Wendy Doniger & fungi

The best stories are those that help us give new meanings to old objects, accustomed ideas and known tales. This notion applies both to articles in a newspaper and a work of fantasy fiction. It’s why I think I enjoyed The Immortals of Meluha despite its predictable plot and the familiar mythos. The author, Amish Tripathi, reinterpreted gods as human champions, paving the way for them to be judged by the same standards that mortals were.

However, the plot element I enjoyed following the most was that of the Somras, a purported “drink of the Gods” that granted its consumers immortality, and its evolution over the course of three books from being a panacea to a blight. If he had to carefully negotiate his characters between the guiding rails of Hindu values and rituals, Tripathi might have had that extra freedom, on the other hand, to manipulate the origins of Somras as a plot device of his own making. This because the drink, which finds mention in the Vedas as well as Zoroastrian lore, is of unknown origins.

A short detour through Wikipedia tells us that Somras, or the soma plant (the “ras” suffix meaning “essence”), is considered an entheogen: a chemical substance, such as but not limited to psychedelic drugs, used for religious purposes. And among entheogens, debate over the last century has almost invariably centered on two candidates. In 1968, Robert Gordon Wasson and another person proposed that soma could be Amanita muscaria, the fly-agaric mushroom. Only three years later, a vedic scholar named John Brough suggested the stimulant called ephedrine, particularly when extracted from the plant Ephedra sinica.

What I found remarkable is the combination of exegesis and botany/mycology, where experts worked with the scientific knowledge of the chemical properties of plants/fungi and the critical interpretation of historical texts to deduce what soma could be. Wasson was such an expert, an ethno-mycologist. He was assisted furthermore by a vedic scholar named Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. It was slightly surprising to learn of Doniger’s involvement with Wasson’s work. Thanks to my ignorance, I hadn’t heard of Doniger’s name before early 2014, when her book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled in India by its publisher Penguin after a frivolous lawsuit alleging that it was outraging religious feelings. She appears to have dropped the O’Flaherty from her name on books by the late-1990s.

A cursory glance of her bibliography reveals themes like eroticism, asceticism, gender issues and religious politics. Add to that helping curious minds figure out the identity of prominent fungi in Hindu mythology – the breadth of her knowledge is inspiring. Then again, I do feel like I’m admitting Doniger’s knowledge of Indian history is more fascinating than Indian history itself, but I’m okay with that.