Know about Lord Dattatreya and his 24 gurus
The concept of gurus has always been an integral part of Eastern spirituality. Guru Parampara, or the lineage of masters, exists in Hinduism, some sects of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. However, this concept finds wide-scale use in other religions too – ranging from the institution of Pope to Sufi and Tao masters. The concept of the ‘guru’ is famously celebrated each year on Dattatreya Jayanti, which falls on the purnima of the Margashirsha month of the Hindu lunar calendar, which is why it’s also known as Margashirsha Purnima.
Verse 16 of the Advayataraka Upanishad 1 describes the guru as:
Gushabdastvandhakāraḥ syāt rushabdastannirīdhakaḥ
This translates to syllable “Gu” stands for darkness, and the syllable “Ru”, for the one who dispels them. It is because the guru possesses the power to dispel darkness, s/he is thus named. There is also the famous mantra that aptly captures the elevated position of the guru, equating him with God:
GururBrahma GururVishnu GururDevo Maheshwaraha
Guru Saakshaat ParaBrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha
The meaning of this mantra is that: Guru is the Creator (Brahma), Guru is the Preserver (Vishnu), Guru is the Destroyer (Maheshwara). Guru is the Absolute (singular) Lord himself, Salutations to that Sri Guru.
But the big question is: Who is your Guru?
Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi, the evergreen poet, had once famously said: ‘What you seek, is seeking you.’ Lao Tzu had similarly uttered the lines: “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready… The teacher will disappear.”
Search of the guru
So is the search for the guru an external activity? And will the search always lead to a physical guru – a person? Or is the search more inwards – for the ‘guru inside’? Human beings are known to be usually concerned with external things that are tangible; even in a spiritual journey, people search for another person who can guide them. Many lack the understanding that a ‘guru’ can be like road signs – to guide a person on his inner journey. Prophets and saints across religions have tried to give the message of love and peace, so people can use those as guiding signs as they walk their journey towards their soul. While these enlightened souls are actual people who guide, it’s important to understand that even the universe and nature can act as guides towards an inner journey – if only one knows HOW to look.
In the 11th skanda of Srimad Bhagavatam (a sacred Hindu text), Lord Dattatreya (the god incarnate of the Holy Trinity in Hinduism – that of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva – and known as the lord of all yogis) acknowledges 24 gurus in his life – ranging from animals (such as snake, deer and fish) and human beings (such as a child, beekeeper, young maiden) to earth elements (such as fire, ocean, wind, etc). He used these external ‘gurus’ to dive deeper and deeper towards his soul, and so can we.
Here is a list of Dattatreya’s 24 gurus and what we can learn from them – be it moulding ourselves to replicate their characteristics or take their instincts as a note of warning – in order to facilitate our inward journey to connect with the soul.
Learn to be steadfastly productive like the earth, which does its dharma, gets abused (pollution, deforestation, etc), heals on its own and continues to be steady in giving nourishment.
Be free like the wind, yet resolute and true to your own force.
Much like the boundless sky, the Atman (the self/soul) is symbolic of the highest within oneself and has no limits; it is undifferentiated and non-dual no matter what. Let the clouds of materialism pass, be one with your soul and the universal self.
Discriminate against no one; don’t be arrogant. Water accepts impurities, yet it always remains pure and, in fact, cleanses.
Just like fire destroys everything it comes into contact with, leaving behind only the pure essence; spiritually, that would mean the destruction of the ego, leaving behind the pure soul.
As per Hindu philosophy, the same soul goes through the cycle of birth and death continuously, much like the waxing and the waning moon.
The sun is the energy and life source indiscriminately for all, and similarly the soul may appear to be different in different bodies, yet one has to realise that everyone is connected and that we are part of the same consciousness – the sun.
For Dhattatreya, the pigeon’s obsession with one’s family and surroundings presented an example of what not to do. So, the learning here is that one should not be obsessive with material and worldly connections; don’t focus on transient things such as damage or personal loss. But rather, treat human life as a rare privilege to learn, discover one’s soul and reach moksha.
The python’s nature is not of a hunter or food gatherer, but it is content with the prey coming to it. So, just like the patient python, be content with what you have, and make most of what life gives you.
Like the bumblebee hops from flower to flower for its nectar, one has to seek knowledge from various sources in order to appreciate and accept all ideologies. Be discerning of what you intake, but learn to live harmoniously with everyone.
Just like the bee collects honey and stores it in the hive with the intention of posterity, but that very hive becomes an attraction for other creatures and animals to come and harvest, thereby leaving the bee with possibly nothing at the end, it’s advised to not believe in piling up treasures because neither the body nor material wealth lasts forever.
The hawk hunts only when it’s hungry and just as much as it requires, so always take what you need, not more.
Let rivers of sensory input not bother who you are deep inside, know your depths, seek self-knowledge, be unperturbed by life, equipoise.
The moth’s nature is to be drawn to the flame and, thus, self-destroy. Don’t do that. Question your senses, question what others are telling you, question what you see, know senses can deceive and seek reason.
The elephant goes on lusty rampage during breeding season, making it oblivious to its surroundings. This weakness is often taken advantage of by hunters to trap and kill them. This shows that one should not lust after something or someone so much that it leads to self-destruction.
Don’t take the bait like the fish. Overcome the greed to possess all the crumbs someone places before you; there are plenty of healthy opportunities everywhere.
Much like the courtesan trades her body, many of us prostitute our time, self-respect and principles for various reasons, but still end up feeling dejected with our career and life. The lesson to be learnt here is to, instead, lead a disciplined and spiritual life by seeking deeper meaning in our work, while doing things we actually love to do.
Be a child – curious, innocent and blissful.
A young girl usually tries to seek attention and draw others to herself making her more prone to being flippant, but a one should, instead, seek meaning in solitude and introspection, rather than looking outwards.
Much like a snake sheds its skin at every stage of its life, one has to shed old ideas and revamp oneself for the rebirth of the spirit.
Concentrate on what you love to do – intense concentration is the way to self-realisation.
A spider spends a lot of time and energy to build its web, but when needed, it can abandon its elaborate creation and recreate a ‘home’ elsewhere, countless times. Learn from that sense of detachment with worldly objects; be ready to abandon all and go with your Atman.
Long journeys start small. A disciple starts out as a simple seeker and ultimately metamorphoses – like a caterpillar to a butterfly – into a spiritual master.
Some sects also believe that that there is a 25th guru whom Dattatreya categorised as Atma or the soul. In a way, Dattatreya tries to give mankind the earliest usage of Emotional Quotient (EQ) – the learning that one needs to ‘listen’ closely to the way life unfolds around us and develop the ‘empathy’ to understand the message or signs being shown by the Universe – to facilitate our internal journey towards our soul.
Dattatreya also leaves us with two biggest teachings – never to judge anything by its exterior/look and to always keep an open mind about all things. If only we were to really listen and understand Dattatreya’s teachings, this world would be a better place to live in.