“Now came the horns of a painful dilemma: embrace the true meaning of the plant and change themselves to suit the medicine, or abandon the medicine and change the gods to suit themselves. As one might expect of an imperial-minded people faced with an existential crisis, they could be counted on to make the wrong choice.”
1. Dreadlocks, dreadlocks, dreadlocks holds the fire, the drug, the earth and sky! Dreadlocks, helping everyone to see the sun, defines the light. 2. Naked air-swaddled monks, they wallow in grim and filth; then travel god-speed on the back of the wind. 3. ‘Vision-driven we ride jet-streams with the lords of wind; you mortals see only our corporeal forms.’ 4. Flying aloft he observes the world of appearances below; naked monk in favor of right action is friend of this god and that. 5. Heaven-blessed horse of the wind, ally of the gods of gale, naked monk dwells in both the east and the west where the two waters gather. 6. Deer-like he moves with the grace of beautiful nymphs and their musical consorts; privy to their desires dreadlocks is their sweet, most intoxicating friend. 7. Indra’s chariot-mate stirs it up for him; the inflexible goddess makes it ready. Dreadlocks drinks from the alkaloid cup even with Rudra the fierce. 
Overcoming all but impossible barriers of space, time, language, culture, this psychedelic hymn from the Rig Veda seizes the imagination of the curious like a flash of light in the night sky. Who are these naked monks? What are they taking? Does the poem celebrate their use of a psychoactive drug? 
In Vedic culture the use of something called Soma for spiritual pursuits was de rigueur. Soma was both a god and a plant – pressed for its juice, filtered through wool and imbibed in ceremony. It conferred feelings of exhilaration, elation and ecstasy. Giving light to luminous bodies, it unlocked the psychic door to spiritual insights and paranormal abilities; it made the user feel immortal, at least for a time. Soma was a shining star in the lyrical firmament of the Rig Veda.
Translated literally as “verse knowledge,” the Rig Veda is an ancient Indian collection of more than a thousand sacred hymns organized into ten books. Composed without the aid of writing, possibly even before the end of the second millennium BCE , an oral tradition of unrivalled discipline and accuracy preserved it for more than a thousand years before it was written down in Vedic Sanskrit.
Defined by a rigid class system and uncompromising patriarchy, it would be foolish and naive to romanticize Vedic culture. Yet the preservation of a text of this length and complexity by oral tradition alone for so long a period of time must count as one of the greatest cultural feats of any age. This is not to say that the Vedic social order was necessary to achieve this result; that would be unwarranted. Only that it did, and the brilliant results of the oral tradition may be admired without implying anything else. 
Every hymn in the ninth book of the Rig Veda (the so-called Soma Mandala, 114 in all) is addressed to Soma; hymns and references to it appear in other books as well. Even so, the species of the Soma plant of the Vedic sacrifice cannot be identified with certainty – a remarkable situation given the literary output devoted to the plant, its enthusiastic use in ritual ceremony and its being worshipped as a god in the highest terms of adulation for centuries.
The symbolism of the origin myth of Soma is fascinating. Hailing from a mountain wilderness, Soma takes up residence with the gandharvas, a race of demigods who serve as the musical talent in Indra’s heaven. Coveting the knowledge that Soma confers, the other gods wish to obtain it, but don’t know how. Vac, the ravishing goddess of speech, volunteers herself: “The gandharvas are fond of women. Send me, and I shall come back with Soma.” “But how can we let you go,” said the gods, “without falling mute?” “Obtain Soma, and I shall always be the words in your mouth,” assured Vac.
Towards the middle of the first millennium BCE, the Vedic gods of Agni, Indra, Surya (fire, storm, sun corresponding to the realms of earth, air, sky) give way to the Puranic deities of Brahma, Visnu, Siva. Religion in northern India becomes more recognizably Hindu; and Buddhism and Jainism begin to challenge the popular paradigm. All of the new religions forbid the use of intoxicants. As the old Vedic order breaks up, Soma falls like a meteor from his exalted place of worship. The name becomes associated with the moon, and the plant of the sacrifice can no longer be identified. From de rigueur to persona non grata to adieu la voiture, adieu la boutique.
The carcasses of fallen gods litter the landscape of history like a recurring die-off of doomed birds in flight. All the gods who stalk the earth today and molest the human mind are destined for the same fate. Some may have greater staying-power than others. But the Earth is patient, real and solid compared to the idea of deity, and will receive them, one and all, in the fullness of time as they fall from grace. For god is pure ideology; the perfect cipher signifying nothing. And the purer the ideology, the more certain its demise.
The “plant gods” of other cultures have been luckier in so far as they never had to suffer the fulsome praise of anything quite like the Soma Mandala, which represents among other things the aspirations of an imperial society lusting for power and conquest. I speculate here that at so early a stage in Indo-European civilization the Vedic poets necessarily needed a long time to understand that they could not have their medicine and empire too. But once they did, their marriage to Soma was no longer a match made in Indra’s heaven. Now came the horns of a painful dilemma: embrace the true meaning of the plant and change themselves to suit the medicine, or abandon the medicine and change the gods to suit themselves. As one might expect of an imperial-minded people faced with an existential crisis, they could be counted on to make the wrong choice.
Once Indo-European, always Indo-European? Being our IE-speaking relatives, their choice is our choice – and very likely for the same reason. Which explains why all the plant gods of ancient indigenous cultures are persona non grata in the US.  Everything they stand for is fundamentally at odds with the savage dictates of empire. So their message and meaning must be outlawed and prosecuted wherever found.
What do they stand for? Plant gods are trickster gods; rebels in every fiber of their being. And true rebels are immune to fame, reward, worship and others hooks on the road to imperial cooptation. To them we be a comic-tragic species of immense proportions; and our most revered institutions nothing but claptrap and dumb-show. Stripping away in a flash all the pretense, vanity and trompe l’oeil of empire, they reveal with the clarity of starlight the fragile, vital, mysterious connection of ourselves to ourselves, and of our species to all forms of life and the elemental forces of nature.
Metaphorically speaking, human beings, like mushrooms, are the fruiting bodies of a mycelium that lies below the surface of ordinary perception. It can only be known through direct experience. That is to say, it must be felt by some means or other. The intellect cannot grasp it, before the body feels it. Not the feeling of hunch, but of touch. And by connecting to it directly we learn that we’re nothing without the mycelium that creates us, sustains us, makes our life real and gives it meaning; and that damage to ourselves and the world is proportional to the level of disrespect we show for the mysterious filaments that connect us to ourselves and tie the fate of our species to that of the planet.
Which is why people who cannot feel or refuse to respect this vital connection are so dangerous. Imperial society cultivates and recruits precisely these people to control the switchboards of power. It’s easy to see why. For you cannot have mycelium and imperium at the same time (to use the Latin word for empire and all it implies); they are mutually exclusive. Indeed imperium sadistically rejoices in and thrives on the systematic destruction of mycelium. Mycelium is always authentic, organic, indigenous; a massive, horizontal web of interdependent filaments running underground, drawing nutrients from the soil to support the fruiting bodies above, creating a soil ecology of mind-blowing symbiosis among bacteria, insects, plants, animals and trees. Mycelium has no center, no front and back; it takes orders from no one, has no celebrity heroes or leaders, and worships no god; it breaks down all the bullshit of the world, so that real life can flourish.
God, empire and violence – all the technology of domination used in energy, agriculture, transportation, government, military, medicine, religion, commerce, education, communication, entertainment (one would be hard pressed to find a modern field of endeavor that doesn’t use its technology to dominate and enslave) – all of this, indeed the whole spectrum of global civilization, hangs on the lunatic belief in mind-over-matter. If we can believe it, it must be true. If we can deny it, it must be false. In the fantasy world between these poles we deploy the latest technology to save us from all the devastation wrought by older, cruder, less effective forms of technology. ‘This time our technology will work!’ argues the doctrine of mind-over-matter. ‘For the human mind is supreme; the master of all it surveys. And the technology it creates is both proof and symbol of its triumph over the insentient world of matter.’ If the human mind weren’t so arrogant, self-absorbed and hubristic, it might notice one tiny detail to remedy the fatal flaw of its own conceit: matter, not mind, is in control of the universe.
We think we can worship and be saved by an impossible being – an omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect god who creates us in his own image – without injuring our ability to reason, feel and be human. This is mind-over-matter doctrine and delusion: we can do no such thing. We think we can organize the world into empires of hierarchy – reflecting on earth all the tyranny of heaven – separating and protecting a fraction of humanity at the top from the vicissitudes and fate of the millions below. This is mind-over-matter doctrine and delusion: we can do no such thing. We think we can build and maintain unaccountable empires of profit and privilege ad infinitum by means of state-sanctioned violence without bankrupting the soul of humanity and creating permanent chaos in the world. This is mind-over-matter doctrine and delusion: we can do no such thing. We think we can dominate the fruits of the earth by more and more machinery, chemicals and genetic engineering without devastating the land, our food and our health. This is mind-over-matter doctrine and delusion: we can do no such thing. We think we can mine, drill, fracture and explode the crust of earth for coal, oil, gas, uranium without destroying the deep ecology of the planet on which all life depends. This is mind-over-matter doctrine and delusion: we can do no such thing.
The mind exists solely at the pleasure of matter, and only under circumstances that matter creates for its existence. Mind is fleeting; matter is eternal. In spite of all we may know intellectually, academically or in theory, our collective behavior as projected through dominant institutions and its impact on the world is all that counts – proving by the measure of our deeds how little we really know about matter and how little we can control it. The global wreckage we make of the world at all levels of operation argues every day that human ignorance and incompetence far exceed our knowledge and our skill.
Our relationship to the Earth and ourselves is deeply corrupted. In the West it has been this way for a very long time. The Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian-Islamic roots of Western civilization accommodate a wide range of toxic social diseases (empire, corruption, greed, theism, sadism, domination, slavery, racism, sexism). The wholesale, psychopathic destruction of native peoples, cultures and traditions in the New World following the period of “discovery” was not an aberration, but an unleashing upon the world of the most terrible forces coddled and contained by Western nations – all but reducing the Age of Enlightenment to a puppet show.
The environmental destruction caused by our technology is now so vast, and our dependence on that technology, even as we are victims of it, so great, that the West stands accused of poisoning those who shape and control its history with a deep-seated impulse for self-annihilation. But because it disfigures the mind, creating psychological and emotional deformities easy to hide in a political culture of mental illness, those who should be in straightjackets put on pinstripe and uniform, and terrorize the world from the linked-up offices of the corporate-state-military juggernaut. Though disproportionately responsible for human death and disease and the destruction of nature on a global scale, they deny with psychopathic insistence any wrong-doing, culpability or crime.
Cursed with the Midas touch in reverse, everything they do becomes disaster in a global culture where war is a permanent position, and the savage exploitation and destruction of every habitat is justified as economic progress. Not to worry, we are told, ‘our way of life’ has nothing to due with the current Holocene mass extinction event, already many times greater than the background rate and accelerating out of control. More grant-funded research by unbiased professionals will surely get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, this much is certain: when matter is done with all the insults of the human mind, and its relentless technological assault on the world so degrades the deep and complex ecology of the Earth that it can no longer support the lights of Homo sapiens, nothing out the brain of this cosmic fool will save it from extinction.
1. Rig Veda 10.136 (book 10, hymn 136 in seven verses, hence the numbers). This is my own translation motivated by two competing (though I hope not incompatible) goals: to be relevant to the modern reader and faithful to the original language. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s work: The Rig Veda, An Anthology (London, England: Penguin Books, 1981) provided the inspiration to break with a more traditional, abstract interpretation of this strange and ancient text.
2. Though a brief discussion about Soma follows, the reader is cautioned from thinking that the drug mentioned in this hymn must have been Soma. Rudra, who appears in the final line of the poem, is not normally associated with the Soma sacrifice – providing some basis for believing that the drug of this hymn might not have been Soma.
3. Hard and fast dates in the study of ancient India are difficult to come by.
4. For a concise explanation of the oral techniques used to preserve the Vedas see Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat, The Sanskrit Language: An Overview, trans. T.K. Gopalan (Varanasi, India: Indica Books, 2000), 18-23.
5. These are the true medicines of humanity known by their special effects. Though often physically and emotionally challenging, they present no risk of addiction. Some, though not all, have virtually no lethal dose. Their greatest potential to heal lies in their ability to impart knowledge and wisdom from the plant kingdom to the human animal, which has ever needed all the help it can get. They contrast sharply with street drugs and pharmaceuticals, which are two sides of the same counterfeit coin.
Little Big Pine: citizen, patriot, poet; may be reached at email@example.com.