The Rumi story of the rider and the man who swallowed a snake first appears in Book 2 (out of 6) of the Mathnawi. I have read two later versions of this story. One of them is the 18th century version by Salim Abdali. The other is the 20th century version by Coleman Barks, called “Jesus on the lean donkey.” I am sharing the Salim Abdali version, found in the book “Tales of the Dervishes” by Idries Shah.
I am sharing this story because there is a section in the Coleman Barks version that captures the feeling I felt when I first wrote about Step 65 “I have come to work in the world” of Steps to Knowledge. The line that skewers my soul is “God’s Silence is necessary, because of humankind’s faintheartedness.” Here is the story.
The Horseman and the Snake
There is a proverb that the “opposition” of the man of knowledge is better than the “support” of the fool.
I, Salim Abdali, bear witness that this is true in the greater ranges of existence, as it is true in the lower levels.
This is made manifest in the tradition of the Wise, who have handed down the tale of the Horseman and the Snake.
A horseman from his point of vantage saw a poisonous snake slip down the throat of a sleeping man. The horseman realized that if the man were allowed to sleep the venom would surely kill him.
Accordingly he lashed the sleeper until he was awake. Having no time to lose, he forced this man to a place where there were a number of rotten apples lying upon the ground and made him eat them. Then he made him drink large gulps of water from a stream.
All the while the other man was trying to get away, crying “What have I done, you enemy of humanity, that you should abuse me in this manner?”
Finally, when he was near to exhaustion, and dusk was falling, the man fell to the ground and vomited out the apples, the water, and the snake. When he saw what had came out of him, he realized what had happened, and begged the forgiveness of the horseman.
This is our condition. In reading this, do not take allegory for history, nor history for allegory. Those who are endowed with knowledge have responsibility. Those who are not, have none beyond what they can conjecture.
The man who was saved said: “If you had told me, I would have accepted your treatment with a good grace.”
The horseman answered: “If I had told you, you would not have believed. Or you would have been paralyzed by fright. Or run away. Or gone to sleep again, seeking forgetfulness. And there would not have been time.”
Spurring his horse, the mysterious rider rode away.
I read the tale of The Horseman and the Snake, and I cry out that my heart might be less faint.
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