The origins of Lord Dattatreya’s myths and stories are first found in two great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, it is in the Puranas that we find the detailed legendary character which evolves. In the Puranas we learn that Dattatreya was born to Anasuya and her husband rsi Atri as an incarnation of the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (Rigopoulos 1). Lord Dattatreya is a male deity with three heads which represents the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. He is portrayed with four dogs in front which symbolise the Vedas and a cow behind, which stands for Mother Earth. In the Mahanubhava panth, Lord Dattatreya is worshipped as a single- headed deity (Joshi 130-161). Lord Dattatreya is mostly worshipped in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. Lord Dattatreya is viewed by his devotees as the Guru of Gurus and initiator of Navnath sampradaya.
The Avdhuta Gita is one of the famous writings which are associated with him. This book consists of 289 slokas which are divided into eight chapters. It is based on Vedanta philosophy (Joshi 58). This book was very influential in the western part of India and was widely used by the Navnath sampradaya to spread the Dattatreya cult. The first chapter deals with the condition of the human soul. The other chapters describe the nature of the reality that everything is Brahman and the innermost self (atman) is one. There is no duality; Brahman is a universal soul. The eighth chapter recommends the avoidance of the women: It describes the harm done by women to man on the path to liberation. Avdhuta Gita forbids the pursuit of worldly pleasures to those who want to enjoy the complete happiness or bliss. Even today the book is popular among the devotees of Dattatreya in Maharashtra (Rigopoulos 192-220).
The Guru Caritra is credited for the rise in the Dattatreya cult in modern era. Until the sixteenth century Lord Dattatreya used to represent Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. From that period onwards, he developed two incarnations Shripad Shri Vallabaha and Narshima Saraswati. The popularity of the Dattatreya cult grew among the masses as indicated by his frequent appearances in Marathi Literature (Raeside 498). The Guru Caritra is the most influential text in the Dattatreya sampradya or his cult. The book claims its mystical origins and it describes the life stories of two avatars: Shripad Shri Vallabaha and Shri Narshima Saraswati who were born in Pithpur, Andhra Pradesh and Karanja, Maharashtra (Rigopoulos 110). The Guru Caritra was written in Marathi by Saraswati Gangadhar in 1550. It is divided into fifty-one chapters, including the avataranika which is the set of instructions for reading it. The text is a conversation between two people: Siddha muni and Namdharaka. Chapters 5 to 10 describe the Sripad Vallabha`s life story and the miraculous powers he used to help people. Chapters 20 to 51 describe the life story of Shri Narshima Saraswati and the miracles he performed. The Guru Caritra is a book which promotes orthodoxy, the importance of performing rituals and dharma (Rigopoulos 109).
The story of the birth of Shripad Shri Vallabha takes place in a village called Pithapur near Rajmahendri in Andhra pradesh there lived a Brahmin couple, Alparaja and his pativrata wife Sumiti. The Brahmin was well versed in the Vedas and both of them had a strong belief in god. Once there was a sraddha ceremony in their house which was performed to please their ancestors. On that day a renouncer came to their door and asked for alms. Sumiti immediately gave the alms to the renouncer, despite the fact that she was not supposed to offer alms on that day. Due to this, the renouncer who disguised himself appeared in his real form as Lord Dattatreya. He was very pleased with the act of Sumiti and he offered a boon to her. The Brahmin and his wife had two sons who were blind and lepers. She asked Lord Dattatreya to be born as her child. Lord Dattatreya granted the boon and after a few months she had a son who had a shining face likes the sun and he was very beautiful. The Brahmin couple gave him a name of Shripad which is one of the names of Lord Dattatreya. Shripad grew up very well there and at the age of sixteen said he would like to renounce worldly pleasures and go to the Himalayas to initiate and guide a few saints. Sumiti was very sad after hearing these words and she tried her best to convince him to stay with them. Shripad renounced worldly pleasures and made his way towards the holy places like Banaras, Badrinath and Gokrana. Before he left he cured his two brothers and blessed them with every-lasting wealth and prosperous lives. On his way he helped people such as Ambika and her son who was mentally handicapped. Shripad also promised Ambika that he would be her son in her next birth. In Kuravapur, Sripad gave a boon to a washer man that he would be born in a Muslim family in his next birth and would be a ruler. Shripad also mentioned to him that he would meet him again when he would be Narshima Saraswati in his next birth (Bhagvant 59-126). [see Sri Guru Caritra in Marathi Ch. from 5 to 10. It also describes the stories in detail including the story of Gokrana Shiva linga, the Brahmin killed by thieves and who was brought back to life].
It is believed by the devotees in the Dattatreya sampradaya that Lord Dattatreya is reborn from time to time to guide his devotees to salvation. The stories related to Sri Narshima Saraswati who is considered as the second avatar of Lord Dattatreya in the Guru Caritra are as follows: Shri Narshima Saraswati was born in town Karanja, Maharashtra in a Brahmin family. His parent’s names were Madhav and Amba. His given name was Narhari. Prior to his upanayana he just uttered the “OM” sound and nothing else. After performing the upanayana he is reputed to have spoken and recited all the hymns of the Vedas. At this time he was only seven years old and people were amazed by his knowledge. Narhari decided to renounce the materialist world and its pleasures and he also renounced his family at a very young age. He promised his parents that he would return after twenty years of penance. On his way to Kasi Narhari met many sannyasins and he guided them. Narhari got a diksa from an old sannyasin Krsna Saraswati and he was given a new name, Narshimha Saraswati, to keep the linage of his guru. On his way towards Gangapur, he guided many people on the spiritual path, healed and gave boons to many. Narshimha Saraswati lived for few years at Narsobawadi and Audhumbar before he decided to spend his rest of his life at Gangapur. He accomplished his mission by showing people the right way and re-establishing the correct dharma (Joshi 70-72).
