Picture: Dattatreya, the incarnation of the Divine Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - painting by Raja Ravi Varma
Dattatreya, also known as Datta, is considered by Hindus as an incarnation of the Divine Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, who had ‘given’ (Datta means ‘given’) themselves in the form of a son to the couple Sage Atri and his wife Anusuya. Dattatreya is one of the oldest of the incarnations of the Divine Trinity, the first reference of whom is found in Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. Dattatreya is the author of Tripura Rahasya, the best treatise on Advaita Vedanta, which was given to Parashurama.
In the Nath Tradition, Dattatreya is recognized as an Avatar or incarnation of the Lord Shiva and as the Adi Guru (First Teacher) of the Adinath Sampradaya of the Naths. Although Dattatreya was at first a Lord of Yoga with distinct Tantric traits, he was later adapted into the more devotional (Bhakti) Vaishnava cults, and worshipped as a benevolent god rather than as a Guru.
According to legends, Sage Narada praised Anusuya's ‘pativratyam’ (devotion to her husband) a lot before the wives of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The wives became jealous and asked their husbands to reduce her pativratyam. So, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva went to Anusuya disguised as guests when Sage Atri was not at home and asked her to serve them food. When she agreed to do so, they said that they would accept it only if she served them without wearing any clothes. Anusuya got trapped in a dilemma: if she comes nude in front of other men her pativratyam will be reduced. If she refuses it is dishonouring the guests and that can take away all the powers of Atri. Anusuya felt that the three guests were not ordinary men. Anusuya prayed to her husband silently and said that she did not fear serving them in nude, as she was not affected by lust. She considered them as her children and served them as requested. By the time she came to serve food the three gods became small children and her breasts started producing milk. She then breastfed them and put them to sleep in a cradle. Atri returned home, and hearing the story from Anusuya, praised the three gods sleeping in the cradle. They woke up in their original form and praised Anusuya's pativratyam and gave her a boon, for which Anusuya requested that the three gods be born as her children - the incarnation of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma as Sage Durvasa, Dattatreya and Chandra (Moon God).
In Mahabharata, Dattatreya is referred to as from the family tree of Sage Atri, not as his son and the epic Shishupal Vadha (execution of Shishupala) written by poet Magha also refers to Dattatreya to be from Atri's family tree and not as his son.
Child Dattatreya left home to wander naked in search of the Absolute. It is believed he spent most of his wandering life in the area encompassing North Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and regions up to the Narmada River in Gujarat. It is believed that he attained realization (enlightenment) at a place near the town now known as Gangapura in Karnataka. The original footprints of Datta are believed to be located on a peak at Girnar, also known as Girnar Hills, the mountains situated near Junagadh, about 330 km from Ahmedabad. The Tripura Rahasya refers to Parasurama finding Datta meditating on Gandhamadana Mountain.
According to Brahma Purana, on the advice of his father sage Atri, Dattatreya sat on the banks of River Gautami and prayed to Shiva and finally attained the Brahmagyaan (Eternal Knowledge). This is possibly the reason why Dattatreya is considered as Adisiddha in Natha Sampradaya (Nath Tradition).
The Dattatreya Upanishad starts by referring Dattatreya's identity with Vishnu, but ends with the Mantra, ‘Om Namah Shivaya’, identifying him with Shiva. At the end of the third chapter, Shiva alone is said to pervade reality and shine in the heart of every man. He alone is ‘in front, behind, to the left, to the right, below, above, everywhere and at the center’. Finally, Shiva is identified with Dattatreya, an Avatar of Shiva.
Dattatreya idols are usually depicted with three heads, ‘symbolizing Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; past, present and future; creation, preservation and destruction; and the three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep’ (see the painting above). He is usually portrayed with his Shakti beneath the 'wish tree' (Kalpavriksha) with the 'wish cow' (Kamadhenu) in attendance. In front of him is a 'fire pit', the receptacle of the oblation of 'sacrifice' (Yajna), and around him are four dogs.
