Shri Dattatreya Swamy

Dattatreya, Datta or Dattaguru, is considered to be an avatar of the three Hindu/sanatan gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, collectively known as the Trimurti Swarupa. As per Hindu Puranas, he was born in an Indian hermitage to Anasuya and her husband, the Vedic sage Atri who is traditionally credited with making the largest contribution to the Rigveda. It is said that they lived in Mahur, Nanded District, Maharashtra. There are several Myths on birth of Shri Dattatreya Swamy; some state that his father lived in the western Deccan region. A third claims he was born in the jungles of Kashmir near the sacred Amarnath Temple. A fourth legend states he was born along with his brothers Durvasa and Chandra, to an unwed mother named Anusuya, In a fifth myth, sage Atri was very old when young Anusuya married him and they sought the help of the trimurti gods for a child. As the trinity were pleased with them for having brought light and knowledge to the world, instantly granted the boon, which led Dattatreya to be born with characteristics of all three.

In other regions, and some versions of texts such as Garuda Purana, Brahma Purana and Sattvata Samhita, he is an avatar of Lord Vishnu only. Several Upanishads are dedicated to him, as are texts of the Vedanta-Yoga tradition in Sanatana Dharma of Hinduism. One of the most important texts of Hinduism, namely Avadhuta Gita (literally, “song of the free soul”) is attributed to Dattatreya. His pursuit of simple life, kindness to all, sharing of his knowledge and the meaning of life during his travels is reverentially mentioned in the poems by Tukaram, a saint-poet of the Bhakti movement.

An annual festival in the Hindu calendar month of Margasira (November/December) reveres Dattatreya and is known as Datta Jayanti.

While his origins are unclear, stories about his life are clearer. He is described in the Mahabharata as an exceptional Rishi (sage) with extraordinary insights and knowledge, who is adored and raised to a Guru and an Avatara of Vishnu in the Puranas. Dattatreya is stated in these texts to have renounced the world and left his home at an early age to lead a monastic life. One myth claims he meditated immersed in water for a long time, another has him wandering from childhood and the young Dattatreya footprints have been preserved on a lonely peak at Girnar (Junagadh, Gujarat) and Dattatreya makes a tapa for 12000 years over there. The Tripura-rahasya refers to the disciple Parasurama finding Dattatreya meditating on Gandhamadana mountain, Near Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu.

Dattatreya is said to have his lunch daily by taking alms at a holy place Pithapuram, Andhra Pradesh, where he was born as Sripada Sri Vallabha (his first avatar).

Self-education: The 24 Gurus of Dattatreya

The young Dattatreya is famous in the Hindu texts as the one who started with nothing and without teachers, yet reached self-awareness by observing nature during his Sannyasi wanderings, and treating these natural observations as his twenty four teachers. This legend has been emblematic in the Hindu belief, particularly among artists and Yogis, that ideas, teachings and practices come from all sources, that self effort is a means to learning. The 24 teachers of Dattatreya are:

1. Earth

Observation : Steadfastly productive, does its dharma, gets abused, heals and is steady in giving nourishment.
Dattatreya’s Learning : forbearance, remain undisturbed even if oppressed, keep healing even if others injure you

2. Wind

Observation : Passes through everything and everyone, unchanged, unattached, like Truth; sometimes becomes a gale, disturbs and changes the world, like Truth.
Dattatreya’s Learning : be free like the wind, yet resolute true to your own force

3. Sky

Observation : the highest has no boundaries, no limits, is unaffected even if clouds and thunderstorms come and go
Dattatreya’s Learning : the highest within oneself, the Atman (self, soul) has no limits, it is undifferentiated non-dual no matter what, let the clouds of materiality pass, be one with your soul and the Universal Self

4. Water

Observation : serves all without pride, discrimination; is transparent to everyone; purifies and gives life to everyone it touches
Dattatreya’s Learning : a saint discriminates against no one and is never arrogant, lets other give him impurity, yet he always remains pure and cleanses

5. Fire

Observation : purifies and reforms everything it comes in contact with, its energy shapes things
Dattatreya’s Learning : the heat of knowledge reforms everything it comes in contact with, to shape oneself one needs the energy of learning

6. Moon

Observation : waxes and wanes but its oneness doesn’t change
Dattatreya’s Learning : birth, death, rebirth and the cycle of existence does not change the oneness of soul, like moon it is a continuous eternal reality

7. Sun

Observation : source of light and gives its gift to all creatures as a sense of duty; in rain puddles it reflects and seems like distinct in each puddle, yet it is the same one Sun
Dattatreya’s Learning : the soul may appear different in different bodies, yet everyone is connected and the soul is same in all; like Sun, one must share one’s gifts as a sense of duty

