madness'. For the children of the moon must come to birth just as surely as physical children. And furthermore as the Hindus have said, only when the Understanding of its own motion forms ideas within itself can it be called Mind. When written in this way with the capital letter the Mind refers to the Atman, supreme consciousness, the Self. In other words when one listens to the voice of that nonpersonal factor within one's own psyche one comes into touch with that unique factor with oneself, which the Hindus felt to be part of the Atman, the Self. Through such an experience it is said that the individual's life is renewed by partaking of the ever-renewed life of the moon.

What this may mean to us when the symbols are recognized as symbols and the whole is translated into psychological terms, is hard to say with any certainty. It surely does not mean that to give oneself over to the guidance of the unconscious, renouncing all the achievements of consciousness, will give one eternal life. Such a course of action could produce nothing but disintegration, the loss of individuality and, in extreme form, mental unbalance or insanity. To us the ravings of the lunatic certainly do not voice the oracles of divine wisdom. If the strange thoughts and images arising from the unconscious are to have any value at all for us, they have to be interpreted, made available for life, through the mediation of the human understanding. One must ask with the Knight of the Grail legends, 'What does it mean?'

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