Dattatreya was the eldest son of Anasooya. He was very humble, quiet and wise, as compared to other children. For a child, his behaviour was notably restrained. He always kept his eyes and ears open, for he learned many things from Nature. It was a common sight to see Dattatreya in the company of dogs, cats, stags, monkeys and so on. By observing animal life he studied many valuable lessons so necessary for a seeker after spiritual wisdom. Verily he was a child of Nature.
One day Dattatreya was walking near a palace in a pleasant mood. The king saw him from inside and was impressed by his dignified bearing, coupler with a supernatural brightness about his face. Himself on the spiritual path, the king could at once know that here was a disciple of some great teacher. Immediately he sent for Dattatreya and expressed his desire to know the great teacher at whose feet the king thought the boy had studied. The king further said that he would deem it a great pleasure to be introduced to the wise teacher.
Dattatreya was Indeed glad to meet in the king a fellow-seeker. Much as he would have liked to please the king, he could not help revealing the truth that he had had more than one teacher, and that most of his teachers were not human beings. "I learned from animals, birds, insects" said Dattatreya. "I have found in all twenty-four teachers since my childhood, and still I am searching for more."
On hearing that the boy had twenty-four teachers and that most of them were either animals or birds. the king thought that the boy was playing a joke upon him. Dattatreya assured the king that "he really meant what he said and came forth with the names of all his twenty-four teachers. The list he presented to the king was as follows : 1) Land 2) Water 3) Fire 4) Air 5) Sky 6) Moon 7) Sun 8) Pigeon 9) Python 10) Sea 11) Fire-fly 12) Butter-fly 13) Bee 14) Elephant 15) Stag 16) Fish 17) Prostitute 18) Kuru bird 19) Child 20) Maiden 21) Snake 22) Artisan 23) Spider 24) Bhringi bird. Dattatreya proceeded to explain to the king the peculiar circumstances under which each teacher had been chosen.
Be Tolerant-like the Land
His first teacher was the great Mother Earth. If anybody either abused or praised him, Dattatreya never became excited or pleased. This nature he learnt from the Land. He had been observing that though people used to dig, burn, break and do many more such acts to the land. the latter never became angry or excited. In spite of all these things the land continued to produce fruits, roots, water and diamonds. Because it taught him how to be benevolent and forebearing, Dattatreya made Land his first teacher.
Be Clear and Cool-like Water
From land Dattatreya moved to Water in so fat as lessons for living were concerned. He always liked to be clear and cool. He had seen that these qualities made the body and mind fresh, calm and composed: a state in which the mind could rise up in prayer. It was Water which had taught him these. and so he made it his teacher.
Keep Nothing for the Morrow-like the Fire
His next teacher was Fire. One day Dattatreya saw some children sitting around a wayside fire and throwing twigs and faggots into it. The fire burned everything, keeping nothing for the morrow. The lire was engaged in the present activity and was the least concerned about the future. From this Dattatreya learnt how not to bother about the future. Whatever one could get by way of food on any day, one should be satisfied with. A day's requirements formed the measure of his needs and the future never worried him. He owed this lesson to the Fire.
Be on the Move-Like the Air
He then switched on to Air. What could air teach him? He found that air never stayed in any one place, and it always kept moving. Similarly Dattatreya too always liked to be on the move, never slaying at any one place for a length of time, so that no bonds of attachment could be formed. Attachment resulted in a seeker dropping an anchor and ceasing to proceed further on the spiritual path. Thus it was a great obstacle to progress. He owed this lesson-of always being on the move-to the Air.
Be detached-like the Sky
As he moved from place to place under the blue. broad Sky, the great lesson which the latter held for seekers became clear to Dattatreya. The sky was with the earth, but at the same time it was never a part of the earth. Similarly, the Spirit was very necessary for the functioning of the Body-Mind complex. But the Spirit was all the while a little apart from the latter. Like the sky in relation to the earth, the Spirit was with the body, but never of the body. This attitude-of being disinterested and not being involved with the immediate-the sky taught him.
Remain in one Condition-like the Moon
While he was on the subject of the Sky, could the Moon be forgotten ? How could the cool and composed nature of the moon, escape the notice of Dattatreya? The moon was always in one condition; it never became big or small, though the shadow of the earth often showed it up in varying sizes. Similarly, the events of life cast their own shadows, but the Spirit remained the same,-always full, always calm and unperturbed. He learnt this valuable lesson from the Moon.
