In its broader sense, brahman is a sort of prayer, a way of establishing a form of communication between a human being and other agents. In this communication, brahman is articulated in speech and language, but this language is a poietic one, is a visionary language, a word that evokes images and forms. Name is also visual shape (nāmarūpa). Achieving this state of vision is a soteriological turning point, since it is through vision that humans can not only eventually keep at bay the uncertainties of life, but also reach the same condition as the gods.
Some of the elements we have discussed so far show a clear connection with the shamanism we encountered in Lecture Three. A general communitarian model of agency seems to be assumed at the basis of the world described in the hymns, and the seer is a master in the poietic practice that is also common to the shaman of other cultures. And like shamans, Vedic seers are concerned with seemingly wordly issues that are relevant for their own communities: ensuring health (or fighting disease), propitiating good birth and abundance of children, accompanying the deceased kin to the otherworld, and negotiating with the gods (for instance).
For present purposes, we shall focus on three specific domains in which the connection between the Vedic seer and other shamanic cultures emerges quite clearly: (i) possession and the use of psychotropic substances; (ii) visions about birth and death; and (iii) visions about the afterlife. In discussing these elements, we shall illustrate how the paradox of mastery sketched in the introduction of this lecture emerges among the Vedic seers and expresses itself as a longing for ‘liberation’ that is often framed in terms of ‘becoming immortal’ (like the gods).
Perhaps the most obvious and apparent shamanic feature of the Vedic world is the use of a specific psychotropic vegetal substance, called Soma. According to one relatively widespread hypothesis, this could have been derived from a common mushroom, amanita muscaria (DuBois 2009, 163), which was ritually pressed with stones, filtered through wool, and mixed with milk. The Sanskrit root mad of the word Soma refers to intoxication, exhilaration, expansiveness, an effect that seems pervasive in many hymns, although it does not necessarily entail hallucinations. However, the way Soma is presented in the hymns defies reductionist interpretations of the seer’s vision as simply a drug-induced effect. On the one hand, the Vedic Soma is not only the juice distilled from the actual vegetable, but it is also a powerful god (an agent), and it is variously associated with the element of water in general. These overlayers of meaning cannot simply be dismissed as contingent upon the more material nature of a particular substance, since they are interwoven in the experience of the Soma ritual as pervasively described in the Ṛg-Veda and profoundly shape its meaning.
One of the most vocal hymns that extols the effects of drinking Soma goes as follows:
I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.
When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.
We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?
When we have drunk you, O drop of Soma, be good to our heart, kind as a father to his son, thoughtful as a friend to a friend. Far-famed Soma, stretch out our life-span so that we may live.
The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space. You have bound me together in my limbs as thongs bind a chariot. Let the drops protect me from the foot that stumbles and keep lameness away from me.
Inflame me like a fire kindled by friction; make us see far; make us richer, better. For when I am intoxicated with you, Soma, I think myself rich. Draw near and make us thrive.
We would enjoy you, pressed with a fervent heart, like riches from a father. King Soma, stretch out our life-spans as the sun stretches the spring days.
King Soma, have mercy on us for our well-being. Know that we are devoted to your laws. Passion and fury are stirred up. O drop of Soma, do not hand us over to the pleasure of the enemy.
For you, Soma, are the guardian of our body; watching over men, you have settled down in every limb. If we break your laws, O god, have mercy on us like a good friend, to make us better.
Let me join closely with my compassionate friend so that he will not injure me when I have drunk him. O lord of bay horses, for the Soma that is lodged in us I approach Indra to stretch out our life-span.
Weaknesses and diseases have gone; the forces of darkness have fled in terror. Soma has climbed up in us, expanding. We have come to the place where they stretch out life-spans.
The drop that we have drunk has entered our hearts, an immortal inside mortals. O fathers, let us serve that Soma with the oblations and abide in his mercy and kindness.
Uniting in agreement with the fathers, O drop of Soma, you have extended yourself through sky and earth. Let us serve him with an oblation; let us be masters of riches.
