Dattatreya was a mythological deity or sage. He was said to be an avadhoot, or complete renunciate, wandering naked in the world. He is usually represented with 3 heads as he is also said to be an incarnation of the combined forms of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, or the past, present and future. But this post is about his unusual teachers or gurus, of which he said he had 24. Today is Guru Poornima, or festival of the teacher, and Dattatreya’s story is a perfect example of how life and all its manifestations can be our teacher.
In spite of all that is done to it by humans, the Earth endures, forgives and is patient. The Earth gives endlessly and always exists for the benefit of the beings who live there. The earth is persevering and steadfast. From the earth Dattatreya learned these qualities.
Though air ,may briefly pick up traces and taints of that which it flows through, afterwards it flows on and is pure and renewed again. Thus living in the world, like the air one can remain free.
No matter what passes through the sky, clouds, smoke, creatures etc., the sky remains itself, vast and unaffected and all-pervading. Thus is the soul. The sky was Dattatreya’s third teacher.
Water refreshes, cleanses, supports life and is freely available to all. Dattatreya took water as an example of free-flowing compassion.
Fire represents the latent splendour of the Soul and Self-Knowledge, always present no matter what the outer circumstance, be it a blaze or a smouldering ember. Fire consumes everything and brings all different forms to their one original essence.
Though the moon appears to go through changes, waxing and waning, in truth it is always the same – it is simply the shadow from the earth that makes it appear different. Thus it is with us, our changing mind streams and bodies make us seem changeable and divided and yet we are unchanging in our inner essence.
The sun shines equally on all. Though the many forms or reflections appear to be different, it is the one light that shines.
A mother pigeon jumped into the same snare in which her fledglings had been caught. Dattatreya saw this as representing the snares of mundane life which can cause us to sacrifice our true lives. Attachment is the root of bondage.
Dattatreya learned surrender from the python. It only ate what came in its path, it did not seek after prey and was content with what came. Do not run after pleasures, accept what comes in ones path.
No matter how many millions of rivers arrive into the ocean it remains undisturbed. It does not differentiate between polluted or unpolluted but accepts all and is free from disturbance. Joys or sorrow are the same to the ocean.
Dattatreya learned about the senses from the moth. The sense of sight confounds the moth who races headlong into the flame.
The Bee takes only what it needs from individual flowers. They are not a burden on the flowers and work for the benefit of all, and do not hoard their treasure.
The elephant taught Dattatreya about lust. In order to catch the huge bull elephant the hunters made a statue of a female elephant and the bull came racing towards it and fell into the pit. After that the bull is enslaved by the hunters.
The honey-gatherer benefits from the work of the bee, and thus it often is with those who work hard to gather possessions. They often have no time or energy to enjoy them, and they will be enjoyed by someone else. Hoarded wealth will often fill the pockets of the thief.
The deer can be lured into a trap by music. They can also be trapped by fear. One should be discriminate about one’s entertainments and emotional states and obsessions. Any vulnerability compromises alertness.
The fish taught two lessons. One, not to gobble greedily at everything lest some things should be bait. And two to be at home in one’s element, as the fish is at home in water. The fish never leaves the water, so too, thought Dattatreya, should the seeker never leave the path.
Courtesan named Pingala
Pingala, the prostitute, while waiting desperately for a certain man to arrive, suddenly became aware of how much of her energy she put into this sort of desire. She realised in a flash that if she spent that energy on higher occupations, she would feel better, and in one moment her whole life and attitude changed. Dattatreya learned from her that a sudden moment of illumination is all that is needed.
A sparrow to escape a bigger bird that was pursuing it dropped the piece of food from its mouth that was slowing its flight. From this Dattatreya learned to let go of the unremitting pursuit of pleasures and thus attain peace.
Watching a child at play Dattatreya learned about cheerfulness. Freedom from concern for the future or the past, freedom from concern about honour or dishonour. The child taught him spontaneity, celebration, living from moment to moment.
From the girl Dattatreya learned about the benefit of solitude. She was pounding rice for guests and her bangles clattering together were making noises that she felt might disturb them. She removed them until she had only one on each arm and found now that her work was peaceful. Too much company can create distraction and agitation.
These practitioners of the arts require intense concentration and one pointedness of mind. From these Dattatreya learned about the importance of focus and total intention.
The snake abandons crowds and the market place. The snake also abandons its own skin. Likewise the seeker should live in the cave of their own heart.
The spider creates a web out of its body and then withdraws it back into itself. So too does the creator manifest Universes and then draw them back into themselves. So too does the sentient being manifest a world for themselves via the senses, which we must eventually draw back into ourselves. Do not get entangled in our own nets or webs.
Wasp and Caterpillar
The wasp captures the caterpillar and carries it off. It stings it repeatedly over time so that the caterpillar knows only the buzz and the sting of the wasp and forgets all else. Thus does the caterpillar eventually become a wasp. Thus too does the human come to be that upon which the mind is set.