Snake and the Saint – Live and Let Live

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Snake in the forest
Snake in the forest

Edited by: Ms. Sharmila Nasarpuri

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Snakes in Indian Mythology and folklore have a very important place. They are a reason to fear, venerate, worship, and propitiate. Seen as a sign of fertility and long life there are innumerable stories and myths related to them. Being predominantly an agricultural society,  it is no wonder that the people living in India worshiped the snakes in the rainy season. We celebrated Nag Panchmi on the 19th of August 2015. The following story was used as a parable by Saint Ramkrishna Paramhans. He was a 19th Century Saint and  Swami Vivekananda was his disciple.

I read this story years ago but the story has stayed with me as it is equally relevant today.

The following story was used as a parable by Swami Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Guru of Swami Vivekananda

A long, long time ago, there was a village at the edge of a dense forest. Beyond this village, there was no habitation and the only approach to the village was a narrow path through the forest. Leaving the village to travel, or anybody coming for a visit had to use this narrow path. The people of this village were simple and involved in farming. They grew wheat, rice, lentils, and vegetables for their consumption and the excess they sold in the nearby town.

The men always awakened before sunrise to tend the fields. The women also woke up early to clean, cook and look after the house. The children in the village did not go to school. To them fell the task of collecting the cows, goats, and buffaloes and take them for grazing in the forest. So, they left every morning with their lunch, cattle, and dogs for the day and while the cattle grazed, the children indulged in games and kept an eye on the cattle. At the end of the day, the children and cattle all walked back to the village tired and dusty with the smallest ones on the back of cows.

In the forest, close to the grazing ground, was a very ancient and big Banyan tree. As you know a Banyan tree has roots hanging from the branches which take root in the ground. As the years go by, it has several more trunks and keeps expanding. This tree was ideal for playing as it was easy to hide in the spaces between the roots. Unfortunately, at the base of the tree lived a big, fat snake. This snake was very bad-tempered and used to scare anybody who came close to it. It would be sleeping in its nest, but the moment it heard footsteps, it would slither out of its nest with its hood open. The snake would start hissing loudly and would swing from side to side and try and attack. In fact, he had bitten quite a few people and they had died, as he was full of poison. The villagers and the children kept away from the tree and also warned anybody coming through the forest.

One day as the children were playing, they saw a learned man, an Ascetic walking through the forest and going towards the Banyan tree. They started calling

‘Guruji, Guruji Guruji’

The Ascetic was surprised and turned towards them with a puzzled face. He did not know them and it seemed the children were calling out to him.

The children shouted again

‘Guruji, please do not go near the Banyan tree”

The surprised ascetic walked towards the children and asked

“Why, I just want to rest a bit”

The children all chorused

“Guruji, at the base of that tree lives a great, big fat snake. He is full of poison. He terrorizes everybody and if he gets a chance he bites. In fact, he has killed a lot of people without any provocation. He will kill you too if you go near.”

On hearing this, the Ascetic became thoughtful and after reassuring the children and much to their surprise started walking towards the Banyan tree. The snake was fast asleep in his nest and on hearing the approaching footsteps he woke up and slithered out in anger. He opened his hood wide, swaying side to side with his tongue darting out. The Ascetic instead of showing any fear, stared at him with a stern look and to the surprise of the children, the snake started calming down. Soon it lay on the ground near the Ascetic’s feet. The Ascetic asked the snake

‘Son, I hear you are very bad-tempered and you terrorize anybody who comes near you. You also bite without any provocation. This is not a good thing. Why do you behave so badly?’

The Snake lifted its head with pride and said “God has given me this beautiful body, lustrous skin, and a pouch full of venom. I like to scare people and chase them. It makes me feel very important that I can make the whole village run.’

The Ascetic looked at the snake and shook his head sadly and said, “Son the venom is a gift from God to you to protect yourself from harm. You have misused God’s gift to terrorize everybody. Surely God is going to be very angry with you. You should understand your power and use it wisely.”

The snake was impressed and replied “Guruji, I have erred and your words have opened my eyes. I will try and change my behavior. I promise to turn a new leaf and follow your teachings.”

The ascetic was happy and said, “So be it, I shall see you on my next visit.”

The snake wished him well and slithered into its nest.

It was time for the children to return home. They went back and narrated the whole incident to their parents, who were equally surprised.

The children on their daily visit to the forest noticed that the snake did not come out of his nest on hearing them. If he was sleeping in the sun, he did not hiss or scare them. The village children decided to see if the snake had really changed. They started throwing small pebbles at him from a distance and if one hit the snake, they waited to see his reaction. As the snake did not react, they got bolder and the size of the stones increased. Still, the snake did not react. A couple of weeks passed and then the children got long sticks and tried to beat him from a distance. The snake still did not hiss as he had promised the learned man. The Snake was now losing some weight due to this ill-treatment. One day the children found him fast asleep on a boulder in the sun. One of them picked it up with the tail and swung him round and round before slapping its body on the same boulder. The snake was now bleeding and had several cuts along its body. The snake fainted and lay still. The boys left him for dead and went back home to inform the villagers.

The snake on waking up realized that it was weak and hurt. Slowly it crept back into its nest and lay there to recuperate. The snake now only came out at night and fed on whatever it could lay its hands on. The children were now playing at the base of the Banyan tree as they had no fear of the snake. After a couple of months, the Ascetic returned and was surprised to see the children playing near the tree. He called out

“Hello Children, I can see the snake does not frighten you any longer. He is not troubling you now after I spoke to him?”

The children answered

“Guruji, the snake is dead. He died a few weeks ago” so saying the children started leaving to go back to the village. The ascetic was stunned and said

“How can that be possible he was a young snake!” The Ascetic called out to the snake in disbelief.

The snake slithered out, happy to hear the Ascetic’s voice. He greeted him weakly “Pranam Guruji”

The Ascetic asked “What happened to you, my Son? When I last met you, you were young and healthy. Your skin was beautiful. How come you are in this feeble state looking old and half dead?”

The snake answered

“Guruji, you told me to turn over a new leaf. So, I stopped terrorizing everybody. On seeing the change, the children first threw pebbles at me, when I did not react, they threw stones. When I still did not return to my former ways, they beat me with long sticks. One day when I was sleeping in my weakened state, they caught me by my tail, swung me around like a lasso, and hit my body on this boulder. I fainted, and they left me for dead cut and bleeding.”

The Ascetic was angry and said

“You FOOL, you completely misunderstood me. I told you not to terrorize and bully unnecessarily, I never told you to be bullied. The venom in you is to protect yourself and you should have done that. Bullying in any form is wrong. You have to stay true to your nature and instinct.”

The ascetic then turned to the children and said sternly

“Let this be a lesson to you all. Bullying is bad whosoever does it. You have to stand up to bullies and not become one.”

So saying, the ascetic walked away.

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