Give out to Others-like the Sun
One could never learn anything from the moon without being made aware of one's indebtedness to the Sun. How could one afford not to learn from the Sun ? From the seas the sun drew water and transformed it into clouds, which in due course poured as rain on the parched earth. Who could forget the life-giving light which came from the sun? Never keeping anything to oneself, and giving every- thing (o others, was the noble message of the sun. Dattatreya made it his life's objective to spread all the knowledge he gathered and to keep no secrets for himself. His sole concern was that others should benefit from him. This was indeed a noble lesson from the Sun.
Do not be Attached-like Pigeons
Realising early in life that one should never cease to learn, Dattatreya carried on his search for more and more teachers. He was always observing, and he never missed any incident from which he could draw some lessons. While walking one day, under the bright sun, on a jungle path, he saw a pigeon caught in a net, which had been spread there by some hunter. However much it tried, the bird could not get free of the net. Watching this scene were some birds on a bough nearby, obviously the relatives of the one caught in the net. The winged witnesses cried themselves hoarse, giving encouragement to their unfortunate relative to struggle hard and get free of the net. When it became clear that there was no escape for the one in the net, the mother bird on the bough became frantic and herself jumped into the net. She was soon followed by the father bird and the other relatives. Those who had been encouraging, the first victim to try and get free of the net had themselves chosen to become prisoners and partners in distress. Soon the hunter appeared on the scene and caught them all.
The scene was so gripping that it made Dattatreya think deeply on the ups and downs of life. Why did the another bird jump into the net even after seeing her son struggling in it ? Why did the other birds follow her ? Was it not attachment to a relative in distress which made the birds behave as they did ? .Was it not attachment which made them blind to reason ? And what did attachment give them but imprisonment in the net of a hunter ? The lesson was clear to Dattatreya. From the pigeons he learnt that attachment was the source of all misery. Thus it was that he listed the pigeon amongst his teachers.
Do not be Bothered about Food-like the Python
Dattatreya saw a python one day, lying idly in a forest. You and I would be struck with terror at the sight of a python and would make for safety in
no time. With Dattatreya, matters were different. He observed the python for days together, and found that it never went out in search of food, but lay always in the same place. If some animal came within its coil, the python devoured it; if not, it existed only on air. Dattatreya found here a good lesson to be learnt. From that day he stopped bothering about food; he made it a habit to be satisfied with whatever food he got on any day. On the day he got no food he was satisfied to live on air just as the python. For this lesson the python was given a place in his list of teachers.
Avoid changes-Like the Sea
The lesson he learned from the python was still fresh in his mind, when Dattatreya stood one day on the seashore, viewing the blue spectacle spread before him. At a little distance from where he stood, a great river was flowing into the sea. Did the sea ever change because so many rivers joined it? Dattatreya asked himself. The answer was obvious. From the sea he wanted to imbibe the quality of keeping oneself in one condition, come what may. In this way the Sea became one of his teachers.
Do Not Be Enticed By Attraction of Beauty-Like Fire-flies
What caused changes in one's mind ? This question haunted Dattatreya's mind after he had imbibed the lesson from the sea, and as he moved from place to place. He closely watched each day's happenings for an answer. It was after some time that he found the answer and this time his teacher was the fire-fly. One day while he was reading in the light of a lamp, some fire-flies flew up to the flame and were burnt. Even after seeing this, more and more fire-flies continued coming to the flame only to get burnt. What attracted the flies to the flame? Here then was the answer to his query. Attraction for a thing of beauty caused changes and disturbances in the mind, even to the extent of malting it unaware of the consequences. The lesson was now clear: Beware of the attraction of Beauty. This was indeed a valuable lesson, and so the fire-fly was given a prominent place in the list of his teachers.
Gather a Little From Each Place-Like the Butterfly
The instance of fire-flies made Dattatreya aware of another variety of insects known for its movements among flowers-the butterfly. The butterfly always flits from flower to flower, never staying on any one flower for any length of time. It collects just a little honey from the flower-just as much as it can during its brief stay-and flits to another flower and so on. The wandering seeker that he was, Dattatreya noted in this an important lesson. Like the butterfly he too wanted to collect a little food from a house-just what he needed to satisfy his hunger at one time- and not to remain in the same place for a second or a third meal. This way he became a burden to none, and besides he was able to preserve his sense of independence. He owed this lesson to the butterfly which he elevated to the rank of one of his teachers.
