Once there was a learned Guru named Ayoda-Dhaumya, who had a disciple named Veda. The guru said to his disciple, "Veda, go to my house and do my household work. Ask my wife if she has any chores for you. Till further notice, you will be a servant in my house. If you do your duties diligently, it will be ultimately to your profit."
Veda said, "As you command, master." And he went and reported for duty at his Guru's house. For many years, he served his master and his wife faithfully. This was the trial devised by Ayoda-Dhaumya to test the resolve of his pupil. Years passed, and Veda did all his chores uncomplainingly. Dhaumya was very much pleased with the dedication of Veda. He then taught Veda the wisdom contained in the scriptures, till Veda had equaled his Guru in his knowledge.
After completing his education, Veda returned to his home town, and became a Guru himself. He had many students, some of them did his household work, but he was careful to make sure that their duties were not too difficult, for he remembered his own youth, spent in endless toil in his Guru's house.
Some time after he had begun teaching, King Janamejaya of the Kuru dynasty, appointed him as his spiritual guide (Upadyaya), so Veda had to go to Janamejaya's kingdom. Before going, he called his favorite disciple Utalaka and said, "I will be gone for quite some time. I appoint you in charge of my household. Do everything that is proper, and above all obey the orders of my wife, except when they would conflict with the path of truth."
Utanka performed all the household duties diligently. A few days after his Guru had departed, the females of the house addressed him and said, "O Utanka, Your mistress is in that season when connubial connection might be fruitful. Your Guru is absent. He appointed you to take his place. Do what is needful."
Utanka replied, "It is indeed to true that my master appointed me to act in his place. But what you are asking is improper. My Guru has explicitly warned me against doing an improper deed, so do not press me in this matter."
After a while, his Guru returned from his journey. He learned all that had taken place from Utanka, and was very pleased with his rectitude. He then said, "Utanka, You have already learned all that you need from me. In addition, you have also served me faithfully, and repaid me amply for the instruction that you received. Your education is complete, you may now go into the wide world, as a learned, wise man."
Utanka said, "O Guru, all that I know, is through the gift of your instruction. You have been like a father to me and taken care of my needs. Although I have served your household, I do not consider that your teaching-fee has been paid by it. Please accept something from me, which may hope to equal at least in part, the priceless gift of knowledge that you have given me."
Veda said, "I do not want anything for myself. I am more than satisfied with you. Perchance my wife, your preceptress, might want something. Before departing, ask her if you can get something for her."
Accordingly, Utanka went to Veda's wife, and after prostrating himself at her feet, said, "You have been like a mother to me while I lived at your house. My Guru has now given me leave to depart. I wanted to give him something in return for my education, but he told me to ask you if you wanted anything."
That woman said, "Know that the fourth day from today is a sacred day when many Brahmanas will be entertained in a feast in this house. I will be appearing in my best clothes before them. However, I do not have ear-rings to match my dress. King Paushya's wife has a dazzling pair of ear-rings. I wish to obtain them for myself. If you can accomplish this task then you will be twice blessed. However, if you cannot do this task, you won't be able to accomplish anything else in this life."
Utanka departed for the capital city, to meet King Paushya. On the way, he saw a giant of a man, who was riding a bull of huge size. When the man saw Utanka, he said, "Utanka, you may eat the dung of this bull."
Utanka was surprised that this man knew his name, but he naturally hesitated from eating the dung of a bull. He politely declined.
The man repeated, "Do not be afraid of this dung. Know that your Guru Veda has eaten this same dung unreservedly. Surely what was good enough for your Guru must be good enough for you? Much good will come to you if you eat the dung."
Utanka then ate the dung of the bull and drank its urine. After thanking the man for his kindness, he washed his hands and mouth. (It is necessary to purify oneself after eating food. It is especially important for a Brahmana.) He then resumed his journey and soon arrived at the palace of King Paushya.
