Wednesday, August 12, 2009

[Sunlight] "The Rider and the Man Who Swallowed a Snake"


Today, Sunlight offers the Mathnawi story of the man who
swallowed a snake, in a version by Coleman Barks, and in translation
by Dr. Ibrahim Gamard:


Jesus on the lean donkey,
this is an emblem of how the rational intellect
should control the animal-soul.
Let your spirit
be strong like Jesus.
If that part becomes weak,
then the worn out donkey grows to a dragon.

Be grateful when what seems unkind
comes from a wise person.
Once, a holy man,
riding his donkey, saw a snake crawling into
a sleeping man's mouth! He hurried, but he couldn't
prevent it. He hit the man several blows with his club.

The man woke terrified, and ran beneath an apple tree
with many rotten apples on the ground.
You miserable wretch! Eat!"
"Why are you doing this to
"Eat more you fool."
"I've never seen you
Who are you? Do you have some inner quarrel with my soul?"

The wise man kept forcing him to eat, and then he ran him.
For hours he whipped the poor man and made him run.
Finally at nightfall, full of rotten apples,
fatigued, bleeding, he fell
and vomited everything,
The good and the bad, the apples and the snake.
When he saw that ugly snake
come out of himself, he fell on his knees
before his assailant.
"Are you Gabriel? Are you God?
I bless the moment you first noticed me. I was dead
and didn't know it. You gave me new life.
Everything I've said to you was stupid!
I didn't know."
"If I had explained what I was
you might have panicked and died of fear.
Muhammad said,
'If I described the enemy that
inside men, even the most courageous would be paralysed. No one
would go out, or do any work. No one would pray or fast,
and all power to change would fade
from human beings,'
so I kept quiet
while I was beating you, that like David
I might shape iron, so that, impossibly,
I might put feathers back into a bird's wing.

God's silence is necessary, because of humankind's
faintheartedness. If I had told you about the snake,
you wouldn't have been able to eat, and if
you hadn't eaten, you wouldn't have vomited.

I saw your condition and drove my donkey hard
into the middle of it, saying always, under my breath,
'Lord, make it easy on him' I wasn't permitted
to tell you, and I wasn't permitted to stop
beating you!"
The healed man, still kneeling,
"I have no way to thank you for the quickness
of your wisdom and the strength of your guidance.
God will thank you."

-- Mathnawi II, Verses 1858-1929 (Excerpts)
Version by Coleman Barks, based on the translation
by Nicholson
"The Essential Rumi"
HarperSanFrancisco, 1995


The Rider and the Man Who Swallowed a Snake

Mathnawi II: 1878-1915, 1923-1926, 1930

A wise man was coming, riding on (his) horse, (while) a snake
was going into the mouth of a sleeping man.*
The rider saw that, and acted quickly so that he might scare away
the snake, (but) he found no opportunity.
Since he had the aid of great intelligence, he hit the sleeper
several times with a strong iron-covered club.
(The man) took the blows of that hard mace, and fled from him
until (he arrived) beneath a tree.
Many rotten apples had fallen (there), and (the rider) commanded:
"Eat these, O you (who) are dangling (helplessly) in pain!"
He gave so many apples for him to eat* that they were falling back
out of his mouth.
He was yelling, "O prince, why have you made (killing) me your
intention, (when) you haven't seen (any) injustice (from me)?*
"If you have an authentic quarrel against my life, (then) strike
(your) sword immediately (and) spill my blood!
"(What) an unlucky hour when I became visible to you! Oh happy
(is) the one who never saw your face!
"Without (any) crime or sin, without (doing) more or less-- (even)
heretics don't consider this (kind of) ill-treatment (to be)
"Blood is leaping from my mouth (along) with (my) words. O
God, retaliate against him in the end!"
He was shouting new curses every moment, (while the rider) kept
beating him, (and) saying, "Run into the desert plain!"
Blows of the mace (continued), and a rider (in pursuit) like the
wind! (The man) was running, and again (and again), he fell on (his)
He was full-fed, filled with drowsiness, and weak; his feet and
face were (covered with) a hundred thousand wounds.
(The rider) kept leading and releasing (him) up to night time,
until vomiting overcame him, caused by (excess) bile.
Everything consumed, bad or good, came up from him: the snake,
together with (everything else) that (was) eaten leaped out of him.
When he saw the snake outside of him, he fell on his face before
that benevolent (man).
(And) when he saw the terror of that big black ugly snake, those
sufferings left him.
He said, "You are (the angel) Gabriel, himself, or (else) you are
God, since you are the protecting friend of merciful kindness!
"Oh (what) a blessed hour (it was) when you saw me; I was dead
(and) you gave me a new life.
"You were seeking me like mothers [searching for their children]
(but) I was running away from you like donkeys.
"The donkey flees from (its) master because of (its) donkey-
nature, (while) its owner (follows) in (its) tracks because of
(his) good-nature;
"He seeks it, not because of profit or loss, but so that a wolf or
(other) wild animal may not tear it (to pieces).
"Oh (how) blessed (is) the one who sees your face, or (who)
suddenly comes upon your lane!
"O you, whom the pure spirit* has praised! (How) many babbling
and foolish (things) I said to you!
"O lord and emperor and prince! I didn't speak, (but) my
ignorance said (those words). Don't hold it (against me)!
"If I had known the least bit about this situation, I never would
have been capable of (such) foolish talk.
"I would have said many (things in) praise (of you instead), O you
of excellent qualities, if you had said one hint to me about the
"But you, acting in silence, were (so) disturbed, (and) were
quietly pounding my head!
"My mind became crazy (and) reason leaped out of my skull,
especially (since) this head has very little brain.
"Pardon (me), O you of fine appearance and manners! What
(ever) I said because of frenzy, let (it) pass!"
(The rider) answered, "If I had said (even) a hint about it, (all
of) your gall* would have turned (into) water that instant.
"If I had told you (about) the snake's qualities, the (resulting)
fear would have lifted the breath of life (right) out of your soul!"
Muhammad said:* "If I speak truly (about) the description of the
enemy which is within your souls,
"Even the gallbladders of brave men would burst; they* would not
travel on the roads, nor would they be concerned about any work.
"Nor would endurance remain in their hearts for supplications (to
God), nor would strength (remain) for fasting and ritual prayer.
"They would become as nothing, like a mouse before a cat, and
(deeply) troubled, like a lamb before a wolf.
"(And) no strategy or movement would remain to them.
Therefore, I am supporting you without speaking."

