Dattatreya was India’s first Guru in the tradition of the Nath Sampradaya to which other famous gurus like Gorakhnath and Matsyendranath also belonged. Dattatreya was the first among these Naths and undoubtedly the greatest too. The story of the birth of Dattatreya is well known in Indian culture. Dattatreya is worshipped all over India and also in Tibet and Nepal.
Dattatreya was born to Sage Atri and his wife Anasuya. Anasuya was the ideal of perfect wifehood. Her pati-vrata (devotion to her husband) was envied by Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati, the consorts of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. They envied Anasuya because everyone in the world considered Anasuya to be the most dutiful wife, while each of these three ladies considered themselves to be the most dutiful of all wives. Filled with jealousy, they coaxed their husbands to be participants in a ploy to set Anasuya up in a situation where she would be forced to choose between being unfaithful to her husband or be the cause for Atri and herself to be subject to a terrible curse.
Brahma, Vishnu and Siva dressed up as wandering mendicants and approached Atri’s hermitage while he was out performing his daily prayers at the river. They approached Anasuya with their begging bowls in their hand and expressed their wish to be fed some good food. Anasuya had just prepared meals and was ready to serve these Brahmins but they said that they had one condition that Anasuya must satisfy for them to be pleased with her. If she did not satisfy that condition, they were going to curse her and her husband Atri. Their condition was that she must feed them naked. The moment Anasuya heard this, she realized that this must be a test and she recognized these three medicants to be none other than the Trimurtis -Brahma, Vishnu and Siva themselves. She immediately prayed to her husband to give her the presence of mind to fulfill the three Gods’ desire without being unfaithful to him. Anasuya quickly thought of an idea. Anasuya’s chastity and devotion to Atri had given her immense powers and before the three Gods realized what was going on, Anasuya had turned the three Gods into 3 new born babies. Seeing these three babies and being childless herself, she developed a very maternal feeling for them and immediately fulfilled their desire of feeding them naked. At this time, Atri returned from his daily prayers and was very pleased to see Anasuya’s intelligent action. Meanwhile, the Gods’ wives realized what trap they had gotten into – their husbands had been turned into new born babies by the powers of Anausya’s chastity and their plan to humiliate her had been foiled. Now they rushed to the scene and begged forgiveness and pleaded to Atri and Anausya to restore their husbands to them. In return, they were willing to offer them a boon. Anasuya asked that a son be born to her who had all the best qualities of the three Gods. This boon was immediately granted and Brahma, Vishnu and Siva were restored to their original forms. Later, Dattatreya (meaning given to Atri) was born to them who turned out to be a great master and teacher who illuminated the minds of people with the wisdom in his teachings.
Dattatreya’s three heads symbolize that he was born with the qualities of the three Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Each of his three pairs of hands hold items that Brahma, Vishnu and Siva also hold in their hands. The cow he stands near symbolizes Kamadhenu (Kamadhenu fulfils all wishes. She also symbolized the mother earth and dharma). The 4 dogs that are at his feet represent the four Vedas.
Dattatreya became a wandering mendicant from very early on in his life. Being very perceptive, he adopted different creatures and things from the universe as his teachers and learnt different lessons from them. One day, he narrates the different teachings he received from nature’s 24 gurus to King Yadu –
- Earth and Water– All creatures live on earth by assuming different forms based on their prior karma. All creatures take the earth for granted. Man burns fires on the earth, digs, ploughs and drills the earth. Yet, the earth continues to provide abundance to all her creatures and houses and feeds them. Dattatreya learnt from the earth the essential qualities of patience and unconditional love for all beings. Water quenches the thirst of all living beings, yet never feels proud. A sage should get inspired by the humility of water and remain modest in service of others, while still bestowing everyone with health, peace and joy.
- Sky and Air – Air is pure and odorless by itself. It blows on foul and sweet smelling things without discriminating between them. Even though it blows over foul smelling things also, air’s odorless nature does not get affected. The sky is omnipresent, just like the soul. It reflects the beautiful rays of the rising and the setting sun. It also dons the morose misty look when dark clouds fill the sky. Nevertheless, despite the duality, the sky remains unaffected and it does not identify with the colors. Similarly, Dattatreya learnt that living in the duality of this world, man must still maintain the purity of his inner mind and try to remain unaffected by joys and sorrows.
- Fire and Sun – The fire by itself has no form. Whatever the fuel is, the fire dons the color and the shape of the fuel that we throw into it. The fire does not discriminate against the person who throws items into the fire. Whatever the object is, the fire burns it to ashes. The fire teaches us that the Self manifests itself in various forms depending on its manifestation, but inherently it has no form, just like the fire. The quality of the fire is to burn, and we should inculcate the burning quality in ourselves to burn down all our impurities. Similarly, the sun is just one, but when reflected by water in different vessels, appears to be many. In the same way, the Self is one, but it is being reflected in all beings as many souls. The fire and the sun teach us the true nature of the Self.
- Pigeon, Moth– A pigeon couple and their babies once lived on a tree. The mother and the father pigeon had gone to get food for their babies when a hunter caught these babies in his net. When the mother returned, she was unable to bear the separation from her little ones that she jumped into the snare as well. The same happened to the father pigeon when he saw his whole family caught in the snare and they were all killed by the hunter. Blinded by ignorance, man also gets caught in the net of joys and sorrows in this world without realizing that he is actually the soul and is free from identity with the body. Thus man gets caught in the vicious and endless cycle of birth, death, happiness and misery. This is the lesson taught by the pigeon. Similarly, a moth always gets attracted to the fire and destroys itself in the fire. Like the moth, if a wise man is attracted to the fire of knowledge, it will ultimately cleanse him.
