The Soma Code, Part I: Luminous Visions in the Rig Veda

  • Philip T. Nicholson (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


The meanings of many metaphors used to describe luminous visions in the Rig Veda (RV) remain elusive or ambiguous despite years of expert hermeneutical exegesis. In this series of papers, we classify the metaphors used to describe luminous visions into sets based on certain abstract characteristics (shapes, colors, movements, order of appearance), then show how these metaphor-sets can be matched with remarkable precision, image by image, to a sequence of internally-generated light sensations ('phosphenes') induced by meditation. These meditation-induced phosphenes can also evolve in longer and more elaborate sequences if the subjects practice meditation while in a sleep-deprived condition. A sleep deficit increases the risk of subclinical seizures emerging at sleep onset - and the paroxysmal activity generates further evolution of the phosphene imagery. In the first paper of this three-part series, we document the parallels between the meditation-induced phosphenes and two types of luminous visions described in the RV - the Asvins' radiant, three-wheeled chariot and the flame-arrows of Agni. In the second paper, we analyze metaphors used to describe the visions of Soma and Indra and show that there is a close match between these luminous visions and paroxysmal phosphenes. Based on the extensive parallels revealed by our comparison, we conclude that the metaphors for luminous visions in the RV were meant to refer to the same visual content as appears in the meditation-induced visions described by the author, and that, despite years of poetic embellishment, the eulogists' choice of metaphors suggests a much more empirically-oriented attempt to describe visionary experience than has hitherto been suspected. This hypothesis about the meaning of luminous visions in the RV has important implications for several issues debated by Vedic scholars, including: (1) the identity of the original soma plant; (2) the influence of shamanic practices in the creation of the Vedic myths, and (3) the extent of the continuities between the visionary experiences described in the RV and those described in the Upanishads and in the many yoga meditation texts in the Hindu, Tantric, and Tibetan-Buddhist traditions.