He saluted the King and told him who he was and who his Guru was. Since his Guru was a well known learned man, the King received him very kindly and said, "Sir, what can I do for you? Do not hesitate to ask for anything you wish."
Utanka then said, "O King, my Guru's wife has requested me to obtain the ear-rings of your queen for her. This is the gift that she wanted in exchange for her husband's having educated me."
King Paushya replied, "Utanka, please go to my Queen's chambers and tell her that I asked her to give the ear-rings to you. She is always glad to see a wise man and will willingly give you her ear-rings".
Utanka went to the chambers of the Queen, but he found it empty. He then returned to the King and said, "Why did you send me on a fool's errand? Did you not know that your Queen is not in her apartments?"
The King said, "Nay, I personally know it for a fact that my Queen never leaves her chambers during this time of the day. However, my Queen will not appear before someone who is unclean. Have you properly purified yourself before you went there?"
Utanka replied, "I have certainly washed my hands and mouth before coming here. However, I was standing up while I was performing the purification, so it is possible that I might still be unclean."
The King said, "As a learned man, you should know that purification can be performed only in a sitting posture. If you have cleaned yourself in haste, it has no effect. Purify yourself according to the prescribed rituals and then go to my Queen."
This time, when Utanka went to the apartment, the Queen personally received him. She said, "I already know why you are here. Here are my ear-rings. Tell your Guru's wife that I am pleased to be of assistance. However, remember one thing. These rings are unique. Takshaka, the king of serpents has been coveting these for a long time. Take care on your journey, lest he trick you and steal these ear-rings."
Utanka promised that he will take utmost care of the ear-rings, and went back to the King. Paushya then invited him to eat in the palace and had food brought in. When Utanka was about to eat, he was struck by doubt and examined the food carefully. As he had suspected, it was cold and unclean. He grew angry and cursed the King, saying, "Since you have offered unclean food to a Brahmana, may you lose your sight!".
King Paushya also grew angry, he said, "I have never served unclean food to anybody in my life. Since you have unjustly accused me of offering you unclean food, may you be barren! You will never have any children."
Utanka insisted that the food was unclean, and asked the king to verify with his own eyes about the state of the food. Paushya examined the food and saw that this was indeed the case. The King then pacified Utanka by begging his pardon. He said, "I am sorry that unclean food has been offered to you. It looks as if the food has been prepared by a woman who did not braid her hair. It is cold and her hair is also mixed in it. Since I have offended you out of ignorance, please recuse me from your curse."
The Brahmana said, "My curse, once uttered, cannot be withdrawn. However, I shall decree that you will ultimately regain your sight after some time. Now that you have seen for yourself the state of the food, it behooves you to withdraw your curse also."
The King said, "A Brahmana may be quick to anger, but he is also quick to forgive. It is his nature. However, once a Kshatriya is angry, his anger does not subside easily. I am still angry with you for cursing me, so I cannot take my curse back. Do as you wish."
To this Utanka replied, "Since you have cursed me without any reason, and you are merely a King, not a wise Brahmana, I am certain that your curse will have no effect on me. You have behaved rather unbecomingly by not taking your curse back, but it is of little matter. Give me leave to go."
After this Utanka began his homeward journey. He grew thirsty on the way and after putting the ear-rings on the ground, went to drink water from a nearby stream. A beggar who had been following him, seized this opportunity and ran away with the ear-rings. Utanka saw this and gave chase. Finally, he managed to catch up with him. In an instant, the beggar transformed into his true form and turned into a serpent. This was Takshaka, the king of the serpents. He then disappeared into a hole in the ground.
