Chapter 6 – Saraswati & Soma Wine

 

 

 

Selected extracts from Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani, published by Penguin Books, India, ISBN 0-14- 024053 – 5

(Reference pages 315-324 – Return of the Aryans)

Saraswati & Soma Wine (6,000 BCE) – and the Story of the most ancient Entrepreneur of Bharat Varsha ( Indian subcontinent):

Sixteen years before the discovery of Saraswati river (around 6,000 BCE), the Sindhu Council of Chiefs had commissioned explorer Kripala to lead an expedition to the desert to discover all that it had to offer. Karkarta’s institution was not then established and the matter fell within the Council’s jurisdiction which placed large amounts at Kripala’s disposal to recruit men, buy materials, acquire camels and draft animals.

 

Kripala, without going into the desert, saw with his trained eye, from a distance, all that the desert had to offer; so after two years he reappeared, to report that he found nothing there but flying snakes, lizards, reptiles and inedible, thorny bushes.

 

Later, when everyone became aware of the amazing discovery of the Saraswati river by Brahmadasa, the explorer Kripala came in for a lot of criticism. But he brazenly claimed that the river was not there when he had visited the site and must have appeared after his own inspection, carried out sixteen years earlier. As also Sindhu River itself, he declared, it must have changed its course, which is why he had not come across it.

 

Few believed him and it was clear that Kripala had never ventured deep into the desert but had simply remained in his forest-hut.

 

Some said that he had originally intended to explore the desert but a woman he had pursued with lifelong devotion had finally agreed to marry him. So he gave up the idea of exploring a lifeless desert

 

Still others maintained that the Sindhu Council had foolishly sanctioned a niggardly amount for exploring the vast desert and the cost would have been ten times more. Therefore, to prepare for the expedition, Kripala wanted to increase the amount available to him; and he tried his hand at a game of dice with the honest intention of using his winnings for exploring the desert. Unfortunately, he lost. ‘Then blame the throw of the dice – why blame him!’ concludes the poet.

 

During the two years that Kripala was hiding in his hut, when he was supposed to be out in the desert, not all his time was spent in marital bliss with his newly wedded wife. His wife, who quickly became pregnant, acquired an inordinate desire for mushrooms. He, on his part, by carefully grafting, pruning, planting and replanting, finally developed what he called the Soma plant, in honour of his wife Soma Devi. From this plant, he extracted and brewed a wine called Soma amrit.

 

Before Soma wine came on the scene, wines and liquors were made from grain, cereal and fruit; all of these requiring extensive fermentation. Some of these were bitter while others sweet; but none of them was comparable to the superb and exquisite wine that Kripala developed from his carefully nurtured mushroom plants. It was bitter-sweet, slightly hallucinogenic and it was said that it transported men to the realm of gods. There were quite a few rishis, sadhus and visionaries who favoured the wine in their quest to commune with gods and sacred powers – and they called it the drink of the gods. Also, there were poets who could not be inspired to compose a single hymn without a few sips of this drink of the gods. However, it must be said that the majority of rishis, poets and visionaries believed that its exhilarating effects were illusory and misleading.

 

Few found themselves neutral when discussing the virtues of Soma. Some considered it a ‘divine drink that inspires awe and wonder’; to others, it was an ‘inebriating drink, leading to bragging and false perceptions of reality.’

 

However, irrespective of whether or not Soma heightened poetic qualities, the fact is that for private or social drinking and revelry, it was incomparable and much in demand. Its popularity brought wealth and renown to Kripala. Zealously he guarded the secret of its preparation. As his customers grew day by day, he hired more workers to increase production. But he was careful to assign to many workers certain duties that only confused and confounded the spies seeking to learn his secret. Some workers were given the task of collecting honey, provided the bees were not driven out by smoke; honey-barrels were then buried ten feet deep; after eighteen days, they were dug out and the top, thin layer of honey was scooped out for retention, while the remaining honey was sent for resale. Actually, honey was never used for making Soma and the whole idea was to mislead spies sent by rivals. Similarly, sugar was openly purchased as if to be used for fermentation, though it was never used.

 

Kripala also used workers to collect certain flowers at sunrise to make a paste which was dried in the sun for sixty-four days and kept in the shade at night, to be finally burnt over a slow fire, with the ashes sent to Kripala’s cottage. This too had nothing to do with preparation of Soma but was only a drama enacted to fool rival wine-makers.

 

Besides, in these hundreds of acres, various varieties of mushrooms were planted but only six varieties were useful for Soma. Workers brought at random, 1,000 mushrooms to Kripala’s cottage and he and his wife Soma Devi alone would select the right varieties for treatment, crushing the rest into pulp so that everyone thought that all the mushrooms had been used.

 

Kripala’s strategies for disinformation were many and, in fact, for each worker needed for useful work, he had at least two for tasks to misguide his rivals. But then he could afford to employ so many, for he was doing extremely well, especially since everyone who saw the frantic activity in his fields thought that the expenses of making Soma must be considerable.

 

Kripala even appointed singers to recite mantras to his plants, claiming that these recitations kept the plants happy and smiling and invested them with potency and flavour.

 

Kripala’s competitors went to the trouble and expense of honey gathering, sugar-buying, flower-crushing, paste-making and indeed many rituals and experiments – all to duplicate Soma. They failed.

 

True, this extensive effort by his rivals resulted in many kinds of liquors being produced, but none as superior as Soma. These liquors came to be known as Sura and it was said that they transported a person not to the realm of gods but often to a terrible headache the next morning.

 

There was an element of gross unfairness in choosing the general name of ‘sura’ for these poor imitations of Soma.. Sura was actually the name of an excellent actor and a great performer of those times. He gave solo shows in which he took on all the parts – for instance, to depict the conversations of a god with a woman and a child, he would rapidly change masks, to switch from god to woman to child in quick succession. What made Sura a great actor was that he could change the pitch, tone and inflection of his voice so rapidly and dramatically that he often made the audience forget that it was only one performer playing all the parts. His gift for tragedy was awesome and his gift of comedy, irresistible, and yet his goals were larger than mere entertainment. He was concerned more with the celebration of life in all its forms and phases, so that man may overtake the gods in goodness. Sometimes, he presented a fast-moving play in which gods, birds, animals, men, women, children – in all thirty-one – were depicted with cloth and wood cut-outs, and he would go behind each to sing appropriate lines. And it was said that he never faltered and sang in thirty-two different voices – his own as narrator and the rest for the thirty-one illusory participants. He could imitate everyone’s voice, tone and mannerism. He could laugh with the bitter scorn of a doomed god or ask a puzzling question with the innocence of a child.

 

Then, when imitations of Soma came into the market, people unthinkingly called them Sura, to emphasize that they were imitations. But what they should have realized was that these liquors were poor imitation of Soma whereas Sura, the actor, was superb – and often superior – when he sought to imitate. Incidentally, Sura, the actor, never drank sura, the liquor. He always drank Soma– except on the day of his performance when he drank only water, lest he forget his lines, though many assured him that Soma aided the memory.

 

To the nagging question that was still being asked though by very few – how could the great and generous philanthropist Kripala have skipped his bounden duty to explore the region, Sura, the dramatist who later became a hermit had said,

“In each heart, a deep dark forest

Where worst resides with the best

Count ! for all mistakes he made

Has he not fully, finally re-paid ?

 

And then perhaps to emphasize, that all humanity – himself included – is connected with the same kind of heart and soul, he recited:

“… And hear my secret before I die

For none knew it – and not even I .

 

“I saw God, alone, up and high

And Devil, down, with triumphant cry

And a child suckling a mother’s breast

A wolf stealing a bird’s nest

A priest robbing temple chest

A youth rushing nowhere in haste;

I saw a widow weep, a maiden sigh,

And a singer, who knows not how to lie.

 

“But then as I wondered Who, How, and Why,

The Truth came to me by and by,

That each one I saw, on earth and sky,

Was none other Yes it was I”.

 

(A poem recited by Sura, the dramatist at his farewell performance, 6,000 BCE).

Clearly, Kripala, with his development of Soma, left his lasting imprint on future ages. He realized the importance of image and publicity and surrounded himself with song-composers and poets, whose task was to sing of heavenly qualities of Soma. These singers went around – in market-places, at piers, assemblies – and their rousing hymns in praise of Soma were heard everywhere. Kripala also began organizing special functions for Soma poetry with public contests and magnificent prizes. Quickly, it became a fashion of the times to sing songs extolling the virtues and splendour of Soma and to invest it with qualities of the divine.

 

Kripala fanned the flames of Soma’s roaring success as though his soul’s salvation depended on it. All his life he had craved recognition. It had eluded him. He had failed in his profession as an explorer. Now, at last, fame came to him as the creator of Soma and he wanted more of it. He kept on demanding from his poets the ultimate in praise of Soma. They obliged.

