A Guide to Health/Part 2/Chapter 12

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A Guide to Health  (1921) 
Mohandas K. Gandhi, translated by A. Rama Iyer
Accidents—Snake Bite
S. Ganesan pages 132-140

Chapter XII

SOME ACCIDENTS—(Contd.)

Snake-bite

There is no limit to the superstitious current among us in regard to snakes. From time immemorial we have cultivated a terrible fear of the snake; we even dread the very mention of its name. The Hindus worship the serpent, and have set apart a day in the year (Nagapanchami) for that purpose. They suppose that the earth is supported by the great serpent Sesha. God Vishnu is called Seshasayee, as he is supposed to sleep on the Serpent-God; and God Siva is supposed to have a garland of serpents round his neck! We say that such and such a thing cannot be described even by the thousand-tongued Adisesha, implying our belief in the snake's knowledge and discretion. The serpent Karkotaka is said to have bitten King Nala and deformed him, so that he might not suffer any harm in the course of his wanderings. Such conceptions are also to be met with among the Christian nations of the West. In English a man is very often described to be as wise and cunning as a serpent. And in the Bible, Satan is, said to have assumed the shape of a serpent in order to tempt Eve.

The real reason for the popular dread of snakes is obvious. If the snake's poison should spread over the whole body, death must necessarily ensue; and since the idea of death is so dreadful to us, we dread the very name of a snake. Hence, our worship of the snake is really based on our fear. If the snake were a little creature, it would hardly be worshipped by us; but since it is a big creature, and a strangely fascinating one, it has come to be deified and worshipped.

The Western scientists of to-day hold that the snake is merely a creature of instinct, and it should be destroyed forthwith wherever found. From the official statistics, we gather that not less than 20,000 persons die every year in India of snake-bite alone. The destruction of every venomous snake is rewarded by the state, but it is really a question if the country has benefitted by it in any way. We find from experience that a snake never bites wantonly, but only as a retaliatory measure when it is molested in any way. Does this not bespeak its discretion, or at the least its innocence? The attempt to rid Hindustan, or any portion thereof, of snakes is as ridiculous and futile as trying to wrestle with the air. It may be possible to prevent snakes coming to a particular place by a systematic process of extermination, but this can never be done on a large scale. In a vast country like India, it would be an altogether foolish enterprise to try to avoid snake-bites by wholesale destruction of the snakes.

Let us never forget that the serpents have been created by the same god who created us and all other creatures. God's ways are inscrutable, but we may rest assured that He did not create animals like the lion and the tiger, the serpent and the scorpion, in order to bring about the destruction of the human race. If the serpents were to meet in council and conclude that man has been created by god for their destruction, seeing that he generally destroys a snake wherever found, should we approve of their conclusion? Surely not. In the same way, we are wrong in regarding the serpent as a natural enemy of man.

The great St. Francis of Asissi, who used to roam about the forests, was not hurt by the serpents or the wild beasts, but they even lived on terms of intimacy with him. So too, thousands of Yogis and Fakirs live in the forests of Hindustan, amidst lions and tigers and serpents, but we never hear of their meeting death at the hands of these animals. It might, however, be contended that they must certainly be meeting their death in the forests, but that we do not hear of it, as we live so far away. Granted; but we cannot deny that the number of Yogis that live in the forests is nothing in comparison with that of the serpents and wild beasts, so that, if these animals were really the natural enemies of man, the whole race of Yogis and other dwellers in the forests should become very rapidly extinct, especially since they have no weapons with which to defend themselves against their attacks. But they have by no means become extinct, and we may conclude, therefore, that they have been allowed to live unmolested in the forests by the serpents and wild beasts. In fact, I have implicit faith in the doctrine that, so long as man is not inimical to the other creatures, they will not be inimical to him. Love is the greatest of the attributes of man. Without it the worship of God would be an empty nothing. It is, in short, the root of all religion whatsoever.

Besides, why should we not regard the cruelty of the serpents and the wild beasts as merely the product and reflection of man's own nature? Are we any the less murderous than they? Are not our tongues as venomous as the serpent's fangs? Do we not prey upon our innocent brethren much in the same way as lions and leopards? All scriptures proclaim that, when man becomes absolutely harmless, all the other animals will begin to live on terms of intimacy with him. When feuds and conflicts as fierce as that between the lion and the lamb are going on within our own breasts, is it any wonder that much things should go on in the external world? For, we are but the reflection of the world around us; all the features of the external world are found reflected in the inner world of our mind. When we change our nature, the world around should also inevitably change. Do we not find that the world assumes a totally different aspect to those individual men and women who change their own nature by strenuous self-discipline? This is the great mystery of God's creation as well as the great secret of true happiness. Our happiness or otherwise rests entirely upon what we are; we have no need to depend on other people at all in this matter.

