South and Central Asia
Literal meaning: ‘non-dead’. The water of life in Hindu mythology. It was recovered at the Churning of the Ocean, when Rahu, the demon, succeeded in obtaining a sip, forcing Vishnu to cut off his head in order to prevent him from gaining complete impregnability. This severed piece of immortality, hideous, horned, with bulging eyes and ravenous jaws, was adopted as a talisman, a protector from evil influences, and can be seen on Hindu temples serving a function similar to our gargoyle. Another legend of Kirttimukha, ‘the face of glory’, recounts that Shiva persuaded a lion-headed demon to feed on its own flesh, which it did until all was devoured to the lower lip.
Probably identical with soma, the favourite beverage of Indra, amrita is an echo of practices that must antedate the Aryan invasion. Soma, the juice of a milky climbing plant, was fermented as a drink for the gods and the brahmins. In India the terrible heat of the devouring sun has been looked upon as a deadly power, while Soma, the moon, the bringer of dew and the controller of waters, took on the role of the source of life. ‘We have drunk soma,’ the Vedas recall, ‘we have become immortal, we have entered into the light, we have known the gods.’ Its exhilarating qualities serve to remind us of the role of drugs in ancient religions.