Dattatreya – The Avadhuta


·           Introduction

·           Origin of Dattatreya

·           Birth of Dattatreya

·           Legend

·           Appearance of Dattatreya

·           Significance of Symbols

·           24 Gurus of Dattatreya

·           Books on Dattatreya

·           Temples of Dattatreya

·           Datta Jayanthi

·           Shloka

·           Conclusion


The core of Hinduism lies in the principle that the Supreme Being or God lives in the heart, consciousness and soul of every being and can be discovered by love, devotion and spiritual sadhana. God is immanent and transcendent, in the world and beyond it. Since this formless Brahman or Atman is difficult to comprehend, there are a number of Gods exhibiting various aspects of the Supreme Godhead. This allows individuals the freedom to worship and seek God in myriad ways as per family tradition, regional practices, community and personal desire. One of the most powerful Hindu deities regarded as an aspect of the Divine trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva is Sri Datta or Dattatreya. He is also considered as the Adi Guru or First teacher of the Adinath Sampradaya of the Nath sect.


Origin of Dattatreya

The name Dattatreya is derived from the Sanskrit words Datta meaning ‘given’ and Atreya referring to ‘Sage Atri who was also Datta’s biological father’. He is also called the Lord of Yoga and is considered the presiding deity for the path of yoga. Dattatreya is also referred to as ‘Avadhuta’ meaning the destroyer of the three Gunas namely Sattva (Purity and Knowledge), Rajas (Passion and Activity) and Tamas (Inertia and Ignorance). He is considered the Ideal Guru and is widely worshipped as the deity or Avatar who helps his devotees to cross the ocean of Samsara. He is said to wander about in search of his devotees hence the Vedas affirm that a guest (Athithi) is veritably the very embodiment of Dattatreya. He is thus regarded as one the most ancient deities with references even in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Atharva Veda has a part called ‘Dattatreya Upanishad’ which describes him as taking any form including that of a child, spirit or madman to help his devotees secure liberation. In the earliest Tantric traditions, Dattatreya was originally portrayed as having only one head but later on in the Nath Sampradaya, he was considered to have the acceptable three-headed form as is observed to this day. According to some sources, Dattatreya as a wandering Guru was said to have been born in the jungles of Kashmir near the sacred Amarnath. He performed rigorous Sadhana and attained realisation and is said to have meditated at Mount Girnar for 12000 years. In the Puranas, Dattatreya is considered as an Avatar of Vishnu while the Nath tradition considers him as an Avatar of Shiva.

Birth of Dattatreya

Sage Atri was one of the Saptarishis and the Manas Putra of Lord Brahma. He is said to be the seer of the fifth book of the Rig Veda. His wife was the pure Devi Anasuya and it is said that in answer to their prayers, Lord Shiva had promised to be born in their household. Thus, Shiva is considered as one of the Trimurtis in Dattatreya. Some legends claim that his origin was mystical as when the Lord made the universe, in order to protect and preserve Dharma, the saints and sages felt the need of a guru and invoked the Lord to descend on Earth. Out of compassion, the Lord descended as Dattatreya.



The chaste and noble woman Anusuya was the wife of the great sage Atri. She began to do severe penance in order to beget a son who equalled the greatness of the Trimurti, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It is said that Sage Narada praised and extolled her qualities to the consorts of the Gods, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. They became jealous and requested their husbands to test her virtuousness. The three Gods agreed and appearing before her in the guise of ascetics, they asked her to serve them alms without her clothes on. Anusuya was initially puzzled but regaining her equanimity, she sprinkled water on them uttering a mantra which turned them into babies. She then removed her clothes as requested earlier and fed them her own milk. When Atri returned home he divined what had happened. He embraced the three babies and transformed them into a single child with three heads and six arms. Meanwhile the Goddesses became frantic with worry when the Gods did not return and rushed to Anusuya begging forgiveness. Anusuya accepted their request to return their husbands and they returned to their true forms. They blessed Atri and Anusuya with a son Dattatreya after which two more sons Durvasa and Chandra (moon God) were born.

Appearance of Dattatreya

Dattatreya as Datta Guru appears as an ascetic with 3 heads symbolising the unity of Brahma (creation), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer) along with 6 arms. His dress is made of deer’s skin and his long Jata (hair) is tied in a knot over his head. His whole body is covered with holy ash (Vibhuti) and the aura (halo) of the rising sun is seen around him. His arms hold various objects which have deep spiritual connotation. They are the Shankha or Conch, Chakra or Discus, Gada or Mace, Trishul or trident, Kamandalu or water pot and the Begging bowl. The Audumbar (fig) tree in Dattatreya tradition is considered holy and held in great reverence. Devotees worship this tree to fulfil their worldly and spiritual desires.

Significance of Symbols

Shankha or Conch

It resonates with the Naada or Cosmic sound and is the basis for expansion of Divine knowledge. Dattatreya being the Divine teacher is responsible for awakening knowledge in the student and leading him on the divine path.

Chakra or Discus

It stands for time or the Kala Chakra. The teacher guides the student to face the vicissitudes of life by remaining unaffected by the good and bad times in his life.

Gada or Mace

It stands for pride and the Guru guides the student to eschew pride to follow the path of truth. He guides them to develop love and compassion giving up all negative passions.

Trishul or trident

It symbolises the triple energies of Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. Dattatreya holds the trident to guide his followers to balance the Ida at the left and Pingala at the right with the Central energy current Sushumna thus leading a balanced life.

The Kamandalu or begging bowl

The Guru holds the begging bowl to instruct his followers to donate all their negativity and limitations into his bowl. He then drinks it to liberate them and put them firmly on the path of truth.

The four dogs

The four dogs shown accompanying Lord Dattatreya represent-

Four Yugas – Satya (Krita), Treta, Dwapara, Kali

Four Vedas – Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva

Four states of the mind – Manas (mind), Chittha (storage of impressions), Ahamkara (Ego), Buddhi (intellect)

Four states of consciousness – Waking (Jagrit), Swapna (Dream), Sushupti (dreamless sleep), Turiya (pure consciousness)

Four states of Sound – Para (beyond), Pashyanti (perception), Madhyama (conception), Vaikhari (vocal)

Four types of Shakti (dynamic force pervading creation) – Iccha Shakti (power of the will), Jnana Shakti (power of knowledge), Kriya Shakti (power of the intellect) and Para Shakti (Pure Consciousness)

Dogs are linked to great love, devotion to the Master, compassion, fidelity, courage and are always alert and receptive to being taught which are the pre requisites of a good disciple. Hence, they were considered auspicious symbols right from Pre-Vedic times. Even in Greek mythology, there was a three-headed dog Hydra which kept vigil at the gates of heaven and hell.

The Cow

Lord Dattatreya is accompanied by a white cow which symbolises the nurturing aspect of creation hence is afforded protection by the Lord. It is also considered to be Kamadhenu or the wish fulfilling cow indicating that the Lord fulfils the desires of all his devotees.

24 Gurus Of Dattatreya

Dattatreya always considered that he had 24 Gurus which included the Universe and its creations. As mentioned in the 11th Skanda of the Bhagvad Purana where Krishna narrates to Uddhava ( Uddhava Geeta) the conversation between Avadhuta Dattatreya and Prince Yadu, son of King Yayati, they are-

1. Mother Earth – By nourishing, sustaining and bearing the burden without complaint, it taught Dattatreya the qualities of patience, forbearance and tolerance.

2. Air – By moving freely and unattached to anything, it taught him to be unfettered while following the path of knowledge and truth.

3. Water – By sustaining life, soothing and quenching the body, it taught him to soothe and calm the troubled mind and bring solace.

4. Fire – Its brightness burns everything thus it taught humans to burn away their impurities in the fire of wisdom.

5. Space – Space is open, vast and contains everything yet it is made up of nothingness. This taught the lesson of non attachment and expansion of the mind unfettered to seek truth.

6. Sun – It gives heat and light to the entire universe. It taught him to see the light of wisdom and burn away all negative tendencies. Also when reflected by water in different vessels, the Sun appears as many though it is only one. Similarly there is only one Self inherent in all beings reflected in myriad forms.

7. Serpent – It never builds a dwelling for itself and moves in any direction. It sheds its old skin just as the soul sheds an old body and enters a new one. It taught him to be like the Yogi unaffected by birth or death and unattached to place or time.

