Soquel, California — Friday, October 21st
The path not taken
Every day I like to walk to the top of the hill above the beautiful Seva Ashram here in Soquel. It must be at least 450 feet (150 meters) to the top, and the winding footpath is quite steep in places, but it's worth the effort because the panoramic view from the top is magnificent.
Last year, when Srila Gurudeva was living at this spiritual retreat and decorating this land with his holy lotus feet, I attempted to describe the auspicious environment of this Arcadian paradise, but alas! I'm no poet...
On one such walk to the top of the hill in this veritable Garden of Eden (just above the apple orchard, appropriately enough) I encounter... a snake!
It is about three feet long and about an inch in diameter; two thirds of its mottled brown body lies danda straight, perpendicular to the path, barring my way; the remaining foot of this legless creature disappears into the long, dry grass.
I know that snakes typically bite when they are startled (I was born in Africa) so I stop immediately, freeze-framed in mid-stride.
But this snake is not startled: he lies absolutely straight, and absolutely still. The world whorls out of focus as the camera that is my eye zooms in until it's just the snake and me. I stare at him and he stares at me. Whose cue is it? What were those lines from D.H. Lawrence again?
And [I] must wait, must stand and wait,
for he was [there] before me...
He has the right-of-way, and I respect that, but why does he not swiftly slither away? I know he's not dead because his scales glisten in the early morning sun. And there is no telltale lump in his smooth body to indicate that a recently ingested meal is responsible for this indolence... But no matter:
Someone was before me...
And I, like a second comer, waiting.
Why did he just lie there so? If I thought his indolence was insolence... I stamp my foot impatiently. No reaction. I stamp my foot again, a little more irritably this time. Still nothing...
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed...
Whoa! I'm not that irritable! Lord knows I'm no killer. Besides, what would I kill him with?
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
"Why must you be so stubborn?" I blurt in frustration. "Get out of here!" Then, in a conciliatory tone: "Look, if this deadlock has to be resolved with one us dead lying dead on this path, it's not going to be me. You have taken your time, you have made your point: you're not afraid of me. Isn't that enough of a face-saving gesture?"
I don't know why I bother: snakes have no ears. We stare at each other. Since snakes have no eyelids either, it is no surprise that I blink first. Annoyed, I turn abruptly and walk quickly down the path, looking for—
It's not much of a stick, all crooked and rather flimsy, but it is a stick. "He'd better be gone by the time I get back..." I mutter, still hoping to avoid a confrontation.
But he is not gone. He is exactly where he was before.
"What is wrong with you?! Get out of my way!" I strike the stick on the ground no more than a foot from his face, but, incredibly, even this aggression provokes no reaction. "Don't make me kill you..."
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
No. I grew up in South Africa, home of the black mamba (the largest, fastest, most venomous snake on the African continent) where snakes were routinely killed without a second thought, so this guy doesn't scare me at all. This is a clash of wills: who will resort to violence first?
But who am I fooling? For all my posturing and posing, I just can't bring myself to kill this snake.
I try to slide the stick under the snake's body, but the twisted stick catches in the sand and I only succeed in pushing the snake a little further from me. And still it does not move!
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
Exasperated, I push the stick under his body and try to fling him off the path and into the grass, but because the stick is so thin and flexible, the snake flops just a couple of feet away...
...Suddenly that part of him that was left behind
convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone...
Gone from my sight, that is, but not from my consciousness... The trail to the top of the hill was clear, but the path I had chosen was vague, and my conscience was uneasy: "Why did you not kill it?"
It is so difficult to know what to do and what not to do, to discriminate between proper action and improper action (kim karma kim akarmeti) that even great scholars are perplexed (kavayo 'py atra mohitah).
We're told that even a saintly person (sadhu) is pleased when a snake is killed (modeta sadhur api / vriscika-sarpa-hatya) so why could I not bring myself to kill this snake?
I take no joy in climbing the hill now. Every time I do so, I think of that snake. But it is not the snake I fear: it is the unanswered question.
"Why did you not kill it?"
Why did I not listen to "the voice of my education," the voice of my experience, the voice of the shastra?
And what will I do if I meet the snake again?
Layout by iMonk — October 21st, 2005.