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Once upon a time, the cowherd men of Vṛndāvana, headed by Nanda Mahārāja, desired to go to Ambikāvana to observe the Śiva-rātri ceremony. The rāsa-līlā was performed during the autumn, and after that the next big ceremony is Holi, or the Dolāyātrā ceremony. Between the Dolāyātrā ceremony and the rāsa-līlā ceremony there is an important ceremony called Śiva-rātri, which is especially observed by the Śaivites, or devotees of Lord Śiva. Sometimes the Vaiṣṇavas also observe this ceremony because they accept Lord Śiva as the foremost Vaiṣṇava. But the function of Śiva-rātri is not observed very regularly by the bhaktas, or devotees of Kṛṣṇa. Under the circumstances, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam states that Nanda Mahārāja and the other cowherd men “once upon a time desired.” This means that they were not regularly observing the Śiva-rātri function but that once upon a time they wanted to go to Ambikāvana out of curiosity. Ambikāvana is somewhere in Gujarat Province, and it is said to be situated on the river Sarasvatī. Yet we do not find any Sarasvatī River in Gujarat Province, although there is a river named Savarmatī. In India, all the big places of pilgrimage are situated on nice rivers like the Ganges, Yamunā, Sarasvatī, Narmadā, Godāvarī and Kāverī. Ambikāvana was situated on the bank of the Sarasvatī, and Nanda Mahārāja and all the other cowherd men went there.
They very devotedly began to worship the deity of Lord Śiva and Ambikā. It is the general practice that wherever there is a temple of Lord Śiva, there must be another temple, of Ambikā (or Durgā), because Ambikā is the wife of Lord Śiva and is the most exalted of chaste women. She doesn’t live outside the association of her husband. After reaching Ambikāvana, the cowherd men of Vṛndāvana first bathed themselves in the river Sarasvatī. If one goes to any place of pilgrimage, his first duty is to take a bath and sometimes to shave his head. That is the first business. After taking a bath, they worshiped the deities and then distributed charity in the holy places.
According to the Vedic system, charity is given to the brāhmaṇas. It is stated in the Vedic śāstras that only the brāhmaṇas and the sannyāsīs can accept charity. The cowherd men from Vṛndāvana gave the brāhmaṇas cows decorated with golden ornaments and beautiful garlands. The brāhmaṇas are given charity because they are not engaged in any business profession. They are supposed to be engaged in brahminical occupations, as described in the Bhagavad-gītā—namely, they must be very learned and must perform austerity and penances. Not only must they themselves be learned, but they must also teach others. Brāhmaṇas are not meant to be brāhmaṇas alone: they should create other brāhmaṇas also. If a man is found who agrees to become a brāhmaṇa’s disciple, he is also given the chance to become a brāhmaṇa. The brāhmaṇa is always engaged in the worship of Lord Viṣṇu. Therefore the brāhmaṇas are eligible to accept all kinds of charity. But if the brāhmaṇas receive excess charity, they are to distribute it for the service of Viṣṇu. In the Vedic scriptures, therefore, one is recommended to give charity to the brāhmaṇas, and by so doing one pleases Lord Viṣṇu and all the demigods.
The pilgrims take a bath, worship the deity and give charity; they are also recommended to fast one day. They should go to a place of pilgrimage and stay there at least for three days. The first day is spent fasting, and at night they can drink a little water because water does not break the fast.
The cowherd men, headed by Nanda Mahārāja, spent that night on the bank of the Sarasvatī. They fasted all day and drank a little water at night. But while they were taking rest, a great serpent from the nearby forest appeared before them and hungrily began to swallow up Nanda Mahārāja. Nanda cried out helplessly, “My dear son, Kṛṣṇa, please come and save me from this danger! This serpent is swallowing me!” When Nanda Mahārāja cried for help, all the cowherd men got up and saw what was happening. They immediately took up burning logs and began to beat the snake to kill it. But in spite of being beaten with burning logs, the serpent was not about to give up swallowing Nanda Mahārāja.
At that time Kṛṣṇa appeared on the scene and touched the serpent with His lotus feet. Immediately upon being touched by the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa, the serpent shed its reptilian body and appeared as a very beautiful demigod named Vidyādhara. His bodily features were so beautiful that he appeared to be worshipable. There was a luster and effulgence emanating from his body, and he was garlanded with a gold necklace. He offered obeisances to Lord Kṛṣṇa and stood before Him with great humility. Kṛṣṇa then asked the demigod, “You appear to be a very nice demigod and to be favored by the goddess of fortune. How is it that you performed such abominable activities that you got the body of a serpent?” The demigod then began to narrate the story of his previous life.
