Snake Incident at the Phoenix Ashram
First Online: January 13, 2002
Page Last Updated: February 09, 2014
Long before Gandhi became famous, he was drawn by the ancient idea of
hermitage (ashram) where men and wild animals had coexistence in
natural surroundings. He founded a community-settlement with European and
Indian friends near Durban (South Africa) on Tolstoyan principles.
Comprising one hundred acres of fertile land, it had a school printing
press, house of healing, flour mill, everything managed by hand! The
colony was to be as much self-supporting as possible and life's material
requirements were to be reduced to minimum. Hence from cultivation to
publication, the inhabitants tried to manage everything, the natural way.
Life was very hard and everybody took turn to handle printing machine
or flouring, drawing water and cleansing their own surroundings. Houses
comprised of small huts, of corrugated iron with wooden structures in
between. Water was scare and drinking water became a problem though a
stream nearby helped washing and bathing activity. The stream had tree
with overhanging boughs and one day, a big green mamba, one of the
deadliest snakes in South Africa was noticed on the tree. Non-killing was
a fundamental principle in Phoenix. So it was driven away. But a snake
never lives alone, and no one knew how many were there in the vicinity and
they crept coming in. Eventually an Indian colonist, brought a gun, shot
the snake and kept vigil for the next two three days. He had two small
kids and for him safety and life of the children were of greater
importance than those of a snake. Gandhi seemed to have kept quiet. But as
believer in ahimsa he used to narrate stories from puranas wherein
dangerous creatures wrought no harm to people living in and near about
hermitages. He used to recall the practice in India where bowls of milk
are placed by mothers in sports frequented by snakes. The snakes partook
milk and children could rejoice in immunity from attack by the snakes.
This was the general belief.
The snake and the children thus could have coexistence without mutual
Gandhi's teaching had great influence on inmates of Phoenix colony. An
European settler, a hunter and meat-eater and who frequented African
jungles was naturally a gun trotter. He came under Gandhi's influence and
gave up his earlier habits. He started living in the colony in the simple
hut, assisting in community work, meditating and studying.
One day while going to his shed to fetch his bicycle, he saw two green
mambas coiled up quite near it. Just before observing them, he must have
disturbed them, for they were commencing to lift their head. He stood
still and watched them uncurl themselves. The shed was narrow and small
and too full of things, to allow him move, to avoid reptiles. He needed
the bicycle urgently to go to Durban fourteen miles away. His first
reaction naturally was to look for an implement to kill the reptiles. But
suddenly he remembered his new faith, and tried to put himself to severest
test. he thought, "Love overcometh all things, and man should fear
nothing that God has created." So he kept his calm. Slowly he
went towards the door and stood quietly. The snakes by now fully alert and
awake, commenced to move. First one looked around, then glided towards him
and then the door. He did not move or falter. The snake crept close by and
went into the open. The second snake turned its head to right, then left
and coming very close and almost touching him, also passed through the
door, leaving the person unharmed.
Later this Gandhian left South Africa to continue his humanitarian work
and teaching in Europe. He had by then trained himself to sleep with
horrible poisonous spiders. Gandhi's teachings and his own faith in the
principle of love had given him great strength.
Derived from Millie Graham Polak's book Gandhi, The Man.
The Crawling Royals -- They are feared, charmed, and worshiped; online exhibition on The Snakes in Indian Society