Soma, according to the Vedic hymns, is the god who “represents and animates the juice of the Soma plant.” He was the Indian Bacchus.
Not only are all the hymns of the ninth book of the Rig- Veda, one hundred and fourteen in number, besides a few in other places, dedicated to his honour, but constant references occur to him in a large proportion of other hymns.
In some of these hymns he is extolled as the Creator, or Father of the gods. Evidently at that time he was a most popular deity. Indra, as was stated before, was an enthusiastic worshipper of Soma.
From the Vedas the following account of Soma is derived. In some passages the plant has set to have been brought from a mountain and given to Indra; in others, King Soma is said to have dwelt amongst the Gandharvas, a race of demi-gods that form the choir in Indra’s heaven.
The gods, knowing the virtues of this king or plant — for the two terms seem to be indiscriminately applied — wished to obtain it.
Not knowing how to get it, Vach (the goddess of speech) said, “The Gandharvas are fond of women; let me go, and I will obtain it for you.” The gods said, “How can we spare you?” She replied, “Obtain the god; and I will then return to you, whenever you may want me.”
Another account of this affair is, that whilst the gods were living on earth, Soma was in the sky.
Wishing to possess it, they sent Gayatri (a name of Brahmā’s wife or daughter) to fetch it. She went in the form of a bird, and was returning with it, when the Gandharvas seized it, and only gave it up when the goddess Vach went amongst them as narrated above.
When Soma was brought to the gods, a dispute arose as to who should have the first draught. At length, this was decided by a race.
Vāyu first reached the goal, Indra being second. Indra tried hard to win, and when near the winning post proposed that they should reach it together, Vāyu taking two-thirds of the drink. Vāyu said, “Not so! I will be the winner alone.” Then Indra said, “Let us come in together, and give me one-fourth of the draught divine!” Vāyu consented to this, and so the juice was shared between them.
Soma is said to have had thirty-three wives, the daughters of Prajāpati; of these Rohini was the favourite. Being dissatisfied with the partiality shown to their sister, the other wives returned to their father. Soma asked that they might come back to him; the father consented to restore them, provided Soma would treat them all alike.
Soma promised to do this; but, failing to keep his promise, he was smitten with consumption for breaking his word.
In the verses descriptive and songs in praise of Soma, the actual juice, and the god supposed to dwell in and manifested by it, are not at all distinct. All the gods drink of it; and Soma, the god in the juice, is said to clothe the naked and heal the sick.
Many divine attributes are ascribed to him. He is “addressed as a god in the highest strains of adulation and veneration. All powers belong to him; all blessings are besought of him, as his to bestow.” He is said to be divine, immortal, and also to confer immortality on gods and men.
“In a passage where the joys of paradise are more distinctly anticipated and more fervently implored than in most other parts of the Rig-Veda, Soma is addressed as the god from whom the gift of future felicity is expected.
Thus it is there said, “Place me, O purified god, in that everlasting and imperishable world, where there is eternal light and glory. O Indu (Soma), flow for Indra! Make me immortal in the world where Vaivasvata lives, where is the universal sphere of the sky, where those great waters flow.”
From the hymns addressed to this deity it is evident that at one time it was considered right for the Hindus to use intoxicants. Now as a rule they are forbidden. Amongst the members of one branch of the worshippers of Kāli they are commonly indulged in, but with almost this single exception, the people do not touch them, and Soma, in his Vedic character has ceased to be worshipped.
In later years the name Soma was, and still is, given to the moon. How and why this change took place is not known; but in the later of the Vedic hymns there is some evidence of the transition.
In the following passage Soma seems to he used in both senses — as god of the intoxicating juice, and as the moon ruling through the night. “ By Soma the Ādityas are strong; by Soma the earth is great; and Soma is placed in the midst of the stars. When they crush the plant, he who drinks regards it as Soma. Of him whom the priests regard as Soma (the moon) no one drinks.”
In another passage this prayer is found: “May the god Soma, he whom they call the Moon, free me.” Again, “Soma is the moon, the food of the gods.” “The sun has the nature of Agni, the moon of Soma.”
In the “Vishnu Purāna” we read, “Soma was appointed monarch of the stars and plants, of Brāhmans and plants, of sacrifices and penance.” In this Purāna we have quite a different account of the origin of Soma; but it must be borne in mind that in this account the term refers only to the moon.
At the time the “Vishnu Purāna” was written, intoxicants were strictly forbidden; hence Soma, as the god of the intoxicating juice, was no longer known and praised. According to that Purāna, Soma was the son of Atri, the son of Brahmā.
He performed the Rājasuya sacrifice, and from the glory-thence acquired, and the immense dominion with which he had been invested, became so arrogant and licentious, that he carried off Tārā, the wife of Vrihaspati, the preceptor of the gods. In vain Vrihaspati sought to recover his bride; in vain Brahmā commanded, and the holy sages remonstrated.
In consequence of this there was a great war; the gods fighting with Indra on the one side trying to recover Tārā; Soma with the demons on the other. At length she appealed to Brahmā for protection, who thereupon commanded Soma to restore her.
On her return, Vrihaspati finding she was pregnant, refused to receive her until after the birth of her child. In obedience to his orders, the child was immediately born; who being wonderful in beauty and power, both Vrihaspati and Soma claimed him as their son. Tārā being referred to, was too much ashamed to speak.
The child was so indignant at this, that he was about to curse her, saying, “Unless you declare who is my father, I will sentence you to such a fate as shall deter every female from hesitating to speak the truth.” On this Brahmā again interfered, pacifying the child, and saying to Tārā, “Tell me, my child, is this the child of Vrihaspati or Soma?”
“Of Soma,” she said, blushing. As soon as she had spoken, the lord of the constellations, his countenance being bright, embraced his son and said, “Well done, my boy; verily thou art wise;” and hence his name was Budha.