In Indian philosophy, Dattatreya is considered to be an incarnation of all the three gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha.
At birth, Dattatreya looked like a well-developed child of three or four years. Right after his birth he told his mother, “I am leaving home.” She told him to at least wear a langoti, a loincloth. He said that he did not need one, “I will live just as I have come.” And he spent his whole life as an avadhoota. He initiated thousands of people. Even while on the move, he would make disciples, give mantra diksha, work for their deliverance, without any discrimination according to religion, caste, sex or conduct. Whenever people asked for his blessings he would oblige. He used to tell everyone, “I am neither the body nor the jiva. I am Paramatma.”
Dattatreya had only one principle: make your life austere and refrain from sensuality. Those who are sannyasins, who have renounced their homes and families and live in secluded places in search of God, cannot say that their life should be comfortable. Sensuality is bound to be generated from a comfortable life; there is no escape from it. Where there is merriment and comfort in life, the mind is bound to become polluted, no matter how good a person may be, how strong one’s willpower is, or how pure the thoughts are. Dattatreya used to tell his followers to follow the sadhu mahatmas and lead a hard life, live under the open sky and make a fire to ward off the cold. In very cold climatic conditions like the Himalayas, he would permit them to smoke the chillum.
Sadhus who live in cities acquire property and it becomes painful for them to give it up. But for a sadhu who owns nothing, there is no pain in renunciation. That is why the person who owns nothing is tougher and more resilient. He does not have any affection or attraction for anyone. He simply lives. Pain comes only when one’s own house collapses. The following example explains this:
Whose house do you live in?
In the house of Sethaji.
That house is going to collapse.
Let it collapse. What does it matter?
I will go elsewhere.
Dattatreya had twenty-four gurus in his life. He gained knowledge in twenty-four different situations. In our lives, events which take place in front of our eyes can teach us various lessons. It is possible that we also learn from them, not only Dattatreya. But we do not have that philosophical attention.
While sitting in his garden one day, Newton saw an apple had fallen down and not up. This insight gave rise to the law of gravity. Apples and mangoes have fallen down many times before. Everyone knows that a stone falls down, fruit falls down, water also falls down, but no one else had thought about why apples fall down. The law of gravity was discovered as a result of a simple incident. This was Newton’s exceptional gift to the world.
Similarly, the incidents that took place in the life of Dattatreya have also been taking place in our lives. However our attention, alertness, concentration of mind and mental approach are not philosophical. Everything in life should be seen from scientific, philosophical and metaphysical viewpoints, and the reasons behind every incident should be understood.
But no one can be bothered to discover the causes of an incident. When a mother scolds her child, it gives pain, but when she fondles him, it gives pleasure. Why do we feel affection and hatred? We never ask such questions because our nature is not metaphysical or scientific.
A discerning person tries to understand the reason behind every event and process, and by doing that, he learns. This is what Dattatreya practised. He was a great spiritual scientist, like the material or physical scientists of the twentieth century. Dattatreya, Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavir, Adi Shankaracharya and others like them were the scientists of spiritual life. They raised questions pertaining to the realities of life. What is the purpose of this creation? Where did we come from? What is the basis of creation? How do we remain alive and where will we go after death? These questions seldom come to our minds. We do not ponder over the divine, but Dattatreya did, and he received twenty-four teachings from observing twenty-four different situations and events.
Dattatreya propounded the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta long before Adi Shankaracharya, who lived and worked during the period when Buddhism was at its zenith. He influenced not only his own generation but many future generations as well.
—December 1994, Rikhia, printed in YOGA, Year 9, No. 1 (January 1998)