8. Pigeons

Observation : they suffer losses in the hands of violent hunters, warn against obsessive attachments to anyone or to material things in this world
Dattatreya’s Learning : do not be obsessive, don’t focus on transient things such as damage or personal loss, human life is a rare privilege to learn, discover one’s soul and reach moksha

9. Python

Observation : eats whatever comes its way, makes the most from what it consumes
Dattatreya’s Learning : be content with what you have, make the most from life’s gifts

10. Bumblebee

Observation : active, works hard to build and create its reserve by directly visiting the flowers, but is selective and uses discretion, harmonious with flowers and never kills or over consumes
Dattatreya’s Learning : be active, go directly to the sources of knowledge, seek wisdom from all sources but choose the nectar, be gentle, live harmoniously and leave others or other ideologies alone when you must

11. Beekeeper

Observation : profits from honeybees
Dattatreya’s Learning : don’t crave for material pleasures or in piling up treasures, neither the body nor material wealth ever lasts

12. Hawk

Observation : picks up a large chunk of food, but other birds harass him, when it drops its food other birds leave him alone
Dattatreya’s Learning : take what you need, not more

13. Ocean

Observation : lucid at the surface, but deep and undisturbed within; receives numerous rivers yet remains the same
Dattatreya’s Learning : let rivers of sensory input not bother who you are deep inside, know your depths, seek self-knowledge, be unperturbed by life, equipoise

14. Moth

Observation : is deceived by its senses, it runs to the fire in misunderstanding which kills it
Dattatreya’s Learning : question your senses, question what others are telling you, question what you see, know senses can deceive, seek reason

15. Elephant

Observation : is deceived by his lust, runs after the smell of a possible mate, and falls into a pit made by mahouts then fettered and used
Dattatreya’s Learning : don’t lust after something or someone, don’t fall into traps of others or of sensory gratification

16. Deer

Observation : is deceived by his fear, by hunters who beat drums and scare him into a waiting net
Dattatreya’s Learning : fear not the noise, and do not succumb to pressure others design for you

17. Fish

Observation : is deceived by bait and so lured to its death
Dattatreya’s Learning : greed not the crumbs someone places before you, there are plenty of healthy opportunities everywhere

18. Courtesan

Observation : exchanges transient pleasure with body, but feels dejected with meaningless life, ultimately moves on
Dattatreya’s Learning : many prostitute their time, self-respect and principles for various reasons but feel dejected with their career and circumstances, seek meaning and spirituality in life, move on to doing things you love to do

19. Child

Observation : lives a life of innocent bliss
Dattatreya’s Learning : be a child, curious, innocent, blissful

20. Maiden

Observation : she is poor yet tries her best to feed her family and guest, as she cooks she avoids attracting attention to her kitchen and poverty, by breaking all her bangles except one on each wrist
Dattatreya’s Learning : don’t seek attention, a yogi accomplishes and shares more through solitude

21. Snake

Observation : lives in whatever hole that comes his way, willingly leaves bad skin and molts
Dattatreya’s Learning : a yogi can live in any place, must be ready to molt old ideas and body for rebirth of his spirit

22. Arrowsmith

Observation : the best one was so lost in his work that he failed to notice the king’s procession that passed his way
Dattatreya’s Learning : concentrate on what you love to do, intense concentration is the way to self-realization

23. Spider

Observation : builds a beautiful web, destroys and abandons the web, then restarts again
Dattatreya’s Learning : don’t get entangled by your own web, be ready to abandon it, go with your Atman

24. Caterpiller

Observation : starts out closed in a tiny nest but ultimately becomes a butterfly
Dattatreya’s Learning : long journeys start small, a disciple starts out as insignificant but ultimately becomes a spiritual master

Iconography

The appearance of Shri Dattatreya in pictures varies according to traditional beliefs. A typical icon for Dattatreya, particularly popular with Marathi-speaking people in India, has three heads corresponding to Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, and six hands; the lowest two hands carry japamala and water pot (kamandalu), middle pair of hands hold hourglass mini-drum (damaru) and trident (trishul), and top two hands have conch (shankh) and spinning wheel (chakra). Texts such as Agni Purana describe the architectural features for building murti, and for Dattatreya, it recommends him with one head and two hands.

Distinctive aspect of Dattatreya iconography is that it includes four dogs and a cow. The four dogs represent the Vedas, as trustworthy all weather friends, company and guardians, while the cow is a metaphor for mother earth who silently and always provides nourishment.