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V. V. Shirvaikar 





                 PART I-A:   Historical Dating Of Dattatreya’s Birthday

                      PART I-B:  Spiritual Aspects of Dattatreya Worship




             PART I-A:   Historical Dating Of Dattatreya’s Birthday

                  0.0 SUMMARY












                              PART I-B:  Spiritual Aspects Of Dattatreya Worship











        Shri   Dattatreya

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In this article the legend of Dattatreya’s birth from the Puranas is critically examined for its plausibility using the information from Rigveda, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Puranas and the excellent published analytical studies of these ancient works by scholars.  Puranas are silent on chronology however the above analytical studies especially the corrected lists of the Solar and Lunar dynasty kings enabled construction of a Chronological frame which when used with various other information from the above sources leads to approximately 2450 BC as the most plausible birth time of Dattatreya and conclusively proves the Puranic birth legend to be a myth composed by the wise probably to cement the traditional conflicts between Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites. Contrary to the belief that Dattatreya was a celibate yogi the above sources show him to be a householder born not to Atri rishi but to unknown parents of Atri lineage. It is in later life that Dattatreya renounced and took to yoga and spiritual path. As would be expected of such a great master he had some eminent disciples whose names actually lead us to dating his birth. Puranas depict Dattatreya as an avatar of Vishnu which is disputable since the Nath sect considers him to be an avatar of Shiva which is not implausible considering that the nature of worship rituals in Dattatreya tradition are closer to Shaivaite traditions.  In fact it has been shown that the entire story of Dattatreya’s birth to Atri and Anasuya is a myth. Atri is a gotra or lineage to which different persons belonged in different times and ages but the Puranas call all of them by the generic name “Atri Rishi” with wife’s name as Anasuya. It has also been shown that Soma was son of an early Atri but his mother’s name is not known while Durvasa was Shiva’s avatar born though a yajna not at all involving Atri’s name anywhere.

This part of the article deals mainly with history and not spirituality. The spiritual aspects of Dattatreya worship are discussed in the next part. When Datta-devotees worship Dattatreya through his sagun i.e. material image what they worship in effect is the Dattatreya Principle, hence they should not be distressed by the findings about Shri Dattatreya’s birth presented here even though these are contrary to the image of Dattatreya in his mind that has been created by the Puranas. As has been shown here, though they have been the main medium of moral and religious education for Hindus for centuries, the Puranas, for historical reasons, have distorted the real ancient history and religious thinking to such a deep level that chances of improvement are virtually non-existent. Fortunately, Puranas have not been able to distort the spiritual thinking because while Puranas speak of attainment of heaven and hell after death depending on the karmas that involve the body, by contrast, stress in spiritual thinking and practices is on control of mind to attain detachment (vairagya), suppression of ego and desirelessness which lead to Self-realization and attainment of bliss even while you live.  Thus, Hindu religion can survive only though Spiritual pursuit.  Bibliography has been provided.


Shri Dattatreya’s birthday is traditionally celebrated on Purnima (Full moon day) of the ninth lunar month Margashirsha which falls in December.  Dattatreya is considered to be an avatar of Vishnu born to Rishi Atri and Anasuya. Though an avatar of Vishnu he also possesses the attributes of Brahma and Shiva who also were incarnated as Soma and Durvasa respectively along with Dattatreya.  Hence Dattatreya is also known as Trimurti.

Rather than a deity, Dattatreya is regarded more as a wandering Guru and a king among yogis, who travels on earth showering his grace on worthy devotees.  These attributes of Dattatreya are deeply imprinted in the minds of Datta-devotees.

This imprint on devotees’ minds is based on the legends of the birth of Dattatreya in the Puranas.  Lay people have an intrinsic belief in Purana stories. This is not surprising because Puranas have been over the ages, in the pre-British era and even for a considerable time later in the absence of printed books, the source of their religious, spiritual and moral education. Even the illiterate people were exposed to the stories in the Puranas as a part of the religious discourses by learned persons and sages held in temples usually during festive occasions. Puranic education pervaded all aspects of Indian life since childhood. Even in normal talk Puranic legends were quoted which were heard by children and grownups throughout their lifetime guiding them to lead a life according to Dharma i.e. the code of righteous conduct.

A peculiar character of Purana tales is that to a large extent they are metaphorical and allegorical myths with an element of supernatural, considerable exaggeration and devoid of any sense of chronology. When examined critically the basis of these mythical stories can be sometimes be discerned and one cannot but admire the brilliant literary ability of the composers of these stories which constitute a Purana.

At the outset it must be clarified that this is an article dealing with history and not spirituality as the main theme.  In this article we shall examine critically the legend of Dattatreya’s birth as an avatar of Vishnu born to rishi Atri and his wife Anasuya.


Different Puranas give different versions of the story of the birth of these avatars. We shall quote here only two.

Legend 1    According to Bhagwat Purana (Canto 4, Ch 1) Brahma the god of creation, asked one of his mind sons Rishi Atri to procreate. Atri went to Riksha Mountain with his wife Anasuya where he performed a severe penance standing on one leg for hundred years living only on air, with a firm thought that “I surrender myself unto Him who is the master of the universe to give me a son like Himself.” The gods were pleased. Brahmadeo, Vishnu and Shiva came to him riding their vehicles, the swan, Garuda and Nandi the bull respectively. Bowing before them Atri said, “I bow before you Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, who have assumed your different bodies through the millenniums for the three modes of Prakriti (nature) viz. the creation, destruction and maintenance of the universe. He asked them to clarify his doubt as to how the three had appeared before him when, for getting a child, he was praying to and had concentrated his mind on One Great Lord of the Primary Principle.  The gods explained that they are all part of the same Great Principle and gave to him their benediction that they will be born to them as partial incarnations.  Accordingly, three sons were born; the child born as an avatar of Shiva was named Durvasa, one born as an avatar of Vishnu was named as Datta and the third child born as an avatar of Brahma was named Soma (or Chandra). 

This story seems to have been contrived to explain the Trimurti concept in the Hindu philosophy in which the formless, attributeless Brahman, in order to perform the tasks of creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe manifests itself as the three deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva having the attributes Raja, Sattva and Tama respectively.  Brahma is assigned the task of creation, Vishnu that of sustenance and Shiva that of destruction.

Brahma Purana gives a similar story but adds that the couple was blessed also with a daughter named Shubhatreyi.

Legend 2   The following is the most popular version of the birth story and seem to have dominated devotees’ minds:   The wandering Devarishi (divine sage) Narada once visited Atri ashram where Atri’s wife Anasuya welcomed him with great respect and fed him sumptuously. Narada, highly impressed by this hospitality went to the abodes of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and sang praises of Anasuya to their wives Saraswati (or Savitri), Laxmi and Uma commending her hospitality and devotion to her husband but passed a remark that there was no other pativrata (chaste and devoted wife) in the universe as good as Anasuya. This made the wives very jealous. They nagged their husbands who conferred and decided to test what kind of pativrata Anasuya was and punish her if she was not. They came to Atri's house in the disguise of three mendicants Brahmins choosing the time when the Rishi had gone out to the river for his daily worship. They assured Anasuya that they were Brahmins and have come having heard that guests were offered food of their choice in their Ashram. They said they were extremely hungry and demanded to be served food immediately otherwise they would go elsewhere.

Anasuya immediately made obeisance to them, offered them seats, washed their feet and worshipped them with sandal paste and flowers. She seated them, set leaf-plates before them and began serving food. But the guests stopped her and insisted that she should serve by becoming naked or else they would leave.  Deciding that it would not be good for her husband's reputation if the guests left dissatisfied, she asked them to wait and went in the kitchen to remove her clothes. Concentrating her mind on the feet of her husband, she removed her dress and said, "The guests are like my babies and therefore I need not feel ashamed." She came out of the kitchen and saw the three of them really turned into babies who were crying from hunger. Frightened, she went back to the kitchen to get dressed and returned. Anasuya lifted the babies one by one and held them to her breast to feed them.

Now, in the three abodes the wives were waiting for their husbands to return after disgracing Anasuya. But since the gods were stuck in Atri’s home they could not return home. This caused the wives a great deal of anxiety. Finally, they came to Anasuya, praised her and got their husbands back after giving a boon to Anasuya that their husbands would be born as her sons.

(The Gurucharitra gives a slightly different version in which it is Indra who fears the power of Anasuya from her being a pativrata and induces Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to test her.)

The Trinity stayed with Anasuya who named Brahma as Soma or Chandra (Moon), Vishnu as Datta and Shiva as Durvasa. Durvasa told Anasuya that he was a Rishi and was going away for penance and pilgrimage. Chandra said that he wants to go immediately but he will remain in the sky so that she can always see him. They said that Datta who was Vishnu's form would remain with her and he would be endowed with their attributes also and make both of them happy. So saying, Soma and Durvasa went away leaving Dattatreya as the combined form of the Trinity with Anasuya.

These birth stories from the Puranas are very dear to Dattatreya devotees who not only have allotted a birth-date but composed even lullabies for the child Dattatreya.  There is no doubt however that these stories are myths as will be discussed in later parts. Before that we shall digress and discuss two important topics that will greatly assist in the discussions. These are: 

3.0 Sources of information and its reliability and

4.0 A chronological framework,


Vedas (and especially Rigveda Samhita), Upanishads, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Puranas are obviously the main sources of information about Dattatreya. 

Even more important than these basic texts are:

·       The annotated translations of the above texts in modern European and Indian languages; and

·       The commentaries and critical reviews on the above texts by learned scholars and historians of modern times in the British and post-British era.

Hindu readers are conditioned to consider ancient texts to be holy and their contents sacrosanct. Very few are bold enough to express doubts about even obviously absurd or conflicting parts of the texts for the fear they may be committing a sin or sometimes because these texts explicitly contain threats of dire consequences of different kinds of hell if any doubt is expressed about them.  However, a careful reading of these texts, especially the epics and the Puranas will show glaring absurdities and contradictions within the texts, with other works and with reality.

Now, conclusions drawn from any kind of information can be reliable only if the input information itself is reliable.  It will be seen from the forthcoming discussions that except for Rigveda, the other sources have been subject to many spurious changes and additions at different stages in time. It is an established fact that every aspect of life be it social, political, religious or that of technological advance, changes over time. The texts added later reflect the contemporary state of socio-political situation and technological progress. For example texts written when iron was in widespread use are added to an original text pertaining to stone age or copper age then it is bound to create an incorrect impression that iron was being used during the era original events took place. Or say text referring to Shiva worship has been written during a period when Shiva worship was popular and added to a text pertaining to a period when Shiva was not heard of then also an incorrect impression of the society would be created.  Information must therefore be properly weighed before drawing conclusions from its use.  Commentaries and critical reviews on the above texts by learned scholars and historians become extremely important, even more than the original texts themselves.

Western scholars who were first introduced to the ancient Hindu literature in early British days in India were greatly attracted to its deep philosophy contents. In his preface to the English edition of the Gita, by Sir Charles Wilkins, Warren Hastings, the first British Governor General of India, declared towards the end of the eighteenth century. “The writers of the Indian philosophies will survive, when the British dominion in India shall long have ceased to exist, and when the sources which it yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrances. (See Blog1 in Bibliography). For studying the literature they first acquired a sound knowledge of Sanskrit, other ancient languages like Pali and some main Indian languages, something a non-Hindu and a non-Brahmin in India would have found impossible to achieve.  They translated these texts into English and other European languages, subjected the texts to critical research using various techniques in etymology, philology, linguistic analysis, various branches of science like physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, mathematics, statistics, archaeological data, cross-referencing it to other texts and so on to learn whatever they could about the texts. This had never happened in India before, mainly because Indian psyche lacks the sense of enquiry and courage to question the statements of the ancients. These western scholars and later, Indian scholars trained by them, using the techniques mentioned above, dated the texts, tested their genuineness, whether any additions and alterations have been made to the original, identities of the redactors making these alterations and identified the alterations wherever possible.  It is now known from their analyses that over the years many books have been victims of redactions with spurious texts leading to conflicting and doubtful information. But though obvious, nobody had ever doubted or questioned any texts, most people taking them to be holy and sacrosanct.

Several years of research has led to a wealth of information on ancient Indian history and culture. These scholars newly introduced to the Indian texts initially thought that Krishna and Rama and events like the Mahabharata  war were imaginary once considered as imaginary but as evidence grew they not only admitted the persons and events to be real and historical but even fixed dates for them.

As a result of this historical research a fairly reliable list of the Aryan kings of the Solar and the Lunar lineages who ruled India from Vaivaswat Manu onwards have now been prepared and are useful for making a Time-line of the ancient events (See later).  With the help of these analyses it is now possible to identify which piece of information in the ancient texts is real or a myth.

These analyses have established that only Rigveda Samhita has remained largely uncorrupted while in the case of both epics redactors have made alterations in the original texts and added a very large volume of new text. Unfortunately not many people know or bother about these redactions and take the texts at face value with great piousness. Regarding Puranas, all the 18 Puranas of today have evolved from an original single Purana Samhita by Maharshi Vyasa each with its own variations from the original.  (See section 3.2 later).

3.1 Referred Prominent Scholars:  In this study the work of the following researchers has been used to examine the legends about birth and early life of Dattatreya and how he came to be a deity. These are: (i) Mr. M.R. Yardi who has used statistical analysis on the distribution of syllables in the verses (shlokas), which are in the Anushtubha metre, to identify the styles of the original authors (Valmiki and Vyasa) of the two epics and those of individual redactors thus separating the contribution from each.  This work was done at and published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune.  (ii) Dr P. L. Bhargava a research scholar of international repute who has critically studied the above literature, has identified many ridiculously false stories from the Puranas, studied the redactions to the Ramayana, commented on many misconceptions about Vedic deities etc. In the present context his greatest contribution may be considered as the preparation of the lists of rulers of the Solar and Lunar dynasties and rishis associated with them. This required removal of many non-conformities within the lists given in various Puranas using extensive cross-referencing of the synchronic events (marriage, wars, yajnas etc.) in the ancient literature. His analysis gives a far better realistic picture of ancient Indian history. (iii) S. G. Talageri whose analysis of Rigveda brings our relative chronological scale of the compositions of hymns in various mandalas and the geographical background of the times.  Publications used in this work are including those of these authors are listed in the Bibliography. They should be read in the original.

References to the above authors who are more frequently referred to, are given in the text by abbreviated letters as follows;

Reference scheme:

P.L.Bhargava: B-VA: India in the Vedic Age; B-VRC: Vedic Religion and Culture; B-RH: Retrieval of History from Puranic Myths;

M.R.Yardi: Y-MB: Mahabharata, Its Genesis and Growth; Y-R: Ramayana, Its Origin and growth; Y-BG: The Bhagvadgita as a Synthesis.   

We now give a short account of the redactions made to the epics and how so many Puranas evolved from a single Purana Samhita by Vyasa.

Though Puranas are later than the epics we shall first start with the Puranas because they are the key to the chronology of ancient events, an important factor usually ignored in our religious literature but needed here for appreciation of Dattatreya history.

3.2 About Puranas    In the pre-British era and even later printed books were not easily available. People in India, most of them illiterate, received their religious, spiritual and moral education through stories in the Puranas told in the religious discourses by learned persons and sages held during festive occasions in temples.  Puranic legends were quoted and heard by children and grownups guiding them to lead a life as prescribed by Dharma or the code of righteous conduct. Puranic education pervaded all aspects of Indian life since childhood.

The information regarding the evolution of Puranas summarized from B-VA pp 20-40 is given in the following:

Traditionally it is believed that all the 18 Puranas are authored by Maharshi Vyasa. This is a misinformation. According to historians, based on statements in the early Puranas (Vayu and Matsya) themselves, there was only one Purana Samhita in the beginning written by Maharshi Vyasa. This Samhita contained the record of kings and rishis from ancient times and legends of their activities. It was the duty of certain court officials called Sutas to maintain the dynasty lists.  (This Suta is different from the caste name Suta who used to be a person born of mixed caste parents and assigned the job of a charioteer). Existence of a work called Purana or Itihasa-Purana in the Vedic period is mentioned in the Samhita and Brahmana literature. In Atharvaveda V (XI 7, 24) also it is mentioned that there did exist a Purana. Maharshi Vyasa must have composed the original Purana Samhita based on this Vedic Purana. There were continued additions to this Purana Samhita during the subsequent generations after Vyasa and reached the final version of the Samhita five generations later, in the reign of king Adhiseemakrishna (about 1225 BC) of the Bharata lineage. (B-RH Ch 9 p 85, Roy Chron, row 196).

According to Vayu and Matsya Puranas this Purana Samhita was the basis of the 18 Puranas of today.  These new Puranas are of sectarian nature but they have a common feature that all give the list of kings of the Aryan ruling dynasties. The first three Puranas: Brahma (also known as Adi Purana or the First Purana), Vayu and Matsya were written by Vyasa’s disciples based on this original Purana Samhita during the reign of king Adhiseemakrishna.  

Puranas are presented as dialogues between rishis and Suta Romaharshana (or Lomaharshana) and later his son Ugrashravas Sauti in which the rishis ask questions or request to be informed about some person or event and the Sutas reply through accounts of ancient episodes which do have some historical base but more often are mythical. Natural phenomena like phases of the moon which had no scientific explanations in those days are explained through myths. Often, origin of names of persons is also explained through myths. These dialogues were not religious discourses which were the prerogative of the Brahmin priests; the Sutas were only narrated the stories of glories of kings from the Purana Samhita.

Vayu Purana was narrated to a group of rishis performing a twelve year sacrifice in Naimishya forest on the bank of the sacred river Drishadvati by Suta Lomaharshna or his son Ugrashravas and must have been narrated elsewhere also.  The legends delighted the listeners who liked the deeds of their ancient heroes and became popular.  The ever increasing popularity was exploited by priests of different sects who began to appropriate the Puranas for expounding their own religious doctrines. Puranas began to multiply and even the old tales were revised to suit the purpose of different conflicting sects (B-VA: Ch 2 p 24). The priests who did all this were of inferior calibre temple priests and not learned Veda knowers.  (But they seem to have been talented enough to have added material much of it myths to increase the importance of the deities of their own temple.- Auth)  

In the new Puranas the older accounts became corrupted in various ways, e.g. giving wrong origin to dynasty lists and omission of some members; unrealistic exaggeration e.g. about long lifetimes (thousands of years) and reigns to the kings; number of children (thousands); addition of absurd stories like Parashurama killing his mother on his father’s instruction and her revival; use of family name of a Vedic rishi throughout the era without giving the personal name for glorifying the rishi’s names like Atri and Vasishta, thus giving the false appearance that the same person lived throughout the ages; identifying different persons by the same name and explaining the incongruities in absurd ways (like Vedic Rishi Kashyapa with Prajapati Kashyapa and Brihaspati, father of Bhardawaja with divine priest Brihaspati); introducing divine beings in the accounts of famous persons e.g. claiming their marriage with the daughters of gods, gandharvas and pitris and vice versa. All this was done by the writer priests to enhance the glory of the ancient heroes, to explain facts which authors did not understand (e.g. the myth of Ikshwaku born out of Manu’s sneeze and Jarasandha born in two halves being joined together by an old woman). According to Winternitz the theory of reincarnation (avatar) also seems to have arisen out of this sectarian corruption, in this case from the Krishna cult. One also notes absurd stories of gatherings of rishis separated by centuries and who are no longer alive only to get credence from blindly pious people.

The 18 Puranas are: Brahma, Vayu, Matsya, Brahmanda, Vishnu, Bhagvata, Garuda, Agni, Padma, Linga, Kurma, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Narada, Brahmavaivarvata, Varaha, Vaman and Skanda. They were written at different times with increasing number of myths in the later Puranas, the process of additions lasting until the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. Older the Puranas better do they agree with the Vedic evidence. The order in which these Puranas were written is as follows: (Brahma, Vayu, Matsya); (Brahmanda); (Kurma, Linga, Garuda, Vishnu); (Agni, Bhagwata, Padma); (Markandeya, Bhavishya, both giving little genealogy); (Narada, Brahmavaivarvata, Varaha, Vaman, Skanda which are sectarian). Later Puranas follow one of the three earliest Puranas. Texts of the Puranas other than the first three have been frequently edited and contain conflicting information. (B-VA: p 21).

To qualify as a Purana it must include description of the following:  (1) The creation of the universe, (2) Its destruction and recreation, (3) The genealogy of gods and prajapatis, (4) The reigns of the Manus (Manvantaras), (5) The history of the Solar and Lunar dynasty kings. But not all Puranas fulfill these requirements in entirety.

3.3   Mahabharata     Shortly after the Mahabharata war (ca. 1100 BC) Maharshi Vyasa wrote a short account of the conflict between the cousins Pandavas and Kauravas called Bharata consisting of about 24,000 shlokas. There is a traditional belief that Vyasa originally wrote an account called Jaya of 8800 verses (shlokas) but it is disputed. About a century later, during the serpent sacrifice performed by King Janamejaya rishi Vaishyampayana recited this story (called Bharata) in about 21,262 Shlokas and called it Bharata. Five centuries later, Suta Romaharshana and his son Ugrashravas Sauti (who lived in about 450 BC) added 17,284 and 26,728 shlokas respectively. This new text presented various topics like dynasty lists, philosophy, art of governance, ethics, religion and numerous stories extraneous to the main theme of the family feud. Yardi also concludes from his statistical analysis of Shlokas that it was Suta who changed the bias of the story from a neutral account to one biased towards Krishna cult presenting Krishna as an avatar of Vishnu and implying he knew he was an avatar. He further shows that Gita was composed and added by Sauti who synthesized the various spiritual philosophies current in his time and presented four different spiritual paths all leading to Moksha (liberation), stressing the importance of devotion and surrender to God personified by him as Krishna in consonance with the Pancharatra philosophy of the Vaishnavaites. Bhargava however points out that Krishna has been presented as Bhagwan or god only in the middle six chapters of Gita (B-VRC: Ch 14). To be fair Krishna is described as a staunch devotee of Shiva. Yardi also concludes that in the 2nd century BC the author of Harivansha whose name is not known added 9,053 verses.  Another redactor, mentioned as Parvasangrahakara, also added further 1369 verses in the first century BC.  Later, Harivansha was also considered as part of the Mahabharata making a total size of about 100,000 verses and became an encyclopedia of religious information. (Y-MB)

Mahabharata (and Ramayana too) have many absurd stories in which rishis and characters from widely separated generation meet just as in the Puranas. This is not surprising since the redactors Suta, Sauti and Harivanshakara had also their hand in writing the Puranas and Puranas also must have lifted a lot of material from the epics.

3.4   Ramayana   Ramayana and its composer Rishi Valmiki have both been the victims of a lot of misinformation. In my childhood I remember having been told and read that Rishi Valmiki who wrote Ramayana was a contemporary of Rama and had written the events in advance even before they occurred. Valmiki has also been portrayed as a robber transformed to a Rishi. Responsibility of these aberrations lies mainly with Skandapurana, Adhyatma-Ramayana and one of the redactors of Mahabharata with the intention of somehow explaining the Rishi’s name “Valmiki” by relating it to Valmika meaning an anthill.  In reality Valmiki belonged to the lineage of Bhrigu and Chyavana. According to Vishnu Purana his personal name was Riksha. (B-VA, B-RH)

Same redactors viz. Suta, Sauti, Harivanshakara, Parvasangrahakara and another unknown redactor who added to the original Valmiki text of 8121 verses another 9733 verses  (Y-R: Annxs A & B). They added a new chapter at the end called Uttarakanda with totally imaginary stories that describe exile of a pregnant Sita and her being sheltered by Valmiki.  They also considerably expanded the first chapter Balakanda which was very small in the original text adding again many imaginary stories. It is unfortunate that spinning stories like Rama’s sending Sita into exile while she was pregnant and death penalty to the Shudra Shambuka actually malign the character of the great hero revered who is actually considered as ethics personified.  (B-RH, Ch 2)

The redactors added many imaginary stories e.g. the story of Vishwamitra’s visit to Ayodhya and Rama’s conflict with Parashurama added by Suta (Y-R Ch 2). As seen from the dynasty lists, both Vishwamitra and Parashurama lived more than 30 generations earlier.

