Economic Botany

, Volume 58, Supplement 1, pp S147–S173 | Cite as

A botanical perspective on the identity of soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) based on scriptural and iconographic records

  • Andrew McDonald


An examination of the mythic and artistic records of India and Southeast Asia indicates that the famous psychotropic of the ancient Aryans was the eastern lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. Vedic epithets, metaphors, and myths that describe the physical and behavioral characteristics of the ‘soma’ plant as a sun, serpent, golden eagle, arrow, lightning bolt, cloud, phallic pillar, womb, chariot, and immortal navel, relate individually or as a whole to the eastern lotus. Since most Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses trace their origins from the Vedas and have always shared close symbolic associations with Nelumbo, there is reason to believe the divine status of this symbolic plant derives from India’s prehistoric past.

Key Words

India lotus narcotic plants Nelumbo nucifera soma Vedas 

Literature Cited

  1. Bhawe, S. S. 1957. The Soma hymns of the Rg-Veda. Vol. 1. Oriental Institute, Baroda.Google Scholar
  2. Bhikku Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi. 1995. The middle length discourses of the Buddha: A new translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Wisdom Publ., Boston.Google Scholar
  3. Bosch, F. D. K. 1960. The golden germ. Mouton & Co., Gravenhage.Google Scholar
  4. Brough, J. 1971. Soma and Amanita muscaria. Bulletin of Oriental and African Studies 34(2):331–362, University of London.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Campbell, J. 1982. The mythic image. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.Google Scholar
  6. Coomaraswamy, A. 1928. Yaksas. Part I. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, no. 2926. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  7. —. 1931. Yaksas. Part II. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, no. 3059. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  8. —. 1979. Elements of Buddhist Iconography. Munshiram Manoharlal Publ. Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi. (1st ed. 1935, Cambridge, MA).Google Scholar
  9. Danielou, A. 1991. The myths and gods of India. Inner Traditions International Inc., Rochester, VT.Google Scholar
  10. Deshpande, N. A. 1988-1991. Padma Purana in Ancient Indian tradition and mythology (Vols. 39–47). Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  11. Díaz, J. L. 1975. Etnofarmacología de plantas alucinógenas Latinoamericanas (Curanderos Científicos CEMEF 4), Centra de Estudios en Farmadependencia, Mexico D.EGoogle Scholar
  12. Doniger O’Flaherty, W. 1967. The post-vedic history of the soma plant. In G. Wasson, ed., Soma, divine mushroom of immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., Italy.Google Scholar
  13. —. 1981. The Rig Veda. Penguin Books Ltd., New York.Google Scholar
  14. Edgerton, F. 1972. The Bhagavad Gita. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.Google Scholar
  15. Eggeling, J. 1978. Satapatha-Brāhmana. In Sacred Books of the East. Vols. 12, 26, 41, 43, 44. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (1st eds. 1880–1885, Oxford.)Google Scholar
  16. Emboden, W. A. 1972. Narcotic plants. The MacMillan Co., New York.Google Scholar
  17. —. 1981. Transcultural use of narcotic water lilies in ancient Egyptian and Mayan drug ritual. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 3:39–83.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Falk, H. 1989. Soma I and II. Bull. School of Oriental and African Studies 52:77–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Flattery, D. S., and M. Schwartz, 1989. Haoma and harmaline. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.Google Scholar
  20. Foucher, A. 1994. The beginnings of Buddhist art. L. A. Thomas and F. W. Thomas, trans. Asian Educational Services, New Delhi. (1st ed., 1917).Google Scholar
  21. Furst, P. T. 1972. The flesh of the gods. Praeger Publ., New York and Washington.Google Scholar
  22. Ganguli, K. M. 1990. Mahabharata. P. C. Roy, ed., Munshiram Manoharlal Publ. Ltd., New Delhi. (1st ed. 1886).Google Scholar
  23. Gibbs, R. D. 1974. Chemotaxonomy of flowering plants. Vol. 1. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.Google Scholar
  24. Gonda, J. 1959. Epithets of the Rgveda. Mouton and Co., The Hague.Google Scholar
  25. —. 1993. Aspects of early Visnuism. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (1st ed. 1954, Leiden).Google Scholar
  26. Griffith, R. T. H. 1991. The hymns of the Rig Veda. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Pvt. Ltd., Delhi. (1st ed. 1889).Google Scholar
  27. —. 1995. The Atharva Veda. 2 vols. Low Price Publ., Delhi. (1st ed. 1916).Google Scholar
  28. Harle, J. C. 1987. The art and architecture of the Indian subcontinent. Penguin Books, London.Google Scholar
  29. Hillebrandt, A. 1990. Vedic mythology. S. Rajeswara Sarma, trans. 2 vols., Motilal Banarsidass Publ., Delhi. (1st ed. 1927, Breslau).Google Scholar
  30. Iyer, S. V. 1985. Varaha Purana. In Ancient Indian tradition and mythology. Vols. 31–32. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  31. James, E. O. 1966. The tree of life. E. J. Brill, Leiden.Google Scholar