You protecting gods, speak out for us. Do not let sleep or harmful speech seize us. Let us, always dear to Soma, speak as men of power in the sacrificial gathering.
Soma, you give us the force of life on every side. Enter into us, finding the sunlight, watching over men. O drop of Soma, summon your helpers and protect us before and after.
(The Rig Veda, VIII.48, transl. Doniger 1981, 134-135)
Several features stand out in this hymn. First, as it often happens, the hymn is associated with a specific individual (in this case, Pragātha Kaṇva), who speaks here in first person about his experience of drinking Soma (and this use of the first person might also be regarded as one of the ‘special effects’ used by the seer’s poietic art). The hymn describes some of the effects of Soma on the seer’s perception: a sense of expansiveness, even boundlessness. When the poet says ‘you will know no limits,’ there is a pun in the fact that ‘no limits’ is expressed by the word aditi, who is also a goddess (also associated with right social behavior, as aditi can mean both ‘boundlessness’ and ‘offencelessness’). Perhaps the most enthusiastic verse is the exclamation: ‘we have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods.’ Notice that this exclamation entails a number of equations: light, gods, immortality, Soma, they all converge towards the same sort of experience, thus entailing that achieving one means achieving them all (homology). The seer also acknowledges that Soma has a power that could potentially entail dangers and thus seeks to propitiate Soma in order to receive only desirable fruits, most notably strength and long-life. God Soma is thus invoked and requested to behave as a good friend, a compassionate protector, who will shelter the seer and his community from enemies and support their thriving. There is no perceived contradiction between immortality and the seemingly worldly ideal of a long and happy lifespan. Immortality is to some extent conceived as an enhanced, perfected, and prolonged life. Moreover, death is often conceived in the Vedic and subsequent Indian thought as a bond, thus immortality is associated with a sense of boundlessness (i.e., freedom from the supreme bond represented by death), which ties in with the picture of a powerful affirmation of a perfect and divine life.
The seer sings: ‘weaknesses and diseases have gone; the forces of darkness have fled in terror.’ Very bodily emblems of physical discomfort and trouble (weakness and disease) are associated with the broad and potentially more encompassing ‘forces of darkness.’ The reverse is also true, the forces of light can be associated with great health and power, both physical and spiritual. This is just an instance of how the metaphorical and homological construction of the hymn allows for a merging of multiple semantic plans and meanings. And by the end of the hymn this multiplicity of levels takes on a cosmological value: ‘uniting in agreement with the fathers, O drop of Soma, you have extended yourself through sky and earth.’ Soma expands and makes one boundless, by enhancing the forces of life (health, power, long-life) over darkness. This creates agreement with ‘the fathers’ (both the otherworld where the deceased live and more generally the whole community that lives on and keeps the fathers’ tradition), and quickly extends to ‘sky and earth,’ which are also two gods that represent the fundamental duality of the living space in which humans operate.
Throughout the hymn, the seer refers to Soma as both a substance that can be drunk and as a supreme god, bestower of this extraordinary experience of boundlessness and expansion. The physical act of drinking Soma is a way of being pervaded not only by a physical substance but also by a genuine and most powerful agent. Drinking Soma can be associated in all likelihood to an experience of possession, in which part of the meaning, significance and euphoria that result from drinking the juice are also due to the symbolic and hermeneutic framework in which the ritual is carried out. To put it negatively, if today a layperson who knows nothing of the Vedic world picked up an amanita muscaria, extract a juice out of it, drink it, and perhaps have some visions as a result, this would count as a completely different form of experience from the one described here by the seer, because the broad hermeneutic coordinates that contribute to the meaning of the experience in the two cases (the Vedic and the non-Vedic) are entirely different.