- Python – The python does not move around too much to get its food. It waits until some creature comes near it and immediately devours it. The python eats only as much as it needs to satisfy its hunger, not to satisfy its greed. The python taught Dattatreya the lesson of contentment.
- Sea – Innumerable rivers merge into the sea, yet the sea remains exactly how full it was before. Just like how the sea never overflows or crosses its limits, a wise man would never cross his standards of morality even amidst passion.
- Elephant and Fish – Poachers of tusker elephants have an easy way of luring the elephant. The poachers raise a cow-elephant and let it loose around the area that they are carefully watching. As soon as the elephant sees the cow, he is overcome by his desire for sex and is lured into the trap that the poachers have set for him. When until man learns to control his desire for sensual pleasures, he will not be truly liberated. In this manner, the elephant is a teacher. The fish, overcome by greed for food, bites into the bait without realizing that the greed for food is the cause for its death. A man also, in order to reach the destination of liberation, must give up his greed for food.
- Ant – The ant works tirelessly towards its goals of collecting food and storing. While we can learn from the ant about how to work tirelessly, we should also observe that the ant neither eats all the food it hoards in its ant-hill, not gives it away in charity. In some sense, the ant is a miser, and hoarding treasures increases the chance of the ant-hill being plundered by stronger animals like the rat or mole. Man also increases his chances of being robbed and murdered if he stores wealth unnecessarily and remains miserly.
- Pingala – A dancing girl named Pingala expectantly awaited a customer who would way her handsomely for her performance and services. However, when he did not show up that particular night, Pingala was extremely disappointed. However she did come to her senses immediately and realized that she is sad only because the man she is waiting for is not eternal and the thing she wants –money – is not eternal either. So from that moment onwards, she realized that the only thing worth craving for is the eternal Self. Uniting with the eternal Self is the only source of lasting happiness. Dattatreya learnt from Pingala that once man starts expecting to receive things from others in order to make him happy, his misery starts. Renunciation is the route towards happiness.
- Arrow-Maker – There was an arrow-maker that Datattreya once saw who was totally absorbed in his work of moulding an arrow. There was a lot of noise outside as a royal procession was taking place. There was loud music and people everywhere, but the arrow maker did not even lift his head up and continued to work oblivious to all disturbances outside. Dattatreya understood from the arrow-maker that a man seeking the true Self should have such one-pointed concentration to achieve his goals.
- Little Boys and Girls – Little boys and girls do not have the concepts of honor, dishonor, mine or yours. Their minds are free from prejudices and from these unfettered minds spring forth abundant joy. A very wise man also becomes child-like as he becomes closer to the realization of his true Self. They are so happy and content within themselves that they never require any external object to make them happy. Their natural state is happiness.
- Moon – While the moon waxes and wanes through various stages every fortnight, the body of man is also continuously changing forms. But, all these changes are pertaining to man’s body only and not to his true self. Just like how the waxing and waning of the moon is caused by the reflection of sunlight on the moon’s surface, the soul/mind of a man is also a reflection of his true self.
- Deer and Birds of prey – The deer get caught by hunters and poachers because it is easily lured by sweet music that is being played. This taught Dattatreya that if man is caught in sensual pleasures and desires, he brings ruin and destruction onto himself. In the same manner, a bird of prey that is flying with its catch gets attacked by many other birds like crows and vultures who are eyeing the prey and want to snatch that away from this bird. The minute the bird realizes this and releases its prey, all these crows and vultures end their pursuit of the bird and go behind the prey instead. Thus the bird has become free now. The objects of desire and man’s attachment to them attract a lot of trouble. The minute man lets go of all these attachments, he is free.
- Maiden – A young maiden had guests in her house that she had to entertain. She went into the kitchen and started making food for these guests. When pounding grains with a pestle, the bangles she wore were making a lot of noise. She was worried that the noise would bother her guests. She took off half of the dozen bangles she was wearing, but the noise was still there. She took off all but 2 bangles, yet some noise remained. When she removed all but one bangle, there was no noise and she could finish cooking the meal for her guests, without bothering them with any noise. Dattatreya interprets this in a very beautiful way. When man is surrounded by other people that causes a lot of noise and disturbance in his mind. In solitude alone can a spiritual aspirant carry on his quest of the truth. This inspired Dattatreya to resort to solitude. In this manner, the maiden was also one of his gurus.
- Serpent – Dattatreya observed that a serpent never builds a dwelling for itself. Whenever it finds an old anthill the serpent begins to dwell in it. Worldly men raise monasteries and monks live in it. Or a monk simply finds an old temple or shady trees under which to live in. Also, just like how the serpent sheds his moult, a Yogi, in full awareness, gives up his body, as happily as an ordinary unrealized soul gives up old clothes for new ones.
- Spider – The spider weaves it web from its bodily fluids, and after sometime almost effortlessly, rolls them all up into itself. Similarly, the soul bears the senses and the mind within itself. At the time of creation, the mind and the senses spawn from the soul and at the time of dissolution, they all are withdrawn into it again.
- Caterpillar – The wasp takes its young one – the caterpillar to a safe corner and buzzes around it. The caterpillar is frightened by the wasp and constant contemplation on the qualities of the wasp transforms it into a wasp too. Dattatreya interpreted this very creatively. A guru trains a disciple to attain the qualities of the guru by making the disciple constantly meditate on those qualities he wants him to acquire. Thus, the caterpillar became Dattatreya’s guru also.
Dattatreya is believed to be immortal. On the peaks of mount Girnar in Gujarat, he is believed to be alive and visible to those who seek him as a teacher.