Tree of Knowledge

Tree of Knowledge

The Long Forgotten Deity: Dattatreya

Rabin Das

We have forgotten many of our Deities because of our own indifference. Unfortunately there is also some complicated geopolitics driving this pathetic state of affairs that we are facing today. A Sanskrit adage says that ‘If you don’t water it regularly, the implanted tree will wither away in due course of time.’ Today, we are seeing demoniac forces in Bharat that have grown enormously either overtly or covertly to overcome the age-old dharmic rules. Similar situations had happened many a time in the past, when Gods like Indra failed to vanquish them and the Supreme Lord had to reincarnate to redeem the pious from the tyranny of the miscreants. The mythology of Bharat is replete with such examples which carry the message that life is a perpetual uphill struggle between the divine or righteous (dharmic) and the demoniac (adharmic) forces, which must be fought against vehemently. In the Puranic Yuga, Lord Brahma ordered Shri Datta to incarnate at various places in various forms to destroy the demons. The birthday of His incarnation is celebrated as ‘Datta Jayanti’ which this year is on 27th December, 2012, the auspicious Friday, on the fourteenth full moon (purnima) day of the Hindu lunar calendar of Marghasirsa. Dattatreya’s mention in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana gives scholars reason to think that not less than four thousand years ago, or perhaps even earlier, this Hindu deity was worshipped as an embodiment of the threefold Divine or ‘Trinity’, namely Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Maheshwar the Destroyer.


There are many legends related to the birth of Dattareya. In Sanskrit ‘Datta’ means ‘given away’ and Atreya means ‘beyond three’. The popular anecdote goes that Parameshwar promised sage Atri (tapas or sacrifice) and his wife Anusuya (free from jealousy) that Dattareya would be born as their son. Anusuya was famous for chastity and conjugal fidelity. Once Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar disguised as three sages tested her chastity by asking her to serve them without wearing clothes. Anusuya prayed to Almighty to rescue her from this embarrassment and by her divine power turned those sages into three crying babies in front of her undressed state. The pleased Trinity promised her to become her sons as Soma, Datta and Durvasa. Young Dattatreya, radiant with divine splendour, learned the Vedas, took sanyasa and travelled as a mendicant extensively from place to place to teach people about moksha (liberation from worldly bondage). He never stayed put in one place except during the four months of the rainy season (chaturmasya). He was always full of supreme bliss and happiness. Once an anxiety-driven king asked him, ‘What is the secret of your happiness?’ He replied, “It’s Guru’s blessings! My Gurus are as the following: earth, water, wind, fire, sky, moon, sun, pigeon, python, ocean, insect, honey-bee, wasp, elephant, deer, fish, prostitute, eagle, suckling baby, virgin, snake, arrow-maker, silk-worm and a chirping-cricket.’

Dattatreya, the Adi-Guru or first-ever teacher, is worshipped in many forms by different belongings of devotees in various parts of India as he incarnated as avatars in different eras. The popular form is a three-headed Trinity God with six hands. The topmost two hands hold a holy conch and chakra representing Lord Vishnu; the middle two hands clutch at a trident and a damru which are associated with Lord Shiva; in the two lowermost hands are the kamandalu and japamala representing Lord Brahma. Besides these there is a beautiful divine cow behind him, four dogs of different sizes and colours around, and he himself is standing under a huge fig (oudumbar) tree. These accompanying figures have a deep spiritual connotation. For example, the cow represents the Earth, signifying fecundity, creation and purity; the dogs represent the four different Vedas, namely Rig, Sam, Yajur and Atharva or four yugas or eras namely, Satyuga, or Kritiyuga, Tretayuga, Dwaparyuga and Kalyuga respectively. The holy tree is an embodiment of Dattatreya himself because his teaching principles are ingrained in it.

Although Dattatreya was regarded as the Lord of Yoga exhibiting tantric traits as depicted by Gorakshanath, later on he was assimilated in the bhakti cult of Vaishnavism  because he was also regarded as a part of Lord Vishnu. He is approached by millions of Hindus as an essence of knowledge, wealth, benevolence, recluseness, renunciation, and as a protector from the demoniac forces and a great teacher, mentioned in Shandilya Upanishad, to lead to moksha and lastly also as a bestower of detachment from worldly bondage. He is credited as an author of Tripurasundari Rahashya, a treatise on Advaita Vedanta, given to his first disciple Parashuram.


