Snake and Rope

Modern Mythmaking 14 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, June 20, 2010

So I heard the breaking news that someone had opened fire at a guru. An attempted assassination, one was led to believe. The guru was not hurt but a follower was. The news upset me terribly: what is the world coming to, even gurus are not spared. Initially terrorists restricted themselves to adult men, then their targets included women and children. In some parts of the world, to escape detection, even pregnant women are made to carry weapons and bombs. Nothing is sacred anymore. Nothing. A decade or so ago, a holy site was used as a depot for illegal arms. For security reasons, the shrine was desecrated,an assassination took place, followed by riots and then a lingering silent hatred. Was it going to be the same again, I wondered. Gurus killed, bloodbath on the streets, agitations, protests. Was there to be no reprieve?

And then the next day, the government declared that there was no assassination attempt. Probably an internal fight between two followers. A minister was dismissive. The guru cried foul, demanding justice. Something was amiss. In papers, speculations were galore about a probable dispute with followers of another guru, infamous following a sex scandal. I moaned at the state of affairs.

And then finally, a newspaper report declared that it was all a misunderstanding. The alleged assassin’s bullet was fired near a farmhouse by a man who was trying to shoo away stray dogs who were threatening his chickens and sheep! So much for assassins and scandals. I laughed at the incident and at myself and everyone who believed in the worst.

I remembered a story from the Upanishads. A man once entered his house. It was night. All lights were shut. In the darkness he saw a snake. He let out a bloodcurdling yell. His wife rushed to his side carrying a lamp. In the lamp, it was clear that the snake was actually a rope left under the bed.

So what turned the rope into a snake? Was it the darkness in the room or our own anxiety? Wherefrom comes anxiety? The Upanishads warn us of our deep seated fears that shape our mind, making us see demons where there are none.

I remembered also an episode of Yes Minister, a British comedy series. The honorable minister is irritated by the security cover given to him following threat of an assassination; it strips him of all freedom. Later he is depressed when the security cover is taken away. He tells his wife, “Even assassins don’t think I am worthy of their bullet.”

That someone hates us enough to want to kill us makes us, in a perverse way, feel significant. And so we end up turning ropes into snakes all around us, and find vicarious pleasure in terror. We are enveloped by it. Every temple, every air port, every 5-star hotel is surrounded by layers of security. We are frisked everywhere we go. Our bags are checked. Traveling has become a punishment. All freedom has been taken away, because we assume that will keep us safe. There are more terrorists in our imagination than in real life. But in this dark room of modern society, we will never know which one is the rope and which one is the snake?

  • Agree that not all ropes are snakes, and not all snakes are apparently ropes.

    Isn’t precaution almost always better than cure?

    • Abhijit Chanda

      Difficult to strike a balance between fear and freedom

      • In India,a saint is called a ‘ SANT ‘i.e One who has attained SANT-ULAN – BALANCE’ ‘tween the Opposites !

        • subbu

          Then why the “SAINTS” like Durvasa, Vishwamitra etc faltered or shall i say lost their balance ?

    • Vedant Kantharia



      I completely agree with Mr. Patnaik that “There are more terrorists in our imagination than in real life.”

      Do you think, we the common man, who is being looked upon as a threat anywhere we go. Do you think going through all the Body frisking and luggage checking, is actually going to prevent us from being attacked.

      The one’s who want to attack us, would do so, come what may?

      Anyway…. Nice Article Mr Patnaik.

      I enjoy your writing.

  • Anil Satram

    “Snake-and-Rope” – very old narrative from Upanishad but candidly, veil of ignorance exists timelessly. How many of the modern world from the so called “learned society” can see things the way they really are? We see things and picture these on a canvas that is painted with so many conditioning and past experiences.

    What is required for us is that human beings start looking at things as they are unprejudiced.

    My 2 pence of thought.

    Kinds regards,

  • The last paragraph sums up the blog post really well. Very aptly written…

  • I remember a Zen teaching on reading this article-:

    One fine spring day…

    a disciple looked at some branches blowing in the wind.

    He asked his master…

    “Master, are the branches moving
    or is it the wind?”

    Not even glancing to where
    his pupil was pointing…

    the master smiled and said…

    “That which moves is neither
    the branches nor the wind… ”

    “It’s your heart and mind. “

  • Hari Krishna Gupta

    yes agreed
    all the problem is our deep rooted fear &incidents which made us to think like that.

    all depend on the state of the mind in that position


    Hari Krishna Gupta

  • Sriharsha

    u need to be cautious without getting hyper about this. U aleniate everyone becoaue of u r own fears.

  • Rashmi

    The views expressed in this article are so true! There are several times when one becomes hyper due to unreasonable fear during travelling or interacting with strangers. For somebody like me who has seen riots and the killings, the fear of interacting with people of that particular religion is so high that I automatically judge them of the same murderous cadre!! Though I have family frineds and colleagues of that religion, yet…….and not all of them are like that! Yes, its all in the mind. We allow emotions to cloud our rationality.

  • The frequent,ceaseless admonitions in childhood- DON’T s – destroys the ‘daring to explore’Fear of dark spaces and ghosts etc is instilled in children. Osho advised that one cannot build walls of security-with money etc..

  • Nonyameko Afiya

    Fear is over-rated! (In my opinion)
    We give too much energy to fear!
    Waaaaay too much energy!!

  • Devdutt, wondering how many people fire a bullet in the air to scare away strays? Bangalore has over 50,000 strays at last count…..