Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Happy Holi - and some thoughts on Bhang and Soma

A happy Holi to all my readers!

I was brought up on the approach, common in my childhood, though sadly uncommon in India today, that "any excuse is good enough for a celebration!".

That happy attitude is nowadays roundly chastised by my Dalitbahujan friends, who berate me for celebrating a festival that commemorates the burning of Holika who they associate with the original peoples and religions of India, and they think of her burning as the symbolic burining of the original peoples and reltions of India, which were then replaced by Brahmminic religion.

I am not sure I know what to make of that, which is why I take refuge in the adage about celebrating on every possible occasion!

But, clearly, there is no reference to this festival in the Vedas, nor indeed is there any reference in the Vedas to the Shri Krishna with whom the festival is mainly identified today.

Apparently, the earliest written reference to the celebration of Holi is found only in the 7th century AD, in the Ratnavali.

Moreover, as the centre of the Holi celebrations are Mathura and Varanasi, it is possible that this is where the celebration originated, as a movement which then spread through most of north India. In south India, the festival was hardly known in my childhood, though it is nowadays celebrated in some places. I should say that there is a Shaivite explanation for the celebration, but it doesn't really hold water, so I surmise that some Shaivites have recently accepted the celebration of Holi but, instead of sticking with the Vaishnavite explanation, have invented one of their own - I hope they will not be offended by my saying so but will produce any evidence to the contrary that may be available - in which case I will immediately apologise, and modify my position.

The above is only an introduction to what I want to discuss today about Holi, which is that while external attention focuses on Holi as a festival of colours, Holi is associated widely with the consumption of liquor and bhang (could we describe them as "internal colours"?). Bhang is consumed in every which way, even in the most respectable homes. I know of liquors made of or with bhang, desserts and sweets made with bhang, and of course bhang is smoked....

The question is whether bhang is the same as the Vedic soma.

No one really knows because knowledge of what exactly soma was, even though as many as 114 hymns praise soma's energising qualities in the Rigveda's Soma Mandala. In fact in Rigveda 9.4, soma is called "the God for Gods", thus lifting it to a level above that of Indra and all the other Vedic gods!!!

Along with much else in the Vedas and in Vedic times, knowledge of what soma was lost as Vedic religion was replaced by Jaina, Buddhist, and Hindu gods, sects, traditions and practices which were invented and are popular today.

However, as far as I can make out, soma was a plant that was reasonably easily obtainable in Persia and in north-western India, but not so easily available east of the Indus Valley. So the use of soma gave way slowly to other substitutes, including bhang (which is what is most popular today). In fact, there is a prayer apologising to the gods for the use of a substitute substance rather than soma. And there is an extensive list of plants that can be used as substitutes: the list ends by saying that any plant is acceptable for ritual purposes, provided it is yellow in colour.

I doubt that our ancestors rolled about all the time under the inebriating influence of soma, as is the case today under the influence of bhang in Varanasi (for instance): in the Vedas, the use of soma appears to have been confined to specific religious rituals at certain times. There was no class of sannyasis who did nothing but live in a brown or green stupor.

So what of bhang at Holi time nowadays? I have never had bhang in any form, so have no idea of its effects. As I don't tolerate alcohol very well, it may be that my system won't appreciate bhang either. However, it could also be the other way around - on the analogy of different types of tea, some of which one may like and some of which one may not. And there are some advantages to bhang, it is claimed (improves the appetite and digestion, relieves stress, and so on). The main disadvantage appears to be that one can easily consume too much and get "too high". Though bhang is supposed to be non-addictive, it can be dependency-creating (witness the people on the banks of our holy rivers who seem to be permanently under the influence). So, as with many other things, bhang may not be healthy in itself, but it could be that there is no harm in having a little of it once in a lifetime or even once in a year or two.

That still leaves the question of soma, what it was, and what exactly were its effects, apart from being "energising"? We still don't know....

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