24 Gurus of Dattatreya
A great saint and yogi, Dattatreya had 24 gurus, this story is meant to inspire us on our path of liberation.
This is part of an article written by the Bihar School of Yoga Magazine
From the earth, Dattatreya learned the qualities of forgiveness, unselfishness and the strength to bear burdens. Very often progress on the spiritual path is hampered because a sadhak is tied to the past. A trauma at some time in life decides one’s response to similar situations all through one’s lifetime. Nothing is seen with freshness and innocence. Everything is seen through the eyes of fear and suspicion because of past conditioning. This quality is not just projected onto the outside but also onto oneself. Inadequacy, lack of confidence, poor self-esteem, are in reality lack of faith or trust in ourselves. They are a measure of one’s own self-rejection.
The earth, burdened by a thankless world, stands firm and proud. She is not demoralised. She does not punish or reject herself. Dharitri, one who holds, is a reflection of Dharma, the eternal one that holds all existence. With immense tenderness she holds the world in her lap, unmindful of assaults on her person. To Dattatreya she was symbolic of shraddha, having a capacity to hold together, herself and all associated with her, with great compassion, giving of herself totally to the situation which asks of her, with an unflinching steadiness, like the physical body holding divinity within itself.
The air to Dattatreya was a symbol of aliveness, prana carried in its garments. Pervading everywhere, yet uncontaminated, carrying fragrance, but not being the fragrance, it reminded him of pure consciousness, present in all manifestation, yet not being affected by the movements, the changes within it. It brought to him the experience of detachment, stillness in movement.
The atman resides in the body but it is not the body. The sky holds the world like a garment or canopy but it is not the world. It seems limited but in reality it is limitless. The sky was his third guru. The deeper mind is like the sky: vast and unseen, holding thoughts and feelings like clouds, seeming limited but really limitless in its possibilities.
His fourth guru was water. In. its very ordinariness water is extraordinary, It supports all life. Some simple organisms can live without air. However, none can live without water. Over millions of years, water has been responsible for shaping the face of the earth. It nourishes the soil so that mighty forests can grow. It decides the climate. It has great stability. It cleanses, purifies, refreshes. To Dattatreya it was symbolic of the compassion of a yogi that unobtrusively flows to the world, nourishing and refreshing.
His fifth guru was fire, which destroys all that is gross. Like the inner fire of awareness that reduces everything to its essence (bhasma), purifying ruthlessly whatever is poured into it, fire reminded him of freedom from the defects of avidya.
The moon seems to wax and wane, yet there is no intrinsic change in it. Likewise the moods and changes in man are qualities of body and mind, not part of the atman.
From the sun, that takes water from the ocean by evaporating it and returning it as life-giving rain water, Dattatreya realised that through the sense-organs one can take in the essence of the objects of perception without being obsessed with the external form of the object. Its light is reflected in gutters, rivers, streams, puddles, and looks different according to the contents and qualities of the water, but in itself it is the same. So to, the atman in different bodies seems to take on the qualities of the body, but in reality it is the same one everywhere. The sun brought to his mind qualities of egoless-ness and omnipresence.
From a pigeon that had little fledglings, which when caught in a net by a hunter, cried piteously, luring the mother to her death, Dattatreya realised the dangers of samskara. Too much involvement in samskara re suits in the destruction of spirituality. It was attachment to the family that was responsible for the destruction of spirituality. It was attachment to the family that was responsible for the destruction of the bird. Our samsara too, consisting of our prejudices, our desires, our passions, that are born of us and from out family, destroy the spirituality within us. The higher yearning is smothered by preconceived notions, rigidity of mind and intellectual clutter.
The ninth guru was a python. Seeing it eat only what came to it, not setting out in search of feed, Dattatreya learned the value of surrender.
The ocean receives all rivers, all the waters of the earth, some clean, some polluted, yet it remains unaffected and retains its essential ‘oceanness’. Freedom from disturbance was the lesson from the ocean.
Seeing a firefly drawn to its destruction by its infatuation with the glittering flame, the yogi realised how desire can lead to destruction.
The twelfth guru was the bee. Flying from flower to flower, taking honey only for its immediate need, leaving the flowers unbruised and unhurt, the idea of bhiksha was born to Dattatreya. Not storing for the future, taking what was given voluntarily and offering goodwill in return, was the concept of bhiksha.
The thirteenth guru came in the form of an elephant that hurtled down to its trap by being drawn to the wooden image of a female elephant. Dattatreya learned that when one has a great passion for the highest truth, one should not be deluded by the distractions of sensual desire. Even a photograph, a thought of a woman, can pull one down from one-pointedness in one’s search.
The fourteenth guru was a honey-gatherer. The bee speeds his time making honey which the honey-gatherer enjoys. Dattatreya realised that most often people spend their lifetimes gathering possessions in the faint hope that they will give them happiness and security- Not only do these possessions not give any inner security, but the majority of people are so busy gathering possessions that they do not have time to enjoy them. They are enjoyed by other people. What a waste of time, energy and emotional investment, felt Dattatreya. Precious time should be spent, not in acquiring but in reaching the inner self.
On one occasion the yogi watched a deer. Nimble and swift of foot, it was on guard and alert. A hunter who failed to catch it realised that the animal was interested in or distracted by music. Knowing its vulnerability, he distracted it and caught it. Any vulnerability is a weakness on the spiritual path. One loses alertness. Ekagrata or one-pointedness is lost. In no time, the sadhak who has raised himself with great effort is plunged into rajas and tamas. One should always be aware of one’s vulnerable point and be alert on the path so that one does not go astray.
