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moon

a waning “C” crescent and a waxing “D” crescent

I was out last night with a friend who commented that there was a clear “crescent Moon.” People commonly use that term when a sliver of Moon is showing, but there are two versions of the crescent sliver.

The Moon is always waxing (growing in the lit area we see) and waning, and moving closer and farther away from us. It is surprising how many people have never really noticed that the Moon looks like a looks like a “C” crescent, and later looks like a “D” in its waxing phase.

moon phases

The phases of the Moon as viewed looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere. Each phase would be rotated 180° if seen looking northward from the Southern Hemisphere. The upper part of the diagram is not to scale, as the Moon is much farther from Earth than shown here.

In Hinduism, every part of the cosmos is seen as an action of a god and time is the endless repetition of the same long cycle. In Hindu mythology, Soma represents the god of the Moon.

Soma rides a sky chariot drawn by white horses. Soma was also the name of the elixir of immortality that only the gods can drink. The elixir is stored on the Moon. When the gods drink soma, they draw away from the Moon and it becomes smaller. (I wrote about soma earlier in another context.)

Most people know that the Moon changes its distance from Earth continually because the orbit of the moon is not a perfect circle. It is more like an ellipse, so it will have a point of perigee (closest point to Earth) and apogee (farthest point) each month. Today, May 6, it is at apogee and it is 251,318 miles or 404,457 km away from us.

Back on April 20 perigee, it was  229,108 miles or 368,714 km away. In cosmic terms, a difference of 22,210 miles or 35,743 km is not that much and only astronomers take note of the diference. But occasionally the media will decide to write a story about the “biggest Full Moon of the year” or something similar.

There is a nice animation at time.unitarium.com/moon/ that shows the movement of the Moon in your area and illustrates nicely why we see a Full Moon and how it appears when waxing and waning.  You can set it to any date, so I know that on my next October birthday the Moon will be waxing gibbous and approaching full. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow you to go back before 2000 or I would take a look at what the Moon was up to when I was born.

When I first encountered the word “soma,” it was in fiction. Soma is used to shape and control the future society in Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. and again in his novel, Island.  But soma is more real than I, and probably many other readers, had assumed.

“Was and will make me ill,  I take a gram and only am.”


Brave New World is a 1932 dystopian novel by English author Aldous Huxley. It has been a popular novel in high school and college literature classes for more than 50 years. The story is set in London in the year AD 2540 (632 A.F.—”After Ford”—in the book). Huxley anticipates more than predicts a number of developments in areas such as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological manipulation.

The novel is usually seen as a prediction of “what was to come” and often lumped in with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. My own thoughts about the novel have changed since I read it in high school and taught it. Huxley also had a kind of reassessment of his book in an essay, Brave New World Revisited (1958), and in Island (1962), which is his final novel.

The “deep, resonant voice” of Mustapha Mond in the novel describes soma as “Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant.” As part of the government, he knows soma is a very effective way of controlling its population. It sedates and calms them. It also distracts them from realizing what is happening in their society – a society where even the privileged members of the World State are enslaved.


“A gramme is better than a damn,” said Lenina mechanically from behind her hands. “I wish I had my soma!”

Of course, via soma, the citizens are enslaved by happiness. John, the savage from outside society who serves as the naïve 20th-century character in the novel, realizes this when he is taken into the society and given soma. He throws the soma he is given out a window at one point, but lapses into using it later.

“All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” That is what Mustapha says of soma. It is “Christianity without the tears,” he says. There are no bad side effects, no guilt, no sin.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” That often-quoted idea came from Karl Marx, and Mustapha seems to have read Marx. Soma, like religion, offers comfort, but at the expense of individuality.

Psilocybe cubensis

There has been speculation about what soma really might be pharmacologically. In Food of the Gods, ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believes that the most likely candidate for soma is the mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. This rather ordinary looking hallucinogenic mushroom (which grows naturally in cow dung in certain climates) is a species of psychedelic mushroom whose principal active compounds are psilocybin and psilocin.

In the vernacular, it can be known as shrooms, magic mushrooms, golden tops, cubes, or gold caps. It was previously known as Stropharia cubensis. It is the most well-known psilocybin mushroom due to its wide distribution and ease of cultivation. In most of the world, it is an illegal substance to possess.

Soma is a real Sanskrit word that Huxley had encountered in his own experimentation with hallucinogen. It is usually described as a Vedic ritual drink that was important in the culture of ancient India. In both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same. In ancient texts, it is described as being prepared by extracting the juice from a plant (not mushrooms). The identity of that plant is now unknown and debated among scholars.

Some accounts by Ayurveda and Siddha medicine practitioners and Somayajna ritualists indicate  “Somalata” (Sarcostemma acidum), but there are also other candidates.

As was often the case in Indian tradition, the plant and its juice were personified as a god, Soma.

Huxley’s soma is never described in detail and there is no mention of mushrooms. The soma pill is more like a hangoverless tranquilizer or with the effects of an opiate.

In researching this article, I also found that “Soma” is the most common brand name of the muscle-relaxant carisoprodol, and is marketed by Royce Laboratories, Inc. It was FDA-licensed in 1996. It is a Schedule IV sedative-hypnotic, an anticonvulsant and anxiolytic muscle relaxant, and was first marketed in the United States in 1955 under the brand name Miltown as an anti-anxiety agent. Sometimes called a “miracle drug” in that time, it is supposedly the drug immortalised by the Rolling Stones as “Mother’s Little Helper.”

One sensationalized 1950s pulp paperback cover

My current view on Huxley’s novel is less science-fiction prophecy about totalitarian government and more about a warning on our pursuit of happiness at all costs.

On www.huxley.net some might disagree. One article says Brave New World  has come “to serve as the false symbol for any regime of universal happiness… any blueprint for chemically-driven happiness has delayed research into paradise-engineering for all sentient life.”

In his Brave New World Revisited  (non-fiction published in 1958), after almost thirty years Huxley considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision. He concluded that the world was becoming like his novel’s world much faster than he originally thought.

Why was that? Huxley points to overpopulation as one reason. He was also interested in the effects of drugs and subliminal suggestion on the population.

Interestingly, in those 30 years since the novel Huxley converted to Hindu Vedanta.

The book concludes with some action which could be taken to prevent a democracy from turning into the totalitarian world, and in his last novel, Island, he fictionalizes those ideas to describe a utopian, rather than dystopian, nation.

Poor savage John who falls into a “brave new world” (deep nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for all that) tries to escape that soma-ed society and return to his savage “island.”  We wish him, and all of us, well.

“Benighted fool!” shouted the man from The Fordian Science Monitor, “why don’t you take soma?”

Get away!” The Savage shook his fist.

The other retreated a few steps then turned round again. “Evil’s an unreality if you take a couple of grammes.”

“Kohakwa iyathtokyai!” The tone was menacingly derisive.

“Pain’s a delusion.”

“Oh, is it?” said the Savage and, picking up a thick hazel switch, strode forward.The man from The Fordian Science Monitor made a dash for his helicopter.”

*  *  *

It was after midnight when the last of the helicopters took its flight. Stupefied by soma, and exhausted by a long-drawn frenzy of sensuality, the Savage lay sleeping in the heather.

The sun was already high when he awoke. He lay for a moment, blinking in owlish incomprehension at the light; then suddenly remembered-everything.“Oh, my God, my God!” He covered his eyes with his hand.”

 

Cross-posted at my One-Page Schoolhouse site

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