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  Columnist: William B Stoecker

Image credit: CC 3.0 Barbara Studer

Hail to the jewel in the lotus

Posted on Thursday, 2 June, 2011 | 2 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker

"Om Mani Padme Hum," usually translated from Sanskrit into English as "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus," is the mantra of the bodhisattva (meaning, roughly, an enlightened person) Avalokiteshvara. The mantra is popular among Tibetan Buddhists. The lotus flower (Nelumbo nucifera) is an aquatic perennial only distantly related to lilies, and it represents sexual virtue and non-attachment, considered a virtue by the Hindus. To the Buddhists it represents purity. The flowers, seeds, young leaves, and roots are all edible. But could its value be more than symbolic?

The ancient Hindus, according to their traditions, used a drug called “soma,” the recipe for which is now lost. The drug supposedly gave health and enlightenment, and, possibly, prevented or slowed the aging process. Mentioned often in the Rigveda, it was important in both the Vedic and Zoroastrian traditions. It may even have been identical with the ambrosia that, according to legend, was eaten or drunk by the Greek gods, assuming that this was a real substance consumed by people. The plant that was believed to provide the drug or at least one of its ingredients was said to be partly yellow or tawny and to grow near lakes and ponds in the mountains. The drug was obtained from the long stalks and mixed with other substances, possibly including ordinary cow milk.

Some researchers believe that the drug may have been made from a plant like Ephedra sinica; its American version is called Mormon tea. The various ephedra species are gymnosperms that thrive in dry climates and contain the alkaloids pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, which act as decongestants and stimulants and are related to amphetamine. Alkaloids are a class of chemicals produced mainly by plants, but also by animals, bacteria, and fungi, containing nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen, and sometimes oxygen and sulfur, and, less commonly, halogens like chlorine and bromine. Most of the drugs used recreationally or for religious purposes are alkaloids, including nicotine and caffeine as well as opium and cocaine. The Zoroastrians of Persia (Iran) may have mixed ephedra, cannabis (marijuana), and opium in their rituals. Some believe soma may have been made from or at least included the mushroom fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), used by Siberian shamans. It can be toxic, and is used to kill flies, but human deaths are rare. Its active compounds are the alkaloids muscinol and ibotenic acid. The alkaloids used in religious rituals for achieving altered states of consciousness were collectively known as “hallucinogens,” a term now largely replaced by “entheogens.” These include mescaline, made from the peyote cactus, and psilocybin, found in certain mushrooms. In South America, shamans believe that they can shape shift and travel out of their bodies after consuming ayahuasca, a term for several drugs made primarily from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, mixed with extracts from various Psychotria shrubs. None of the ingredients produces the desired effect if taken in isolation; they must be mixed. And here, perhaps, is one clue to how the recipe for soma was lost, for it, too, may have been a mixture of substances from two or more plants.

Could one of those plants, perhaps the main ingredient, have been the lotus? It contains the alkaloids nuciferine and aporphine. By itself, lotus has little effect, although Homer’s Odyssey contains a reference to lotus eaters who were perpetually stoned. Perhaps if the active ingredients were concentrated they would function as an entheogen, or if the lotus extract was mixed with substances from other plants (like the ephedra, perhaps). Interestingly, the ancient Egyptians also considered the “lotus” to be sacred, although their “lotus” was actually the blue water lily (Nymphaea caerulea). Closing and sinking every night and rising and opening each day, the lily was a symbol of Osiris and rebirth. But this plant, distantly related to the sacred lotus of India, contains the alkaloids nuciferine and aporphine; a tea brewed from its petals is mildly enthehogenic in its effects.

In our modern culture we are so accustomed to drugs being used recreationally and to excess that we often forget that even alcohol and tobacco, used in moderation and as a part of a ritual, were used in the past (and, in some societies ,are still used today) to alter consciousness for a nobler reason. Given that the Vedic religions stressed the use of meditation and various forms of yoga both for health reasons and to achieve a higher state of consciousness, ultimately leading (it was hoped) to full enlightenment, it is entirely possible that, as their legends claim, they used a drug to help the process along. One of the ingredients may well have been a lotus extract, and it is entirely possible that researchers could rediscover the recipe, in part by trial and error. Once again we may truly behold the jewel in the heart of the lotus.

Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.

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