The four dogs, of different colours, often found in Dattatreya iconography, is said to represent the four Vedas. Dogs also held the cultural significance of 'dog eaters', the lowest possible forms of human existence, those who existed beyond the confines of Varnashrama Dharma. Dogs are also wild, tame and symbols of fidelity and 'devotion' (Bhakti).
In the Dattatreya Upanishad which is a part of the Atharva Veda, he is described as able to appear in the form of a child, a madman, or a demon in order to help his devotees achieve Moksha (liberation) from the bonds of worldly existence.
There are many traditions and systems of followers of Dattatreya, and their traditions, practices and beliefs vary considerably, and many of them follow the Tantric traditions which prevailed in India in the first millennium.
The Natha Sampradaya of Dattatreya devotees is a continuation of the Siddha or Avadhuta Sampradaya. The establishment of the Naths as a sect was purportedly began around the 8th or 9th century by a fisherman, Matsyendranath. His disciple Gorakshanath (also known as Gorakhnath, 11-12th century) departed from the Aghori traditions and strengthened the Nath Sampradaya as an acceptable, civilized form of society. Gorakshanath, considered the greatest of the Naths, wrote the first books on Laya Yoga. According to Bhagawan Nityananda, the Samadhi Shrines (tombs) of both Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath reside at Nath Mandir near the Vajreshwari temple, about a kilometer from Ganeshpuri, Maharashtra.
In the Datta Sampradaya the first Avatar is Shripad Shri Vallabh and the second is Narasimha Saraswati. They also consider Akkalkot Swami Samarth, Shri Vasudevanand Saraswati (Tembe Swami, Sawantwadi) Manik Prabhu, Krishna Saraswati, Shirdi Sai Baba and Ganapathi Sachchidananda (Mysore, Karnataka) as incarnations of Dattatreya.
The Tripura Rahasya (The Secret of the Goddess Tripura) is believed to be an abridged version of the original Datta Samhita or Dakshinamurti Samhita, traditionally ascribed to Dattatreya. Tripura Rahasya is divided into three parts. The first part, the Mahatmya Khanda is concerned with the origin, Mantra and Yantra of the Goddess Tripura. The Jnana Khanda (the section on knowledge) elaborates the themes of consciousness, manifestation and liberation. The last part, Charya Khanda (section on conduct) has been lost, and some people believe it is destroyed.
In Tantric tradition, the Tripuropasti-Paddhati is supposed to be written by Dattatreya, as it is mentioned in Tripura Rahasya. The summary of Tantra in the Parashuramkalpasutram is also supposed to have been written by Dattatreya.
The Avadhuta Gita, based on the principles of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism), is the sublime realization sung by Dattatreya and transcribed by two of his disciples, Swami and Kartika. It was originally a work of seven chapters, and ‘a spurious and misogynistic eighth chapter may be a later attempt to append sexual morality to the Nath Tradition by a conservative ascetic’. Some of the ideas in Avadhuta Gita are common to both Shaivite and Buddhist Tantras, and Vaishnava Agamas.
Girnar, in Saurashtra region of Gujarat is a famous place for the Datta Sampradaya. The temple of Narasimha Saraswati in Baroda continues this tradition of Dattatreya devotion. The main Dattatreya devotees who spread the Datta-panth in Gujarat were Pandurang Maharaj of Naareshwar and Shrirang Avadhut.
The town of Gangapura, where Dattatreya is said to have attained realization lies on the banks of River Bhima in Gulbarga District of North Karnataka. There have been numerous disciples and Dattatreya devotees from there, and places such as Borgaon, Chikodi, Kunnur, Sadalaga, Balekundri, Shahapur, Nipani, Hubali, Hangal, Dharwad, etc. have Dattatreya temples, or temples of Narasimha, also considered an incarnation of Dattatreya. Shri Narasimha Saraswati and some of his disciples used to worship this form of Dattatreya.