Do Not Hoard-Like Bees
From butterflies to Bees is a natural development in that both are associated with flowers. An incident one day brought home to Dattatreya the realisation that there was something valuable to be learnt from the bees. The incident was limited to his seeing man going up a tree and collecting from the top most branch a bee-hive well-stocked with honey. What the bees had been collecting for many days they had lost in no time. The poor bees swarmed round the man for some time, some may have stun) him too, but nevertheless they were the losers. Having
laboured for so many days collecting honey, they were poorer in the end. What was the worth of any activity if it makes one miserable in the end? From this Dattatreya drew a lesson, that hoarding was the root cause of all misery. One remains peaceful so long as one has about enough for the time being. Once he begins to collect, he invites upon himself misery and sorrow. Don't you think this is an important lesson ? No wonder the bees too became Dattatreya's teachers.
Do Not Ignore the Pitfalls of Sex-Attraction- Like the Elephant
It always happens that even after a valuable lesson has been learnt from an incident, certain other details not necessarily relevant at the time also linger iii the mind for some days. After he had drawn the lesson from the bees, Dattatreya should have wondered how the entire activities of the bee-hive centred round the queen-bee. For her all worked, and all were attracted by her. The thought process should have naturally brought in its train the subject of sex-attraction: the female of a species always attracts the male. It was while he was seized of this thought pattern, that he saw a group of hunters digging a huge pit, and after giving it a false covering placed an artificial female elephant on top.. The hunters were hiding at some distance. Soon there came that way a mighty male elephant. It was so fascinated by the female elephant that in a trice it was at the bottom of the huge pit together with what it imagined to be the female. Now the hunters were ready to take over. In its sex attraction, the male elephant did not spare even a moment, to verify whether the female elephant before it was real or not. From the day Dattatreya was clear in his mind on the subject : Sex attraction was a great obstacle for a seeker. For this lesson he made the elephant his teacher.
Do Not Be Swept off by Any Attraction like the Stag
Sex attraction was not the only thing one had to guard attest. There were other attractions too, which paralysed the senses momentarily, and pushed one down the slope. This knowledge came to Dattatreya through an incident in a thick forest. A musician was seen-so it seemed to Dattatreya at first-wasting his talent amidst the thick growth in the forest. There was nobody to hear his music, let alone appreciate it. But the musician did appear to be in his right senses, and thus it was obvious that there ought to be some purpose behind his performance. After a short while Dattatreya saw a stag emerge from out of the thick growth, and move straight to the source of the music, hypnotized as it was by the melody. The musician now ceased his performance and got hold of the stag and dragged it home. The lesson this incident conveyed was clear: Let no attraction have such hold on you as to make you lose your balance of mind.
Do Not Be tempted by Tasty Food- Like the Fish
Looking closely what is an attraction but a desire to satisfy the demand of a sense organ ? Call it attraction or temptation or what you will, it boils down to one thing: Some particular sense organ is making a powerful demand for greater gratification.
When a man yields to oneself misery and grief, one invites on oneself misery & grief, for the simple reason that Desire by its very nature can never be positive. Dattatreya's thoughts he saw one more incident similar to the one regarding the stag instance, he saw some men into the water bait for fish.
In the present instance, he saw some men on the river bank casting into the water bait for fish.
Naturally the hooks had been concealed in tasty food-particles. The attraction of the tasty food was irresistible to the fish and that precisely spelt their undoing. Instead of the fish feeding on the food particles, the man on the river bank were planning to feed on the fish. What lesson could be drawn from this incident? Dattatreya found in this an unforgettable lesson for day-to-day practice: Be satisfied with what you get for food, and never yield to the temptation of tasty food. Dattatreya made it his life's habit never to be bothered in the least about his food requirements. He was satisfied with whatever he got, and there ended the matter of food.
Benefit from Dejection-Like the Prostitute
Is dejection not the other side of attraction ? We have seen so far many incidents regarding attraction, and we have seen Dattatreya cautioning us against all forms of attraction. In the present incident we find him exhorting us to profit from dejection. It was all about a prostitute. She was standing at a door waiting for a lover who could be her client for the night. When nobody turned up for a long while, the prostitute retreated into the inner room, perhaps to attend to some household chores. After some time she again came out to the door. and waited there as before. Still nobody turned up and again she went inside the house. This was repeated throughout the night till day-break. Her night-long vigil had been in vain; despite her figure and her charms, no one had knocked at her door.
At day-break a great feeling of dejection came over her. She was dejected with everything, she was dejected with herself. The whole night had slipped by, and she had been waiting and waiting. She did not know for whom she was waiting. The sound of approaching footsteps, the knock on the door. These things were not witnessed throughout the night. What a colossal waste of precious life-the realisation dawned on her in a sudden flash. Had she turned her mind God ward. What a world of difference would there have been ? Her eyes were opened now. Then and there she decided to change her ways and devote all her time to the worship of God. In due course she became a realised soul. Here was a prostitute who in fact profited from dejection. Dattatreya found the lesson he learned from her to be of great value, and thus the prostitute, too, became one of bis twenty-four teachers.
