Soma, food of the immortals according to the Bower Manuscript (Kashmir, 6th century A.D.)

Abstract

Ethnoparmacological Relevance

Food is medicine and vice versa. In Hindu and Ayurvedic medicine, and among human cultures of the Indian subcontinent in general, the perception of the food-medicine continuum is especially well established. The preparation of the exhilarating, gold-coloured Soma, Amrita or Ambrosia, the elixir and food of the ‘immortals’-the Hindu pantheon-by the ancient Indo-Aryans, is described in the Rigveda in poetic hymns. Different theories regarding the botanical identity of Soma circulate, but no pharmacologically and historically convincing theory exists to date. We intend to contribute to the botanical, chemical and pharmacological characterisation of Soma through an analysis of two historical Amrita recipes recorded in the Bower Manuscript. The recipes are referred therein as panaceas (clarified butter) and also as a medicine to treat nervous diseases (oil), while no exhilarating properties are mentioned. Notwithstanding this, we hypothesise, that these recipes are related to the ca. 1800 years older Rigvedic Soma. We suppose that the psychoactive Soma ingredient(s) are among the components, possibly in smaller proportions, of the Amrita recipes preserved in the Bower Manuscript.

Materials and Methods

The Bower Manuscript is a medical treatise recorded in the 6th century A.D. in Sanskrit on birch bark leaves, probably by Buddhist monks, and unearthed towards the end of the 19th century in Chinese Turkestan. We analysed two Amrita recipes from the Bower Manuscript, which was translated by Rudolf Hoernle into English during the early 20th century. A database search with the updated Latin binomials of the herbal ingredients was used to gather quantitative phytochemical and pharmacological information.

Results

Together, both Amrita recipes contain around 100 herbal ingredients. Psychoactive alkaloid containing species still important in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Thai medicine and mentioned in the recipe for ‘Amrita-Prâsa clarified butter’ and ‘Amrita Oil’ are: Tinospora cordifolia (Amrita, Guduchi), three Sida spp., Mucuna pruriens, Nelumbo nucifera, Desmodium gangeticum, and Tabernaemontana divaricata. These species contain several notorious and potential psychoactive and psychedelic alkaloids, namely: tryptamines, 2-phenylethylamine, ephedrine, aporphines, ibogaine, and L-DOPA. Furthermore, protoberberine alkaloids, tetrahydro-β-carbolines, and tetrahydroisoquinolines with monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO-I) activity but also neurotoxic properties are reported.

Conclusions

We propose that Soma was a combination of a protoberberine alkaloids containing Tinospora cordifolia juice with MAO-I properties mixed together with a tryptamine rich Desmodium gangeticum extract or a blending of Tinospora cordifolia with an ephedrine and phenylethylamine-rich Sida spp. extract. Tinospora cordifolia combined with Desmodium gangeticum might provide a psychedelic experience with visual effects, while a combination of Tinospora cordifolia with Sida spp. might lead to more euphoric and amphetamine-like experiences.

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