Dattatreya is an incarnation of the Divine Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The word Datta means "Given", Datta is called so because the divine trinities have "given" themselves in the form of a son to the sage couple Atri and Anasuya. He is the son of Atri, hence the name "Atreya". In the Natha tradition, Dattatreya is recognized as an Avatar or incarnation of the Lord Shiva and as the Adi-Guru (First Teacher) of the Adi-Nath sampradaya of the Nathas. The creative, the preservative and the disintegrating powers of God are supposed to be manifest in the personality of Lord Dattatreya. The name or word 'Dattatreya' is constituted of two terms, 'Datta' and 'Atreya'. In Sanskrit, 'Datta' means one who is bestowed as a gift, and 'Atreya' is an honorific which is derived from the name of a great sage called Atri. The son of Atri is Atreya. A descendent of Atri also is Atreya. One who is bestowed as a divine child on the great sage Atri, by the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva themselves, is Dattatreya.

Sage Atri was a self-realized and enlightened soul. ‘Tri’ means “Trigunas” – Rajas, Tamas and Satva. Atri means one who is beyond the trigunas – “a – tri”. His wife was a very pious and pativrata lady by name Anasuya. ‘Asuya’ means jealousy. Anasuya was without jealousy – “an-asuya.” Anasuya was the embodiment of chastity and became very famous for her devotion to her husband. Such was her spiritual powers that she induced jealousy and envy in other women including the goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati. Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, husbands of these goddesses decided to prove Anasuya’s spiritual power to the world.

They transformed themselves into beggars, approached the hermitage of sage Atri and begged for alms. At that time sage Atri was away at the river offering his daily oblations. Anusuya came out and offered food to them. They made a strange request. The food should be prepared and served to them by Anusuya, in the nude. In the Indian tradition any 'athithi' (guest) cannot be turned away. They are considered to be an aspect of God. Hence she was placed in a dilemma. She smiled to herself and thought: ‘I am totally purified by the long association with the holy sage Atri. What harm can the god of lust ever do to me? So I need not fear. As they have sought food from my hands, I look upon them as my own children and not as strangers and grown up men!’ Her thoughts – the thoughts of a pious and chaste person – instantly became reality. The elderly guests became babies!

Sage Atri on his return to the hermitage saw his wife Anusuya fondling three babies. Anusuya said "These children are the gift of God to us. We have been childless so far". Sage Atri was overjoyed and named them Datta, which means 'given'. At this the three Gods reverted to their real forms and disclosed the truth. They extolled the power of chastity and purity of Anusuya which vanquished the combined and colossal powers of all three of them. Sage Atri and Anusuya prayed that they should remain as their sons. With the “amshas” of the three gods, three babies were gifted (traya – three). Vishnu’s “amsha” was Datta, Shiva’s “amsha” was Durvasa and Brahma’s “amsha” was Chandra. Dattatreya was thus the first of the Datta Pantha.

Though He is the Supreme Lord of this universe, yet Sri Dattatreya or Datta Guru is a total and supreme recluse. Though He moves from place to place, His favorite abode is the Holy Audambar tree. He has matted hair on His head. His body is ever smeared with holy ashes and He wears tiger-skin for His garment. A cow and four dogs are always with Him as His constant companions. He is an 'Avadhoot', ever anchored in Spirit, but always overflowing with compassion for all the beings and the entire creation. He is the embodiment of total Godhead. All the aspects of Godhead are fully manifest in Him. His faces and form are ever radiant with peace and divine charm.

  • The Cow, which is always with Him, represents the Mother Earth and Dharma. She is the wish fulfilling cow 'Kamadhenu'.
  • The four dogs symbolise the four Vedas – the external repositories of Spiritual Wisdom.
  • The trident indicates that He has transcended the three gunas, which constitute the illusory world: Sattva-illumination, Rajas-activity and Tamas-inertia.
  • The 'Sudharshana chakra' , disc indicates that He is beyond the cycles of time i.e. the past, present and future and His holding of 'chakra' means He is the controller of time.
  • The conch represents the eternal sound ‘AUM’ – which is the manifestation of the Spirit. It is also the life principle in us and the cosmos.
  • The 'bhasma' ashes indicated His 'Vairaagya' dispassion as well as His purity. Ashes indicate the evanescent nature of all created nature of all created objects and the ultimate state of all matter.
  • He always carries a begging bowl so as to teach us the lesson that we will have to share our wealth and food with others.
  • The japa-mala, rosary He wears reminds us that our primary duty is chanting the sacred name of the Lord and meditating on the feet of the Lord, and our redemption depends on this discipline alone.

His Teachings: Guru Dattatreya gave Ashtanga Yoga (eight fold path of Yoga) to the world thousands of years ago. Patanjali codified this knowledge in sootra forms. It comprises:

1. Yama – non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-receiving of any gifts, moral discipline.

2. Niyama – cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study and self-surrender to God. Moral discipline Yama and Niyama are moral training and form the basis of Yoga. As these two become established, the Yogi will begin to realize the fruits of his practice.

3. Asana – posture

4. Pranayama – ‘Prana’ is the life-force, ‘yama’ is control. 'Pranayama' consists of breath control exercises.

5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses from sense objects

6. Dharana – concentration.

7. Dhyana – meditation.

8. Samadhi – the transcendental or super conscious state of being one with God:

Principle tenets of the Datta tradition The principle tenets of the Dattatreya tradition are:

1. Everyone should know oneself first and should know one's own reality, which is but God.

2. One should realize the relationship between God, man and creation – the underlying kinship, unity and oneness of these three entities. Brahman is the immanent and all-pervading reality in all matter – it is the origin, the support and sustenance of all.

3. To obtain this vision and discern this truth, one should conquer one's ego through Yoga and renunciation.

4. Guru's grace is indispensable. One has to surrender oneself totally and unreservedly at the feet of the Guru.

His grace awakens 'Jnana' (illumination) by which we can recognize the Reality of Brahman, which is the real self of all. Apart from this the disciples should:
  • Have purity of thought, word and deed.
  • Do 'Nama smaran' – remembrance of the Lord's name and meditation on it.
  • Have compassion and love for all beings.
  • Render selfless services at the feet of the Guru and surrender completely and unconditionally.

Incarnations of Shri Dattatreya : While Shri Dattatreya was the primal manifestation in "Datta Sampradaya" and Guru Tradition, His incarnations are: