Importance of Soma
An entire vedaic mandal is named after soma (a special type of drink), the soma mandal of Rigveda. Now my question is why is soma given so much importance why in vedic suktas like Shri Suktam, Shri Rudram, etc. Soma is mentioned with so much importance. Soma mandal of rigveda
Which rituals need Soma, how to create it and how to use it in rituals?
If soma ras (juice) is so important then how do we create it (some say original plant is lost, if so, then what is it's substitute today). If created somehow, how and where should we use it, and what are its benefits in spiritual development?
Why and how did Hindus lose such important piece of knowledge?
It is said that vedic knowledge and verses cannot be tampered with or corrupted then how is knowledge of making soma juice lost?
Soma is indeed an important section of vedas as rightly pointed by you. Soma is also a name of herb/hervs, drink, deity etc. The importance of soma is so much that even the Devas are desperate to drink it. In many vedic sections we see stories and mantras which invite/tempt the celestial gods to come to earth for drinking this divine drink.
Over the time plants used for soma extractions have been changed in many places. This soma is also of importance in Zoroastrianism. In ancient Egyptian and many other civilizations there used to be some divine drink like soma which was prepared and processed in a ceremonial method. Such ceremony of Vedas is soma yaagas or yajnas.
A householder is advised to complete a total of 21 yajnas in his life based on his financial and domestic capabilities. These yajnas consists of 7 Paakayajnas 7 Haviryajnas and 7 soma yajnas.
Vedic yajna-s are the rituals of many kinds. Mainly there are 21 types of these yajna-s, 1] sapta paaka yajna-s are 7; 2] sapta havir yajna-s are 7; 3] sapta soma yajna-s are 7. Apart from these rituals, there are rituals for the overall development of society at large, called abhyudayaka yajna-s and under them categorised are: 1] ashvanmedha, 2] raajasuuya, 3] paunDariika, 4] bR^ihaspati sava, and some more are there. These grand scale rituals require a great patronage and support, not only of money but also of a variety of paraphernalia that go into the ritual. Hence only kings and emperors of yester years could conduct them.
The yaaga shaala The Hall of Vedic ritual will be erected with platforms containing areas 1] yuupa stambha-s wooden posts to which the animals are tied. There will be 21 such posts, staked in the Vedic ritual hall, along with a half post staked near at the main altar; 2] uttara vedi, posterior platform; 3] dasha pada, platform for scholars; 4] havirdhaana, place for oblatory paraphernalia; 5] sadas, place for assemblages; 6] agnihotra shaala, place of sacrificial fire; 7] vedi, main Altar of Fire; 8] patnii shaala, place for the wife / wives of the performer and other females. The main activity of the ritual is around the vedi, the 7th item as above, where a garuDa vedi, an Eagle shaped Alter of Fire will be constructed with bricks, where the brick laying and paving itself is a ritual, called iSTikaa chayana . Into this yajna vedi, Altar of Fire, all the oblations are poured.
When a Brahmacharin enters grihastashrama through marriage, the first fire he has to maintain is the Smarta agni, which is lit during marriage in the ritual of Agni anusandhana. This is the basic Agni on which he has to perform what is called a series of Yajnas called Paaka Yajnas. The first of them is the Aupasana(Offering rice grains and samidh), that has to be performed daily in the morning(sunrise) and the evening(sunset) till death without allowing the fire to extinguish. In this karma, the role of the Patni is significant. Before offering the oblations the Yajamana asks the permission of his wife and offers the oblations after she has agreed. Also whenever due to any emergency the Yajamana cannot perform it, then the patni can do it without mantras for 7 times (roughly 3 days). If for some reason the fire is extinguished the Agni anusandhana has to be re-done again.
The next in the series of Paaka yajnas is the Darsha and purnamasa sthalipaaka. This consists of offering Charu(Boiled rice in a clay or bronze pot) and ghee to the devas during full and new moon.
Hence there are total 7 types of major soma yajnas which can be performed. As the name suggests, the major dravya for oblations is the liquid extract of soma plant.
Types of Soma yajnas are
Agnistoma - This is the first and main type, referred to as the ‘Prakriti’ (archetype) while the other six are its ‘Vikriti’
Another variation of this yajna in vikriti manner is called "jyotistoma" which is very famous in Kerela and was performed last time at Panjal.
Regarding the process, somayaga is the most complex ritual which usually runs for 11 or 13 days. But the preparations are done before several months. The person performing must be a nityagnihotri. He must have at least basic education of "samhita" of vedic recitation. He should have completed the prescribed paaka yajnas before performing the soma sacrifice. It involves constructing a yaagashala specially for this propose. The shala and yajna kundas and wooden and clay vessels are made as per the agama. Definitive size and shapes are to be employed while making these. After the ritual is over, all the items including the yaga shala is to be burnt (especially in higher yagas like vajapeya and agnistoma). After the commencement of the yaga, there is a special ritual for extraction and pressing of Soma plant to extract the soma juice which is of prime importance. Ritviks perform the yaga by giving oblations of soma juice to the celestial gods. Some portion of soma is also drank by the priests and wife.
