The 24 Gurus of Sage Dattatreya

Tree of Knowledge

In ancient time in BharatVarsha, there was a royal sage known as King Atri who lived with his pious Queen Anusua. They were very happy in all respects, except that they did not have any heir to their throne. They went in a dense forest far away from their kingdom and underwent austerity, offering worship to the Trimurthi (Brahma,Vishnu and Maheswara) for the purpose of getting a son. They became blessed with three sons whose story is as follows.

One day, the Trimurthi disguised as three sages appeared in front of the closed door of Sati (paragon of chastity) Anusua’s hermitage. They called out, ‘O Mother! We are sages waiting at your door for alms.’ She replied, ‘Please wait a little, I am changing my clothes.’ The three sages angrily called her again, ‘O Mother, we are very thirsty and can’t wait any longer, please come out immediately in what ever state you are to quench our thirst.’ Greatly embarrassed, naked Sati Anusua was puzzled and couldn’t make out what to do in front of three adults. However, using her mystic power, she turned the three Gods of the Trimurti into three suckling babies and came out half-naked to breast-feed them. The Gods were overwhelmed with her presence of mind and divine power, and gave her a boon that they would be born as her sons soon.

In due course, the royal couple got three sons. Dattatreya, the eldest one was born out of Bhagavan Vishnu’s blessing. There followed Chandrama from Bhagavan Brahma’s and Durvasha the youngest one from Bhagavan Mahadev’s blessings respectively.

We will begin with the famous life story of the eldest son Dattatreya and his 24 mentors. Since childhood he was very calm, quiet, and virtuous. Unlike other children of his age, he was in constant pursuit of knowledge and renunciation. After King Atri’s death, he was crowned by the subjects of his kingdom as their King. But Dattatreya was unmindful in performing his royal duties, preferring to remain engrossed in the divine thoughts, and wanted to get out of the royal palace in quest of truth.

He did this one fine morning, leaving in his loincloth as a mendicant, and started to wander far and wide. His pleasant nature and majestic look used to attract people wherever he went. Once in a forest, the sons of a few sages started following him and expressed a wish to be his disciples. He flatly refused and advised them to return to their hermitage. But doggedly they followed him.

Having no alternative, Dattatreya now took a dip in a tank in that forest and stayed under water for three days in deep meditation. Those youngsters waited patiently for him to come out, which he did on the third day. Despite his request to them to leave him alone they were reluctant to do so and waited for him on the bank of the tank. By his mystic power Dattatreya assumed a female form of sparkling beauty and started drinking wine. The boys got frightened and left.

Dattatreya went on from place to place and from one pilgrimage site to another as a mendicant for many years. He never stayed more than a night in one place in any season. Only during the rainy season for four months he used to put up in one place, and that tradition was continued later on among sages in ancient India. It is known as Chaturmasya – a vow of staying four months in any place at a stretch.

Once he was passing in front of a royal palace, walking like a musk elephant in rut. From afar, the king noticed him, so happy and so engrossed in his own thought that he hardly observed anything around him. He rushed to the great sage and asked, ‘Oh! Sire, I want to know what’s the secret of your happiness? Who is your great guru? Who has taught you the key of a blissful life?’

Dattatreya replied, ‘Hey Rajan, my own soul is my guru! Self-realization should be the greatest achievement of all human beings. I have not been initiated by any particular person as my guru. Rather I have been taught lessons from various places by many throughout my life. In fact, I have almost twenty-four mentors and each one of them has taught me something new.’

Then the eager king implored him details about those mentors and their teachings. The Rajarshi (royal sage) Dattatreya began to tell the king: “My first mentor was this Earth from whom I have learnt forgiveness and bounty. All animate and inanimate objects are inflicting torture on this earth but she is silently bearing all pain from time immemorial without any resentment. This is the reason I have accepted the omni-tolerant mother Earth as my first teacher, who has given me the lesson of tolerance and selfless service to others.

“My second teacher was Water which had taught me transparency and pleasantness. It is so placid, so clear and cool. It has quenched the thirst of all living beings and satisfied all by its soothing touch of coolness. So also I learnt from it to become stoic and still in all circumstances.

“My third teacher is Fire. It leaves behind nothing after engulfing everything through its blazing mouth. It has no place to store. I too don’t have any place to store anything except my stomach. I have learnt from Fire the lesson of not saving anything.

“The fourth mentor is Wind which is always blowing ceaselessly. It never stagnates. I have learnt not to be static in any place. I keep on moving and also I am not attached to anything in any place. Thus I have been able to overcome all earthly pleasures, and I enjoy eternal bliss.

‘Oh Rajan! Look up high in the Sky’: that is my fifth teacher. So vast and limitless it is, so many stars, planets, the Sun and the Moon are embedded in it, still it is not anchored to anything. Similarly, the Soul is all-pervading as the indweller in all created beings. This lesson of ‘self-realization’ I have obtained from my mentor Sky.

“Now look at the Moon. It is so magnificent and complete in all respects. Contrary to the popular belief, in reality it does not wax and wane. Only the earth’s shadow makes that illusory change in the Moon,” explained sage Dattatreya to the King who was listening to him eagerly, adding, “So I have learnt from him that the unchanging Soul is also complete and eternal. It has no beginning or end, like the Moon. So I regard the Moon as my sixth teacher.

“The Sun is my seventh teacher as it has taught me to accept and reject earthly pleasures at ease. It attracts water from the sea by its immense power and again it showers rain on the earth without itself undergoing any change. So I have obtained a great lesson from the Sun, to overcome the all-powerful sensual attraction of this earth.”

Sage Dattatreya had altogether 24 gurus from whom he learnt immortal lessons for divine happiness and eternal bliss. Datta Jayanti is celebrated on 16th December. The concluding part of this article will be published next week.

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* Published in print edition on 6  December 2013

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