He is the First Teacher, glorified as ‘Shri Guru Datta,’ who taught the meticulous observance of the code of conducts for the four categories (varnas: Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra) comprising the human race. and the four stages of life (ashramas: Brahmacharjya, Grahasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa). He also showed the path of yoga that leads to the union of the individual atma with the Supreme or universal Brahmaan, in the sense of identifying with Brahmaan as being of the same nature, as the individual drop of water is of the same nature as the ocean whence it arises. It is said that the seed sound ‘Om dram, Shri Guru Dattaye namah,’ chanted loudly and with devotion, with control of respiration, makes one radiant and resplendent, by calming the mind through removal of ‘impurities’ that cloud it, and thus replacing ignorance with the Supreme Knowledge of ones true Self, which is the true meaning of immortality and Self-realisation.. Thus prepared, the person is in a better position to fulfil mundane desires and receive the fruits thereof. A sincere practice would enable the manifestation of the presence of Sri Guru Datta in one’s own pulsation and respiration. As an incarnation of God, Dattatreya came down on the Earth to spread the universality of true religion. Anyone can be his disciple regardless of cast, creed, status or faith. No matter what sect or belief the true seeker follows, eventually he comes under the guidance of Lord Dattatreya, the Eternal Spiritual Guide of all mankind.

Places of Pilgrimages

Datta Peethas, the holy places of worship of Shri Guru Dattatreya and his incarnations are situated mainly in South-Western part of India, where all branches of Hinduism and sects of Islam offer regular prayers in millions. It is very sad that the rest of India is quite ignorant about this Deity. The Lord has taken many incarnations in human form in order to uplift people and put on spiritual path. The  main incarnations are: Shripada Shrivallabha in Pithapur, Andhra Pradesh; Shri Manikprabhu at Maniknagar, Karnataka; Shri Swami Samartha at Akkalkot, near Sholapur, Maharastra; Swami Shri Krishna Saraswati at Kolhapur, Maharastra; the famous Shri Saibaba at Shirdi, near Ahmadnagar, Maharashtra and lastly Shri Narasimha Saraswati in Karanja, Gangapur, Karnataka, where the Ek Mukhi (one-faced]) beautiful idol, obtained from the relatives of the famous cricketeer Sunil Gavaskar, is regularly worshipped. Besides the preceding ones, there are a few more Datta Peethas, e.g., in Girnar, Gujarat; in Mahurgad, Nanded, Maharashtra, and in Kuravpur, a delta of Krishna River, Karnataka. Lastly, a sole Datta Peetha in Uttar Bharat near Narad ghat at Kashi, Banaras and established by Shri Nrushingha Saraswati deserves special mention.


Nath tradition worships Dattatreya as Adi-Guru and regards him as an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the first ever teacher on Earth. Besides the Nath tradition described in Abhadut Gita, there are another three main traditions namely Mahanuvabha, Chaitaniya and Ananda with different ways of worshipping Dattatreya in different states of India.

Main Holy Scriptures

These comprise the ‘Datta Purana’ which contains the ritualistic ‘Karma Kanda’, the meditational techniques known as ‘Upasana Kanda’ and the final portion related to spiritual knowledge known as ‘Dhyana Kanda’ also referred to as ‘Tripurasundari Rahasiya’. In fact, Shri Guru Datta taught his disciple Parashuram the secret of worshipping the Divine Mother or Shakti, the Prakriti manifestation of the Supreme Being, by undergoing intense austerity and penance. Another noteworthy treatise of Dattatreya is ‘Avadhut Gita’, followed mainly by the Nath tradition. Besides ‘Shri Datta Prabodh.’ A sacred scripture on Dattatreya isShri Gurucharitra’ describes the glory of Shri Guru Dattatreya.


It is Him who is often referred by every Hindu unknowingly while chanting the well-known Sanskrit sloka:

Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu

Guru Devo Maheshwara

Guru Sakshat Param Brahma

Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha

which means ‘The synthesis of the Three (Trinity) and the One who is beyond the Three, To that Teacher, I offer my salutation’. Thus, the One Teacher of this Universe is invoked by mankind through every preceptor, and helps to transcend the sublime energy in mankind in achieving the ultimate relationship with the Supreme Being.

Dr Rabindranath Das is Professor of Medicine at SSR Medical College, Belle Rive

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