The fish is caught because the bait with the worm is a temptation. One should be wary of the sense-organs and desires associated with them, whether it be taste, smell, vision, audition or touch. The yogi was alerted to this obstacle while watching the fish.
The seventeenth guru was a courtesan called Pingala. On one occasion Pingala waited for her lover in great anguish and restlessness. Long did she wait, but he did not come. At one point she became utterly disgusted with herself and thought, ‘It is because of my desire and expectation that I suffer.’ At the height of suffering; she turned her awareness within and a great transformation took place in her. ‘Had I but sought the divine beloved with the same ardour, I would not be in this plight now/ she thought to herself.
Thus a great vairagya arose in her. Leaving her desires aside, cutting asunder all expectations in one flash with the sword of viveka, she took to the spiritual path, Dattatreya was inspired by Pingala’s life, the lessons she learned from her suffering, the ease with which she dropped her ignorance, like the dropping of a garment and the heights to which her consciousness soared, free of desires, with the twin wings of viveka and vairagya.
Dattatreya watched a small sparrow flying with a piece of food in its beak and saw it encounter a big bird. Pursued by the big bird, the little sparrow dropped its food and escaped while the former pounced on the food. He realised the wisdom behind the instinctive action of the bird, that when the enemy is stronger, one should not hang onto possessions. Not only is this true concerning material possessions but also of the Fried. When a strong emotion so overpowers one, it is not wise to fight with the mind at that stage. It is best to let it pass while witnessing it in a detached fashion, so that the energy associated with it settles down. The sadhak needs to build up his foundation systematically and stabilise it before he or she is ready to face the giant waves of the ocean of the mind. It is said, “Discretion is the better part of valour”, and, ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”. One must be aware of one’s limitations in the early stages of sadhana lest one get burned out for lack of patience.
The nineteenth guru was a little child Dattatreya saw playing relaxed and untouched by the past. A child lives from moment to moment. He does not remember the abuse the pain of a moment ago, nor does he dream of the future. All of him is present at every moment. There is no tension in play, no competition, just sheer joy and fun and celebration, like the flowering of the trees. The spiritual path too can be light and full of celebration. The sadhak should be alert against the dangers of succumbing to the heaviness of the ego. It is for this reason that santosh, contentment, is one of the qualities of a disciple.
The twentieth guru was a young girl who was alone at home when she had unexpected visitors. Brought up in a tradition where the unexpected guest, atithi, is regarded as divine, she seated them with respect and then went into the inner room to prepare food for them. While pounding the rice her glass bangles made a noise knocking against each other. One by one she broke them so that the noise would not disturb her guests, until she had just two on her arm. When these too made a noise she broke one so that she had just one.
In a flash Dattatreya understood that one should walk alone on the spiritual path. Even a close, silent companion can create mental noise that prevents the great silence from taking place.
The one-pointed concentration of an archer reminded Dattatreya of the importance of sattwa guna and the unruffled ekagrata of a seeker. One is reminded of the Mundaka Upanishad which states, “Om is the bow, atman is the arrow and the target is Brahman,” The archer was Dattatreya’s twenty-first guru.
The twenty-second guru was the snake which taught him two things. One was to abandon crowds. The second was that familiarity and the known blunt awareness and create attachment. The lesson also applies to the mind. Shun the crowds within oneself, the market place within, and move closer to an uncluttered state of consciousness. Do not hold on to anything known, whether a thought, or an emotion. This will help the sadhak keep his awareness totally in every moment, unconditioned by yesterdays.
The twenty-third guru was a spider. The spider weaves its web with saliva from itself, and when it is done with it, takes it back into itself. This reminded him of the Brahman, the divinity that throws the cosmos cut of itself and at the end of an akaal gathers it back into itself.
The twenty-fourth guru was the wasp, ‘bhramara keelaka’. The wasp is said to take an insect, keep it in its nest, and keep stinging it every now and then until the insect becomes one-pointed with fear. The insect is almost meditating on the wasp in its terror, until it takes on the characteristic of its tormentor and itself become a wasp. “Brahma vidya brahmeva bhavati,” (“To know Brahman is to become Brahman.”) The situation is so reminiscent of Sambhrama yoga that Kamsa practised. His fear of Krishna made his mind so one-pointed that he attained liberation.
Upon hearing all this Yadu was enlightened, and paying homage to the Guru, Dattatreya, proceeded on his way.
The story of the twenty-four gurus of Dattatreya has tremendous significance for any disciple. Very often one analyses and dissects the speech and actions of one’s Guru, moving from Guru to Guru, looking through the eyes of the ego. Because one has not become a disciple, one does not have the consciousness to look beyond words into the silence, beyond form into the formless beyond the periphery into the centre. So, one keeps missing again and again.
For a seeker, discipleship is very important. Discipleship is not an emotional intention or an intellectual understanding of gurutwam. Discipleship is a state of consciousness. It is like the opening of a flower. Its opening is not calculated. It does not choose the time. It opens spontaneously when the bud stage is over, and as it opens the sunlight streams into it naturally from all sides. The sun does not choose the flower. The sun’s rays are present naturally. When the flower opens there is a meeting, a union.
Dattarreya’s relationship with each of his gurus did not consist of didactic lectures, nor of intellectual discussions or understanding. They were the intuitive flashes of an innocent mind, a mind innocent of concepts and preconceived notions. His consciousness as a disciple was such that gurutwam streamed into him from every side; from spiders, snakes, courtesans, children etc. All of existence became his Guru because he was a disciple, and because he was a disciple he was also the Adi Guru. The union of discipleship and gurutwam is not physical; mental or emotional. It is a state of consciousness; two great rivers merging to find that the water is one. Such discipleship is rare and should serve as an inspiration for all sadhakas looking for the highest truth.