The Cult Object or "Filter" and Soma

The Cult Object or "Filter" and Soma

A: Apart from my concordance, the only other work of note I could mention to you is my proposal that the mysterious cult object that you find before the unicorn on the unicorn seals is a filter. I have said this after studying in original more than a thousand unicorn seals in the Indian collections. According to me, the cult object is made of three parts, an upper cylindrical vessel, a lower cylindrical vessel with holes like a colander for example, and the whole thing is stuck on a staff. What we see is a representation of a filter, not the filter itself, and the staff shows that is meant to be a standard, carried in processions. We actually have sealings from Mohenjo-daro which show examples of this being carried in processions.

My first paper on this was read in Tokyo in 1983. Ten years later, when I went to Helsinki to read another paper on this, fortunately the Harappan excavation team under Kenoyer's leadership had found an ivory piece, for the first time a physical representation of this device had been found. I saw good color photographs of the ivory object and that the holes were drilled deeply into hemispherical vessel shows very clearly that it was meant to be a filter, a colander type. Now the question to ask is this: Since we know that the unicorn seals were the most popular ones, and every unicorn has this cult object before it, whatever it represents must be part of the central religious ritual of the Harappan religion. We know of one religion whose central religious cult was a filter, that is the soma of the Indo-Aryans.


Now this poses a very grave puzzle. We say that the Harappan civilization is pre-Aryan. Now how come you have a soma filter centuries before the Aryans ever came in?

Well, you can say from this that the Indus Civilization itself is Aryan and the Dravidian hypothesis is wrong. I do not believe that that is the correct answer. We do not have the horse in the Indus Civilization. There is no evidence for the wheeled chariot. There is no evidence for the spoked wheels. The RgVeda, the earliest document of the Indo-Aryan has no mention of great cities like Harappa or Mohenjo-daro, so the only other possibility is that a soma-like cult based on some kind of hallucinogenic drug, crushed and filtered out of a plant and drunk ritually, must have existed in Harappa and that it was taken over by the Indo-Iranians and incoming Indo-Aryans.

Some evidence of this is available in Wasson's work where he identifies soma with a hallucinogenic mushroom which was consumed in northern Siberia and in Altic regions. That would bring it nearer to the origin of the Harappan civilization.

I must tell you that this is no more than a theory and scholars are still hesitant to accept it. Only I find that there is an increasing recognition that there is no getting away from the fact that this device before the unicorn is a filter, a perforated vessel. What one makes out of it is a different matter.

Q: If that was such an important part of whatever religion they had, how come we have not found actual examples?

A: That is easily answered. They must have been made of wood and now have perished. That's why the only one available is an ivory piece. Now these vessels must have been made of wood, or they may have been terra cotta vessels. Now you know one of the most characteristic finds of Harappan culture is large and small perforated jars. Some of them have, interestingly, a large hole at the bottom where you could insert a staff.

The other question is: since we have several examples of survival of Harappan religion in Hinduism, for example in the worship of the peepal tree, worship of the serpent, worship of the linga, and so on - or the god with horns, the equivalent of Rudra as pointed out by Parpola - now would not this cult have survived? I asked this question myself, and I have produced a paper identifying the triangle-headed standard marked on the punch-marked coins and tribal coins all over India as a late survival of the cult object. That would be clear only if one looks at the illustrations given in that paper. But let me say again that while I believe in this identification, it has yet to find general acceptance. It is one of the interesting theories floating around, and only time can tell who is right.

Q: I think it is a brilliant speculation. How did you come to it?

A: I was working on the Indus seals in the collections of the National Museum and the Archaeological Survey of India, both in Delhi. As I was repeatedly going over the seals, I was slowly and methodically going over and copying the inscriptions and this work was spread over a few weeks. Then I was idly looking at the unicorn and the cult object before it. I knew that Marshall had identified the object as an incense holder - an instrument where you hold incense and then throw embers on it - but then I found that it couldn't be true, because if it were an incense holder there should be representation of smoke rising above the vessel, while here we have droplets falling below the vessel.

I am a student of Sanskrit and I am familiar with the RgVeda, and as I was looking at the zig zag lines flowing across the filter showing the filtering ritual and the coming out of the drops, I was reminded of the two most powerful images in the soma chapter of the RgVeda, Pavamana and Indu. Pavamana literally means the flowing one, the soma, as it flows down, and Indu are the drops which collect at the bottom of the filter. So I found that this could hardly be a coincidence. I spent the next one year studying the 9th Mandala of the RgVeda, with the help of Sayana's commentary, and I went on noting all the parallels. Some of them are very complex, some of them are very simple, but as I mention again, there is an increasing acceptance of the physical part of my discovery, that the mysterious cult object is a filter, that it is a perforated vessel, that drops of some liquid are falling out, but what is it? I have given you a theory. Does anyone else have any other?

Q: Just one more question on this. The soma filter seems to be such an important part of the Indo-Aryan culture, could it have been something that they took over from an existing, perhaps non-Aryan culture here? Isn't it more likely that it is something that they brought in from the outside? Or does it suggest that the "Dravidian" people in the Indus Valley were already far more mixed with the "invading" Indo-Aryans?

A: What you say is also likely. If that were so, the Aryans should have brought in the soma cult from Central Asia. I say this because they are known to have come here from the steppes, south of somewhere between the Caspian and the Black Sea. But the Indo-European heritage does not know of soma. The Indo-Aryans knew soma, and the Indo-Iranians knew homa, but the Hittites, or those who went to Europe and the forefathers of the modern Europeans, they do not seem to have any cult of the soma. If it is true that the Indo-Aryans and the Indo-Iranians, before they bifurcated, brought this cult from a part of Central Asia, we have to assume that that Central Asian cult had spread up to Harappa and the local Harappans were already practicing a form of it.

According to me, this is one of my central discoveries, but it has nothing to do with the script. But it may have indirect effect on the script. I have already pointed out a number of signs of the script which seem to show the mortar which is part of the soma ritual, the filter itself is part of the script where you are shown a vessel with streams of water or droplets falling below, and therefore it is also not unlikely, and you should expect it in fact, that such an important ritual would be mentioned in the seal inscriptions. Not only the seals, but many of the sealings in Harappa, for example, the cylindrical terra cotta seal which Kenoyer has recently discovered. It shows the soma filter, or soma-like filter on one side, and a plant on the other side, now that may be the plant the crushing of which gets you the soma juice. But we still do not know. While I have earlier accepted Wasson's identification of soma as possibly a mushroom, perhaps the last word has not been said on it. Most scholars identify soma with some form of ephedra. That again is a matter of some dispute. But whatever the origin of soma, there is hardly any doubt that it was a kind of hallucinogenic drug which produced mild sensations of pleasure.

The Aryans could have found it here, or they could have brought it with them and found a local version of it here too. But you cannot wish away the material evidence. If you look at many of the beautiful reproductions in Parpola and his team's publications in India and Pakistan of two large volumes of the Indus seals, he has reproduced the originals as well as plaster casts with enlargements with the best possible photographic reproductions. I have been looking at them with a looking glass, and if you imagine them with a three-dimensional effect, you will be struck by the fact that you can see water flowing down the upper vessel, filling the lower vessel, coming as droplets out of the lower vessel and falling down - now this is the center of the cult and it is this which gave rise to the search for parallelism in Indian mythology. One such is the soma cult.

I have not been able to decipher the script, but on some of the ideograms I have, on the basis of the pictorial content and relating them to the Indian tradition, given various kinds of interpretations which fall short of decipherment but hopefully will point the way towards the ultimate solution.