As a boy Gandhi was afraid of snakes. He could not go out alone in darkness. He imagined thieves, ghosts and snakes were waiting to jump on him.
He led the life of a semi-mendicant at 35 and lived in
ashrams. His ashram did not mean a hut to live in, but a big compound with a
well, enough land for cultivation and an orchard attached to it. It was a quite
place, far away from the dust and din of a city. Gandhi was not rich, so he
acquired cheap waste lands. All the ashrams the Phoenix Settlement, Tolstoy
Farm, Sabarmati Ashram, Wardha Ashram and Sevagram were infested with snakes.
Before the huts were built, the inmates had to live under canvas and it was
risky to live like that with children. One day a poisonous snake would be found
clinging to the roof in the farmyard, the other day a couple of serpents lying
in a circle near a bicycle. Sometimes they entered bedrooms. What to do with
them was a problem.
Gandhi believed in ahimsa, he was a devoted Vaishnava. Even
for saving the life of his son, his wife or his own self, he did not use an y
medicine or diet made from fish, flesh or fowl. Cows and she buffaloes were
tortured for extracting the last drop of milk from them and that made Gandhi
give up cow's and buffalo's milk. How could then a snake be killed? The general
rule was not to kill snakes even if they were poisonous. A device was made from
ropes to catch snakes and to let them loose at a safe distance from the ashram.
But when they were in a such a position that they could not be caught or when a
person had not the courage to go near them and catch them, what was to avoid
violence to the plants. With regret he admitted : " I don't feel so sorry on a
snake's slaughter as on there death of a child from snake-bite. I still am
afraid of snakes so how can I ask others to be fearless." When all other methods
of driving away snakes failed, he gave permission to kill them. But that rarely
Gandhi had a keen desire to learn the details of snake-lore.
With the help of Kallenbach he began to know a poisonous snake from a
non-poisonous one. For practical study Kallenbach caught a cobra, kept it in a
cage and fed it with his own hand. The Ashram children were greatly interested
in watching it. None harassed this new friend. Gandhi was not happy. He told
Kallenbach: " We have imprisoned it to study its ways and habits . Our
friendship may not be clear to the cobra. Neither you nor I have the courage to
play with it. Your friendliness is not free from fear. There is not love in the
act of taming the cobra." Perhaps the cobra too felt that men were not very
friendly to it and one day escaped from the cage.
another German inmate of the ashram could handle snakes
fearlessly. He caught young snakes and made them play on his palm. Gandhi wanted
to cultivate such courage. He wished to reach that stage when a snake should
know from his touch that he did not want to hurt it. To him it was a great
achievement to be able to put his hand of in the mouth of a snake with Ramanam
on his lips. But to the last day of his life he could not take up a snake or a
scorpion with his hand. Gandhi was ashamed of it.
He did not give up his interest in the study of snakes even
when he kept busy with important work. Some leaders once went to Gandhi for
consultation and were alarmed to find a snake hanging coiled round his neck. He
was absorbed in a talk with a snake charmer and eager to learn from him the art
of handling snakes and the cure of bites. One person was to ready for the
snake-bite but his colleagues refused to allow this daring experiment on a such
a valuable life, Gandhi lost the chance of becoming a snake-charmer's chela at
the age of 70.
Years before, when Gandhi was in prison, his gum kept
bleeding. A Negro prisoner attended on him. None of them understood the language
of the other. They talked with gestures. One day the Negro came howling to him
with an ailing finger. On enquiry Gandhi learnt he was bitter by something.
Immediately he sent a note to the jail hospital. He knew that to let out the
poisoned blood was a sure relief. As no clean knife was available, he began to
suck venom out from the wound. It was dangerous to suck poison with a bleeding
gum yet he could cot see the victim writhe in pain.
Gandhi knew all snakes were not poisonous and all snake-bites
were not fatal. Only 12% snakes are venomous. He wanted to educate his
countrymen, especially the villagers, in snake-lore. we published
some articles on a snakes with apt diagrams and sketches. He once wrote in
Harijan: " We cannot tell a poisonous from a non-poisonous snake and
therefore kill all without thought. In many cases it is the fright that kills
the victim of a snake-bite. The poisonous once too do not bite unless they are
trodden upon or or mishandled. Snakes are called Kshetrapals guards of the
harvest land. On Nagapanchami day mothers in villages keep a saucer of
milk for snakes. It is a gesture of friendship with snakes. The picture of
Vishnu lying on the serpent shesha with seven hoods appeals to me. I think it
shows how God can fearlessly lie on the lap of a snake that spreads its hood on
his head. Snake is not a source of danger in God's eyes."
A batch of half-naked urchines were once seen crowding near
Gandhi's hut. Their eyes were fixed on a snake kept in a glass jar. It was
caught and sent to a surgeon. He found it was a krait, one of the most poisonous
varieties, smashed its head and sent it back to Gandhi. Its spinal cord was
intact and it did not die for three days. To relieve it of pain it was killed
and kept in a jar filled with rectified spirit. Gandhi wanted to exhibit alive
or dead snakes to the villagers. He got a cage made for live specimens
Gandhi once asked a philosopher friend: " what should a seeker
do, when a snake attacks him? " He replied : " He should not kill the snake and
if it bites. he should let it do so. " Gandhi himself never hurt snakes and they
too never did any harm to him or to the ashram inmates. Nobody died of
snake-bite in any of Gandhi's ashrams. Snakes often honored him with their cool
touch but did not give him a taste of their fangs.
One cold evening Gandhi with a wrap round his body was
convesing with a friend. Suddenly a snake appeared on the edge of the wrap
and wriggled its hood. Gandhi's friend asked him to keep calm. Gandhi showed no
sign of agitation and advised his friend not to be panicky. The friend caught
hold of the wrap and threw it away with a jerk. On another occasion a snake
crawled on Gandhi's chest when he was taking rest after meals. He was
least disturbed. Once more, an educated modern snake-charmer came to visit
Gandhi when he was lying in a hospital. He wanted to display his power of
control over the snakes and let loose some poisonous snakes on Gandhi's bed.
They began to dance gracefully on his blanket. Gandhi watched them with
interest but kept his legs perfectly still.
Another evening, during prayers when Gandhi was observing
silence, a snake lost its way and moved towards him. His companions got visibly
moved. The commotion made the snake nervous and it sought refuge in Gandhi's
lap. He made a sign to all to keep calm and continued his prayer. The snake
quietly slipped away. When Gandhi was asked what his reaction was when he felt a
snake was on him, he replied: " For a moment I felt uneasy. Then I regained my
calm. If that snake bit me, I would have said, ' Don't kill it, don't do any
violence to it. It should have nothing to fear and must be allowed to go free.'