. . . . . . . . . . . .

(The rider said,) "You would not have had the strength for eating
(the apples), nor (would you have had) a way or care to vomit.
"I kept hearing (your) curses, but I kept 'driving the donkey
(forward).'* (And) I kept reciting in a whisper, 'O Lord, make (it)
"I had no permission to speak about the cause (and yet) I had no
ability to talk about leaving you.
I kept reciting, every moment from (my) inward sorrow, '(O
God,) guide my people, for truly they do not know!'"*
. . . . . . . . . . . .

This is the form of the "hostility" of the wise ones; their poison
is a joy for souls!*

-- Translation from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard
(with gratitude to R.A. Nicholson's for his 1926
British translation)
From "The Mathnawî-yé Ma`nawî" (Rhymed
Couplets of Deep Spiritual Meaning) of
Jalaluddin Rumi.
Footnotes courtesy of Ibrahim Gamard.
(C) Ibrahim Gamard

*sleeping man: "The Amír [= Prince] in this Story represents a
murshid [= sufi guide], while the man who swallowed the snake is a
sensualist. The nafs [=ego] is frequently symbolised by a snake."
(Nicholson, Commentary)
*to eat: Nicholson later changed this, because of a misprint in his
Persian text, to: "He gave him so many apples to eat" (from: "He
gave the man...").
*you haven't seen (any) injustice (from me): Nicholson later
changed this, based on the earliest manuscript of the Mathnawi to:
"when you have not suffered injury" (from: "What have I done to
*the pure spirit: "probably refers to the angels, who paid homage to
the Perfect Man (Adam)." (Nicholson, Commentary)
*gall: means courage, based on ancient beliefs that courage was
linked to the "fiery" quality of bile from the gallbladder. This usage
exists in English, in the sense of rude fearlessness: "He had a lot of
gall to do a thing like that."
*Muhammad said: "Cf. the Hadíth: a'dá 'aduwika nafsuka 'llatí
bayna janbayka, 'thy worst enemy is thy nafs [= ego] which is
between thy sides.'" (Nicholson, Commentary)
*they: literally, "he" in the following couplets.
*driving the donkey: Nicholson translated this as an idiom: "I heard
(your) abuse and went on with my work"-- "Literally, 'I was driving
my ass along.'" (Nicholson, footnote)
*they do not know: "The story goes that in the battle of Uhud a stone
hurled by one of the Quraysh broke the Prophet's teeth; but instead of
cursing his enemies he cried, 'O God, guide my people, for verily
they know not." (Nicholson, Commentary)
*a joy for souls: "i.e. the remedies they apply are drastic and bitter
as poison, but the result is spiritual happiness." (Nicholson,