8. Moon – The moon is unaffected by its periodic waxing and waning. It taught him to remain unaffected by changes and emphasised the nature of the unchanging and permanent Divinity within.

9. Pigeon – Once Dattatreya noticed a hunter catching young fledglings in a snare. In anguish the mother pigeon tried to rescue it and was caught. The father pigeon unable to bear the separation from his beloved rushed to save them and was also caught. It taught him that attachment was one of the main causes of rebirth and suffering and one should always remain unattached.

10. Honey Bee – The honey bee wanders from flower to flower sipping the nectar unlike the fly which sat on everything, pure and impure. So too a spiritual seeker should grasp the sweetness of the Scriptures and seek eternal truth and not wander about amidst sensual pleasures.

11. Moth – The moth is generally attracted to light and gets burnt in the    process. Similarly man is attracted to illusory pleasures and gets caught in the cycle of birth and death. It taught him to stay unaffected by fleeting pleasures and seek the Divine light shining within.

12. Ant – The ant tirelessly works without getting affected by the     obstacles that it faces. It taught him to strive ceaselessly for wisdom until the truth was revealed.

13. Deer – The deer is said to be attracted by the lilting notes of the flute and gets trapped by the hunter. It taught him the need to control the senses.

14.  Elephant – It is said to be lured to the pit by the scent of its mate and then fettered and bound by the mahout. It taught him to avoid getting trapped in sensual pleasures.

15.  Fish – The fish is trapped to the hook lured by the bait. Hence, it taught him that control of senses and desires is one of the most essential requisites for a spiritual aspirant.

16. Pingala (the dancing girl) – Pingala was waiting for her customers one evening in vain. When no one turned up she was driven to despair. Suddenly she developed disgust for her life and sensual pleasures. She decided to renounce worldly things and seek the Lord. This brought her great peace and taught him to sacrifice all worldly pleasures and concentrate on the Divine.

17. Maiden – Once a maiden was preparing a meal for her guests and removed all her bangles except one to avoid attracting attention while pounding the pestle. It taught him to avoid unnecessary company and strive alone on the spiritual path.

18. Ocean – All the rivers flow into seas and finally into the oceans. Similarly, no matter our positions, name or fame in life one day all beings have to face death and merge into the Infinite. It taught him to be deep and calm like the ocean, meditating on the Divine.

19. Child – It taught him to be innocent like a child, free from anxieties and always joyful.

20. Spider – It is said to build its own web and is finally consumed in the same web. It taught him to abandon desires and entanglements to worldly desires.

21.  The Arrowsmith – The arrowsmith was so busy sharpening the tip of his arrows that he failed to notice the King’s army passing nearby. It taught him the quality of one-pointedness and concentration.

22. Caterpillar – The wasp is said to take the caterpillar and keep it in its nest. In fear the caterpillar goes on reflecting on the wasp and ultimately is transformed into the wasp. It taught him to constantly contemplate on the divine and finally achieve oneness with him.

23. Hawk (Bird of prey) – When a hawk carries its prey in its beak, it is attacked by other birds from all sides. Once it drops its prey it is left alone. Similarly, it taught him to drop all sense pleasures that trap a spiritual aspirant and become free and unattached.

24.  Honey collector – The bees store honey diligently in their hive but the honey collector comes and takes it all away. Thus, the Guru learnt that no matter how much wealth and fame we amass, in an instant death snatches all our possessions away.

Books on Dattatreya

According to the Dasopanth sect, the book ‘ Shri Dattatreya Shodashavatar Charitanee’, Lord Dattatreya as a Guru is said to have taken 16 Avatars namely Yogiraj, Atrivarad, Dattatreya, Kala Agnishaman, Yogijan Vallabh, Lila Vishwambar, Siddharaj, Dnyanasagar, Vishwambharavdhoot, Mayamuktavdhoot, Mayayuktavdhoot, Adiguru, Shiva Guru Dattatreya, Devdeveshwar, Digambar, Shri Krishna Shyam Kamal Nayan.

According to the Datta Sampradaya, the first Avatar is Sripada Srivallabh and the second one is Narasimha Saraswati. They consider the other incarnations of Dattatreya to be Shirdi Sai Baba, Akkalkot Maharaj, Shri Vasudevanand Saraswati, Manik Prabhu, Krishna Saraswati, Gajanan Maharaj and Shri Ganapathi Sachidananda Swami.