Our excuse for writing at such length on snake-bite is this. Rather than merely prescribe cure for snake-bite, we thought it as well to go a little more deeply into the matter, and point out the best way of getting rid of our foolish fears. If even a single reader were to adopt in practice the principles we have been discussing, we shall consider our effort amply rewarded. Moreover, our object in writing these pages is not merely to give the generally accepted hygienic principles, but to go to the root of the matter, and deal with the most fundamental principles of health.

Modern investigations have also shown that the man who is perfectly healthy, whose blood has not been tainted by excess of heat, and whose food is wholesome and Satvic, is not immediately affected by the poison of the snake, but that, on the other hand, its effect is instantaneous as well as fatal on the man whose blood has been tainted by drink or unwholesome food. One doctor goes so far as to say that the blood of the man who eschews salt and the like, and lives exclusively on a fruit-diet, remains so pure that no kind of poison can have any effect on him. I have not had enough experience myself to say how far this is true. The man whose diet has been free from salt and the like for only one or two years cannot be said to have attanied this stage of perfect immunity, for the blood which has been tainted and poisoned by bad practices continued for years cannot be brought back to its normal state of purity in the short period of a year or two.

It has further been scientifically demonstrated that a man under the influence of fear or anger is much more and much sooner, affected by poison than when in the normal condition. Everybody knows how fear and anger make the pulse and the heart beat faster than the normal rate, and the quicker the flow of blood in the veins, the greater the heat generated. But the heat generated by evil passions is not healthy, but extremely harmful. Anger is, indeed, nothing but vareity of fever. Hence the best antidote against snake-bite is to use pure and Satvic food in moderation, to rid our minds of all evil passions like anger and fear, to refrain from giving way to panic, to retain perfect confidence in the saving power of a pure and Godly life, and to remain self-possessed in the full faith that we are ever in God's hands, and that the span of life which He has allotted to us can on no account be curtailed or exceeded.

Dr. Fitz-Seaman, the Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum, who has devoted a large portion of his life to the study of snakes, their varieties and their habits, and who is a great authority on snakebite and its cure, has told us, as a result of his numerous experiments, that the majority of the so-called deaths by snake-bite are really caused by fear and the wrong remedies applied by quacks.

We should remember that all snakes are not venomous, and that even the bite of all venomous snakes is not immediately fatal either. Moreover, the snakes do not always get an opportunity of injecting their venom into the body of their victim. We should not, therefore, give way to panic even when we are bitten by a venomous serpent, especially since very simple remedies are available, which can be applied by ourselves without any aid from others.

The part of the body immediately above the point at which the snake has bitten should be tied round with tight bandage, which should be further strengthened by means of strong pencils or pieces of wood, so that the poison may not ascend through the veins. Then the wound should be cut half an inch deep with the fine point of a knife, so that the poisoned blood may freely flow, and the hollow should be filled with the dark-red powder sold in the bazaars and known as Potassium Permanganate. If this is not available, the blood issuing from the wound should be well sucked and spat out, by the patient himself or by somebody else, until all the poison has been removed. Of course, no man who has a wound on the lips or the tongue should be allowed to suck this poisoned blood. This treatement should be applied within, 7 minutes of the accident,—that is to say, before the poison has had time to ascend and disuse through the body. As already mentioned, the German doctor who has specialised in mud-cure, claims to have cured snake-bite by burying the patient under fresh earth. Although I have not tried the use of mud in snake-bites, I have unbounded faith in its efficacy from my experience in other cases. After the application of Potassium Permanganate (or the sucking out of the blood, in the alternative,) a poultice of mud half an inch in thickness, and big enough to cover the whole region around and above the affected part, should be applied. There should be kept in every home a quantity of well-sifted and powdered mud in a tin ready for use. It should be so kept as to be exposed to light and air, and free from dampness. Suitable bandages of cloth should also be kept so as to be within reach when needed. These will be found useful not only in snake-bite, but in numberless other cases as well.

If the patient has lost consciousness, or if respiration seems to have ceased, the process of artificial respiration already described in connection with drowning should be resorted to. Hot water, or preferably a decoction of cloves and the bark of the bay-tree, is very useful for recovering consciousness. The patient should be kept in the open air, but if his body seems to have taken cold, bottles of hot water should be employed, or a piece of flannel dipped in hot water and wrung out should be rubbed over the body, to produce warmth.