`âqilê bar asp mê-âm-ad sowâr
dar dahân-é khofta-yê mê-raft mâr

ân sowâr ân-râ be-dîd-o mê-shetâft
tâ ramân-ad mâr-râ, furSat na-yâft

chûn-ke az `aql-ash farâwân bod madad
chand dabûsê qawî bar khofta zad

bord ô-râ az zakhm-é ân dabbûs-é sakht
z-ô gorêzân tâ ba zêr-é yak derakht

sêb-é pôsîda basê bod rêkhta
goft az-în khwar, ay ba-dard âwêkhta

sêb chandân mar ô-râ dar khward dâd
k-az dahân-ash bâz bêrûn mê-fotâd

gar to-râ z-aSl-ast bâ jân-am setêz
têgh zan yak-baragê khûn-am be-rêz

shûm sâ`at ke shod-am bar tô padîd
ay khonok ân-râ ke rôy-é tô na-dîd

bê-jinâyat, bê-gonah, bê-bêsh-o kam
mulHid-ân jâyiz na-dâr-and în setam

mê-jah-ad khûn az dahân-am bâ sokhon
ay khodâ âkhir mukâfât-ash tô kon

har zamân mê-goft ô nafrîn-é naw
ô-sh mê-zad k-andar-în SaHrâ be-daw

zakhm-é dabbûs-o sowâr-é hamchô bâd
mê-dawîd-o bâz dar rô mê-fotâd

mumtalî-wo khwâb-nâk-o sost bod
pâ-wo rôy-ash Sad hazâr-ân zakhm shod

tâ shabân-gah mê-kashîd-o mê-goshâd
tâ ze-Safrâ qay shodan bar way fotâd

z-ô bar âmad khwarda-hâ zesht-o nekô
mâr bâ ân khwarda bêrûn jast az-ô

chûn be-dîd az khwad berûn ân mâr-râ
sajda âward ân nekô-kardâr-râ

sahm-é ân mâr-é seyâh-é zesht-é zaft
chûn be-dîd, ân dard-hâ az way be-raft

goft khwad tô jibra'îl-é raHmat-î
yâ khodây-î ke waliyy-é ni`mat-î

ay mubârak sâ`atê ke dîdî-am
morda bûd-am, jân-é naw bakhshîdî-am

tô ma-râ jôy-ân miSâl-é mâdar-ân
man gorêzân az tô mânand-é khar-ân

khar gorêz-ad az khodâwand az kharî
SâHib-ash dar pay ze-nêkô-gawharî

na az pay-é sûd-o zeyân mê-jôy-ad-ash
lêk tâ gorg-ash na-darr-ad yâ dad-ash

ay khonok ân-râ ke bîn-ad rôy-é tô
yâ dar oftad nâ-gahân dar kôy-é tô

ay rawân-é pâk be-setûda to-râ
chand goft-am zhâzh-o bêhûda to-râ

ay khodâwand-o shahenshâh-o amîr
man na-goft-am, jahl-é man goft, ân ma-gîr

shamma'yê z-în Hâl agar dân-ast-am-y
goftan-é bêhûda kay tawânast-am-y?

bas Sanâyat goftam-y ay khwash-khiSâl
gar ma-râ yak ramz mê-goft-î ze-Hâl

lêk khâmosh-karda mê-âshôft-î
khâmush-âna bar sar-am mê-kôft-î

shod sar-am kâlîwa, `aql az sar be-jast
khâSSa în sar-râ ke maghz-ash kam-tar-ast

`afw kon ay khôb-rôy-é khôb-kâr
ân-che goft-am az junûn andar goZâr

goft agar man goft-am-y ranzê az ân
zahra-yé tô âb gasht-y ân zamân

gar tô-râ man goft-am-y awSâf-é mâr
tars az jân-at bar âward-y damâr

muSTafà farmûd agar gôy-am ba-râst
sharH-é ân doshman ke dar jân-é shomâ-st

zahra-hây-é por-del-ân ham bar dar-ad
nay raw-ad rah, nay gham-é kârê khwar-ad

na del-ash-râ tâb mân-ad dar neyâz
na tan-ash-râ quwwat-é rôza-w' namâz

hamchô môshê pêsh-é gorba lâ shaw-ad
hamchô barra pêsh-é gorg az jâ raw-ad

andar-ô na Hîla mân-ad na rawesh
pas kon-am nâ-gofta-tân man parwaresh

. . . . . . .

mar to-râ na quwwat-é khwardan bod-y
na rah-o parwây-é qay kardan bod-y

mê-shenîd-am fuHsh-o khar mê-rând-am
rabbi yassir zêr-é lab mê-khwând-am

az sabab goftan ma-râ dastûr nay
tark-é tô goftan ma-râ maqdûr nay

har zamân mê-goft-am az dard-é darûn
ihdi qawmî innahum lâ ya`lamûn

. . . . . . .

doshmanîy-é `âqil-ân z-în sân bow-ad
zahr-é îshân ibtahâj-é jân bow-ad

-- Persian transliteration courtesy of Ibrahim Gamard




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