Shun Wordly Goods-Like the Kuru Bird
What should be the attitude of a devoted soul to woridly possessions ? How much worldly goods may he have ? These questions were answered for Dattatreya by the Kuru bird. A piece of meat which n Kuru Bird was carrying in its beak set dozens of birds after it. The other birds were fast closing in on the Kuru Bird and at one stage it appeared that the latter might be killed in the scramble for the piece of meat. When it found the odds against it the Kuru suddenly opened its beak and dropped the piece of meat.
Immediately all the other birds left it alone and rushed to the place where the piece of meat had fallen. From this incident Dattatreya concluded that a seeker should never have any collection cf worldly goods. Collection turned one uneasy, fearful and persecuted, leaving one with hardly any time for quiet contemplation. Even the most ordinary gifts of Nature like soothing sleep would be denied to an individual. In his case, life's fitful fever would continue unabated, and the only rest such a person might have would be in the grave.
Be Satisfied with What You Get-Like the Child
Collection or no collection, bodily needs are to be met by all, even by a seeker. Take the case of hunger for instance. From a sinner to a saint all need food. The difference, however, is in the approach and attitude of the latter. To except whatever food he gets when he feels hungry is all that should concern a Seeker. He should not bother about food at other times. Questions like 'Where will I find my next meal ?' or 'Who will give me food tomorrow should never worry a Seeker. Dattatreya learned this lesson from a child. The child keeps playing merrily.
When it feels hungry, it cries and gets fed. Again it starts playing; in its own way, it is too busy to worry about the next meal. Here was an example worth emulating. To reach God, it is said, one has to be child-like. One should start being child-like especially regarding food requirements. How much of peace and serenity would one experience when no time is wasted on worrying? This is indeed a good lesson and for this Dattatreya made the child his teacher.
Be Alone- Like the Maiden's Bangles
After learning to be child-like in respect of food, a spiritual aspirant should also cultivate a number of qualities for steady progress on the Path. One of the qualities is solitude. A Seeker should love to be alone most of the time. Away from the crowd, away from the time. Away from the crowd, away away from the din and bustle of life, unseen and alone in a quiet place. This is the proper setting for one who wishes to unravel the great truths of the universe. Dattatreya learned this lesson in a household scene.
A maiden was busy. One day, with the household chore of separating the husk from the paddy. Her work required her to keep pounding a certain measure of paddy in a huge receptacle, with a heavy pole. She was in the inner room, and some guests were seated in the outer room of the house. Every time she pounded the paddy with the pole, the bangles in her hands caused a certain peculiar sound which naturally revealed to the guests the type of work she was engaged in. The maiden desired to be secretive, even as she wanted to continue with her work without making any sound. Her bangles were creating a problem for her. However gently she pound the paddy, the sound from the bangles was still there.
She then had an idea. The bangles caused the sound because there were many of them in each hand, she thought. Perhaps the sound may not be there if she had fewer bangles. She took off one bangle from each hand and resumed her work, but the sound was still present. She then took off another bangle from each hand, and yet another and another. Still the sound was there. At last there was left on each hand just one bangle, and lo! there was no more sound. Peacefully she continued her work.
The conclusion from this was that one should be alone to acquire any peace and progress. There is iess distraction and therefore concentration is better. When you are alone with the great Maker, real communion is possible between man and God. As a well known saying has it, "there is no crowd at the gates of Heaven." Dattatreya owed this lesson to the maiden. She thus became one of his teachers.
Own No House of Your Own- Like the Snake
What Dattatreya learned from the maiden was, however, incomplete, in that the aspirant was not told where to stay while alone. Should he have a house of his own ? Or should he always be on the move ? Dattatreya got ths answer from a snake. As is well-known, a snake never prepares a hole for itself to live in. It stays in any hole for a night, and the next day it moves to some other hole. An aspirant too, should follow the example of the snake regarding his stay. Never staying in one place for long, and not having a house of one's own, is necessary to keep one above the perils of attachment to any one place. Dattatreya made the snake one of his teachers for his lesson.
Cultivate the Power of Concentration- Like the Artisan
The lessons noted so far have removed the obstacles in the way of the efficient working of the mind. What now remains is the mind itself. What precisely is meant by concentration of mind. which leads one on to higher realms of spiritual experience ? How efficient and absorbed can a mind be which is not distracted ? One more incident during his wandering made things clear to Dattatreya.