Indra and Agni are very fond of soma juice.
Regarding soma plant, some say that it is a creeper in himalayan areas and it is close to extinct. The ritual is not lost because of procedure but because of extinction of the plant.
Some believe that soma rasa is not a single plant but mixture of plant juices.
From Dr Vamadeva's research
Other scholars propose that the original Soma was the Amanita muscari mushroom, which is used by many shamans, particularly in Siberia. While I cannot say for certain that this mushroom was not a kind of Soma for some people, the Vedic Somas are described in very different ways. The Soma plant is described with leaves, which mushrooms do not have, and is often said to grow in water. Sharyanavat, the main Rig Vedic Soma land also refers to a lake and means ‘abounding with reeds’, with shara (Saccharum sara) being a type of reed related to sugarcane. Shara was mainly used to make arrows and was sacred to both Agni and Soma. Another later great Soma land of Munjavat also means ‘abounding with reeds’ with munja being a type of reed related to the same plant as Shara and considered to be the best of the Somas. This again shows Soma growing in marshy or aquatic areas and being some sort of reed. Some scholars have gone so far as to identify Soma with the sugar cane, another Saccharum species cultivated in ancient India. Sugar-cane was probably used in Soma preparations, if not another type of Soma. So the main Rig Vedic Somas were probably certain reed grasses, some of which do have nervine and nutritive properties.
The Atharva Veda (AV XI.6.15) specifically mentions five great plants of which Soma is the best, including marijuana, barley and darbha (kusha or durva), showing that many plants had Soma-like qualities.2 Here Soma is again connected with another type of reed (darbha, Saccharum cylindricum), which could have easily been pressed to get a juice, much like sugarcane. Soma is also connected with marijuana, suggesting that mind-altering plants were regarded as different types of Soma. Soma is in other places connected with kushta (Saussurea lappa), a kind of spicy nervine, and with the Ashvattha fig tree and said to grow in the Himalayas in the Atharva Veda (AV XIX.39.5, 6).
Other plants connected with Soma, which was often said to grow on mountain lakes, are the lotus and water lily. Like these Soma is described as having leaves that come out in a circular pattern like the Moon. Additional potential Soma like plants are members of the orchid and lily families. A number of these plants are nervines. Like Soma, they have milky juices, unusual leaves, and filaments. Their juice can be pressed out between rocks.
In general, Soma was prepared in three forms, as cooked with grain or barley (yava), milk (go) or curds (dadhi).3 While some Somas had their fresh juice used, it seems the majority were part of elaborate prepartions. Soma was often used with ghee (ghrita) and honey (madhu), which are sometimes synonyms for Soma. In fact, Soma was often called madhu (honey or mead). Special herbal honey preparations and herbal ghee preparations were additional types of Somas. As connected to honey and flowers, Soma is connected to lotuses and other flowering aquatic plants. Soma, however, was discriminated from Sura or wine and alcohol, though fermentation may have been used in preparing some types of Somas.
The great early Ayurvedic doctor, Sushrut, mentions 24 Soma plants, growing mainly on Himalayan lakes and named after Vedic meters. He mentions 18 additional Soma like plants, which are mainly nervine herbs. Soma, therefore, was likely part of an entire science of sacred plant preparations and not just one plant in particular. A number of Soma-producing and Somalike plants existed. The search for one single Soma plant is therefore misleading.
Soma was also connected to the practice of alchemy and as early as the Rig Veda, it was prepared with gold and possibly lapis lazuli, perhaps even with sea shells or pearls.
The Somas in India were mainly special powerful plants growing in mountain lakes and riverine regions. With the shifting of the rivers, this cult changed, but reverence for Himalayan plants and rivers remained a characteristic feature of the Hindu religion.
Hence some of the candidates for soma and its alternative are Ephedra, Ergtot, Sarcostemma acidum etc.
They have psychoactive ingredients which are capable of giving higher consciousness experiences to the drinkers and hence known as "drink of immortality". It should NOT be confused with alcoholic preparations or "sura".
The oldest Vedic yajna surviving today is Atiratra ( type of agnistoma) which is on a verge of extinction. Some priests in Kerela perform it. It was done lastly in Panjal, Kerela. Below is a rare footage of the ancient most surviving vedic ritual on earth.
What exactly is Soma? There are very enigmatic Rig Veda verses which hint that Soma is not really a plant.
TRUTH is the base that bears the earth, by Surya are the heavens sustained. By Law the Adityas stand secure, and Soma holds his place in heaven.
By Soma are the Adityas strong, by Soma mighty is the earth. Thus Soma in the midst of all these constellations hath his place.
One thinks, when they have brayed the plant, that he hath drunk the Soma's juice; Of him whom Brahmanas truly know as Soma no one ever tastes.
Rig Veda X.85.1-3
Why should rigvedic Soma be extinct? In RV 8.48.1 it is clearly said what it was. It was a gigantic honey-comb, not a green plant (rigvedischersoma.de). Even today harvestable by honey-hunters. With all its admirable properties. Serving both as food and drink, promising amortality, with hallucinogenic to intoxicating properties. Please look at "Honey Hunters of Nepal" in the Net.