This point can be made even more apparent by considering how the effects of drinking Soma are epitomized in the myths of the god Indra. Indra is sometimes presented as the first who discovered and drank Soma, and thanks to Soma acquired superhuman powers and became a god. While associated with the thunderbolt, Indra is also often represented as the one who slaughtered Vṛtra, the dragon (making perhaps Indra an Indian analogue of the Greek Kadmos). Vṛtra literally means ‘Obstacle’ and it is represented as a cobra, who protects a mountain in which waters are kept from flowing outside. The flowing of waters has obvious physical connotations, as the flowing of the several rivers upon which the Vedic culture depends (the poet here below mentions the ‘seven streams,’ which can be considered as a reference to the seven rivers associated with the now extinguished Sarasvati River, perhaps the early cradle of the Vedic culture). But the flowing of waters quickly takes on a broader meaning, entailing the flowing of life and its thriving, but also the flowing of knowledge and vision. Waters are often associated with cows, and cows in turn are a metaphor for both riches and knowledge. The myth of Indra killing Vṛtra is thus at the same time a foundational myth that shows how the conditions for the survival of the Vedic civilization were secured, and a blueprint for thinking about the very experience of removing the cognitive obstacles that keep one confined and imprisoned (like the waters imprisoned by Vṛtra in the cave in the mountain). The success of Indra is again an assertion of expansiveness and boundlessness, absence of obstacles. In this whole narrative, Soma has a crucial role, since it is under the guidance of Soma (both as a substance and a god) that Indra can achieve his enterprise (in a previous myth, Soma has been given to Indra by the eagle, who took it from the gods, but following Soma’s own will).
In one powerful hymn, the seer Hiraṇyastūpa Āṅgirasa sings:
Let me now sing the heroic deeds of Indra, the first that the thunderbolt-wielder performed. He killed the dragon and pierced an opening for the waters; he split open the bellies of mountains.
He killed the dragon who lay upon the mountain; Tvaṣṭṛ fashioned the roaring thunderbolt for him. Like lowing cows, the flowing waters rushed straight down to the sea.
Wildly excited like a bull, he took the Soma for himself and drank the extract from the three bowls in the three-day Soma ceremony. Indra the Generous seized his thunderbolt to hurl it as a weapon; he killed the firstborn of dragons.
Indra, when you killed the first-born of dragons and overcame by your own magic the magic of the magicians, at that very moment you brought forth the sun, the sky, and dawn. Since then you have found no enemy to conquer you.
With his great weapon, the thunderbolt, Indra killed the shoulderless Vṛtra, his greatest enemy. Like the trunk of a tree whose branches have been lopped off by an axe, the dragon lies flat upon the ground.
For, muddled by drunkenness like one who is no soldier, Vṛtra challenged the great hero who had overcome the mighty and who drank Soma to the dregs. Unable to withstand the onslaught of his weapons, he found Indra an enemy to conquer him and was shattered, his nose crushed.
Without feet or hands he fought against Indra, who struck him on the nape of the neck with his thunderbolt. The steer who wished to become the equal of the bull bursting with seed, Vṛtra lay broken in many places.
Over him as he lay there like a broken reed the swelling waters flowed for man. Those waters that Vṛtra had enclosed with his power – the dragon now lay at their feet.
The vital energy of Vṛtra’s mother ebbed away, for Indra had hurled his deadly weapon at her. Above was the mother, below was the son; Dānu lay down like a cow with her calf.
In the midst of the channels of the waters which never stood still or rested, the body was hidden. The waters flow over Vṛtra’s secret place; he who found Indra an enemy to conquer him sank into long darkness.
The waters who had the Dāsa for their husband, the dragon for their protector, were imprisoned like the cows imprisoned by the Paṇis. When he killed Vṛtra he split open the outlet of the waters that had been closed.
Indra, you became a hair of a horse’s tail when Vṛtra struck you on the corner of the mouth. You, the one god, the brave one, you won the cows; you won the Soma; you released the seven streams so that they could flow.
No use was the lightning and thunder, fog and hail that he had scattered about, when the dragon and Indra fought. Indra the Generous remained victorious for all time to come.
What avenger of the dragon did you see, Indra, that fear entered your heart when you had killed him? Then you crossed the ninety-nine streams like the frightened eagle crossing the realms of earth and air.
Indra, who wields the thunderbolt in his hand, is the king of that which moves and that which rests, of the tame and of the horned. He rules the people as their king, encircling all this as a rim encircles spokes. (The Rig Veda, I.32, transl. Doniger 1981, 149-151)
Some mystery surrounds the ending of this hymn since it is not clear what made Indra afraid after having succeeded in killing Vṛtra. Perhaps, this might be a resurgence of the latently double nature of Soma itself, which can be empowering, but also potentially threatening. Be that as it may, the hymn provides a vivid illustration of the transformative power of Soma and its potential to overcome the forces of darkness.
Soma is also strongly associated with another god, who is pervasively present in the hymns and in Vedic ritual, namely, Agni, the god of fire. As we shall see, the Vedic ritual turns around the use of fire to purify offerings and transfer them to the gods. But fire is also a symbol of life, activity, and knowledge. In this respect, Agni is a natural counterpart of Soma, not only because of the obvious duality between dry (fire, Agni) and wet (watery, Soma), but also because Agni’s agency can be seen as the fulfilment of the sort of power bestowed by Soma. Simplifying perhaps the complex interplay of interlocked metaphors and connections that run through the hymns, one might say that Soma triggers a process of transformation through a form of possession. This process results in the removal of obstacles (as shown by Indra’s myth), and eventually in reaching full light, the light of fire, the light of vision and inspiration.
Another hymn sings:
The dark day and the bright day, the two realms of space, turn by their own wisdom. As Agni Of-all-men was born, like a king he drove back the darkness with light.
I do not know how to stretch the thread, nor weave the cloth, nor what they weave as they enter the contest. Whose son could speak here such words that he would be above and his father below?
He is the one who knows how to stretch the thread and weave the cloth; he will speak the right words. He who understands this is the guardian of immortality; though he moves below another, he sees above him.
This is the first priest of the oblation; look at him. This is the immortal light among mortals. This is the one who was born and firmly fixed, the immortal growing great in his body.
He is light firmly fixed for everyone to see, the thought swiftest among all who fly. All the gods, with one mind and one will, rightly come to the one source of thought.
My ears fly open, my eye opens, as does this light that is fixed in my heart. My mind flies up, straining into the distance. What shall I say? What shall I think?
All the gods bowed to you in fear, Agni, when you hid yourself in darkness. May Agni Of-all-men save us with his help; may the immortal save us with his help. (The Rig Veda, VI.9, transl. Doniger 1981, 116)
In this dense hymn, Bharadvāja Bārhaspatya presents Agni as both the ritual fire (kindled from darkness and hence a symbol of the transition from ignorance to knowledge) and the source of poietic inspiration and vision. In the second verse, the poet alludes to the struggle to compete with his own father and doubts his ability to find poetic inspiration. Being son of a seer is no guarantee of being able to see or to see better. This worry is resolved by the poet’s giving up of his own concern and instead opening himself to Angi’s revelation (indirectly alluded to in the third verse, using the third person masculine, ‘he is the one who knows,’ namely, Agni). Agni is also presented as a unifying element since all gods come to it as to their source. But notice how this allusion to a form of encompassing and embracing unity symbolized by Agni-fire does not entail an ontological or metaphysical view of some hidden and ineffable unity in which all differences are dissolved. Agni can be a unified source of knowledge while also remaining the source for multifarious and diverse visions and experiences. Unity, here, is not conceived as entailing simplicity or indeterminacy. And in a striking verse, the seer that has now kindled his own visionary power, can capture the moment in which this takes off and start flying: ‘My ears fly open, my eye opens, as does this light that is fixed in my heart. My mind flies up, straining into the distance. What shall I say? What shall I think?’ Agni takes the poet beyond the condition of darkness (night, bondage, the waters in the cave, the obstacle, the dragon), into light (health, power, vision, freedom, immortality), and perhaps even farther than the poet’s own father.
Before moving on, it might be interesting to compare these elements with current research on psychedelic states. Preller and Vollenweider provide a review of current studies and show how the use of hallucinogens (especially psilocybin, a naturally occurring hallucinogen) is correlated with recurrent altered states of consciousness, which include experiences of ‘oceanic boundlessness’ and ‘ego-dissolution.’ While the sense of self might be dissolved in both states, different subjects can have different reactions to it, ranging from bliss to anxiety and dread, depending on various factors and circumstances. They also observe that the use of psychedelics can ‘be linked to reductions in arousal and attentional functions […], deficit of response inhibition and difficulties in disengaging attention from previously attended locations […], [and] a failure to use contextual information’ (Katrin H. Preller and Franz X. Vollenweider, ‘Phenomenology, Structure, and Dynamic of Psychedelic States,’ 2018, 237–238). These cognitive impairments might help explain one core difference between psychedelics-induced altered states of consciousness, and meditation-induced states (in which cognitive functions and attention are usually sharpened). The authors also summarize a sequential model in which various altered states unfold progressively:
Perceptual changes appear with the onset of the reaction to psilocybin or LSD and are the most frequent and robust features of the psychedelic experience. Although perceptual changes can occur in all sensory modalities, the perceptual effects are dominated by visual phenomena, ranging from vividly colored, rapidly moving, and evolving elementary geometric figures to complex images and scenes involving persons, animals, architecture, or landscapes. Neither type has much meaning or function for subjects. In parallel, transformations of the environment and alterations of the body image are frequently reported.
Recollective–psychodynamic level: With increasing arousal toward and during the peak experience, visual images become more personalized, and boundaries between consciousness and unconsciousness dissolve, causing recall and re-enacting of past experiences and memories and releasing emotions into the process. Many of the phenomena and processes occurring at this level can be understood according to concepts of psychoanalytic theory.
Symbolic existential level: In the subsequent level, approaching the peak effects, ideas, eidetic images, or even the entire environment can become symbolized. Subjects become more personally involved and emotionally engaged as a participant in the ongoing psychedelic scenario, also referred to as a symbolic drama. The themes often have mythological and ritualistic overtones, and subjects may identify features of their own existence in legendary historical figures, fairy tales, and archetypal themes or other symbols and play out their personal drama on these allegoric terms. When the subjects encounter and struggle with these dramas, they can achieve a “solution,” e.g., by imagination, ideation, sensations, and affective or kinesthetic involvement. This can result in a quiet but powerful emotional response and tension release that appears to be transformative and beneficial to the person. Although ego-boundaries are often transiently markedly reduced or may even disappear for seconds or minutes during these states, subjects are still aware of the situation and its ambiguity.
Deep integral level of self-transcendence: Along with the increasing dissolution of the ego, the psychedelic experience can peak in a state where subjects can become immersed for seconds or minutes in a profound awareness of oneness in which all boundaries disappear and objects are unified into a totality. When subjects have their eyes open, they retrospectively describe this state as an intense emotionally charged new and unfamiliar perspective, almost like a direct encounter with the “ultimate” reality, which can inspire feelings of awe, sacredness, and eternity. This novel experience is also characterized by a pervasive sense of deep insight into the nature and structure of the universe that is far beyond the person’s usual mode of thinking. […] However, when subjects have their eyes closed and turn their attention inward, a state of internal absorption may unfold, with subjects witnessing a vast internal space of objectless infinity that lacks not only the sense of the self, but also all sensory experiences and distracting thoughts. This very rare and transient state of extraordinary absorption is also an essential quality of advanced states in various forms of concentrative mediation. (Preller and Vollenweider, 2018, 230–231)
In shamanic experience, it seems that it is especially the ‘symbolic existential level’ that receives prominence during the séance, while different elements in the Vedic hymns might be connected with both this level and the ‘deep integral level of self-transcendence.’ However, as Preller and Vollenweider remark, the unfolding of these states is not uniform and purely mechanic, but depends on age, personality, mood, expectations, environment and previous experience of the subjects themselves.
- For an overview of the Vedic pantheon, see Jamison and Brereton, ‘Introduction’ (2014), 35-53. ↵