Was Soma Forbidden by the Buddha?

Soma was an hallucinogenic drink that was sacred to Brahmans. Did the Buddha technically forbid its consumption? The suttas seem to only technically forbid alcohol. I suspect that today’s Buddhists certainly would prohibit soma, but 2500 years ago soma was considered by many to be sacred and sensibilities were different.


What was the purpose of Soma?

The fifth precept has been around long enough to cover that.

The original soma drink was long lost by the time of the Buddha: they couldn’t make it anymore. This is a major reason why scholars have struggled over identifying what it was. They can’t just go back to any old text; they have to trace the oldest of the Vedas and Avestas to get a guess.

It’s clear from the descriptions that soma was meant to make someone alert, awake, extremely energetic and envigorated, and was not alcohol. To say it was ‘hallucinogenic’ is a bit of a stretch—most scholars think it was based on ephedra, and would have been a strong stimulant, not hallucinogen.

That’s not to say people didn’t experience hallucinogenic experiences from it. Drugs affect everybody differently depending on their own body make-up, past experiences, other compounds in the mix, etc. Point being though is that the primary properties of soma were ones that kept people up all night with vigorous energy and power that made them feel like the almighty Indra conquering the cosmic serpent and gaining control over his land. It elevated people’s mind states to continue chanting, participate in ritual and community celebration, undergo a transformative rite-of-passage, contemplate, perhaps perform visualizations, etc. People related to it differently depending on who they were and what role they played in the ritual.

The origins and relevance of these original effects come from the nomadic, horse-wielding warriors on the steppes who conquered their enemies, had seasonal “kings” embodying tribal harmony, and established relationships with their gods as embodied in their way of life / original context. It’s almost similar to the concept of the ‘Berserkers’ — another Indo-European warrior cult who supposedly consumed envigorating stimulants before going into battle.

When this compound was lost, rather early on at that, it seems it was replaced with stand-ins. Modern brahmin communities often use different reed-like Soma plants which are understood and sold as such. There are Vedic passages which describe alternative plants that can be used, and they are not all in the same class of plants nor would they have the same effect on the mind.

Moreover, Soma (in whatever form it was prepared) was not drunk just hanging around with your friends on the street corner. It was completely embedded into the Vedic ritual context. The symbology and significance of it as a part of the ritual (and by extension the cosmology/mythology/ethos/etc. of Vedic philosophy) is much more important than the particular effects it has. Of course, as I said above, these effects originally contributed to specific religious experiences (namely, feeling powerful and sharply energetic), but those origins quickly faded as the nomadic and pastoral Indo-Europeans settled into a more fixed social system in particular regions.

Once the Vedic ritual was removed from that original context it left a lot of room for brahmins to philosophize on the nature, importance, meaning, etc. of ritual using all kinds of techniques just as the older Vedic rsis had done. These contemplations on the divine, relationships with the gods, etc. would often occur while/after consuming soma, which is part of why it is associated with trippy hallucinogens. But religious philosophy and trippy [descriptions of] religious experiences don’t require any particular substance, just inspired and elevated consciousness. Soma is more connected via correlation (not that I’m denying it’s role in contributing to these experiences! In fact, even the presence of Soma as a significant article in the ritual imbued with millenia of history and meaning is enough to put believing participants into altered states of mind, despite the chemical make-up of the product).

The Buddha recommended consuming things (food, medicine, etc.) for the health and maintenance of the body and ideal freedom from illness and bad health so as to inwardly purify the mind via the noble eightfold path. He was in many ways responding to a partially Brahmanical context, but it should be rather clear the differences in world-view and praxis the Buddhist and Vedic systems have, which impacts relating to the tools used in those systems.

With all that context, I would say that we shouldn’t think of “Soma” as the name of a particular plant compound with X chemistry and Y effects. Rather, it is best understood as a symbolic ritual implement in Vedic-Brahmanical praxis and world-view. To ‘forbid’ Soma is not the same as forbidding drinking alcohol. To understand how the Buddha related to consuming soma, we have to look at his teaching in a broader context of the suttas and assess the lenses through which we relate to these concepts. Maybe the Buddha would have recommended herbal tea made of X plant if it was a good medicinal aid to a sick monk. That compound could have also been called ‘soma’ by certain brahmins. But the Buddha clearly didn’t think monks should partake in elaborate Vedic rituals or obsess their mind over their details, worldviews, and implements.

Hope that helps contribute to an understanding of this issue in a more round-about way :slight_smile:


Wow. Interesting. I read that Hatha Yoga developed before Hinduism ("Vedic Dharma) and the legend is that it was developed to replace a plant. The plant kept people’s glands young, extending their youth and health. Of course, people harvested it into extinction ( as is currently the case with a number of medicinal herbs ). Hatha Yoga was developed to hopefully get similar benefits for the glands.

Ephedra is used in ancient Chinese medicine (Ma Huang), so the same plant, different context. Thanks for your post, some good points! :slight_smile:


I worked in a food co-op back in college that sold herbs in bulk. One of my coworkers introduced me to ephedra ( still legal at the time ). It is a stimulant ( not central nervous system ) and a bronchio dilator. It gave me quite the lift. I felt my rib cage expanding a lot more when I breathed, and it gave me a feeling like I could conquer my homework. I gave some to a housemate who ran out of asthma medication. He said it made a noticeable difference. In western herbalism it is used for asthma.


Soma was the juice taken from a type of stalk that was pounded/squeezed between stones, and then filtered, whereupon the juice (usually mixed with milk) looked white like the moon - which is why the moon is also called soma - and its waxing and waning every fortnight was described metaphorically as the devas drinking the cosmic soma from that container, which once again got refilled.

This soma juice was usually mixed with milk and drunk - and it was supposed to produce a lot of energy and vitality to those drinking it - but not stupor, altered states of mind or hallucinogenic effects. Indra was supposed to drink copious amounts of soma whereupon he got a lot of energy/strength. To be offered a Soma drink at the end of a sacrifice was an honour.

The identity of soma has attracted significant interest but I think the soma stalks were sugarcane stalks (which wasnt cultivated until then so the early Vedic people had to go looking for wild sugarcane - it was native to the subcontinent). Once it started getting cultivated en-masse, it lost its divine significance and became an ordinary plant, its identity with soma was forgotten. The practice of drinking sugarcane juice is still widely popular in the subcontinent - these days however, there are machines to do the work.

SN7.8 has an incident where a Brahmin from the Bharadvāja gotra had performed an Agnihotra, and offers a bowl of soma-pāyasam (payas means milk; pāyasam is a drink made from milk; soma-pāyasam is soma-juice mixed with milk) to the Buddha as the Buddha’s response to his initial statements appears to have impressed him. The Buddha however says to the effect “I dont consume food that has been offered to the gods in a Vedic ritual” (literally “food for which hymns had been chanted-over”) and refuses to drink the soma-pāyasam for that reason.


Ephedra is one of the commonly agreed upon components that most scholars agree upon as a core component. Other compounding ingredients are also frequently suggest, including both opium poppy and cannabis, which also seem to be more in line with the visionary character of Soma in the earliest Vedic sources.



It is odd that ephedra is part of Chinese and Indian medicine. The Mormons “discovered” it in Utah where it grows wild and had the nickname “Mormon tea”. There are several examples of medicinal plants known about in Europe and among First Nation people. I guess many wild plants are just that good about spreading themselves, super tiny seeds sticking to colonial boots, etc.

According to AN 5.179, the five precepts ban alcohol because it clouds the mind. It does not technically appear to ban soma or any other drug that would have been known at the time such as cannabis.

I have been reading quite a bit about Brahmanism and that led me down a rabbit hole about soma and other drugs that ancients used for religious purposes. Ancients seemed to regard these as magical and devine.

I don’t think they did these drugs to get off. They genuinely believed they were having religious experiences though they may have been naive. In any case, they were not looked down on as junkies. They were priests and shamans. Given that the Buddha would have known of these drugs and did not expressly forbid them, I wonder if he saw them as a tool in a contemplatives toolbox even if he himself did not use them. We might not approve now, but he lived in a different world.


@Raftafarian I think you answered your question. Someone who was a prince and a star religious seeker would have known about such drugs. The Buddha was also willing to do most anything in his quest. The fact that he didn’t mention or promote those drugs would seem to indicate he didn’t think they would get him where he wanted to go.

Greetings! :pray:

I just want to point all interested in the subject of Soma to the article by dr Matthew Clark Soma and Haoma - Ayahuasca analogues from the Late Bronze Age.