In the modified text Rama is shown as a Shiva worshipper and later, when Rama was considered an avatar of Vishnu, a tale was also made up to show that just as Rama worshipped Shiva, Shiva also worshipped Rama.  Actually, as Yardi has pointed out there was no mention of Shiva in the original Valmiki Ramayana. During Rama’s time Vedic deities were worshipped with Indra as the greatest god and Vishnu as subordinate, hence known as Upendra.

By the time of the Mahabharata war Indra’s importance waned and Shiva began to be worshipped. As seen from the Bharata text, in Vaishampayana’s time five to six centuries later, Shiva was considered as the greatest god and was named Mahadeva (Y-R: Ch VIA p. 69, 70). However after Krishna’s death Vishnu also began to gain importance. The concept of Vishnu’s incarnations took shape and by Suta’s time Krishna and Rama began to be considered as avatars of Vishnu. Thus it is natural that the redactors gave importance to Shiva-Rama mutual worship to appease both Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites.

According to Yardi (Y-R; Ch V p60) Valmiki and Vasishta were separated by one generation. He mentions the list of rishis compiled by Pargiter in which Vasishta (Dasharatha contemporary) stands at No 64 and Valmiki at No 66.  This shows that Valmiki was not a contemporary of Rama but lived only a generation later and composed Ramayana soon after Rama’s time.   

Bhargava however gives a date which is far removed from Rama’s time. He opines that Valmiki must have composed the epic in the seventh century BC. He arrived at this conclusion after carefully studying the comments of the two western scholars Jacobi and Winternitz and taking into account the fact that the language spoken in Rama’s time was Vedic Sanskrit while the verses in the Valmiki Ramayana are in classical Sanskrit which came into use only around 800 BC.  This implies Valmiki was not Rama’s contemporary. This is couple of centuries before Suta and Sauti who must have included Rama’s story in Mahabharata (B-RH: Ch 10).  However we must also note that almost 55% of the new Ramayana text belongs to the redactors who used the classical Sanskrit and not the Vedic Sanskrit.

Bhargava concludes elsewhere (B-RH: p 36) that Valmiki based this epic poem on the tales current among the contemporary sutas narrating Rama’s activities. This work was recited in public by professional rhapsodists who were called Kusilavas because of their patronage by kings who were descendents of Rama’s sons Kusha and Lava. This custom must have lasted for several centuries.

3.5 Rigveda Samhita   It is the earliest Hindu text passed down to us without any significant changes. It contains 1028 hymns divided into 10 mandalas but not arranged chronologically. The hymns composed by rishis praise the Vedic gods and pray for material benefits like wealth, success in wars, children, cattle and protection in general. The yajnas were peformed by rishis for themselves and for kings.  The hymns exhibit an amazing poetic inspiration in describing the deities and events and are an invaluable source of information to the historians. The most famous hymn on Hindu tongues is undoubtedly the famous Gayatri Mantra (RV III; 62.10) composed by Rishi Vishwamitra:

                        Om Bhur Bhuvah Svah        Tat Savitur Varenyam

                        Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi     Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat

  (We meditate upon the auspicious godly light of the Lord Sun.

                               May that heavenly light illuminate our thought flow in our intellect.)

The Vedic gods are basically nature gods. However, from the description of their personalities it seems possible that Indra was a human being who was deified later and so was Vishnu who assisted Indra in his activities and was known as Upendra but later superseded Indra; Vivaswan, father of Vaivaswat Manu also appears to be a person, all three being progressively included later in the list of Adityas and described as sons of Aditi (daughter of Daksha Prajapati) and rishi Kashyapa. Seed of the concept of one Supreme Entity may be seen in the hymns but it is in Atharvaveda for the first time that an omnipresent god (Varuna) is mentioned (B-VRC Ch 7). The concept matured only in the Upanishads.

It is believed that Maharshi Vyasa collected these hymns which were passed on from generation to generation and arranged them into 10 mandalas. This is remarkable since in the absence of the art of writing which did not exist even up to the Ramayana times (Y-R: Ch VIB p 90) the hymns were preserved without any change.  The events mentioned in Rigveda Samhita were those observed by the composer Rishis and may be considered contemporary and reliable.


Most Hindu texts ignore or are vague about chronology and history. We cannot ignore the fact that in the early Vedic times writing was not invented and texts had to be composed and transmitted orally and committed to memory.  Even after writing was invented the books had to be copied by hand in the absence of printing technology and errors in copying could propagate in time.  Unfortunately the corruption of the texts has gone much farther than just copying errors. We have already reviewed how various authors have added their own texts to the epics and rewrote the Puranas thereby striking at the reliability of information. Analyses of the type made by scholars mentioned earlier put these texts in proper historical and chronological perspective.

The dynasty lists in the Puranas give us a means for developing a chronological framework as well as vetting the historical anecdotes in the Puranas by comparing them with events mentioned elsewhere.  The dynasty lists cannot be relied upon without careful vetting.  In order to arrive at the dates of personalities in the Dattatreya legends the author himself once tabulated the Solar and Lunar dynasty lists from Bhagwata Purana starting from Vaivaswat Manu. It was a shock to find that this list showed a ridiculous scenario in which Yudhishtira lived earlier to Krishna by nearly two centuries and Rama one and half centuries later than Krishna. Even though this was glaringly apparent it is surprising that no historian seems to have investigated this incongruity.

First such attempt was made by Bhargava (B-VH ch 8-10) who looked into the reasons for the incongruities some of which have been mentioned earlier. Bhargava used information from Vedas and Brahmanas on mutually contemporary events (e.g. marriage of Bindumati, daughter of Shashabindu of the Lunar dynasty with Mandhata of the Solar dynasty). He also noted that many descendents identified themselves by their ancestor’s name thus creating confusion. Using these criteria he removed the chronological inconsistencies and corrected the dynasty lists.  Though this corrected dynasty leaves many blanks for the names of kings in some lunar dynasty lineages it is still the most consistent list available today.

Bhargava’s dynasty lists may be used to create a reference chronological scale taking a time reference of some well-known event and an average period of reign for the kings.

4.1   Mahabharata War   The reference chronological event generally used is the time of the Mahabharata war. People have tried to date this war through an analysis of astronomical events mentioned in the texts but have arrived at widely separated dates, e.g. 5561 BC (P. V. Vartak) - 1424 BC (S. B. Roy); 2449 BC (Prof. Subhash Kak), twelve dates between 2744 BC and 505 BC out which 1478 BC is claimed to fit almost perfectly (Dr. R. N. Iyengar).  We must reject these dates outright because the input data has been obtained from the corrupted part of the Epic.

Historians have also attempted to date Mahabharata war through dynasty data. Mazumdar (See Bibliography) uses the length of reigns of various dynasties given in Vishnu and other Puranas and using an average period of reign as 25 years gets 1389 BC as the date (rounded to 1400 BC). Altekar gives the date as 1400 BC after several genealogical and historical considerations (Sharma, See Bibliography). Pargiter gives 950 BC as the date using an average length of reign of 18 years while Yardi gives 1011 ± 50 BC using an average length as 20 ± 2 years. (Y-MB Ch X).  Bhargava deduces an average reign of 20 years and concludes that the war could not have occurred much earlier than 1100 BC (B-RH: Ch 8).  He considers that this date agrees well with the data from archaeological excavations at Dwarka (Rao) which as the legend goes was submerged at the time of Krishna’s death.  We shall accept this 1100 BC as the reference date. (Using any other dates listed above merely shifts the dates in time e.g. by 300 years with MB War date of 1400 BC, not a very serious concern when we consider the span of several millenniums involved.)

Reader should note that the period of reign is not the same as the king’s age or lifetime. A king may ascend the throne at any age, from childhood to an old age e.g. Yudhishtira must have been about 80 years old since, according to Vaidya , Krishna was 83 years old at the time of the war and Yudhishtira’s age cannot be very different from him. Taking the period of reign as 25 years will shift Manu’s time earlier by five centuries and intermediate times proportionately.

4.2 Dynasty Lists     We are now in a position to build the chronology taking the year 1100 BC as the MB War date which is the same as that of Yudhishtira’s ascension to the throne and 20 years as average period of reign.

Bhargava’s corrected dynasty table starts with Vaivaswat Manu as No 1, Ikshwaku and Sudyumna as No 2 etc. (NB: Pururava was Ila’s son but was adopted by Sudyumna as permitted by the then prevailing custom.  Hence Ila’s or Budha’s name has not been given)

He has given a similar listing for the rishis belonging to well-known lineages enumerated also with reference to the royal generations.

Following are the generation numbers of some famous kings with respect to Manu and the year of beginning of his reign. Note that these are based on an average figure and actual year may lie even a few decades on either side.

SOLAR: 1- Vaivaswat Manu (3100 BC); 21- Mandhata (2700); 38 – Harishchandra (2360); 46 – Sagara (2200); 50 – Bhagiratha (2120); 54 – Ambarisha (2040); 72 – Rama (1680). 

LUNAR:  1- Vaivaswat Manu (3100 BC); 3 – Pururava (3060); 4 – Ayu (3040); 6 – Yayati (3000); 7 – Puru, Yadu (2980); 16 – Haihaya (2800); 17 - Raudrashwa (2780) 20Shashabindu (2720); 23 – Bharata (2660); 28Jahnu (2560); 36 – Alarka (2400); 37 -  Kartavirya Arjuna (2360);  38 – Vishwamitra, Jamdagni (2380);  39 - Sudasa, Parashurama (2340);  98Shantanu (1160); 100 - Dhritarashtra/Pandu (1110);  101 - Yudhishtira/Krishna (1100).

RISHIS: 1-Atri (A), Soma (A), Marichi (K), Bhrigu-Atharvan;  2- Budha (A), Gavishtira (A), Kashyapa (K), Dadhichi (B); 3- Chyavana (B), Kavi (B), Ushanas-Shukra (B); 18- Prabhakara (A); 19 – Brihaspati (An), Samvarta  (An); 21 – Dirghtamas  (An), Bharadwaja (An), Kanva (An); 24- Samvarana; 25- Shobhari Kanva  (An); 26- Harita (An); 27- Nara (An), Garga (An); 28- Sankriti (An); 37- Bhauma (A), Vasishta (V), Agastya (Ag); 36-Gopavana (A); 37- Richika (B), 38- Jamadagni (B), Gritsamada (B), Vishwamitra (K), Parvata (An), Narada (An), Shakti (V); 39- Parashurama (B), Parashara (V), Galava (K); 40- Vamadeva (An), Upamayu (V); 49- Rahugana  (An); 40 - Gotama-Rahugana  (An).  (Note: letters in brackets show the Gotra” A – Atri, An – Angirasa, Ag- Agastya, B – Bhrigu, K – Kasyapa,  V – Vasishta). 

This chronology framework will put many ancient events in proper chronological perspective and be useful when we discuss Dattatreya’s life.

4.3  About Rama’s Date     We note that according to the above listing Rama stands at No 73 and Krishna at No 101.  This means that there is a time difference of five and half centuries between the two.  According to the dynasty lists compiled from Bhagwat Purana the numbers are No 60 and No 54 respectively corresponding to a difference of only a little more than a century between them. As Bhargava has pointed out this is because of omission of some names in the Solar lineage and in addition mixing up of lineages in the Lunar lists. Thus there was an omission of twelve kings in the Solar list which did not branch out much. Because of the extra confusion in Lunar lists adjustment ranges over forty-six intermediate generations. As seen from his table names of all missing kings are not known and have been left blank.

