The serpent that gave forth gold

Experts agree that it is the small biodiverse farms that actually grow 'real' food, the food that is high on nutrition and not genetically engineered. They point out that the genesis of fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals lies in the death-labs that produced nerve gases during World War Two; that these industries create and sell both the poison and its remedy, which may keep some people in profitable business but destroys many livelihoods and lives in land-use and food production. While these issues are being debated, it may be relevant to remember the famous Jataka about the gold-giving serpent and the greedy farmer.

The story goes that one day a poor farmer named Haridatta (significant name, surely) lay down for an afternoon nap in the shade of a tree by his field. When he awoke, he saw a serpent coming forth from an anthill nearby. Acknowledging the snake as the Nag-Devta guardian of his fields, he left a bowl of milk for it before going home. Next day, he was astonished to find a gold coin in the bowl. This became the pattern and prevailed for many days. The farmer grew prosperous and never failed to loudly thank the serpent each morning.

One day, when he needed to travel, he told his son to take the bowl of milk to the anthill. When the son saw the gold coin the next morning, he thought, 'There must be so many gold coins under this spot. I will kill the snake tomorrow and take them all.' Next day, he waited until the snake emerged and aimed a blow at its head with his lathi. The snake twisted in pain and bit the young man, who died in agony right there. The villagers found him and promptly cremated him where he lay.

When the farmer came back to this horrible news, he grieved bitterly for his son. But such was his addiction to the gold coins that he actually went back as usual to the anthill with a bowl of milk and in a loud voice, praised the snake as his benefactor.

The snake poked its head out of the anthill and spoke scornfully to the farmer: 'I despise your greed. Your son struck my head and I bit him in rage. How can I forget the blow, or you, his death?' It let fall a rare pearl as a parting gift and vanished.

A story for our times like never before?

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture


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