While the imbibing of intoxicants (pāna) is a relatively minor “crime” in Hindu śāstra, the texts mostly agree in recommending that a spiritual seeker avoid alcohol. The substance is considered to derange the senses, damage the body, and promote negative actions by weakening self-control. From what I have read, also, Hindu culture looks down upon the drinking of alcohol, and especially drunkenness, as a decadent and dirty Western deed.
In Ayurvedic medicine no substance is outright rejected. Rather, the truth of the Guṇas (qualities or principles) is taught, with all manifest conditions being Sattvik (pure, clear), Rajasik (aggressive, active), or Tamasik (inert, ignorant); the practitioner is taught to understand these properties and then select treatments according to desired effects. Alcohol is classified as a Tamasik beverage, promoting darkness in the mind and wreaking damage upon the channel-systems (srotamsi) within the body. Yet alcohol also has a medicinal utility, because it possesses a subtle, penetrating effect that can carry healing herbal essences to the deepest tissues, and an herbal tincture or medicinal wine (called drakṣa) may be administered to alleviate certain conditions. However, even Ayurveda’s approach to liquor as a double-edged sword never extends to a tolerance of dissipation.
Personally, I love the translation of somarasa as “Soma-wine,” the word “wine” bringing to my mind such delightful associations as the sacred frenzy of Bacchantes, the sharing of the ritual-cup, and the pouring of libations. But others understand Soma as mere liquor, and translate Vedic hymns to describe the Devas – Indra chief among them – as besotted with booze.
“Like impetuous winds, the drinks have lifted me up. Have I not drunk Soma?
The drinks have lifted me up, like swift horses bolting with a chariot. Have I not drunk Soma?”
Those words are excerpted from a Western translation of Ṛgveda X.119, a hymn which is truly a glorious exposition on exhilaration, but considered by some to be only drunken boasting. Indeed, there are few words that I believe have caused so much damage to a real understanding of Indra, of Vedic truth, as “drink.” (1) This word in English is commonplace, inelegant, and carries little of the real sense of Soma-drinking: of infusion, vitalisation, empowerment, elevation, even travel into other worlds or possession by the divine. Compare the flat ranting above with another verse describing Soma’s effects, offered by a more insightful translator:
“These sages, clothed by the wind, wear dirty tatters.
Following the rush of the wind, they go where the gods have gone before.
Exhilarated by asceticism, we have risen into the winds.
Our physical bodies are all you mere mortals can see!
He flies through the air, seeing all the various forms below.
The sage has made himself a friend and associate to every god.”
— Ṛgveda X.136.2-4
Soma (like Indra) is praised as thousand-eyed, and He grants the rapturous vision through which the entire Veda was received by man. The ṛṣi yearned for that sight-beyond-sight that unlocked the Divine realms:
“So, too, with our visionary insight we have seen
the golden one in the seats wherein you live,
not with our (normal) way of thinking or with our (physical) eyes,
(but) through Soma’s own eyes.”
A simple moonshine (2) can produce visions and even transcendent experiences if offered in the service of the Divine, but I think it could not regularly lead to the elevating, wonder-full, Sattvik insight and wisdom that permeates the Vedic verses. The ignorant (Tamasik) approach is to interpret Soma as “only booze” and to understand the Vedic people as simpletons, so overwhelmed by the mind-bending experience of getting drunk that they wove epic poetic hyperbole about it and fashioned their entire religion around it. When liquor is referenced in the words of Vedic times, a different vocabulary is used to name and describe it, never Soma or its attendants. And we have also a succinct, slap-to-the-brain punchline offered in the oft-quoted Ṛgveda X.85.3: “He who has drunk thinks that the herb which men crush is the Soma; (but) that which the Brāhmaṇas know to be Soma, of that no one partakes.” It is true that the exact identity of the physical Soma-plant is not known and that many theories have poured forth to explain the inexplicable extinct. What is certain is that the Soma-substance filled the fount of the original Communion: the spiritual companionship of the Devas, gained through the transforming power of the divine Essence.
Indra, the Soma-souled, the Lord of Delight, is summarised in modern popular culture as a gluttinous drinker of inebriating spirits. But it is of the divine Spirit that he drinks so formidably and capaciously. If Indra is a “drunk,” it is his mad, wild, world-moving intoxication that every sādhaka should be so fortunate to achieve!
(1) The others are “demi-god” (for devatā) and “king” (for rāja).
(2) Soma being the Lord of the Moon’s light, now we see from whence that term came, yes?
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