There are however two pointers on which comments are required. These are as follows:

Pointer 1: Maharshi Vyasa is related to Vasishtha, the royal priest of Dasharatha through the following lineage: Vasishtha > Shakti > Parashara > Vyasa. Vyasa’a mother Satyavati  was Shantanu’s wife. But since Shantanu married Satyavati in a very late age when Bhishma was already an adult, Shatananda Shantanu seems to be contemporary of Shakti, indicating that Shantanu belonged to Rama’s and also Parashara’s generation. Since Yuidhishtira belongs to the third generation from Shantanu there is a difference of 50 years between Yudhishtira and Rama.

Pointer 2:, son of Gautama was the priest during the marriage of Shri Rama and Sita. His son was Sharbhanga who had twins: Kripa and Kripi. They were fostered by King Shantanu. Kripi married Dronacharya. He and Kripacharya participated in the Mahabharata war on Kaurava side. Thus Shatananda belongs to Dasharatha generation Shanatnu therefore belongs to a generation after Dasharatha i.e. Rama’s generation. (Mazumdar p 60).

Regarding pointer 1, according to Bhargava Vyasa was a distant descendent of Parasharal; either Vyasa’s father‘s name was also Parashara or Mahabharata uses the gotra  name for Vyasa’s father (B-VH: Ch 9 p 223).  Regarding pointer two also Bhargava states that Shatananda’s descendent was Satyadhriti wahose descendent was Kripa of Mahabharata fame. Thus the confusion is seen to have been caused by the habit of referring to a rishi by his gotra rather than his personal name (B-VH: Ch 9 p 211). Thus there is no abnormality in the difference of about five and half centuries between Rama and Krishna.


These comments are based on the works of the authors already enumerated in section 3.1.  Without their publications especially of Mr. Yardi and Dr. Bhargava this work would not have been possible at all and the author is very grateful to them.

The following points may be noted in the Purana birth legend:

1.     Atri is an ancient and famous rishi;

2.    His wife’s name is Anasuya and she is a pativrata;

3.    Narada instigates wives of the three deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

4.    Wives who are goddesses in their own right get jealous and angry and instigate their husbands to punish Anasuya;

5.    The three gods visit Atri’s hermitage just before midday meal time when the rishi would be away and demand food;

6.    Anasuya offers traditional welcome to the guests;

7.    The guests insist Anasuya serves them food while naked;

8.    Anasuya agrees but when she says that “guests are like her babies”, legendary power of a pativrata is manifested and the guests really turn into babies; 

9.    The wives of the gods are punished; gods are pleased at Anusuya’s bevaviour and offer boons;

10.   Atri couple asks for the babies to remain with them which is granted;   

11.   Babies are named Soma, Datta and Durvasa respectively;

12.   The gods and goddesses leave;

13.    Soma and Durvasa leave charging Datta with their attributes;

14.     Dattatreya becomes Trimurti.

When we consider these points we observe examples of greatness of characters like Atri and Anasuya and the curious personalization of gods and goddesses 

   5.1   Personalization of gods   The Vedic gods are mostly powers of nature but ancient Vedic people personified them assigning them a human or near human form and many human attributes. Rigvedic deities Indra, Varuna, Vishnu, and Ashwins etc., who are Adityas (see Section 3.5 above), are mentioned as asuras which in the early Vedic age meant powerful and wise but in later Vedic age the term asura attained the meaning of a demon. These gods are noted for their good qualities like valour, wisdom and compassion but Puranas assigned to some of them and particularly Indra the undesirable qualities of jealousy, anger, arrogance etc.  In some Puranas this system of personification has been extended even to the inanimate Vedas and Yugas.  By the time of the epics some older gods lost their importance, some new gods were added to the Hindu pantheon and they married and had children. Thus we see Adityas increasing from the original three to twelve (B-VRC: Ch 3), Indra superseded by his junior Vishnu, Shiva added to the pantheon and married to Uma (Parvati) and having Ganapati and Kartikeya (Skanda) as sons. We see that Brahma and Vishnu both having wives.

   Puranas describe gods at war with Daityas, Danavas and Asuras who are depicted as evil having magical powers. Mazumdar (p 117, See Bibliography) considers Devas, Daityas and Danavas to be names of Aryan tribes living in neighbouring regions now in the Afghanistan and north Himalayan region.  The wars seem to have continued off and on Devas sometimes winning and sometimes losing. But there were social relationships also among them e.g. Indra married Shachi who was Daitya Puloma’s daughter and in a post-Manu age Yayati married Sharmishta daughter of the Danava king Vrishaparva. These frequent wars could be due to expansionist ambitions or due to differences on religious matters. At least Daitya Hiranyakshipu’s enmity with his son Prahlada seems to be of this nature. In the long run Devas prevailed and assimilated the other Aryan tribes into the Vedic system. 

     Whenever Daitya-Danavas (called asuras, rakshasas or demons in the Puranas) had upper hand and ruled over the Devas the latter rushed, according to the Puranas, to Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and the mother goddess Durga who then helped them to defeat the demons. This is chronologically incorrect for during the era of these wars Shiva and Durga were not part of the Hindu pantheon, however that is another matter. In Puranas we read stories in which these main gods meet and confer, like politicians and diplomats of today, and plan strategies for defeating the demons sometimes by taking an avatar.

     In the Puranas we see conjugal disputes between Shiva and Durga, Vishnu and Laxmi, Brahma and Saraswati.   Pious readers no doubt tend to forget that these gods are spiritual powers and the stories of conjugal disputes, meetings between the gods are merely myths written to make some point related to Dharma (code of righteous conduct). There is an understanding when using an analogy that its use should be limited to explain or prove a certain point but cannot be extrapolated beyond it or be generalized.  But a pious reader unfortunately takes these stories literally. The audio-visual presentation of these stories by movies has further deepened this impression.     

5.2 Atri and Anasuya     Atri is a famous rishi of ancient times. The following passage in Mahabharata, Sambhava Parva Section 66: “O king, it is said that the sons of Atri are numerous. And, being great Rishis, they are all conversant with the Vedas, crowned with ascetic success, and of souls in perfect peace.” recognizes the prominence of Atri lineage. 

   5.2.1 Atri in Rigveda     In Rigveda a number of hymns, majority of them included in the fifth mandala, are ascribed to the rishis of this lineage. Talageri (Ch 5) lists 37 rishis who have composed the hymns including a female rishi Vishwavara Atreyi.

Bhargava gives the following lineage of Atri family: Atri, Soma, Budha, Gavishtira and Archananas, Syavashva, Andhigu, Manu Savarni, Nabhanedishtha, Bhalandana, Vatsapri, Prabhakara, Samvarana, Gopavana, Bhauma and Isha (B-VA). Of these Budha and Gavishtira are contemporary.

     But unfortunately Dattatreya is not one of them, but neither are Soma and Durvasa. Though Soma is frequently mentioned in Rigveda the reference is to Soma the plant and not Soma the person)

     In ancient times many rishis were attached to a particular dynasty of kings. A large number of Rigveda hymns concern the activities of the kings of Puru-Bharata lineage in the Lunar line.  However Atris and Kanvas seem to be rather mercenary in their policy and have officiated as priests for and composed the hymns in praise of whichever king (irrespective of his tribal identity) showered them with gifts.  These two families were not affiliated to the Bharatas or the Purus in general as were Vasishtas and Vishwamitras, but they were more often associated with non-Purus (Iksvakus, Yadus, Turvasas, Anus), hence Atri is characterized as Panchajanya (belonging to all the five tribes). Talageri concludes that both these priestly families were themselves of Puru origin and originated in the Late Period of the Rigveda, when the predominance of the Bharatas had ended, and the Purus in general had become more cosmopolitan in their attitudes.  The most important Atri and Kanva Rishis in the Rigveda are however closely associated with the Purus.  

    The name Atri in early days, according to Talageri (See Bibliography) was used to mean the Sun. It is used for Rishi Atri only later. Many references to Atri in the older Mandalas (VI, VII, II) of Rigveda, also refer to the Sun and not to the Rishi; e.g. verse VII.68.05 praises Ashwins the gods of twilight as follows: “Wonderful, verily, is the wealth that is yours; you have liberated from the cave Atri, who is dear to you, and enjoys your protection.”, which implies the sun being rescued from darkness of the night at dawn. Elsewhere (II.8.5) the word Atri is also used as an epithet for Agni (who is literally the earthly representative of the Sun). There are attempts in some hymns in the Mandala V (e.g. hymn 40) where Atri the Sun is deliberately transformed into Atri the Rishi (V.40).  In later Mandalas (I, X) the Rishi Atri is fully identified with the mythical Atri.  Atris in Mandala V considered themselves to be special priests of the Sun. In Mandala I, hymn 45 the third verse says: “Agni, accomplisher of solemn acts, cognizant of all who are born, hear the invocation of Prashkanva, as you have heard those of Priyamedha, of Atri, of Virupa, of Angiras.”  All these are rishis; Atri and Angiras are among the Prajapatis and Priyamedha is Priyavrata the elder son of Swayambhuva Manu; Virupa is an early descendant of Vaivasvata Manu who is just mentioned as Manu in the Vedas. We thus see that Atri and Angiras were two of the oldest rishis.

5.2.2 Atri in Ramayana    The only Atri who had a wife named Anasuya is mentioned in Ramayana. This Atri is a historical person and was Rama’s contemporary. On Rishi Bharadwaj’s advice Rama, accompanied by Sita and Laxman, had visited the ashram and obtained his blessings from Rishi Atri and Anasuya. Sita had met Anasuya who listened to the details of her marriage, praised her for her devotion to Shri Rama and blessed her presenting her with her own clothes.  Anasuya at this time was very old with wrinkled face.  This story is part of the original Valmiki Ramayana (YR: Ch I) and hence this Atri and Anasuya are historical persons and not mythical as the Kardama’s daughter married to Atri of the saptarshis.

      At the same time we also note from this story how Puranas have taught rules of good character and righteous behaviour commendably through the characters of Atri and Anasuya.

     When we examine the birth legend in this context it is obvious that the story of the goddesses getting jealous or the Trinity visiting Anasuya to test her claim of being a pativrata can only be a myth.

Ramayana does not mention any children born to this Atri.  In any case neither Dattatreya nor Soma and Durvasa could have been born to this Atri who lived centuries after Alarka, Sahasrarjuna and Parashurama who are known to be Dattatreya’s disciples (see later).

5.2.3 Atri in Mahabharata    Atri is highly praised in Mahabharata. The following passage in Sambhava parva Section 66: “O king, it is said that the sons of Atri are numerous. And, being great Rishis, they are all conversant with the Vedas, crowned with ascetic success, and of souls in perfect peace.” recognizes the prominence of Atri lineage.  Members of Atri lineage have been mentioned in many places including the one who was contemporary to King Prithu.  According to Bhishma, Barhi is named as sons of an Atri but which Atri is not specified. (Shanti Parva Sec 208). This Barhi must be Prachinabarhi a descendent of Prithu and father of the ten Prachetas whose son was the famous Daksha Prachetas (in Pre-Vaivaswat Manu time).  In Shanti Parva Section 234 Vyasa mentions while commenting on the duties of a Brahmin a royal son Indradamana of Atri and another son Sankriti both of whom are praised for their generosity. Section 210 also mentions “the dark-complexioned son of Atri” as an expert in medicine. However none of these references help in reaching at the Atri who was Dattatreya’s father. 

Atri is mentioned as a contemporary of king Prithu from Swayambhuva Manu lineage (Mahabharata, Vana Parva Section 184). But it does not have any relevance to the present context.

5.2.4 Atri in Puranas   Atri’s name occurs as one of the seven mind sons of Brahma the creator at the time of creation. These are the Saptarshis or seven rishis, the other six being Marichi, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulahak, Kratu and Vasishta. Brahma also created three more mind sons, Bhrigu and Narada and Daksha Prajapati. These Rishis were instructed to procreate but refused to do so. Brahmadeo then had to create a couple who were called Swayambhuva Manu and Shatarupa who are said to be the first couple to procreate by conjugal process.  This couple had two sons Priyavrata and Uttanpada and three daughters Prasuti, Akuti and Devahuti. (Some Puranas mention only two daughters.).  Of these Devahuti married Rishi Kardama. Among their daughters was Anasuya who married Rishi Atri. In another Purana Anasuya is the daughter of Daksha Prajapati and Prasuti.