There is a story in the Guru Caritra which shows his character when he helps a Dalit man to defeat two learned arrogant Brahmins in a Vedic recitation competition. As per the Guru Caritra, he helped all the people without any discrimination regarding their caste or religions. Narshima Saraswati used his miraculous powers to represent himself as one who had come for humanity to save them from ignorance. His teachings are based on doing the good karma, observing the vratas which are believed to purify the body and soul and give the observer what he wishes. Narshimha Saraswati`s main mission was to awake the people towards the reality. The Guru Caritra tries to list that the miracles which Narshimha Saraswati performed, such as waking up a dead Brahmin, healing lepers and giving a boon to a sixty year old lady to give birth to her first child. Blessing his disciples to provide food to thousands of people, curing the smallpox of a Muslim king were among other miracles attributed to him. Every miracle he performed had a message to the people that there was something deeper beyond the worldly pleasures and one should find the reality of existence (Rigopoulos 117). [During this period his fame and glory was spread all over Maharashtra and he was recognized as a great sage by Hindu sections as well as Muslim rulers in India. After spending twenty years in Gangapur in 1459 he left for ShriShaila Mountain and was never seen again (see Sri Guru Caritra Marathi)].
Today Gangapur, which lies in Karnataka state, is considered the center place by Dattatreya worshipers. The Gangapur ksetra lies near the sangama of two great rivers, Bhima and Amarja. In the Dattatreya temple there is a small room in which the Nirguna-Padukas are kept, these padukas are believed to be certain signs of the never ending presence of Lord Dattatreya in them. The Nirguna-Padukas were the holiest thing to be worshiped in Dattatreya sampradya from many centuries. In this temple there is a little window from where the devotees take darshan of Dattatreya (Rigopoulos 119). This place is also famous for healing people who are possessed by evil spirits. The sufferer is generally taken to the temple when the prayers or artis are performed at certain times of day. It is believed that evil spirit cannot stand in front of the presence of god and leaves the sufferer. This is another reason why Dattatreya temples at Audhumbar, Narsobavadi and Gangapur are famous as powerful healing centers. There are millions of locals who visit these sites to be free from the evil supernatural powers such as the possession by sprits, black magic. These places are known as jagrit sthanas that is an awakened deity (Rigopoulos 122). [See Rigopoulos 121 where he references M.S. Mathe and describes in detail the worship of the Nirguna-Padukas. Also see Rigopoulos 123 where he says it is not clear why these places got importance of healing centers].
Datta–Jayanti is one of the Hindu festivals which is associated with Lord Dattatreya. “This festival is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the full moon of month of marga-sirsa according to the Hindu calendar” (Rigopoulos 122). The Datta–Jayanti is certainly one of the popular festivals in Maharashtra. But there is no evidence in the Guru Caritra where it instructs or emphasises to celebrate the festival. This festival has been celebrated since ancient times and no one knows exactly when it was celebrated for the first time. Devotees believe that Dattatreya was born on this day and it is celebrated as his birthday. The festival lasts for a day and involves his devotees coming together, make prayers and offerings to him.[ see Rigopoulos 132 where he says it is unclear to scholars which is the right day , but he references the dasopant caritra which says Dattatreya`s birthday is on Monday . However tradition believes it’s on Wednesday].
Today Lord Dattatreya has his own unique place among the Hindu gods and in hearts of his devotees, despite being a very ancient avatara of the Trimurti. Lord Dattatreya is regarded as the immortal guru who answers the prayers of his devotees and helps them to prosper in their material life as well as spiritual path. The various sampradayas and saints associated with Lord Dattatreya are equally helpful in spreading his glory and uplifting the lives of the believers and removing their sorrows. It is believed by his devotees he grants vision in dreams and comes to fulfil their wishes and desires (Rigopoulos 253-255). The Guru Caritra stands as a central text in Dattatreya sampradaya which describe the life stories of two avataras. The Nirguna–Padukas at Gangapur stand as main pilgrimage site.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bahadur, Sri Jaya Chamarajendra (1982) DATTATREYA: The Way and the Goal. London: Coombe Springs Press.
Bhagvant, Yogiraj (2002) Sri Guru Caritra in Marathi. Pune: Rajesh Prakashan.
Chetanandnda, Swami (1984) Trans Avadhuta Gita of Dattatreya. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram.
Dhere, R.C (1964) Datta Sampradayaca Itihas 2nd edition. Pune: Nilakanth Prakashan.
Joshi, Hariprasad Shivprasad (1965) Origin and development of Dattatreya worship in India. Baroda: Maharaj Sayajirao University of Baroda Press.
Mate, M.S (1988) Gangapur Dattatreya: In Temples and Legends of Maharashtra. Bombay: Bhartyiya Vidhya Bhavan.
Raeside, I.M.P (1982) “Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London”, Dattatreya: Vol. 45, No. 3: 489-500.
Rigopoulos, Antonio (2000) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avtara. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
Shirdi Sai baba
Written by Abhijeet Shende (Spring 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.