 

Kripala must be honored as the first of those pioneers who understood the value of publicity and public relations in promoting a product. But did he really intend to leave such a lasting impression on ithihasa (history)? Whatever his intention, his hiring and inspiring so many poets and singers to sing of Soma has led to possibly the greatest and most delightful hoax of all times. The snowball effect and continuing inspiration of Soma songs became so intense that centuries later, people of later-Vedic or Aryan period came to believe that the pre-ancients of Sanatan Dharma venerated Soma as a deity. Thus it is that in the Vedic era – centuries after Kripala – Soma acquired a far more elevated position and was personified as a god. The Rig Veda, itself, has several hymns to honour ‘god’ Soma who came to be regarded as a special god of the Brahmins and is referred to as their ‘king’ or patron deity. However, in the pre-Vedic period of Kripala, when kings were unknown and Brahmins did not exist as a caste – as there were no castes then – Soma, with all the publicity and poetry around it, had no claims to such a high position, despite all the efforts of Kripala and the singers. On the other hand, the Rig Veda of ten Mandalas (books) has one whole Mandala – the ninth book – exclusively devoted to hymns in praise of god Soma For instance :

 

‘. . . . . O sacred Soma, conqueror of high renown, flowing on thy way, make us better . . . . . Bring forth to us your sacred light, the light divine, and all pure felicities . . . . . Strengthen our skills and mental powers, drive away all our foes, O Soma, O purifier, give us our share in the sun through your wisdom and grace . . . . . O almighty Soma. . .’

 

Not only have the compilers of the Rig Veda exclusively devoted its entire ninth book to the worship of god Soma, but in its other books as well there are similar songs of adoration. Soma is referred to as a ‘supporter of heavens’, ‘lord of strength’, ‘giver of happiness’, ‘ the lord of speech’. But then, composers of the Rig Veda were scholars, philosophers and sages. They sat in the isolation of their forests to hear and repeat some songs as they were sung and re-sung hundred of years before their time. It is doubtful if they themselves imbibed Soma or saw in it the divine virtue which some ancient poets attributed to it under Kripala’s inspiration. But certainly they were charmed with the songs on Soma – their lilt, imagery and fine phrases. But then, not every historian who narrates ancient tales of war or love is necessarily a great warrior or lover.

 

The fact is that Kripala and his descendants left foundation which were not easy to uproot. Kripala’s own sons Som Kavi and Som Bhakt, born and brought up in the midst of Soma poetry, themselves became renowned poets and fathered a generation of singers, lyricists and composers who sang of Soma for hundreds of years, although it must be noted that Kripala’s daughter Somavati, somehow, married the son of a leading maker of Sura wines (poor and low-priced imitation of Soma). Poets explain it merely by a single line to say, “Love honors no barriers, all its frontiers are false” from this one may conclude that possibly, it was a love marriage, and not a selection by parents.

 

And in fairness to the Rig Veda period, and even to pre-ancient times, it must be said that Soma poetry is largely allegorical; it is not so much an invocation to Soma the wine but to Soma, the deity. Poets often resort to elevating human cravings as a search for the Divine and the Beloved in human form disappears, replaced by quest of the Heavenly and Sublime. In any case, Soma, the wine achieved that high status and recognition largely in song and poetry and not so very much in the hearts and habits of the vast majority of ordinary people. In day-to-day life, certainly, it was not so highly esteemed; women in any case did not fancy it much. Even amongst men, except for festive occasion, it did not reach that level of importance that poets assigned to it. However, in the Vedic period it did achieve a high level of acceptance with the priests who were unhappy with mere offering of fruit and flowers to the gods, for fruit and flowers did not command as high a price. The priests found it profitable to recommend Soma as an offering to the gods. For the priest often did not drink Soma himself, he could always resell it to the next devotee and encourage him to make that his offering, and as a poet who perhaps knew accounts more than poetry, said, “Thus a single jar of Soma often was multiplied by twenty two”.

 

Despite all these reservations, it is quite clear that the invocations of the Rig Vedic poets were to Soma Deity and not the wine as such. Equally, there is no doubt that Soma wine developed in pre-Vedic times was superb and Kripala’s sales-strategies were highly successful in making it tremendously popular, leading way even to the emergence of Soma Deity.