Soma and Haoma_ Ayahuasca analogues from the Late Bronze Age.pdf (253.3 KB)

In this article you can find serious argumentation that “Soma” was in general reffering to a type of substance, that are currently known as psychedelics/entheogens.

This article is a short version. If someone reads it and is interested in more detailed research, dr Matthew Clark wrote a whole book on the subject: The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca. It is available to buy on the Internet.

I just want to express that in general, I agree with more or less everything dr Matthew Clark writes there.

As to fact if psychedelics are ruled out by 5 precepts I don’t want to get too deep into this discussion. :slight_smile: I’ll just say I too find it peculiar, that Buddha hasn’t ruled it out strictly, considering how powerful of a tool it is. I think it was his conscious decision to neither advocate nor condemn it. I remember Ajahn Sona once saying that everyone has to consider such stuff for themselves - but watching very closely if we are not fooling ourselves in the process.

If Soma is indeed psychedelics, then there is no way it wasn’t present in India at the time of the Buddha, because psychedelic mushrooms grew there naturally since then to the present day (and are spread throughout the world since very long time to present day). They are just growing naturally in many places (various species), so there is no way it “wasn’t there”.

With metta. :pray:


Psychedelics are a razor’s edge to me. There is the obviously precept-breaking recreational drug side of the razor and on the other side is the recent therapeutic microdosing research and testing for addiction. What both sides have in common is that when psychedelics are taken, new and different brain neuropathways are established.

The recreational drug side is alarmingly dangerous because one could trip on psychedelics for pleasure and easily assimilate wrong view. However, the modern therapeutic model combines a very small dose with a person acting as a guide/coach/therapist in oder to ensure that the elicited cognitive and behavioral change goals are achieved. This has been shown to be quite beneficial in cases of serious addiction.

Another reason to be ultra-cautious. But we might not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Certain drugs can be advantageous in small doses and harmful past a certain point. Perhaps Soma was helpful in the right amount and right context but casual use or abuse was known to trigger cardiovascular events, as caffeine and ephedra is a dangerous combination.

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Just FYI, anyone who took a cold/ flu medicine might have consumed a soma like compound unwittingly! :exploding_head: :joy:

Pseudoephedrine, (a synthetic version of natural ephedrine) is the active ingredient in most cold/flu tablets. Since the turn of the millennium, it has been legally mandated to be replaced by phenylephrine (a safer, but less effective related compound) in many countries. That’s because Pseudoephedrine is also the primary compound used to prepare crystal meth (for details see the serial Breaking Bad).

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Actually, as I recall, in Breaking Bad the character Walt was a trained Chemist who used a process that didn’t require pseudoephedrine and was more suitable for mass production. (I recall discussing this with a syntheitc chemist colleague who teaches these sort of reactions.) I understand most meth worldwide is now mass produced in Asia: Methamphetamine - Wikipedia rather than locally manufactured from pseudoephedrine. The banning of pseudoephedrine is probably partly responsible for that, but amateur chemists “cooking” meth from pseudoephedrine is a pretty dangerous game.

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Questions of accuracy are not solved by democracy.

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A beautiful quote/sentence, Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu! :slight_smile: I will remember this one, thank you. :pray:

It relates also to some mahayana claims, that are approved by “many scholars”, but are not factual under deep scrutiny (like for example Bhante Sujato did many times in many essays). Interestingly, it seems same with Soma problem.

This essay is perfect example of dismantling “scholarly opinion”.

It’s not called “democracy”, it’s called “consensus”. When people who are highly educated on a particular topic reach a consensus on a point about that particular topic, it’s probably a good idea to listen.

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The Vedas believe that the Moon, Candraloka, is a giant planet further away from Earth, Martyr-Loka, than the Sun Planet. The closer rock is considered Rahu, which some of you may know the peculiar story to. On Candraloka, the Moon, Soma is also the name of the predominating Demigod, and the Soma Rasa Wine on the moon has the same name.

Soma makes one feel like they will live forever, with other intoxicating effects. It is a Spiritual Intoxicant, but I cannot say whether Buddha would allow it for Buddhist Monks even on Candraloka because it’s probably more of a case by case basis with regards to something so unique and Sacred as Soma.