“My dear Lord,” he said, “in my previous life I was named Vidyādhara and was known all over the world for my beauty. Because I was a celebrated personality, I used to travel all over in my airplane. While traveling, I saw a great sage named Aṅgirā. He was very ugly, and because I was very proud of my beauty, I laughed at him. Due to this sinful act, I was condemned by the great sage to assume the form of a serpent.”
One should note here that before being favored by Kṛṣṇa a person is always under the modes of material nature, however elevated he may be materially. Vidyādhara was a materially elevated demigod, and he was very beautiful. He also held a great material position and was able to travel all over by airplane. Yet he was condemned to become a serpent in his next life. Any materially elevated person can be condemned to an abominable species of life if he is not careful. It is a misconception that after reaching the human body one is never degraded. Vidyādhara himself stated that even though he was a demigod he was condemned to become a serpent. But because he was touched by the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa, he immediately came to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. He admitted, however, that in his previous life he was actually sinful. A Kṛṣṇa conscious person knows that he is always the servant of the servant of Kṛṣṇa; he is most insignificant, and whatever good he does is by the grace of Kṛṣṇa and the spiritual master (CC Madhya 13.80).
The demigod Vidyādhara continued to speak to Śrī Kṛṣṇa. “Because I was very proud of the exquisite beauty of my body,” he said, “I derided the ugly features of the great sage Aṅgirā. He cursed me for my sin, and I became a snake. Now I consider that this curse by the sage was not at all a curse; it was a great benediction for me. Had he not cursed me, I would not have assumed the body of a serpent and would not have been kicked by Your lotus feet and thus freed from all material contamination.”
In material existence, four things are very valuable: to be born in a decent family, to be very rich, to be very learned and to be very beautiful. These are considered to be material assets. Unfortunately, without Kṛṣṇa consciousness, these material assets sometimes become sources of sin and degradation. Despite Vidyādhara’s being a demigod and having a beautiful body, he was condemned to the body of a snake due to pride. Therefore from this incident we can learn that those who are too proud of their material assets or who are inimical toward others are degraded to the bodies of snakes. A snake is considered to be the most cruel and envious living entity, but those who are human beings and are envious of others are considered to be even more vicious than snakes. The snake can be charmed or controlled by mantras and herbs, but a person who is envious cannot be controlled by anyone.
“My dear Lord,” Vidyādhara continued, “now, since I think I have become freed from all kinds of sinful activities, I am asking Your permission to return to my abode, the heavenly planets.” This request indicates that persons who are attached to fruitive activities, desiring promotion to the comforts of higher planetary systems, cannot achieve their ultimate goal of life without the sanction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. It is also stated in the Bhagavad-gītā that the less intelligent want to achieve material benefits and therefore worship different kinds of demigods, but they actually get the benedictions from the demigods through the permission of Lord Viṣṇu, or Kṛṣṇa. Demigods have no power to bestow material profit. Even if one is attached to material benedictions, he should worship Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and ask Him. Kṛṣṇa is completely able to give even material benedictions. There is a difference, however, between asking material benedictions from the demigods and asking them from Kṛṣṇa. Dhruva Mahārāja worshiped the Supreme Personality of Godhead for a material benediction, but when he actually achieved the favor of the Supreme Lord and saw Him, he was so satisfied that he refused to accept any material benediction. The intelligent person does not worship the demigods or ask favors from them; he directly becomes Kṛṣṇa conscious, and if he has any desire for material benefit, he asks Kṛṣṇa, not the demigods.
Vidyādhara, awaiting Kṛṣṇa’s permission to return to the heavenly planets, said, “Now, because I have been touched by Your lotus feet, I am relieved of all kinds of material pangs. You are the most powerful of all mystics. You are the original Supreme Personality of Godhead. You are the master of all devotees. You are the proprietor of all planetary systems, and therefore I am asking Your permission. You may accept me as fully surrendered unto You. I know very well that persons who are constantly engaged in chanting Your holy name attain release from all sinful reactions, and certainly persons who are fortunate enough to be personally touched by Your lotus feet are freed. Therefore I am sure that I am now relieved of the curse of the brāhmaṇa simply by seeing You and being touched by Your lotus feet.”
