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.