(Sanskrit: दत्तात्रेय) is considered by Hindus to be god who is an incarnation of the Divine Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The word Datta means “Given”, Datta is called so because the divine trinity have “given” themselves in the form of a son to the sage couple Atri and Anasuya. He is the son of Atri, hence the name “Atreya.”
In the Nath tradition, Dattatreya is recognized as an Avatar or incarnation of the Lord Shiva and as the Adi-Guru (First Teacher) of the Adinath Sampradaya of the Nathas. Although Dattatreya was at first a “Lord of Yoga” exhibiting distinctly Tantric traits, he was adapted and assimilated into the more devotional cults; while still worshiped by millions of Hindus, he is approached more as a benevolent god than as a teacher of the highest essence of Indian thought.
Though the Dattatreya of the Natha tradition coexisted and intermingled with the Puranic, Brahmanical tradition of the Datta sampradaya, here we shall focus almost exclusively on the earlier Tantric manifestation of Datta.Shri Gurudev Mahendranath had no doubt that Dattatreya was a historical figure. He stated that Datta appeared on Wednesday, the fourteenth day of the full moon in the month of Margasirsa, though he does not mention the year.
- Sage Narad praised Anusuya’s “pativratyam” (Devotion to her husband) a lot before the wives of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva making them jealous of her. They requested their husbands to reduce her pativratyam. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva went to Anusuya as guests when Atri was not there at home and asked her to serve them food (lunch). When she agreed to do so, they said that they will accept her alms on the condition that she serves them without wearing clothes. Anasuya falls into a dilemma. If she comes without clothes in front of other men her pativratyam will be reduced. If she refuses then that is dishonor to the guests and they can take away all the power of Atri. Anasuya felt that the three guests who asked such a strange favour are not normal people since they are trying to place her in a tricky situation. Anasuya prayed to her husband in her mind and said that she doesn’t have any fear serving them without clothes as she is not affected by lust. Since the guests asked for alms saying “Bhavati Bhikshan Dehi” (Oh Mother! Give us some food) and indirectly called her a mother, She decided that she will consider them as her children and serve them as requested. Because of her greatness and as per her thinking by the time she came to serve food the three gods became small children and her breasts started producing milk. She then breastfed them and put them to sleep in a cradle. Atri came back afterwards and hearing the story from Anasusuya praised the three gods sleeping in the cradle. They woke up in their original form and praised Anasuya’s pativratyam and gave her a boon. Anasuya requested that these three should be born as her children—the incarnation of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma as Durvasa, Dattareya and Chandra (meaning moon).
- In Mahabharat Dattatreya is referred to as from the family tree of sage Atri rather than as son of sage Atri. The epic Shishupal Vadha (execution of Shishupala) of poet Magha also refers (14.79) to Dattatreya to be from Atri’s family tree and not as his son.
Dattatreya left home at an early age to wander naked in search of the Absolute. He seems to have spent most of his life wandering in the area between and including North Karnataka, through Maharashtra, and into Gujarat as far as the Narmada River. He attained realization at a place not far from the town now known as Ganagapur in North Karnataka. The original footprints of Datta are believed to be located on the lonely peak at Mount Girnar. The Tripura-rahasya refers to the disciple Parasurama finding Datta meditating on Gandhamadana mountain.
According to Brahma Purana, after an order from his father, sage Atri, Dattatreya sat on the banks of river Gautami and prayed to Shiva and finally earned the Brahmagyaan (Eternal Knowledge). This is possibly the reason why Dattatreya is considered as Adisiddha in Nath Sampradaya.
In the Bhagavata Purana, Dattatreya enumerates a list of his twenty-four gurus: earth, air, sky or ether, water, fire, sun, moon, python, pigeons, sea, moth, bee, bull elephant, bear, deer, fish, osprey, a child, a maiden, a courtesan, a blacksmith, serpent, spider, and wasp. The 24 Gurus of Dattateya come from the 24 gurus of Avadhut described in the Purana.
The disciples of Dattatreya are: Sahasrarjun Kartavirya, Bhargava Parasuram, Yadu, Alarka, Ayu and Prahlad. These are known from Puranas. There is one more by name Sankruti described in Avadhutopanishad and Jaabaaldarshanopanishad.
Dattatreya as avatar
In The Pathless Path to Immortality, Shri Gurudev Mahendranath writes:
“Shri Dattatreya was a dropout of an earlier age than the period when Veda and Tantra merged to become one simple cult. It was men like Dattatreya who helped to make this possible. Three of his close disciples were kings, one an Asura and the other two both belonging to the warrior caste. Dattatreya himself was regarded as an avatar of Maheshwara (Shiva) but later was claimed by Vaishnavites as the avatar of Vishnu. Not such a sectarian claim as it appears; Hindus regard Shiva and Vishnu as the same or as manifestations of the Absolute taking form.”