Avadhuta Gita

It is a small book of only eight chapters said to be sung by Lord Dattatreya as an Avadhut according to the Nath Sampradaya and heard and transcribed by two of his disciples. It expounds the principles of non-dualism or Advaita and the highest experience of Brahman and is said to date back to 5000 BC or even earlier. It is considered to be one of the greatest treatises on Advaita Vedanta as it is a joyous exposition of self-experience of the truth. It was greatly appreciated by Swami Vivekananda as a sharing of directly revealed truth and a call to awaken us to supreme Knowledge.

Guru Charitra

This book is considered as one of the most holy books in the Dattatreya Guru tradition and it is a biographical sketch of two great Gurus who were considered incarnations of Lord Dattatreya, Shripada Shri Vallabh Swami and Shri Narasimha Saraswati.

Tripura Rahasya

This book is an ancient spiritual treatise on Advaita said to have been taught by Shiva to Vishnu who incarnated on earth as Dattatreya who later taught it to Parashurama. It is a dialogue between Dattatreya and Parashurama who later taught it to Haritanaya who authored it, hence it is also known as Haritanaya Samhita. Tripura Rahasya means ‘Secret behind the three cities or trinity’ implying the three states of consciousness Jagrit (waking), Swapna (dream) and Sushupti (deep sleep). The Mother Goddess Sri Tripura is the underlying consciousness in them all. It consists of 12000 shlokas in three Khandas or sections. In this book, Parashurama learns about the mysteries of the Tripura worship from Dattatreya and finally after great penance, his doubts are dispelled, his troubled mind becomes calm and he achieves enlightenment. This book was highly revered by the great saint Sri Ramana Maharishi.

Temples of Dattatreya

There are many famous temples of Dattatreya especially in Pune, Kolhapur, Ahmednagar and in many other cities of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and in most of the other states in India.



Worship of Dattatreya

Dattatreya is worshipped as an Avatar (Deity) or as a Guru (Avadhuta) and this worship follows specified norms. As a Guru along with Puja, arati and other rituals, continuous chanting of ‘Shri Gurudev Datta’ and Datta Gayatri, reading of the Guru Charitra and Bhajans and Kirtan are done every day especially on Thursdays. Rangolis of Sattvik colours such as yellow, blue and pink are drawn which is said to emit the Datta principle. The chant ‘Shri Gurudev Datta’ is said to be highly potent in warding off evil, removing distress, solving problems arising due to illness, financial loss, death and conferring peace and equanimity. It is also said to grant liberation from the debts of ancestors. The traditional Arati song for Datta has been composed by Sant Eknath Maharaj and hence is said to be filled with Divine Consciousness. The worshippers of the Deity Datta perform Vyashti (individual) as well as Samashti (society) Sadhana to achieve completeness in worship and ensure harmony in all levels of society, individual as well as community.

Datta Jayanthi

This holy day is celebrated to commemorate the birth anniversary of Lord Dattatreya on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Margashirsha (December/January). On this day people bathe early and observe fast. They then pray in front of his image with lamps, incense and flowers and read his sacred books Avadhuta Gita, Datta Prabodh, Datta Mahatmya and others. They sing devotional songs and sometimes the festival is celebrated for 5 to 7 days.


A Shloka or hymn in praise of Lord Dattatreya is as follows-

Sarva Aparaadha Naashaaya
Sarva Paapa Haraaya Cha
Deva Devaaya Devaaya
Sri Dattatreya Namosthuthe


I bow to the One who negates Karma,
The One who annihilates all sins
I bow to the God of all Gods
I bow to Sri Guru Dattatreya


There are a number of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism signifying various attributes of perfection which help man in his quest for knowledge and truth. The Hindu mythological legends surrounding them contain deep spiritual truths in their battles against greed, anger, lust, pride, ego and all the other negative tendencies while highlighting their positive virtues of truth, forbearance, compassion, devotion and other qualities. They help man to develop devotion and strive for higher truths while avoiding pitfalls that pull him down. Lord Dattatreya is worshipped by most of the Hindus and is revered in the Nath tradition as an Avatar and Adi Guru, a teacher who guides and leads the devotee to self-realisation and eternal bliss.

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