This of course is one of the Puranic myths. These rishis lived in differing times some of them centuries later than the earlier rishis like those of Atri and Angiras lineages. As can be seen from the dynasty list given later, while the first Atri lived a little before Vaivaswat Manu the first Vasishta belongs to 37th generation after him and Narada belongs to the next generation.  Secondly, if there was no procreation then question arises as to where Rishi Kardama came from.  The creation story is therefore largely a myth with some metaphoric element.    

The Saptarshi group can therefore be considered merely a group of the most learned thinkers of the ancient era presented together as mind sons of Brahma the creator.  According Bhargava (B-VH: Ch 9) Bhrigu, Angiras, Atri and Kashyapa are the oldest lineages, Kashyapa being a descendant of Marichi.

Bhagwata Purana mentions that Swayambhuva Manu lineage lasted for seven centuries before Vaivaswat Manu but historicity of this dynasty is in question because perpetuation of higher species has always been through conjugal process and Swayambhuva Manu - Shatarupa cannot be the first couple who started this process. They can however be belonging to early Aryan tribes living in regions which later suffered floods compelling Vaivaswat Manu to immigrate to Indus-Saraswati region. The story of first Atri as the mind son marrying Anasuya must also be a myth.

Atri is mentioned in many Puranic stories. He is said to have discovered the technique of controlling fire and knew about eclipses and about medicines. It has been mentioned that he was imprisoned because he fought for democracy (Dattatreya Dnyanakosha, See bibliography). Vayu Purana mentions that Atri had five sons instead of the three and a daughter.  The names of the sons are given as: Satyanetra, Havya, Apomurtti, Shani, and Soma; the daughter’s name is Shruti, who became the wife of Kardama. (Ref Vishnu Purana Ch X, footnote No 83.4, Translation by H. H. Wilson [1840]).  

Out of the members of Atri lineage from Vaivaswat Manu’s time, only his son Soma, Soma’s son Budha who married Manu’s daughter Ila and a rishi named Prabhakara mentioned in the Puranas. None of the Rigveda Atris have been mentioned.  This Purana wrongly claims that all the Atri clans are descended from the ten sons of Prabhakara. Vayu Purana also mentions that Prabhakara had many children, chief among them being Datta, Durvasa and a daughter named Apala.  But Bhargava remarks that since this Datta (Dattatreya) was Sahasrarajuna’s contemporary he must be regarded as a descendent and not son of Prabhakara. (B-VA: Ch 9 p 217).

5.2.5 Strange story of Anasuya    There is an intriguing story in Mahabharata about Anasuya which is contrary to Anasuya’s fame as Pativrata in the Dattatreya birth legend. The story which occurs in (Anushasan Parva Ch 14) runs as follows: “Once, Atri’s wife Anasuya, who used to meditate on the Brahman, left her husband. She surrendered to Shiva saying that she would never live under Atri’s shelter and lived without food for 300 years. To propitiate Shiva she used to sleep on Musals (rods used for crushing and beating grains).  Shiva smiled and said to her, “Oh Wife of Atri, you will beget a son even without your husband by the grace of Rudra and he will be famous and be known by your name that is Aanasuuya.”  Who this Aanusuya is has not been stated anywhere but in the footnote No 99 to Anushasan Parva it is indicated that this child was Durvasa but this is not confirmed elsewhere.  

It appears very plausible therefore that the authors of the Puranas used Anasuya’s name as Atri’s wife in general both in the creation myth by making her daughter of Kardama/Daksha and in Dattatreya birth.  It will be seen later that in the independent birth legends of both Soma and Durvasa the Atri-Anasuya couple is not involved. 

5.3 Birth of Soma     Soma, son of Atri, is an important person in history.  It is a common practice in the Puranas to identify an astral body with the person after whom it was named, thus creating considerable degree of confusion for historians. The Lunar line of the Aryan kings is named after him because Soma is another name for Chandra or the moon. Soma’s son Budha married Ila the daughter of Vaivaswat Manu and their son Pururava, adopted by Ila’s brother Sudyumna is considered as the founder of this dynasty in which famous persons like Krishna and the Pandavas were born.

To add to the confusion, Soma is also the name of a plant the juice of which was imbibed also offered to gods through yajna offerings. In the hymn (X.124) in which the composers are Agni, Varuna and Soma in which the later implies Soma juice. The Mandala IX in large part is devoted to Soma the plant and the juice. There are no hymns attributed to Soma the person in Rigveda. 

That Soma was a real person and not the name of the planet Chandra personified is proved by the two Rigvedic hymns by his son Budha. In one hymn (RV X.101) Budha refers to himself as Budha Saumya or Budha son of Soma.  In this hymn Budha calls upon people to prepare for ploughing using horses, tending to cattle etc. and prayers to Indra the son of Aditi who would then give then food. Another hymn (RV: V.1) by Budha is co-authored with Gavishtira Atreya. However there are no hymns ascribed to Atri’s son Soma though an entire Mandala is devoted to Soma the plant or its juice.

The personal name of the Atri who was Soma’s father is not mentioned anywhere. Soma is described as born out of Rishi Atri’s penance thus making his mother’s name irrelevant. This Atri could not have been Dattatreya’s father. Also because Dattatreya’s disciples, as will be seen from the Chronology, lived several generations after Vaiwaswat Manu while this Atri being Ila’s grand-father-in-law must have lived a generation or two earlier that Manu. Besides it is unlikely that every Atri would have a wife named Anasuya.

Now let us see the description of the birth of this Soma who was Budha’s father. This story is given in Purana and also Harivansha. According to Harivansha Ch 25, Rishi Atri grew desirous of creating progeny and practiced, with his arms raised, the most excellent penance of silence. In due course his person assumed the moon-like lustre which soon spread over the sky and from his eyes tears began to trickle down and flood the ten quarters. The goddesses of the ten directions gladly held it in their womb but could not bear it for long and the embryo fell through their wombs as a bright ball which was Soma (moon). The other Rishis including Bhrigu praised Soma through Vedic hymns.  Brahma put Soma in a chariot and moved round the earth twenty-one times. Soma’s effulgence spilled on earth and became the medicinal plants to which Soma gives sustenance. Daksha, son of Prachetas Prajapati had twenty-seven daughters whom he gave in marriage to Soma. This legend obviously is a allegorical/mythical description of the birth of moon the planet and not of Soma the person and this birth is related to Atri because Atri was also used for sun in the early Vedic hymns as mentioned earlier.

Harivansha (Ch 31) mentions another Soma who was the son of Rishi Prabhakara of Atri lineage.  King Roudrashwa (Lunar dynasty) had ten sons and ten daughters.  However this Prabhakara lived about four centuries after the first Soma and historians believe that this is one of the erroneous linkages made in the Puranas.

The birth of Budha however is connected with Soma the person.  This Soma performed a Rajasuya yajna in which Atri and other rishis participated. Soma became proud and arrogant. He fell in love with Tara, wife of Brihaspati the priest of the Devas and eloped with her. A war lasting for 30 years ensued in which Shukracharya, the priest of the Daityas and Danavas sided with Soma while Devas sided with their priest Brihaspati who was supported by Rishi Angiras.  In the war that ensued Daityas were defeated.  Brahma finally intervened and returned Tara to Brihaspati. However by that time she was pregnant and confessed that the child belonged to Soma. Because Brihaspati prohibited her to deliver the child in his home Tara gave birth to her son in a field. He was an effulgent child and was named Budha (which is also a name for the planet Mercury). Budha fell in love with and married Vaivaswat Manu’s daughter Ila (in Harivansha the name is given as Vairaj Manu) as mentioned earlier. From the dynasty lists and the chronology given later it would be noted that these events must have occurred a little prior to 3100 BC.

5.4 Birth of Durvasa     Durvasa is a well-known rishi in the Puranas and the Epics but his name does not appear in the Vedas. He is shown as a demanding and quick tempered, hard-to-please rishi and prone to curse at slightest displeasure. On the other hand he has given handsome boons to those who patiently rendered service to him. He cursed Indra because of disrespect shown to him, king Ambarisha because the latter completed his vrata before feeding Durvasa, tortured Krishna and Rukmini and for a minor reason cursed Krishna that he would die of a foot injury.  On the other hand Kunti was awarded boons of mantras by which she could get sons in spite of Pandu’s incapability.

Mahabharata (Anushasan Parva Ch 161) mentions Durvasa as an avatar of Shiva but not as a son of Atri and Anasuya.  The story as told by Shri Krishna to Yudhishtira is in short as follows:  Tarakasura whom Skanda had killed had three sons. Following a severe penance Brahma had granted them a boon of three indestructible cities which they could move anywhere in space and which only Lord Shiva could destroy and that too when they were in one line.  Fortified by this boon the three began to attack Devas from the three cities. Devas prayed to Shiva for destroying the three cities.  Shiva used a three pronged arrow in which Vishnu was in the tip, Agni in the blade, Yama in the feathers, Vedas in the bow and Savitri in the string. With this he destroyed the three cities along with the three sons. After destroying the cities the arrow returned to Shiva’s lap in the form of a baby boy. When Uma (Parvati) asked who the boy was Shiva did not reply. But now Indra became jealous and tried to kill the boy by his weapon Vajra. The boy locked and immobilized Indra’s hand. The gods were confused but did not realize that that boy was the great Shiva himself. Brahma meditated on the real form of the boy and realizing that he is Shiva himself made obeisance to him.  The Devas then praised Shiva and then Indra’s hand became normal. The boy grew up and was known as Durvasa.

This is the only story available of Durvasa’s birth.  According to it he is an incarnation of Shiva no doubt but he is not connected with Atri at all even though tales of Durvasa’s curses range chronologically over two millenniums from about Vaivaswat Manu time (cursing Indra) to Krishna time.

Rishis are supposed to be learned and composed persons who have conquered their anger and desire. Though Puranas narrate tales in which rishis get angry and curse the subjects of their anger these tales are more likely to be a means to explain or justify unusual or unwelcome events like the destruction of the Yadavas by a civil war and the death of Krishna by the arrow of a hunter.  It is difficult to understand how Durvasa, with qualities like anger and whimsicality which people on spiritual path are enjoined to avoid, could be called a rishi and how such a person’s words could come true.  It is likely that Puranas have used his character to explain  the unusual events like Pandavas birth etc. It is even possible that he is not a historical person but a convenient character invented by the redactors of the Epics and writers of the Puranas to explain certain strange events mentioned above.

In Section 3.4 we have noted that Rama followed Vedic religion and worshipped Indra as the main god and that Shiva has not been mentioned at all in the original Valmiki text.  Shiva, a non-Aryan god was accepted in the Aryan pantheon and identified with Rudra by Mahabharata time (i.e. Sauti’s time in the fifth century BC).  But it is not clear whether he was accepted in Krishna’s time. Mahabharata mentions that Krishna was a worshipper of Shiva and had propitiated Shiva for getting sons for Rukmini and later for another wife Jambavati.  However this part about Shiva worship could be part of the redaction. The redactions were made after Rama was deified as an avatar of Vishnu and probably as a result of this, in order to satisfy Vaishnavaite objections it has also been mentioned that in reverse Shiva worshipped Rama.  Thus the anecdote about Durvasa’s birth must have been be composed sometimes later between Ramayana and Mahabharata times by which time Indra was replaced by Vishnu, Shiva, adapted from the Harappan culture became prominent and began to be called Mahadeva.


We have already seen that Dattatreya’s name does not occur in Rigveda or in Ramayana. We shall now examine references to Dattatreya in Mahabharata.

The earliest mention of Dattatreya is in Mahabharata. In Anushasan Parva (Book 13) Section 91 (411) it has been mentioned that “In Atri's race was born a Muni of the name of Dattatreya.”  He was a householder who had a son named Nimi and a grandson named Srimat who had died prematurely. There are references elsewhere where it has been mentioned that he was a warrior to start with but became a yogi and philosopher later.