An artisan was busy with his work of making a bow and arrow. He was so absorbed in his work that he forgot everything else. Presently the army of a King passed by his place of work, but he was thoroughly occupied with his work as before. After a little while one soldier came up to him and asked him whether an army had marched that way just a little earlier. The artisan raised his face, looked straight at the soldier for a few moments as if gathering himself up from his work, and at last replied: "I don't know". Soon he was back at work.
It so happened that the army marched back again the same way in front of his place of work. After some time, the very same soldier once again came to the artisan and asked the same question. Once again the artisan raised his face and after a few moments of silence as before, said : "I don't know".
Dattatreya found in the artisan an exemplary instance of concentration of mind. To be so comletely identified with one's work as not to be aware of the marching of an army a few paces away-this is concentration at its best. This is the kind of concentration a Seeker should develop. With such concentration at his command, there is nothing which he cannot achieve, whether it is success in this world or salvation in the next. The artisan was included in the list of Dattatreya's teachers because of his lesson.
Do Not Be Over-Ambitious- Like a Spider
How wonderful it is to command a highly developed power of concentration! Like all valuable possessions it invests one with a sense of power. But this power could be misled, and here precisely is the danger. One could become so ambitious and intoxicated with one's own importance that one may overreach oneself, getting lost in one's grandiose schemes and having no chance of either escape or redemption.
It was while observing a spider that this truth was revealed to Dattatreya.
The spider was busy weaving a web. In time a large web was ready, and the spider was waiting in the centre for flies to be caught in the web. In the meantime, a hungry crow perched on a nearby bough and finding nothing else for its food, decided to make the spider its prey. When the crow swooped down the spider could not save itself, being too involved in the vast web. Thus the web which it had prepared for preying upon other insects or flies, itself became its death trap.
Dattatreya saw in this a worthy lesson which should escape the notice of none. Let not a man's ambitions be so far-fetched as to turn him into :i prisoner in one's own palace. The power of concentration should be used wisely in order to make one free of bondage: used carelessly it will make one a slave of one's schemes, like the spider in the incident.
Share With Others- Like the Bhringi Bird
So far, from his twenty three teachers, Dattatreya had gathered almost all the qualities needed for an aspirant on the Spiritual Path. To one practising all the twenty-three virtues seen so far, success must come as though by right. But Dattatreya was still not satisfied with what wisdom he had gathered, for, to be complacent was truly against his nature. Here was a born Seeker, trudging the length and breadth of the land, seeing here, noting there and listening everywhere and all the while drawing lesson from situations he came across after carefully analysing them: a great man indeed who had the humility to learn from such lowly creatures like insects, bees and birds.
This great man who lived to learn, found now something to benefit by from a bird called the Bhringi. What could the Bhringi bird teach his who already learnt so much ? This question naturally arise. Here precisely is the greatness of Dattatreya who never considered himself too great to learn. Like living, learning too should be a continuous process. If the Bhringi could be availed of for the purpose, he was ready to elevate it also to the status of his teacher.
The Bhringi would catch a worm and carry it to its nest. Then it would place the worm down in the nest and produce from its beak some musical sounds for the benefit of the former. The worm would feel very pleased by the musical sound made by the Bhringi. This would continue for a while and the worm would then crawl out of the nest, and the Bhringi would fly out in search of some other worm.
The only concern of this bird was to provide the poor worms with some happiness through listening to its musical notes. Dattatreya saw here an example worthy of emulation. Whatever wisdom one has gathered one should be freely shared with others, spreading in one's own humble way a little cheer, and a little sunshine. It becomes a teacher even to go out of his way and spread his message of harmony and happiness. The Bhringi was thus made a teacher in Dattatreya's list which now had twentyf our of them in all.
When Dattatreya thus completed the explanation of his twenty four teachers, the King was naturally much impressed with this 12-year old boy who had gathered such great knowledge so early in his life. The King bowed at the feet of young Dattatreya and pleaded to be accepted as his disciple. Here was the first disciple of Dattatreya who had studied so much quite early in his life that he was naturally considered a worthy teacher of mankind-a born teacher, a beacon of light for the rest, groping in the darkness of their ignorance. Dattatreya was great because he was humble enough to learn from everywhere and everything. Considering the faci that he made his teaching so lucid and easy to understand, giving instances known to all, we are inclined to think that Dattatreya was an incarnation, a God in human form, who lived only to make others live as life should be lived.
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