Though not a review, the following essay is in part based on my reading of the remarkable volume by R. Gordon Wasson Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), part I, chapter 7. Wasson was the vice-president of J. P. Morgan as well as an important investigator of psychedelic substances. His 1957 Life magazine article in “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” about psilocybin experiences was ground-breaking.
Religion is universal. Around the globe during all eras, people have believed in the existence of invisible beings and unreachable realms. No sooner are supernatural beings conceived than they begin to have love affairs and rivalries with each other and with the human race. Though most of our conclusions are based on observed reality, in this one area one is told it is meritorious to accept the tenets current in one’s own area based on faith alone. Ultimately sophisticated philosophers – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim alike -- may draw a vision of reality that sheds much of the accumulated mythological tradition or interprets it symbolically, but the base of belief in religious issues is clearly not fact-based as it is for all other sorts of knowledge. What can be the source of this odd phenomenon?
Burial customs indicate that belief in the unproven, in an afterlife for example, reaches deep into the Palaeolithic, probably all the way back to the invention of language which enables lies and the depiction of the unseen. An entire discipline developed based on methods of gaining access to the spiritual realm through alteration of consciousness. Those Aurignacian hunters crawled through lengthy dark chambers to do rituals by lamplight most likely to the hypnotic beat of music. Ascetic practices such as fasting and sleeplessness are common in both East and West. Prayer, meditation, chanting, and recitation serve much the same purposes. All of these techniques strive to break the ordinary assumptions that serve practical human survival needs, allowing the practitioner to reach possibilities otherwise inaccessible.
Among the tools people have used to pursue a connection with Ultimate Reality are what advocates like to call entheogens, meaning plants that seem to awaken the divine within. Their fundamental function is no different from that of the other methods of alteration of consciousness: to shake up the received ideas that habitually serve the individual daily practical ends and to allow for the development of a stronger connection to the cosmos. The shamanic hallucinogens used in Siberia and in the Americas and the cannabis used by Shaivite devotees fall into this category as does the bhang lassi consumed by masses at Shivaratri and the substances used by such modern groups as Rastfarianians, members of the Uniao do Vegetal, and the Native American Church. Those with a long history may seem more legitimate than such recent formations as the Temple of the True Inner Light, the Church of the Awakening, or the League for Spiritual Discovery in either its original or reborn version, but all use the same tool to alter consciousness.
Other human uses of psychoactive materials have also been widespread, of course. In every place and time, people have consumed mind-altering substances, sometimes as an anodyne to cope with suffering or as a euphoriant to enhance well-being, sometimes for therapeutic reasons. Use as an aid to spiritual growth is distinct from these practices.
The generalization that religious truths are by their very nature not amenable to logical demonstration is true all the more of mystical openings, so I would not attempt to defend the truth or even the value of the prayer, meditation, mortification of the flesh, or drugs. My aim is simply to place chemical methods on a par with the rest.
Culturally shaped expectations are critically important in all use of entheogens. A participant in a Sioux sweat lodge ceremony enters only after hearing the reports of others and systematic personal preparation. The event is under the guidance of an experienced leader. No less rigorous arrangements are customary among the traditional users of peyote, psilocybin, ayahuasca, or kava. Contemporary use of these substances by outsiders is frequently haphazardly careless, sometimes to the point of danger, but risk is virtually absent for those for whom what once were called psychedelics is normative.
In a sense such psychotropic substances are at the root of human spirituality. Without considering the significant scholarly disagreement as to exact dating, it is safe to say that the Sanskrit Vedas are the oldest religious writing associated with a surviving cult. The strength of the tradition is such that even today’s casual visitor cannot avoid encounter its manifestations at every turn in India. Staying by the Ganges in Varanasi across the lane from a sort of saddhus’ dormitory, I believe there were three Shiva lingams within fifty feet of my door, each the recipient of daily offerings. Holy men took up seats all along the river and through the night one could hear chanting and praying. From what wellsprings might such potent and longlasting effects arise?
R. Gordon Wasson suggests “that the whole of Indian mystical practice from the Upanişads through the more mechanical methods of yoga is merely an attempt to recapture the vision granted by the Soma plant” and this “the nature of that vision – and of that plant – underlies the whole of Indian religion.” And is Indian religion not a wellspring for much of the world with Buddhism spreading east and a thousand influences percolating through Persian and Indian lands to reach Europe both before and after Alexander had interviewed the gymnosophists. One need not entirely endorse Wasson’s enthusiasm for the amanita muscaria, but his thesis is a salutary correction to the moralists who consider the ingestion of entheogens to be an activity altogether different, and less admirable, than the practice of yoga or meditation. Are they not sister technologies, each aimed at assisting the mortal to glimpse a longer view?
The drug personified as Soma was a significant deity in Vedic times. The Soma Mandala of the Rig Veda contains a hundred and fourteen hymns in praise of the marvelous substance. Its use was evidently brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Aryan invaders in the second millennium BCE. The same drug is praised as haoma in the Zoroastrian Avesta. When Zarathustra encounters haoma in Yasna 9 the personified drug is praised for his beauty and his role as the driver out of death. The use of this chemical followed the example of Yima in the Golden Age as well as a host of other heroes and legendary figures. “Praise be to thee, O Haoma, (for he makes the poor man's thoughts as great as any of the richest whomsoever.” (Avesta 10.13)
The Vedas describe soma as radiant and golden. It is compared to a bull (and, somewhat contradictorily) to an udder and to the sun. It is a single eye, and it is a navel. Identified with health, insight, and everlasting life, Soma is the most compelling deity in the Vedic pantheon.
Considerable dispute exists concerning the identity of this plant, whose preparation and consumption are described in some detail, though not always consistently. Scholars have suggested cannabis, amanita muscaria, psilocybin, ephedra, even opium and alcohol, as likely candidates, but the issue remains unresolved. Some recent authors have made the reasonable suggestion that the same term was used to refer to several plants, and thus could be only loosely defined a plant with ritual usage. What cannot be doubted is that this entheogen is one of the most significant elements of early Indian spirituality.
We have no objection to taking drugs to protect our physical health, yet, in spite of the example of self-experimenting researchers like Humphry Davy, William James, and Aldous Huxley, many frown upon their use as aids to philosophy or religion. All religions consist of symbolic systems of myth, narrative, lyric, pictorial and other arts that allow people to feel some grasp of the cosmic. Their efficacy in practice is evident as religion is coextensive with humanity for the last forty thousand years, yet it seems clear that the imagination must be jump-started by some alteration of consciousness, though this role is sometimes delegated to shamans, priests, or bikkhus. As the medically therapeutic potential of what once were called psychedelic drugs receives renewed interest, so should their spiritual and philosophic value.