The same Anushasan Parva in Section 152 mentions that the Haihaya king Kartavirya who ruled from Mahishmati made large gifts of wealth to the Rishi Dattatreya who being pleased asked him to solicit three boons. He king asked for the following boons: (1) He should have thousand arms while he was with his troops but when at home he should have only two hands like everyone else. (2) He should be able to subjugate the whole earth by his prowess. (3) He ruled the earth carefully. He also asked for a fourth boon by which if he were to go wrong then a righteous person should come forth to set him right. Thus he is mentioned as a rishi and Muni. In Shantiparva (Book 12) the story is again mentioned with an addition that a high souled Brahmin whose retreat was burnt by fire at the instant of Kartavirya cursed the latter that Parashurama would cut off his arms.

Thus we see that Dattatreya was not a celibate sanyasi but a householder in his early life but must have renounced the world later opting for spiritual life and yoga.

The above texts are obviously part of texts added by the redactors (See later) up to 1st century BC and hence until then at least Dattatreya was not considered as a deity. In Puranas he is mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu but it does not mean he is a deity, for there are many avatars of Vishnu, Kapila and Prithu for example, who are not considered as deities.


Puranas mention six persons as Dattatreya’s disciples. These are: the Daitya king Hiranyakshipu’s son Prahlada (about 3100 BC), the Lunar dynasty kings Ayu (3040 BC) and Yadu (2980 BC), King Alarka of Kashi branch (2400 BC), the Haihaya king Sahasrarjuna Kartavirya (2380 BC) and Jamadagni’s son Parashurama (2340).  The years in bracket are according to the chronology mentioned earlier. There is one more disciple named Sankriti described in Avadhutopanishad and Jaabaaldarshanopanishad but no details are available about him though there is a rishi named Sankriti contemporary of King Jahnu.

Note that these disciples fall into two groups widely separated in time. The older group consists of Prahlada, Ayu, and Yadu. The latter two lived within about 12 decades after Manu. We may try to find the time of Prahlada from an interpretation of the Vaman avatar story in the Puranas in which Vishnu took the form of a dwarf and begged for three steps worth of land from Bali who used rule in the Indus Saraswati region at that time.  

There is a legend regarding Manu that a fish, said to be an avatar of Vishnu, warned Manu of impending floods and guided him and his people through the floods to a safe place. Where did Manu’s community live before the flood? Bhargava (B-VA: Ch3 p 58) concludes that “… it is highly probable that the Aryans originally lived in the valleys of the rivers Ghorband and Panjshir to the south of the Hindu Kush range. These rivers are probably the same as Susartu and Rasa of the Rig-Veda.”  It is possible that floods in this region forced the inhabitants to migrate to drier regions. This story does not seem to be a myth since it is also repeated by the Persian Aryans in Zend Avesta (B-VA: p 60) who were at that time part of the Vaivaswat Manu’s Aryan group before circumstances centuries later compelled them to separate and settle in Persia. 

Mazumdar, while interpreting the Puranic events in terms of history relates this event to the story of Vaman avatar of Vishnu. (See Early Hindu India – A Dynastic Study by A. Mazumdar p 225). Vaivaswat Manu and his people had to cross the land where Daityas ruled and interprets with the following interpretation. It was a period during which Daityas had defeated Devas (who were another tribe of Aryans) and were ruling in the Indus region.  Due to increasing population Vishnu, an Aditya, prevailed upon Vivaswan, another Aditya to ask the latter’s son Vaivaswat to migrate southwards.  Vishnu accompanied Vaivaswat and his people. They had to cross Bali’s kingdom on the way. Bali was the great-grandson of the Daitya king Hiranyakashipu and an enemy of the Devas.  Knowing that Bali would not permit them to pass Vishnu visited Bali in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin and asked for some land.  Bali who was known for his generosity granted the land. Manu and his people consolidated their position and one day raided Bali defeating him and sending him to Patala or nether land which is today known as Bengal region. Though Mazumdar says that Manu did not migrate because of floods but due to overpopulation, his interpretation of Vaman avatar is interesting and plausible. If Bali was contemporary to Manu then Prahlada must have been ruling two generations earlier and must have been contemporary of Rishi Atri, Soma’s father.

Prahlada’s being a disciple of Dattatreya seems to be rooted in a story in Bhagwat Purana (Canto 11, Ch 13) in which there is a mention of Prahlada’s meeting of a sage who lived like a python at the bank of the Kaveri river on a ridge of the mountain Sahya, lying on the ground covered by dirt and dust all over his body. On Prahlada’s query as to how a person so learned, skilled and intelligent, capable of speaking nicely and remaining equipoised could remain inert for a long time, the sage tells him that “.... an intelligent person must give up the original cause that leads to all the lamentation, illusion, fear, anger, attachment, poverty, toiling and so on of the human being: the desire for prestige and money. He tells that like bees and snakes who are good gurus he has learned desirelessness and to take only that which satisfies his needs and no more.”   Actually in this tale he is not named as Dattatreya but in some vernacular translations of Bhagwat it is so mentioned.   In Yadu’s case also Bhagwat (Canto 11 Ch 7) mentions that he meets an avadhuta whom he asked about from where he had acquired the extraordinary intelligence and instead of going after worldly success was wandering fearlessly and though capable, learned, experienced, handsome and eloquent was yet not a doer, were desireless, free from lust and greed and enjoyed inner happiness. The avadhut then replied that by his intelligence he had learnt under tutelage from many spiritual masters and having gained in intelligence from them was now liberated and was wandering about in this world. the avadhut then enumerated these gurus as follows: The earth, the air, the sky, the water, the fire, the moon; the sun, the pigeon, the python, the sea, the moth, the honeybee; the elephant, the honey-thief, the deer, the fish, the prostitute [Pingala], the osprey; the child, the girl, the arrow-maker, the serpent, the spider and the wasp, which were his twenty-four spiritual masters.  He then described what he learnt from each. (These teachings will be discussed in a later document,)

Note that Dattatreya’s name has not been mentioned. It is evident that assigning his name to every avadhuta is endemic and the result of the imagination of even Saint Eknath and Shri Vasudevananda Saraswati.

Regarding Ayu, the related story given in the book Datta-mahatmya by Shri Vasudevananda Saraswati mentions that he approached Dattatreya for a son.  He got a son who was named Nahusha, but the child was kidnapped by the demon Hundasura because of a prediction that the Nahusha would kill him.  The son Nahusha who later killed Hundasura was fostered by Rishi Vasishtha. The problem with the story is that, as can be seen from the chronology in section 4.0 Ayu belongs to fourth generation from Manu while Vasishta belongs to the thirty-seventh, and was a contemporary of king Sudasa famous for the ten-king war.

Thus there is not much substance in claim that these three people were disciples of Dattatreya.  It is a typical interpolation by the Puranas besides being anachronistic.

What Haihaya king Sahasrarjuna received as service to Dattatreya was a good moral advice and certain boons which unfortunately he did not use wisely. The advice given to Alarka and Parashurama however are on Yoga and spiritual philosophy.  These three disciples fall into a narrow time window of 60 years (2400 BC to 2340 BC) and it is very plausible they were all disciples of Dattatreya. We shall discuss the advice given to them in a later section.


We now come to the claim or concept that Dattatreya was an avatar of Vishnu.  Now, not all agree with this. In the Nath tradition he is regarded as an avatar of Shiva. Swami Mahendranath (Dadaji) states: “Dattatreya himself was regarded as an avatar of Maheshwara (Shiva), but later was claimed by Vaishnavaites as the avatar of Vishnu. Not such a sectarian claim as it appears, as Hindus regard Shiva and Vishnu as the same or as manifestations of the Absolute taking form”. (See Internet article on Swami Mahendranath, Link given in Bibliography)

This brings us to the point: What makes an avatar?  Ch X Verse 41 of Bhagvad-Gita says: "Whatsoever being there is, endowed with glory, grace and vigour, know that to have sprung from a fragment of my splendour."

Saint Dnyaneshwar calls such a manifestation as an avatar (See Dnyaneshwari (10:306-312)).  This is evidently the basis for considering many great historical personalities as avatars e.g., Bhagwat Purana, a late Purana in Vaishnavaite tradition, mentions twenty-four avatars which include beside Rama and Krishna, such great personalities as: Sanatkumar (the mind son of Brahma), Narada (a Divine Rishi and another mind-son of Brahma), Kapila (the founder of the Sankhya philosophy), Rishabha (founder of Jain religion), Maharshi Vyasa, the king Prithu and Balaram (Krishna’s elder brother) and the great avadhuta Dattatreya.  Vishnu being reincarnated is a Vaishnavaite concept that suits his role as sustainer of the universe. This is clearly seen from the dialogue between Narayana and Narada given later.

A disturbing aspect of this list is the inclusion of Buddha who preached against the Vedic religion in the list of avatars of Vishnu. Probably persons who compiled the list might not have considered this aspect. Actually Buddhists do not like Buddha to be designated an avatar of Vishnu because it downgrades Buddha’s position as the Supreme Entity according to Buddhist faith.  Jains consider Rishabha as the founder of their religion and put him in the same class.  Kalki avatar that is yet to come is evidently a pure fantasy.  He is supposed to come riding a horse from the northeast to save mankind from the evil.  Why Kalki should come riding a horse and not a flying machine? Is because people who wrote is a millennium ago did not imagine expect technological progress Kalki should really come in a flying machine considering the technological progress.  But who knows? Perhaps by the time the avatar takes place the days of technology might be over due to resource depletion and we might return to horses and primitive life.  

The concept of avatar has been explained in the dialogues between Yudhishtira and Bhishma who was lying on the bed of arrows after his defeat. These dialogues are part of the Mokshadharma section of Shantiparva in Mahabharata. Bhishma mentions Narayana as a Great Being who is the Creator of the universe. The explanation is given by Narayana himself to Narada as follows (Sec 337): He is adorned in sacrifices with offerings of clarified butter and other food dedicated with the aid of Vedic mantras. He has no beginning and no end. He is Unmanifest.  He lives in Shweta Dwipa the white island where Narada visits him and being pure and full of devotion is able see Narayana who is not visible to people who are not pure. Narada then praises Narayana (Sec 340) saying, “I am the Supreme Lord and the Preceptor of the universe. That which thou beholdest of me, O Narada, is only an illusion of mine. I now seem to be endued with the attributes of all created things. Thou art not competent to know me. I have disclosed to thee duly my quadruple form. I am, O Narada, the Doer, I am Cause, and I am Effect. I am the sum-total of all living creatures. All living creatures have their refuge in me. Let not the thought be thine that thou hast seen the Kshetrajna. I pervade all things. O Brahmana, I am the Jiva-Soul of all creatures. When the bodies of all creatures, however, are destroyed, I am not destroyed......... At the end of a thousand Yugas I shall once more withdraw the universe into myself. Having withdrawn all creatures, mobile and immobile into myself, I shall exist all alone with knowledge only for my companion. After the lapse of ages I shall again create the universe, with the aid of that knowledge. That which is my fourth form creates the indestructible Sesha. That Sesha is called by the name of Sankarshana. Sankarshana creates Pradyumna. From Pradyumna I take birth myself as Aniruddha. I create (myself) repeatedly. From Aniruddha springs Brahman. The latter takes birth from Aniruddha's navel.” 

This is the beginning of the Pancharatra philosophy from which Vaishnavism which claims Narayana, later identified with Vishnu, to be the Supreme Being. It is also the beginning of the path of devotion. (Sankarshana is Balaram’s name and Pradyumna, Aniruddha are Krishna’s sons; their names seem to have been used symbolically).

Narayana further explains, putting the events in future tense since this dialogue is supposed to have occurred in very early era, that to destroy the evil he would take different forms: a swan, a tortoise, a fish, a boar, man-lion (Narsimha), a dwarf Brahmin Vaman, Bhargava Rama, Dasarathi Rama, Krishna and lastly as Kalki.

Buddha’s name comes as avatar first in Varaha Purana. Harivanshakara does not mention the first three avatars. Thus there is no complete agreement about the ten avatars.

