Dattatreya is the God who is an incarnation of the Divine Trinity Bramha, Vishnu and Siva. The word Datta means “Given”, Datta is called so because the divine trinity have “given” themselves in the form of a son to the sage couple Guru Atri and Mata Anusuya. He is the son of Guru Atri, hence the name “Atreya.”
In the Nath tradition, Dattatreya is seen as an Avatar or incarnation of the Lord Shiva and as the Adi-Guru (First Teacher) of the Adi-Nath sampradaya of the Nathas. Although Dattatreya was at first a “Lord of Yoga” with Tantric traits, he was adapted and assimilated into the more devotional cults; while still worshiped by millions of Hindus, he is approached more as a benevolent God than as a teacher of the highest essence of Indian thought.
Dattatreya as a historical figure
Though the Dattatreya of the Natha tradition coexisted and intermingled with the Puranic, Bramhanical tradition of the Datta sampradaya, here we shall focus almost exclusively on the earlier Tntric manifestation of Datta. Shri Gurudev Mahindranath had no doubt that Dattatreya was a historical figure. He stated that Datta was born on Wednesday, the fourteenth day of the full moon in the month of Margasirsa, though he does not mention the year.
Dattatreya left home at an early age to wander naked in search of the Absolute. He seems to have spent most of his life wandering in the area between and including North Mysore, through the maharashtra, and into Gujrat as far as the Narmada River. He attained realization at a place not far from the town now known as Ganagapur. The original footprints of Datta are believed to be located on the lonely peak at Mount Girnar. The Tripura-rahasya refers to the disciple Parasurama finding Datta meditating on Gandhamadana mountain.
The Tripura-rahasya (The Secret of [the Goddess] Tripura) is believed to be an abbreviated version of the original Datta Samhita or Dakshinamurti Samhita traditionally ascribed to Dattatreya. This more lengthy work was summarized by Dattatreya’s disciple Parasurama, whose disciple, Sumedha Haritayana, scribed the text. Thus, this text is sometimes referred to as the Haritayana Samhita.
The Tripura-rahasya is divided into three parts. The first part, the Mahatmya Khanda or section on the goddess is concerned with the origin, mantra and yantra of the Goddess Tripura, also known as Lalita or Lalita Tripurasundari. The Jnana Khanda or section on knowledge elaborates on the themes of consciousness, manifestation, and liberation. The last part, Charya Khanda or section on conduct, has been lost and some believe destroyed.
Another work, the Avadhuta Gita (Song of the Free) is a wonderful, compete compilation of the highest thought given to and recorded by two of Dattatreya’s disciples, Swami and Kartika. Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) held it in high esteem. Originally a work of seven chapters, a spurious and misogynistic eighth chapter may be a later attempt to append sexual morality to the Natha tradition by a conservative ascetic. Some of the ideas in this Gita are however common to both Shaivait and Buddhist Tantras.
The Markandeya Purana reports that Dattatreya, to free himself of all attachments, dove into a lake where he stayed for many years. By doing so, he also hoped to evade an assembly of Munis who remained on the banks of the lake awaiting his return. Datta emerged from the water naked in the company of a beautiful woman. The text relates that he made love with her (maithuna), drank liquor, and enjoyed singing and music. In spite of this, the Munis did not abandon him, and Dattatraya, accompanied by his shakti, continued to engage in these practices and was meditated on by those longing for moksha.
In the Bhagavata Purana Dattatreya enumerates a list of his twenty-four gurus: earth, air, sky / ether, water, fire, sun, moon, python, pigeons, sea, moth, bee, bull elephant, bear, deer, fish, osprey, a child, a maiden, a courtesan, a blacksmith, serpent, spider, and wasp. The image of the Natha ranged from that of a siddha living in the woods with animals, to that of a frightening, even demonic, being.
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