In this way, Vidyādhara got permission from Lord Kṛṣṇa to return to his home in the higher planetary system. After receiving this permission, he circumambulated the Lord and offered his respectful obeisances unto Him, and then he returned to his heavenly planet. Thus Nanda Mahārāja was relieved of the imminent danger of being devoured by the snake.
The cowherd men, who had come to execute the ritualistic function of worshiping Lord Śiva and Ambikā, finished their business and prepared to return to Vṛndāvana. While returning, they recalled the wonderful activities of Kṛṣṇa. By relating the incident of Vidyādhara’s deliverance, they became more attached to Kṛṣṇa. They had come to worship Lord Śiva and Ambikā, but the result was that they became more and more attached to Kṛṣṇa. Similarly, the gopīs worshiped goddess Kātyāyanī to become more and more attached to Kṛṣṇa. It is stated in the Bhagavad-gītā that persons who are attached to worshiping demigods like Lord Brahmā, Śiva, Indra and Candra for some personal benefit are less intelligent and have forgotten the real purpose of life. But the cowherd men, inhabitants of Vṛndāvana, were no ordinary men. Whatever they did, they did for Kṛṣṇa. If one worships demigods like Lord Śiva and Lord Brahmā to become more attached to Kṛṣṇa, that is approved. But if one goes to the demigods for some personal benefit, that is condemned.
After this incident, on a very pleasant night Kṛṣṇa and His elder brother, Balarāma, who are inconceivably powerful, went into the forest of Vṛndāvana. They were accompanied by the damsels of Vrajabhūmi, and They began to enjoy their company. The young damsels of Vraja were very nicely dressed and anointed with pulp of sandalwood and decorated with flowers. The moon was shining in the sky, surrounded by glittering stars. The breeze was blowing, bearing the aroma of mallikā flowers, and the bumblebees were mad after the aroma. Taking advantage of the pleasing atmosphere, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma began to sing very melodiously. The damsels became so absorbed in Their rhythmical song that they almost forgot themselves; their hair loosened, their clothes slackened, and their garlands began to fall to the ground.
At that time, while Kṛṣṇa, Balarāma and the damsels were so much absorbed, almost in madness, a demoniac associate of Kuvera (the treasurer of the heavenly planets) appeared on the scene. The demon’s name was Śaṅkhacūḍa because on his head there was a valuable jewel resembling a conchshell. Just as the two sons of Kuvera had been puffed up over their wealth and opulence and did not care for Nārada Muni’s presence, this Śaṅkhacūḍa was also puffed up over material opulence. He thought that Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma were two ordinary cowherd boys enjoying the company of many beautiful girls. Generally, in the material world, a person with riches thinks that all beautiful women should be enjoyed by him. Śaṅkhacūḍa also thought that since he belonged to the rich community of Kuvera, he, not Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma, should enjoy the company of so many beautiful girls. He therefore decided to take charge of them. He appeared before Kṛṣṇa, Balarāma and the damsels of Vraja and began to lead the girls away to the north. He commanded them as if he were their proprietor and husband, despite the presence of Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma. Being forcibly taken away by Śaṅkhacūḍa, the damsels of Vraja called out the names of Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma for protection. The two brothers immediately began to follow them, taking up big logs of śāla wood in Their hands. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” They called to the gopīs. “We are coming at once to chastise this demon.” Very quickly They reached Śaṅkhacūḍa. Thinking the brothers too powerful, Śaṅkhacūḍa left the company of the gopīs and ran in fear for his life. But Kṛṣṇa would not let him go. He entrusted the gopīs to the care of Balarāma and followed Śaṅkhacūḍa wherever he fled. Kṛṣṇa wanted to take the valuable jewel resembling a conchshell from the head of the demon. After following him a very short distance, Kṛṣṇa caught him, struck his head with His fist and killed him. He then took the valuable jewel and returned. In the presence of all the damsels of Vraja, He presented the valuable jewel to His elder brother, Balarāma.
Thus ends the Bhaktivedanta purport of the Thirty-fourth Chapter of Kṛṣṇa, "Vidyādhara Liberated and the Demon Śaṅkhacūḍa Killed."