In the original Valmiki Ramayana and Vyasa’s Bharata as isolated by Yardi (Y-MB, Y-R), Rama and Krishna are not depicted as avatars but as persons. Krishna was not considered as avatar even in Vaishampayana time about a century after the MB war. But within couple of centuries first Krishna and then Rama began to be called avatars of Vishnu.  By Suta and Sauti’s time in the fifth century BC many other avatars were added to the list. The redactions made by them to the epics therefore not only mention them as avatars but the stories imply that they were aware of it. Varaha Purana is the first Purana to give the list of all the ten avatars (YR: Ch2 p 30).

Coming back to the point as to what makes an avatar we are now in a position to realize that gods do not take birth as avatars but avatar is designation given by people to great persons who have benefitted society through their superior qualities which may be considered as a divine gift. The first three avatars are not human and have been invented to explain important events through a divine intervention.  Nobody is a born avatar but achieves that level through his actions and public recognition. When such a person dies people create legends of supernatural powers about him; myths replace facts and in due time he is regarded as an incarnation of God or some deity i.e. an avatar.  God does not incarnate as a human being but people assign god-like qualities to a heroic person and call him an avatar. Dr. Radhakrishnan (See Bibliography), the great philosopher and former President of India, says in his introduction to his translation of Bhagavad-Gita that "Krishna is one of millions of forms through which the Universal Spirit manifests itself.  The avatar is the demonstration of man's spiritual resources and latent divinity.” He implies that in an avatar there is a descent of God into man and for a liberated soul like a saint it is an ascent of man into God. 

Avatar is not the same as a reincarnation. Reincarnation is a rebirth of a person in another body and at another time and place for fulfillment of a person’s karmas. This applies to persons including saints. However the same cannot be said to apply to gods who are not expected to have karmas. As seen from the life histories of both Rama and Krishna both had to suffer during their lifetimes showing the fulfillment of their past karmas.  If we are to believe Uttarkanda (?) then Rama drowned himself depressed by his having to order Laxman’s execution and Krishna died by being shot by an arrow in a depressed state of mind saddened by the decimation of Yadava clan.

The concept of avatar is well founded among the Vaishnavaites but not so among other sects.  In this context one cannot fail taking cognizance of the growing trend now-a-days for devotees of prominent saints to call their gurus as avatars of the particular deity whom the saint worshipped.  Many saints of Datta-tradition are adored as Dattatreya avatars by their devotees.  Some are called avatars of earlier saints e.g. Saint Tukaram is often considered as an avatar of Saint Namdeo and Kabir of Tulsidas. But again these are designations awarded by people.


We are now in a position to arrive at a plausible date of Dattatreya’s birth in the light of the foregoing discussion. 

It is clear by now that:

·          Soma and Durvasa are not Dattatreya’s brothers. 

·          Dattatreya is not the son of any Atri rishi but belongs to Atri lineage.

·          His mother’s name is not known but it is unlikely it was Anasuya.

·          He was not a celibate but a householder.

·          Dattatreya was guru of Alarka, Sahasrarjuna and Parashurama but not of Prahlada, Ayu and Yadu.

Of these disciples Alarka is the earliest (2400 BC). The time needed to live a householder’s life, to renounce it and become an accomplished yogi can easily be some decades and hence one may assume that Dattatreya was born much before Alarka (2400 BC). If we consider this period to be reasonably five decades then, around 2450 BC appears to be the plausible time when Dattatreya was born. This falls, around the time when Rohidashwa of the Solar dynasty and Tritsu and Divodasa (Kashi branch) of Lunar dynasty ruled.  Gopavana Atreya must have been his contemporary but no connection with Dattatreya has been mentioned anywhere.

Now, how accurate is this estimate? It is based on the following assumptions: Mahabharata war was in 1100 BC, average period of reign 20 years and Dattatreya was the Guru of Alarka-Sahasrarjuna-Parashurama and not Prahlada-Ayu-Yadu. We can be fairly sure of the latter. But the alternative estimate of 1400 BC as MB war date and an average regnal period of 25 years cannot be completely ignored.  But it is possible to verify its validity indirectly.

We have seen that Shiva worship was not prevalent in Rama’s time but became so by Pandava time. The Shiva was a deity of the Indus civilization people as is seen from the archaeological findings at Mohenjo-daro/Harappa.  It has been suggested that when river Saraswati dried up during the period between 1700 BC to 1300 BC these people from the settlements on the banks of the Saraswati river which had nourished the civilization ca. 3000 BC to 1700 BC migrated to the Vedic Aryan regions eastward, northward and southward carrying their civilization which was assimilated in the Aryan civilization. From the Bhargava Time-line it is seen that Rama lived in about 1680 BC which is near about the beginning of the desiccation period. Emigration must have occurred around and after 1700 BC and completed couple of centuries before the Krishna-Pandava time and by then Shiva, identified with Vedic Rudra, must have been adopted in the Indian pantheon.  This is in agreement with the Bhargava chronology. 


It is obvious that at some stage Dattatreya renounced the householder’s life and became a sanyasi. He must have learnt yoga and philosophy under some unknown master after which he must have made many disciples. As we have seen above, there were four devotees: Sankriti, Sahasrarjuna, Alarka and Parashurama. But this information also comes to us through the Puranas which should therefore be treated carefully. For example, Parashurama mentions in Tripura Rahasya of his meeting Dasharathi Rama who defeated him sending him into depression, one of the reasons why he was seeking Dattatreya.  This shows that the story of Parashurama’s meeting Dattatreya is a story composed after Suta added to Ramayana, for it has been shown by Yardi that this story is false.

After the meeting of Dattatreya with Parashurama in 23rd century BC we do not hear any more of his activities and it is reasonable to believe that sometimes after this he must have taken Samadhi because he is not named as one of the Chiranjeevas or immortals. (The seven Chiranjeevas by boon are: Bali, Parashurama, Hanuman, Bibhishan, Vyasa, Kripacharya and Ashwathama).

10.1 The Tantric connection    We next see him connected with the Tantrics. There many sects and sub-sects among Buddhists and Hindus.  While Buddhism made great strides in China, Tibet, Ceylon and Far East it was confined to mostly eastern part of India, in and around Bihar.  Many kings were supports of Buddhism and many supported the Hindu system. In the Bihar region in spite of Emperor Harshavardhan’s support it faced a decline. During the early eighth century A.D. Vajrayana sect of Buddhism appeared in eastern India and gained wider acceptance in Bihar and Bengal.  It practiced the ancient Vedic Tantric practices and worship of Mother Goddess. Sub-sects like Sahajayana, Kalachakrayana, and Mantrayana arose out of this new sect.  Sahajayana sect gave birth to the Natha sect which belonged to the Hindu religion. 

The founder of the Nath sect Matsyendranath became deeply involved with a Tantric sect which was left handed. That is it involved the practice of involved the Panchmakaras i.e. use of five “M”s: Mansa (meat), Madira (liquor), Matsya (fish), Mithuna (Sex) and Mudra (posture) in the tantric rites. It was Gorakshanath, the second Nath yogi and disciple of Matsyendranath who, after a great strategy extricated his guru out of the sect and made strict rules about code of conduct including celibacy.  Dattatreya is deeply involved with the Nath sect. He had close interactions with both Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath and is said to have initiated another great Nath named Revannath. The Nath Sampradaya worship ends with obeisance to the Nine Nath yogis (Navnath) but even  before that obeisance is made first to Adinath (Shiva) and then to Dattatreya, showing Dattatreya’s position in the sect. (P.N.Joshi: Nathsampradaya, Dhere: Dattasampradayacha itihaas p 24)  

There is a story about Dattatreya told under different contexts which runs like this: Attracted by the effulgent Dattatreya and his yogic prowess several munis followed him to gain his grace. Dattatreya, to free himself from them, dived into a lake where he stayed for many years. By doing so, he also hoped to evade an assembly of Munis who remained on the banks of the lake awaiting his return. Dattatreya emerged from the water naked in the company of a beautiful woman. He made love with her, drank liquor, and enjoyed singing and music. In spite of this, the Munis did not abandon him, and Dattatreya, accompanied by his Shakti, continued to engage in these practices and was meditated on by those longing for moksha.  In some places this act is explained by the allegory of Dattatreya as Purusha with the beautiful woman as Prakriti and their play as that of the Supreme with Maya. However this story also depicts the Panchamakara practices of left handed Tantrism.

Tripura Rahasya is one of the Tantric compositions in which worship of Devi is prescribed.  Dattatreya says:“Therefore that Tripura, the Supreme Force, the Being of all beings, the blessed, the highest, the one consciousness of Siva, who abides as the Self of self, should be worshipped sincerely, exactly as taught by the Guru. The fore-runner of such worship is devotion and praiseworthy earnestness.”(Tripura Rahasya Ch II 71-72). This also shows the Tantric backround of Dattatreya but in its purer form.

According to Dhere (loc cit) Dattatreya has been passed down to us via Tantric traditions which dominated the Buddhists and then adopted in the Hindu religion about 1000 years back. It was Gorakshanath who removed the left-handed Tantric traditions using meat, fish, wine, sex etc. from the Nath Sampradaya practices and brought it to the acceptable civil form of today. Shri Dattatreya must have been a very powerful sage existing before this time and sometime over the centuries he was deified to the form of Dattatreya. (R.C. Dhere: loc cit p 42). 

10.2 Puranic Dattatreya    This was also the time when Puranas were being written in the present form. The writers of the Puranas must have devised the story of Dattatreya’s birth as Atri’s son and avatar of Vishnu thereby achieving the following goals: strengthening the concept of trinity, bringing together the Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites who were ever in conflict with each other and creating a balanced deity acceptable to most sects because Dattatreya caries the attributes of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.  However his image as a sage, philosopher and a wandering yogi and avadhuta mentioned in Mahabharata remained.  His original one head image became a three headed image after Saint Eknath in sixteenth century wrote the Arati in which he is described as “Trigunatmaka Traimurti” (Trimurti with three attributes). The Dattatreya worshipped today is the Puranic Dattatreya and not the historic Dattatreya born in the 25th century BC.

In the next part we shall discuss whether this historical finding should affect a devotee.

Offered at the feet of my Guru Shri Shankar Maharaj














Devotees of Dattatreya might be shocked and distressed about the finding in the previous section that Dattatreya was not the son of rishi Atri and Anasuya, that he was not celibate but a householder who in later age renounced the material world and that he is not really an avatar of Vishnu in the traditional meaning of the word.  For centuries devotees have believed the Puranic myths, and our ideas about Hinduism are those moulded by them. For centuries we have not only believed in the mythical legend of Dattatreya’s birth but many talented devotees have built up further myths based on the legend, even composing lullabies to the child Dattatreya.  Kavadibaba (Shri Anantasut Vitthal) for example writes in his book “Datta Prabodha” written in 1860 AD (supposedly on the instructions of Shri Dattatreya himself), a beautiful description of childhood days of Dattatreya and his two brothers and their pilgrimage together. He further expounds spiritual philosophy in great detail through the medium of a dialogue between Dattatreya and Anasuya (See Bibliography). Those details are no doubt fantasies created by the love of a devotee. On the other hand this exposition of the spiritual philosophy is like a “satsang” i.e. spending time in the company of a saint, which is of great spiritual benefit to the reader. Datta-Mahatmya by Vasudevananda Saraswati (See Bibliography) is also similarly based completely on Puranic myths. When great yogis like Vasudevananda Saraswati supposed to know past, present and future through their occult powers put their stamp of truth on Puranic myths, how can one blame laymen to whom the Puranas are sacrosanct and word of God and who does not even question why different Puranas give different details about the birth of Dattatreya, Soma and Durvasa?  Or question the Purana claim that Soma the person is the same as Soma the planet Moon?

