Dattatreya is an important figure in the Hindu religion. Dattatreya is regarded as an important dharmic Guru, Yogi, and incarnation of three main deities in this religion. He is seen as a significant Yogic figure across a wide spectrum of the religion from Tantric to Brahminic orthodox Hinduism (Rigopolous 7). Dattatreya also extends past the confines of Hinduism into certain sects within Jainism as well as Sufism and is even briefly talked about within some Buddhist texts.
Dattatreya is seen as an incarnation of the three main Hindu gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, fused into one singular being. The incarnated form of these three gods (Dattatreya) is depicted as a three headed, six armed being. Each set of his arms contains symbols for each of the three gods: a lotus and water pot is depicted for Brahma, a wheel and conch for Visnu, and a trident and drum for Siva. Dattatreya is usually portrayed dressed as an ascetic while also accompanied with a cow (symbolic in Hindu tradition of the earth) and four dogs (representative of the four Vedic texts) (Pain 95).
Dattatreya is a deity that is associated with the conservation of the environment and education pertaining to the environment. Teachings of this deity involve attaining realization through the observation of the earth (symbolic presence of the deity associated with the cow) as it is a sacred space representative of the entire cosmos itself. Dattatreya teaches this message in the way that most Hindu philosophical teachers address the world, in a matter of self-realization. This deity’s teachings reflect that of a Buddha-like figure in the way in which this deity points to self-realization and freeing the self from material attachment. The true nature of things is much deeper and that enlightenment comes from freeing the self from material attachment (Haigh 1). However, teachings such as these are seen all across Hinduism as reflections of highly realised Gurus (teachers) relaying much deeper meaning than just what is seen.
The manner in which Dattatreya goes about his teachings in a highly realized manner comes from how the being was thought to have attained moksa (self liberation) in the first place. This deity gained liberation from being temporarily earth bound while being taught by twenty-four Gurus. Each of Dattatreya’s teachers taught him deep yogic lessons in which he later portrays within his own teachings such as compassion and the absence of material attachment.
The mythological creation of Dattatreya dates back to the Rg Veda and a rsi (“seer”; semi divine figures who composed the sacred texts) named Atri. Dattatreya came into being from a boon asked from the wife of the sage/rsi Atri (also thought to be a manifestation of Agni the fire god) called Anasuya (the non-envious one)(Rigopolous 2). A demon, named Svarbhanu, pierced the sun and moon with arrows, causing darkness to fall over the land. However, the gods noticed Atri practicing tapas (generating of inner heat) in a forest nearby and asked for his help. Atri was able to restore light to the moon and sun due to his great ability to generate his inner heat (Rigopolous 3). Atri’s wife, Anasuya, then requested the boon of giving birth to the trimurti (tri incarnation) incarnation of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, bringing forth Dattatreya. Tales of Atri and the relevance of Dattatreya can also be found in Hindu texts such as the Ramayana.
Since Dattatreya is found in many different forms such as a rsi, Yogi, and a god, across many different Hindu writings from the Ramayana to the Vedas, one wonders if there were many different figures with the generic name generated with the root datta (surrendered), treya (three), and atreya (child of Atri) (Rigopolous 28). However, in many of these texts, there are different stories and hymns relating the figures to one another and the roots of their names, most likely illustrating a transformation of this deity in order to teach specific lessons within the text.
Dattatreya’s worship resembles that of other gods within the religion, and draws specific aspects from worship of the three gods that make up the trimurti form. Just as Siva or Visnu have sramana (wandering philosopher) groups dedicated to them that use one god as a focus in hopes of attaining moksa. Dattatreya’s sect is referred to the Datta cult (Pain 97) derived as an abbreviation for the full name.
Devotees of Datta rarely visit the temples of Dattatreya and only stay for brief periods of time for darsana (visions of divine beings) or to view the depiction of the deity. Temples of Dattatreya are often quite small, mostly consisting of tucked away or roadside shrines. However, larger Datta temples for worship do exist and have characteristics that resemble Siva temples, often containing a corridor, which surrounds the inner shrine of the temples (Pain 101). These temples also usually contain a small hall for initial entry, which contain a small bell that is rung by devotees to signal their arrival to the god.
Worship, within the temples dedicated to Dattatreya, also follows ritual patterns associated with other gods within the Hindu religion. Among these devotional practices is, ritual bathing for purification before entering, as well as offerings of incense, food, and flowers, along with the occasional waving of lights in front of the deity. For Dattatreya Thursdays are particularly auspicious, on which a more thorough ritual worship is done (Pain 101).
The attire of Dattatreya also has significance in his worship. The depiction of him wearing the robes of a sramana relates to the constant and super human movement of this deity from one holy place to another such as bathing in the Ganga river in the morning and then moving to the Mahalakshmi temple in Maharashta to beg for alms and so on, carrying out his day wandering. The constant movement of Dattatreya ties into his worship and relates to the images of this deity where he is worshiped are footprint or sandal-like impressions called padukas (Pain 102). The padukas are the main focal point of worship for this deity as they are symbolic of non-attachment to material objects. They also tell how renouncers should continue to move from place to place, re-emphasising Dattatreya’s core teachings.
Emphasis on a particular god constituting the trimurti may be seen in specific sites as well, depending on which of the deities is most popular in the local community. For example, the walls in a temple may be lined with pictures or symbols of Siva such as his trident in areas where Siva plays greater role in community worship. Smaller single representations of each god that constructs Dattatreya may also be seen within the temples, to reiterate the importance of each major god that constructs him.
Dattatreya’s teachings are consulted in India today due to his stance regarding environmental protection, as this country continues to modernise. Reference to his teachings is often made when discussing issues such as pollution and sustainable development (Haigh 128). His teachings are also used to further show the importance of environmental protection as well as to diminish other environmentally destructive practices. Dattatreya’s teachings are able to have a strong influence on environmental presentation due to their intellectual and well-constructed arguments.
Pain, Charles (1988) “The God Dattatreya and the Datta Temples of Pune.” In The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashrta, edited by Eleanor Zelliot, and Maxine Bernsten, 95-104. Albany. State University of New York Press.
Haigh, Martin (2007) Sri Dattatreya’s 24 Gurus: Learning from the World in Hindu Traditions. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University Press.
Rigopoulos, Antonio (1998) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogic, and Avatara: A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Characters of a Multi-faced Hindu deity. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Article written by: Michael Hutchinson (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.