Utanka tried to dig open the hole with a stick but was not making any progress. He then beseeched Indra, the King of heaven, who took pity on him and blasted the hole open with his weapon, the Vajra. Utanka then entered the kingdom of the serpents through this hole. He was amazed to see a great city inside, with priceless gems adorning all the buildings. It was truly a magnificent city, with all manner of facilities for games and entertainment. Utanka then sought to placate the serpents, by composing the following verses, "Ye Serpents, subjects of King Iyravata (this Iyravata is a snake, the son of Kadru, not to be confused with Iyravata, the mount of Indra), splendid in battle and showering weapons in the field like lightning-charged clouds driven by the winds! Handsome and of various forms and decked with many colored ear-rings, ye children of Iyravata, ye shine like the Sun in the firmament! On the northern banks of the Ganges are many habitations of serpents. There I constantly adore the great serpents. Who except Iyravata would desire to move in the burning rays of the Sun? When Dhritharashtra (Iyravata's brother) goes out, twenty-eight thousand and eight serpents follow him as his attendants. Ye who move near him and ye who stay at a distance from him, I adore thee that have Iyravata for your elder brother."
"I adore thee also, to obtain the ear-rings, O Takshaka, who formerly dwelt in Kurukshetra and the forest of Khandava! Takshaka and Asvasena, ye are constant companions who dwell in Kurukshetra on the banks of Ikshumati! I also adore the illustrious Srutasena, the younger brother of Takshaka, who resided at the holy place called Mahadyumna with a view to obtaining the kingship of the serpents." [Note: These Verses Were taken from the Translation of the Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, which can be found archived at http://www.bharatadesam.com/] Despite his beautiful verses in praise of the serpents, he did not get his ear-rings back. He then wandered around the place, seeking Takshaka. He saw many wondrous sights, sights that he did not know the meaning of. He then saw that he would need divine assistance, if he ever hoped to get the ear-rings back, so be once again beseeched Indra, asking for his aid in recovering the ear-rings from Takshaka.
Indra the appeared before him, mounted on his divine horse Uchaishravas. He said to Utanka, "Blow into this horse and your deed shall be done."
Obedient to the God's command, Utanka then blew into the horse. Great flames of fire started emerging from the horse. There was thick smoke all around and the whole region of the Nagas (serpents) became unbearably hot.
Unable to bear the heat, Takshaka came out of his palace and begged Utanka for mercy. He immediately restored the ear-rings, and sought to placate him.
Utanka was pacified. Besides, he had a more pressing problem now. Today was the fourth day from the start of his journey. Here he was, so far away from his Guru's home, and unable to give the rings to his preceptress in time. He became afraid that she will curse him if he were to be late.
Indra saw his predicament and said, "Ride this horse and it shall take you in an instant to your Guru's house."
Accordingly, Utanka then mounted the horse and commanded it to take him to his Guru's house. The next instant he was there. Once he dismounted, the divine horse vanished. He went inside and found his master's wife on the point of going to receive the Brahmanas. She was thinking that he had failed his quest, and was on the point of cursing him. When Utanka gave her the ear-rings, she was very happy and blessed him.
Utanka then went to his Guru Veda, and said, "Master, On my way to the palace, I was asked to eat the dung of a bull by a giant. He said that you had done so in the past. Who was he and what does the bull and dung signify?"
His Guru replied, "The giant was Indra in disguise. The bull was Iyravata, his mount. He gave you Amrit (nectar) disguised as dung. He has bestowed a great honor upon you."
Utanka continued, "Master, while I was at the kingdom of the serpents I saw many wondrous sights. Pray, tell me what was the meaning of all that?"
Veda said, "You would have seen two damsels, weaving a cloth from black and white threads on a loom. Know that those two are the fates, Dhatha and Vidhatha. The black and white threads represent night and day and they are weaving the future of the world. You would have seen the wheel of time, which represents a year, with its twelve spokes denoting the months. It is turned by six boys, who represent the six seasons. You would have also encountered a handsome man. Know that he is Parajanya, the God of rain. The horse accompanying him is Agni, the deity of fire. The Gods have shown you great favors, pray to them constantly and much good will come to you."
Thus enlightened, Utanaka took his leave from his master and went his way.