  32. Johnston, E. H. 1992. Buddhacarita. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (1st ed. 1936, Lahore).Google Scholar
  33. Keith, A. B. 1967. Taittirīya Sanhita. Harvard Oriental Series. Vols. 18, 19. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (1st ed. 1914).Google Scholar
  34. —. 1989. The religion and philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads. 2 vols. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., Delhi. (1st ed. 1925, Cambridge, MA).Google Scholar
  35. Lahiri, A. K. 1984. Vedic Vrtra. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  36. Lee, S. 1994. A history of Far Eastern art. 5th ed. Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York.Google Scholar
  37. McDonald, J. A. 2002. Botanical determination of the Middle Eastern tree of life. Economic Botany 56(2): 113–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Macdonell, A. A. 1995. Vedic mythology. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Pvt. Ltd. Delhi. (1st ed. 1898).Google Scholar
  39. —, and A. B. Keith. 1982. Vedic index of names and subjects. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (1st ed. 1912, London).Google Scholar
  40. McKenna, T. 1992. Foods of the gods. Bantam Books, New York.Google Scholar
  41. Mahdihassan, S. 1981. The tradition of alchemy in India. American Journal of Chinese Medicine 9: 23–33.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Malamoud, C. 1991. Soma as sacrificial substance and divine figure in the Vedic mythology of Exchange. G. Honigsblum, trans. Pages 803–805 in Y. Bonnefoy and Doniger, comps., Mythologies, vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.Google Scholar
  43. Mani, V. 1975. Puranic encyclopaedia. 5th ed., Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  44. Nyberg, H. 1995. The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: The botanical evidence. Pages 382–406 in G. Erdosy, ed., The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.Google Scholar
  45. Oldenberg, H. 1993. The religion of the Veda. S. B. Shrotri, transl. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., Delhi. (1st ed. 1894).Google Scholar
  46. Panikkar, R. 1977. The Vedic experience, Mantramanjari. University of California Press, Berkeley.Google Scholar
  47. Parpola, A. 1995. The problem of the Aryans and the Soma: Textual-linguistic and archeological evidence. Pages 351–379 in G. Erdosy, ed., The Indo-Aryans of ancient South Asia. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.Google Scholar
  48. Radhakrishnan, S. 1992. The principle Upanisads. Humanities Press Intl. Inc., Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. (1st ed. 1953).Google Scholar
  49. Rockhill, W. W. 1884. The life of the Buddha (Bkah-Hgyur and Bstan-Hgyur). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.Google Scholar
  50. Shamma, M. 1972. The isoquinoline alkaloids. Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  51. —, and J. L. Moniot. 1978. Isoquinoline alkaloids research. Plenum Press, New York.Google Scholar
  52. Shastri, J. L. 1970. Śiva Purana. In Ancient Indian tradition and mythology. Vols. 1–4. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  53. —. 1973. Linga Purana. In Ancient Indian tradition and mythology. Vols. 5–6. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  54. —. 1978-1980. Garuda Purana. In Ancient Indian tradition and mythology. Vols. 12–14. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  55. Snodgrass, A. 1985. The symbolism of the Stupa. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., Pvt. Ltd., Delhi.Google Scholar
  56. Spess, D. L. 2000. Soma the divine hallucinogen. Park Street Press, Rochester, VT.Google Scholar
  57. Tagare, G. V. 1976-1978. Bhagavata Purana. In Ancient Indian tradition and mythology. Vols. 7–11. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  58. —. 1981-1982. Kurma Purana. In Ancient Indian-tradition and mythology. Vols. 20–21. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  59. —. 1987-1988. Vayu Purana. In Ancient Indian tradition and mythology. Vols. 37–38. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.Google Scholar
  60. Thaw, A. 1972. Historical sites in Burma. Sarpay Beikman Press, Rangoon.Google Scholar
  61. Washburn, H. 1986. Epic mythology. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. (1st ed., 1915, Strassburg).Google Scholar
  62. Wasson, G. 1967. Soma, divine mushroom of immortality. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., Italy.Google Scholar
  63. Wilson, H. H. 1980. Visnu Purana. Nag Publishers, Delhi.Google Scholar
  64. Witzel, M. 1995. Early Indian history: Linguistic and textual parameters. Pages 351–379 in G. Erdosy, ed., The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin.Google Scholar
  65. Wujastik, D. 1998. The roots of Ayurveda. Penguin Books, Delhi.Google Scholar
  66. Zaehner, R. C. 1961. The dawn and twilight of Zoroastrianism. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrew McDonald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Texas at Austin, Plant Resources Center

Personalised recommendations