Twenty-four Gurus

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Sage Dattatreya lived in times immemorial. He was a gentle, peaceful and amiable man whose mission was to go out to preach and teach the truths of Vedanta.

Once, while Dattatreya was roaming in a forest happily, he met King Yadu, who on seeing Dattatreya so happy, asked him the secrets of his happiness and also the name of his guru. Dattatreya said that, while the atman alone was his guru, he had still found wisdom in twenty-four individuals who were, therefore, also his gurus. Dattatreya mentioned the names of his twenty-four gurus and spoke of the wisdom that he had learnt from each:

  1. From the earth, I learnt patience and doing good to others, as it endures every injury man commits on its surface, and yet it continues to do him good by producing crops, trees, and so on.
  2. From water, I learnt the quality of purity. Just as the pure water cleanses others, so also the sage who is pure and free from selfishness, passion, egoism, anger, and greed, purifies all those who come in contact with him.
  3. The air, though always moving through various objects, is never attached to anyone of them. Thus, from the air I learnt to be without attachment, though I move with many people in this world.
  4. Just as fire burns bright, so also the sage should glow with the splendour of his knowledge and tapas.
  5. The air, stars and clouds are contained in the sky, and yet the sky does not come into contact with any of them. I learnt from the sky that the atman, or the soul, too is all-pervading, though it has no contact with any object.
  6. The moon in itself is always complete, but appears to increase or decrease due to the varying shadow of the earth cast upon the moon. Thus, from the moon, I learnt that the atman is always perfect and changeless, and that it is only the upadhis, or limiting adjuncts, which cast shadows upon it.
  7. Just as the sun, reflecting in various pots of water, appears as many different reflections, so also Brahman appears different due to the upadhis caused by the reflection through the mind. This lesson I learnt from the sun.
  8. I once saw a pair of pigeons with their young birds. A fowler spread a net and caught the young birds. The mother pigeon was very much attached to her children. She did not care to live, so she too fell into the net and was caught. Then the male pigeon, attached to the female pigeon, also fell into the net and was caught. From this I learnt that attachment is the cause of bondage.
  9. The python does not move about for its food. It remains contented with whatever it gets and lies in one place. From this I learnt to be unmindful of food and to be contented with whatever I get to eat.
  10. Just as the ocean remains unmoved even though hundreds of rivers fall into it, so too the wise man should remain un­moved among all sorts of temptations, difficulties and troubles. This lesson I learnt from the ocean.
  11. Just as the moth, enamoured of the brilliance of fire, falls into it and is burnt, so a passionate man who falls in love with a beautiful girl comes to grief. From the moth I learnt to control the sense of sight and to fix the mind on the Self.
  12. Just as the black bee sucks the honey from different flowers and does not suck it only from one flower, so I take only a little food from one house and a little from another house to appease my hunger. I am not a burden on the householder.
  13. Bees collect honey with great trouble, but a honey gatherer comes and takes the honey easily. People gather wealth and other things with great difficulty, but they must leave them all at once and depart when the Lord of Death takes hold of them. From this I learnt the lesson that it is useless to hoard material things.
  14. The male elephant, blinded by lust, falls into a pit covered over with grass, even at the sight of a paper-made female elephant. He is caught, enchained and tortured by the goad. Similarly, passionate men fall into the traps of women and come to grief. Therefore, destroy passion. This lesson I learnt from the elephant.
  15. The deer, through its love of music, is enticed and trapped by the hunter. So, too is a man brought to destruction by his attraction to the music of women of loose character. One should not listen to lewd songs. This lesson I learnt from the deer.
  16. Just as a fish that is covetous of food falls an easy victim to the bait, so the man who is greedy of food and allows his sense of taste to overpower him, loses his independence and is easily ruined. Therefore, greed for food must be destroyed. This lesson I learnt from the fish.
  17. There was a dancing girl named Pingala in the town of Videha. One night, she became tired of looking for customers and lost all hope. However, she was content with what she had, and had sound sleep. I learnt from that fallen woman that abandonment of hope leads to contentment.
  18. A raven picked up a piece of flesh. He was then pursued and beaten by other birds. He dropped the piece of flesh and attained peace and rest. From this, I learnt that a worldly man undergoes all kinds of troubles and miseries when he runs after sensual pleasures, but that he becomes as peaceful as the bird once he abandons them.
  19. The child who sucks milk is free from all cares, worries and anxieties, and is always cheerful. From the child I learnt the virtue of cheerfulness.
  20. The parents of a maiden went in search of a proper bridegroom for her. The girl was alone in the house. During the parents’ absence a party of people came to the house to see her also regarding an offer of marriage.
    She received the party herself. She went inside to husk the paddy. While she was husking, the glass bangles on both hands made a tremendous jingling noise. The wise girl reflected that, “The party will detect, by the noise of the bangles, that I am husking the paddy myself, and that my family is too poor to engage others to do the work.”
    As a remedy, she broke all the bangles except two on each hand. However, even these two bangles still created much noise. She broke one more bangle from each hand. Finally, with no further noise, she continued husking.
    From the girl’s experience I learnt that living among many would create discord, disturbance, dispute and quarrel. Even among two, there can be unnecessary words or strife. Therefore, the ascetic or the sannyasin should remain alone in solitude.
  21. Just as a serpent does not build its hole, but dwells in the holes dug out by others, even so, an ascetic or sannyasin should not build a home for himself. Rather, he should live in the caves and temples built by others. This is the lesson I learnt from the snake.
  22. Once the mind of an arrow maker was wholly engrossed in sharpening and straightening an arrow. While he was thus engaged, a king passed before his shop with his whole retinue. After some time, a man came to the artisan and asked him whether the king passed by his shop. The artisan replied that he did not notice anything.
    The artisan with his mind solely absorbed in his work did not know what was passing before his shop. From the artisan, I learnt the quality of intense concentration of mind.
  23. The spider which pours from its mouth long threads to weave them into cobwebs becomes entangled in the net of its own making. Even so, man making a net of his ideas also becomes entangled in it. Therefore, the wise man should abandon all worldly thoughts and think only of Brahman only. This is the lesson I learnt from the spider.
  24. The beetle who catches hold of a worm, puts it in its nest, and gives it a sting. The poor worm, always fearing the return of the beetle and its sting, thinks constantly of the beetle, and eventually becomes a beetle itself. Similarly, whatever form a man constantly thinks of, he too attains in the course of time. As a man thinks, so he becomes. I learnt from the beetle and the worm that by giving up all attachment to the body and constantly contemplating upon atman, that I may become atman, thus attaining moksha or liberation.

The king was highly impressed by the teachings of Dattatreya. He abandoned the world and practised meditation on the Self. Dattatreya was absolutely free from intolerance or prejudice of any kind. He learnt wisdom from whatever source it came from. All seekers after wisdom should follow the example of Dattatreya.