Indeed, the Dattatreya Upanisad, which opens proclaiming Dattatreya’s identity with Vishnu, ends with the mantra Om Namah Shivaya, identifying Datta with Shiva. In the last portion of the third chapter, Mahesvara (Shiva) alone is said to pervade reality and shine in every heart of man. He alone is in front, behind, to the left, to the right, below, above, everywhere the center. Finally, Mahesvara is identified with Dattatreya, depicting the latter as an Avatara of Shiva.
Dattatreya is one of the oldest of the deities. The first reference of this deity is found in epics like Mahabharat and Ramayan.
Dattatreya is usually depicted with three heads, symbolising Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; past, present, and future; and the three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. He is portrayed sitting in meditation with his shakti beneath the audumbara (wish-fulfilling) tree. In front of him is a fire pit, and around him are four dogs. These are sometimes said to be or to symbolise the four Vedas.
In the Dattatreya Upanishad which is a part of the Atharva Veda, he is described as being able to appear in the form of a child, madman, or demon in order to help his devotees achieve moksha, liberation from the bonds of worldly existence.
The single head for Dattatreya can be explained if one sees the Tantric traditions which prevailed in India about 1000 years back. It was Gorakshanath who changed removed the aghori traditions and made the Nath sampradaya in the acceptable civil form of today. Shri Dattatreya must have been a very powerful sage existing before this time and over the centuries sometime he was deitified to the form of Dattatreya. The three heads have come definitely later in the last 900 years or so.
Dattatreya is supposed to have taken 16 avatars. The names and their birthdate (as per the Lunar calendar) are given in brackets.
- Yogiraaj (Kaartik Shu.15)
- Atrivarad (Kaartik Kru.1)
- Dattatreya (Kaartik Kru.2)
- Kaalaagnishaman (Maargashirsha Shu.14)
- Yogijanvallabh (Maargashirsha Shu.15)
- Lilaavishambhar (Paush Shu.15)
- Siddharaaj (Maagh Shu.15)
- Dnyaasaagar (Faalgun Shu.10)
- Vishambhar (Chaitra Shu.15)
- Maayaamukta (Vaishaakh Shu.15)
- Maayaamukta (Jyeshtha Shu.13)
- Aadiguru (Aashaadh Shu.15)
- Shivarup (Shraavan Shu.8)
- Devdev (Bhaadrapad Shu.14)
- Digambar (Aashwin Shu.15)
- Krishnashyaamkamalnayan (Kaartik Shu.12)
There is a book written by Shri Vasudevananda Saraswati on these 16 avatars. In Dasopanta tradition, all 16 are worshiped and Dasopanta is considered as the 17th avatara.
In Datta Sampradaya the first avatar is Shri Shripad Shri Vallabh and the second is Shri Narasimha Saraswati. Also Akkalkot Swami Shri Swami Samarth, Shri Vasudevanand Saraswati (Tembe Swami, Sawantwadi)) Shri Manik Prabhu Shri Krishna Saraswati , Shri Shirdi Sai Baba (Shirdi, Maharashtra),Shri Ganapathi Sachchidananda (Mysore,Karnataka) are considered as avatars of Dattatreya.
The Upanishads Avadhutopanishad and Jaabaaldarshanopanishad mention that the philosophy is given by Shri Dattatreya.
The Tripura-rahasya (The Secret of [the goddess] Tripura) is believed to be an abbreviated version of the original Datta Samhita or Dakshinamurti Samhita traditionally ascribed to Dattatreya. This more lengthy work was summarized by Dattatreya’s disciple Paramasura, whose disciple, Sumedha Haritayana, scribed the text. Thus, this text is sometimes referred to as the Haritayana Samhita.
The Tripura-rahasya is divided into three parts. The first part, the Mahatmya Khanda or section on the goddess is concerned with the origin, mantra and yantra of the goddess Tripura, also known as Lalita or Lalita Tripurasundari. The Jnana Khanda or section on knowledge elaborates on the themes of consciousness, manifestation, and liberation. Unfortunately, the last part, Charya Khanda or section on conduct, has been lost and some believe destroyed.
In the Tantric tradition, the Tripuropastipaddhati is supposed to have been written by Shri Dattareya. This is mentioned in Tripurarahasya. The summary of tantra in the Parashuramkalpasutram is also supposed to have been written by Shri Dattatreya.
Another work, the Avadhuta Gita (Song of the Free) is a wonderful, compete compilation of the highest thought given to and recorded by two of Dattatreya’s disciples, Swami and Kartika. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) held it in high esteem. Originally a work of seven chapters, a spurious and misogynistic eighth chapter may be a later attempt to append sexual morality to the Natha tradition by a conservative ascetic. Some of the ideas in this Gita are however common to both Shaivite and Buddhist Tantras.