There was once a great sage named Gautama. Many disciples came to the sage in the pursuit of knowledge. Among them was Uttanka, who was exemplary in his devotion to Gautama. Uttanka did the household work for Gautama, helped him prepare for the sacrificial rites and knew exactly what his guru (teacher) needed at the right time. His knowledge of the Vedas was outstanding and the other disciples went to him for tutoring. Gautama had never had such a sincere and intelligent student before.
Uttanka and his classmates graduated. All his classmates left the hermitage (ashram) but the guru loved Uttanka dearly and did not permit him to go. Year after year new students came, they graduated and left the hermitage in their independent search for knowledge but Uttanka stayed back as he was hesitant to hurt his guru.
As years passed by, Uttanka became old. He was unable to carry the load of firewood, his back ached and his hair began to turn white. One day when he was unable to do the household chores due to his declining strength. He came to his guru Gautama in frustration and poured his heart out.
“Gurudeva, you did not allow me to leave the ashram for all these years. Now, I am old and unable to take care of your household chores. I am unhappy that I could not enjoy worldly pleasures as other disciples did.”
Gautama replied, “My son, I kept you here because of my love for you. But if you wish to go, you have my permission and my blessings. With the power of your penance in serving me, you will become a young man again and I shall give my daughter to you in marriage.”
Immediately, Uttanka regained the looks and strength of a young man. He was very grateful to his guru. He married Gautama’s daughter and was ready to lead his independent life.
Before his departure Uttanka wanted to pay tribute (gurudakshina) to Gautama. The sage said, “You have served me with devotion for all these years. No other tribute is necessary.” Then Uttanka went to Gautama’s wife and requested her to ask for something that she had wanted all her life.
After repeated coaxing, Gautama’s wife said, “Uttanka, if you insist, I want the earrings worn by king Saudasa’s wife. I have heard so much about these earrings that I yearn for them in my dreams.”
Uttanka promised to get the earrings. He knew that it was not an easy task and he would face many dangers. So, he asked his bride to stay with her parents while he set out in search of the earrings. Uttanka was confident that his sincere penance to his guru would help him in his challenging, forthcoming task.
When sage Gautama heard that Uttanka has left on a dangerous endeavor, he was concerned. He told his wife, “You should have not asked for the earrings, my dear. Uttanka will face many dangers that may even threaten his life.” Gautama’s wife regretted her request, but it was too late. Uttanka had already left on his quest, eager for success.
King Saudasa was living in a remote forest. He had annoyed Vasistha, and was cursed by the sage to lead the life of a cannibal.
Uttanka trudged on until he came to Saudasa’s abode. As soon as Saudasa saw Uttanka he attacked him. Uttanka stopped him by saying, “Oh king, wait! I have come on an errand for my guru. It is against Dharma (righteousness) to injure someone who is on such mission. I promise that I will offer myself to you after I have completed my errand.”
Saudasa inquired what the errand was about.
“I have come to beg for your wife’s earrings.” Saudasa was taken aback. He admired the courage of Uttanka, in approaching him, a cannibal. He said, “Go to my wife and tell her that I would like her to give the earrings to you. This good act may reduce my life of suffering as a cannibal.”
Uttanka went to the queen with Saudasa’s message. The queen immediately parted with her earrings with the hope that her husband would benefit by her good deed.
When Uttanka examined the earrings, he could not find anything special with them. Out of curiosity, he asked, “What is special about these earrings?”
The queen said, “This is a celestial ornament. The wearer will be free from hunger and thirst and will be protected from all dangers.”
The queen further warned, “The nagas (serpents) have coveted these earrings for a long time and will steal them at their first opportunity. So, guard them well. Hide them in the folds of your deerskin and never part with them.”
Uttanka thanked the queen and assured her, “I shall protect them with my life.” Then he left and came back to Saudasa as he had promised. He requested the cannibal to spare him until he had handed over the earrings to his guru’s wife. Saudasa agreed.
Uttanka then added, “You helped me in getting the earrings and in fulfilling my promise to my guru’s wife. Your good deed will reduce the tenure of your life as a cannibal. Hence, I have also been of help to you. By helping each other, we have become friends. The scriptures say that one should not eat the flesh of a friend. So you would surely not like to eat me…..?”
Saudasa was struck by Uttanka’s logic, and could not disagree with him. There was even the possibility of leading a normal life soon! Uttanka quickly departed before Saudasa changed his mind.
On way to Gautama’s hermitage, Uttanka felt tired. So he tied the deerskin, which was encasing the earrings, on the branch of a tree and lay down to rest in its shade. Unfortunately, the deerskin slipped off and fell on the ground. A naga was waiting for this opportunity. It quickly picked up the earrings and sneaked away. Uttanka saw the naga slipping away with the earrings and chased it. The naga disappeared into an anthill. Uttanka started digging the anthill with his staff. He continued to dig for several days without food or water. He was determined to give up his life in the search of the earrings rather than return to his guru’s hermitage empty handed.
An old man suddenly arrived on the scene and asked “What are you doing, young man?”
Uttanka explained, “A naga stole the celestial earring that I was carrying for my guru’s wife and went into this anthill. I am trying to find the naga.”
The old man said, “You must be joking! The naga may be hidden thousands of miles deep into the soil. It may take you your entire life to dig with your staff which can hardly make a dent in this hard soil.”
“I prefer to die here rather than face my guru’s wife without fulfilling her wishes. I am so very ashamed”, said Uttanka, sorrowfully.
The old man was none other than Indra, king of the devas (gods). Appreciating the determination of Uttanka, Indra assumed his real form and asked Uttanka to strike his staff onto his bajra (the thunder weapon that Indra carries). Uttanka did as he was told and his staff was energized. The invigorated staff accelerated the process of digging into the anthill.
Uttanka soon tunneled into the kingdom of Nagas (serpants). It was huge and well protected by the nagas. Uttanka was puzzled. “How can I search this place and where can I look for the naga who stole my earrings?”
Suddenly he saw a horse standing before him with blazing fire around him. Uttanka, overcome by awe, did not move. The horse spoke, “Do not be afraid, Uttanka. I am Agni (god of fire). You have served me well at your guru’s hermitage. I am very pleased with you. Blow at me hard and I will emit smoke that will choke the nagas. They will come to you for rescue. Then, you can ask the naga king to return the earrings.”
Uttanka did as he was told and in no time the entire naga kingdom was filled with smoke. The nagas could not breathe and they were all forced to come out of their homes. They bowed before Uttanka. Uttanka asked the nagas to return the earrings. The nagas realized that they had to choose between their lives and the earrings. And of course, they chose to save their lives and quickly returned the earrings!
Uttanka returned to Gautama’s ashrama and gave the earrings to Gautama’s wife. Everyone was very happy at Uttanka’s safe return. Gautama and his wife showered their blessings on Uttanka. Uttanka fulfilled his obligation of giving gurudakshina and was finally free to lead his own life.