11.01  Can or should historical facts affect devotion?   The answer to this question is in the negative. Devotion is not based on logic or facts but is an emotional issue. It is intrinsic and more like a relation between a child and its mother. Neither child nor mother bothers about whether the other is pretty or wise and so on. A true devotee of Dattatreya would not bother about whether he has one head or three or whether or not he was the son of Rishi Atri and Anasuya, or when and where he was born. He would be interested in the Principle that is Dattatreya, which for him is the ultimate principle Brahman. Dattatreya’s image, whether as an idol or a picture is merely a convenient visualization that helps him to anchor his awareness. It is a matter of circumstances that he grew up in the traditional beliefs regarding the legends in the Puranas including the image of a deity presented to him by the Puranas.  Devotion to a particular deity, say Dattatreya could be attributed to family traditions but it could also be  intrinsic or inborn due to the link in an earlier life or. Or it could be because of difficult circumstances like some calamity or crisis or deep sorrow that he turned to God and that was Dattatreya. When in dire difficulties or suffering from deep sorrow due to personal loss of close relatives or wealth or when in severe physical distress and there is no one to turn to for help or solace, turning to God remains the only alternative.

Look at how an unbearable physical suffering was instrumental for an atheist like Gopalbuva Kelkar to turn to God and finally become a disciple of Swami Samarth of Akkalkot. He had good job in the Railways which he had to leave because of severe chronic abdominal pains. When the pains became unbearable he prayed and made a vow that "If this universe has a God and if He makes my affliction go within eight days then I will not serve anyone other than God anymore." And within eight days his affliction really reduced. Probably these are divine ways of making people come to His inner fold. Once he decided to fulfill his vow he was guided by divine ways towards Swami Samarth. Once he reached Swami Samarth he did not enquire about his antecedents but surrendered to him. (Dhere: Swami Samarth; See Bibliography).

This is an example in which personal crisis was the cause of turning to God. Different people worship God (or a deity) for different reasons and devotion is only one of them. More common are those who practice the worship of their deity as part of his family or social tradition.

An average Hindu remembers God at various times during his day.  Some remember and pray to God when they wake up in the morning. Many perform at least some sort of worship after their morning bath, generally with flowers, incense sticks and a lamp before a photo or an idol of a deity, praying to God or the deity to shower grace on him and his family, a grace generally for material happiness through wealth, success etc. He visits temples on certain days or when convenient, observes fasts, religious festivals and performs rituals like certain Pujas or reading holy texts for gaining God’s favour.

Now, whom does he really worship? In rare cases he worships the highest attrtributeless, formless entity the Brahman, but more commonly he worships some deity in an image which may be an idol or a picture.  Often it may be the family deity who may be Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman or a form of the mother deity like Amba, Durga or Mahalaxmi. All are depicted with attributes and their own characteristic forms, like Vishnu with four arms, Dattatreya with one or three heads and six arms, Durga with varying number of arms and so on.  Some learned people explain these deities to be manifested forms of the formless, attributeless Power.  But an average person is more interested in external show of devotion spending enormous amounts of energy and money to make a show of his devotion by performing religious rituals and observing religious festivals in a lavish and noisy manner. These are the external facets of religion which defines the lifestyle discipline peculiar to each sect.  It is this type of devotees that may feel disturbed at these findings which are contrary to whatever he has been conditioned to believe by tradition.  Such people are not spiritual sadhaks but only practitioners of religion for whom external exhibition is more important than devotion.

10.02   About Mythical Radha    In fact one does not even require a real historical entity for worship. Many mythical characters are often created and come into traditional worship. Mythical stories of their birth and heroic deeds get born.  A glaring case is that of Radha the consort of Krishna who is widely worshipped today in the Vaishnava sects.

There is no mention of Radha in Mahabharata or in Harivansha which is supposed to give details of Krishna’s childhood life. Radha has not been mentioned even in a late Purana like Bhagwat Purana.    Bhargava (B-RH Ch 7) mentions that her name occurs only in a portion of Brahmanda Purana and that too an interpolated portion dealing with the adventures of Parashurama. Her name again comes in one of the latest Puranas, the Brahmavaivarta Purana in which she is portrayed as wife of Yashoda’s brother Rayana and hence is an elderly aunt and not a paramour. However the same Purana later presents an absurd story as follows: “Once when Nanda goes to forest for grazing the cattle he takes infant Krishna also with him. Heavy rain and thunder start making Krishna cry. Nanda is not able to stop him crying but just then Radha comes there. Nanda is aware that Krishna and Radha are none other than Vishnu and Laxmi respectively so he hands over Krishna to her.  Radha takes Krishna to a nearby charming jewel studded canopy.  Once under the canopy Krishna becomes a handsome youth and reminds Radha that she is his Power or Shakti. As soon as Krishna said this Brahma comes, marries them and returns to his abode.  Krishna again becomes a child and Radha returns with him to Vrindavan and hands him over to Yashoda.”

Radha as portrayed by the devotional tradition is purely mythical. Yardi (Y-R: Ch VII p100) states that her name first comes up only in 9th century AD. It is now a major deity in the Krishna cult.

11.1 Devotee types    Spiritual matters are however internal.  Most important for a spiritual Sadhak is to have faith in God, especially the deity he worships. A truly spiritual devotees or sadhaks is interested only in the attainment of self-realization. In Bhagvad-Gita / Dnyaneshwari devotees are typed into four classes: Arta (distressed), Jijnasu (curious), Artharthi (desirous of wealth) and Jnani (enlightened). (Dnyaneshwari 7:108-109).  Majority of the people belong to Arta (distressed) and Artharthi (desirous of wealth) type. They are not really devotees in pure sense but are seekers of material benefits by pleasing god through special worships or vratas.  A Jijnasu (curious) has chances of becoming a sadhak i.e. a spiritual seeker while a Jnani (enlightened) has already become one.

There is a big difference between a practitioner of religion and a sadhak who practices spirituality.

11.2 Spirituality and Religion      Now, what is the difference between spirituality and religion?  There is a big difference.  Spiritual pursuit is aimed towards liberation to be achieved through Self-realization. Its activities like disciplining the mind, meditation etc. are internal. Religion involves activities like various worship rituals, performance of havan with offerings in fire, reading of holy books, observance of fasts, recitation of mantras, singing shamans, pilgrimages etc. are external activities.  Though they do an amount of satisfaction of having done some service to God, and make the person proud of being religious actually all these observances are a service to only himself because they are done with the intention of pleasing God for his personal material benefits. They bind the person to rules and traditions of the religion and cannot make even slightest contribution to liberation from the birth-death cycles. Religion is both personal and social.  So it binds him to society and makes him participate in group celebrations of religious functions e.g. annual temple festivals or in the present era, public observances of Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga Puja.  It no doubt makes his position in society secure and also provides him with protection from external intrusions, but even so it continues to bind him to the birth-death cycles.

 11.2.1   Mr. G. K. Pradhan a well-known disciple of Shri Shankar Maharaj has explained in his two novels “Towards the Silver Crests of Himalayas” and “Know Thyself” many aspects of religion and spirituality, through the guru characters patterned after Shri Shankar Maharaj. Three related topics: Why different religions are founded, Meaning of the True Religion  and  Meditation  are summarised below:

Why different religions are founded:

Individuals, who may be called avatars, messengers of God etc., attain clarity, knowledge, and truth.  In a few cases this understanding dawns upon them accidentally and in many cases it is the result of their sincere search for the truth and the efforts in that direction.  In almost all cases the experiences and findings are the same while the methods of approach are different.

The individual methods differ because of circumstances, environment, atmosphere, social set-up and many other factors.  What is important therefore is the problem of understanding and not the matter of approach.  Unfortunately, the methods are given more importance than the problem itself and that is why there is confusion.  The teachings and the broad principles advocated by saints are practically the same.  It is their followers who give more importance to the methods and practices thereby masking the main objective and creating confusion.  The great men had no idea that their followers would confuse the real issue and give prominence to forms and formalities, practices and methods.

Unfortunately, everyone thinks that only his own religion or creed is correct and the best and tries to establish his own superiority by insisting that it should be followed by all by force or otherwise.  This leads to continuous conflicts, small and big.

Meaning of the True Religion:

The word religion is loosely used and not well understood.  True religion is an internal evolution that completely liberates and frees the mind.  It is to be lived and not propagated.  It means consciousness and duty including humanity and love for society, country etc.; internally it includes frustrations and tragedies which make one turn to a Guru or God; Personal troubles are due to projection of his mind and ego.  Once he understands this he can take steps for liberation from the slavery of the mind.

Principles of religion have been destroyed or misinterpreted and the ignorant are exploited using the fear of miseries and hopes for better life in the future rather than the present one.  Priests or books do not make a religion.


Meditation is a movement in silence, in attention, without any choice or conclusion.  It is the action of silence and not of the mind.  Attention is clarity.  It is not any thought that has its roots in past memories.  Meditation or living in the true religious life is the freedom from thought and a movement in the eternal living or in the bliss or ecstasy of truth.

Meditation is not an escape from the world; it is the comprehension of the world and its ways and the ways of our mind, which is self-knowledge.  It is freeing of the mind from the known, the detachment from the society and the world and living in it while being totally an outsider.  Your real study starts with the study of your own mind.  Observation of your thought would lead you to the source of the thought, the thinker.

This is specifically applicable to the Dattatreya tradition because this tradition is meant to liberate and not to bind. Debates like whether Dattatreya has three heads or one and whether he is son of Atri or not are immaterial because they are external images. What is relevant to a sadhak is what that image symbolizes viz., a divine power which is balanced in the three attributes. The image whichever has been fixed in your mind is the personification of the Brahman of which Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are manifestations.

11.3  Introverts and Extroverts    In this connection Yardi (Y-BG: p xi) points out that the classification of spiritual paths in the four types mentioned above is not quite arbitrary.  It has a psychological basis. In Indian philosophy, in Bhagvad-Gita for example, people are classified according to the predominance of particular attributes Sattva, Raja and Tama in them. Modern psychology (Re: Carl Jung) classifies persons somewhat differently.  Man may be classified broadly as introvert and extrovert.  The former can be further classified as intellectual introvert and emotional introvert.  The path of knowledge is suitable to the intellectual introvert, the way of action to the extrovert and the way of devotion to the emotional introvert

The introvert seeker, through the grace of his Guru, controls the mind through discipline and yoga and gradually gives up desire and ego, until they no longer interfere with the development of the higher consciousness. 

In Dattatreya tradition all four paths namely Knowledge (Jnana), Yoga, Action (Karma) and Devotion (Bhakti) are followed according to the inner makeup or nature of a person. Thus the spiritual path for any sadhak is pre-decided even at birth.

11.4 Devotion Needs Depth      Barring staunch atheists every human being carries to different degrees a devotion to God in his heart.  It is due to this devotion and an inner intuitive understanding that there is a Superior Power to which one has to surrender that he utters the words like “Oh my God!” when surprised or “Oh God! Please help me!” when in dire difficulties. An honest person thanks God for good things in life but more often God is blamed for one’s misfortunes.

11.5 God helps his devotees   All spiritual masters and saints tell that what matters for a sadhak is devotion and that has to be deep. People pray to God for this and that but not everybody’s prayers are answered. But true sadhak will pray only for God and Self-realisation through which he experiences Him. God will listen to you only when that call is earnestly made with deep feelings and has good intentions.  The form is immaterial.

Devotion is a mental condition with different depth in different persons. Not everybody gets a response from the deity he worships unless his devotion is sincere, desireless and deep. He may get, in wakeful state or when in trance or in dream, a vision of the deity in the form he worships, or he may get signs or omens that the deity has graced him (or is angry with him). A most surprising phenomenon reported by true devotees is that when in extreme crisis the deity comes in human form and mitigates his problems. This is true not only in Hindu religion but in other religions too. 

Spiritual literature is replete with anecdotes about how God takes care of a devotee who has completely surrendered to Him even without asking for it.  The following true story is given in the biography of the great scholar-writer-researcher-spiritualist Maha-Mahopadhyaya Gopinath Kaviraj of Varanasi. (B. P.  Sinha See Bibliography).  It concerns a Shiva devotee and a yogi-philosopher–saint by name of Swami Shivram Kinkar Yogatrayananda who himself narrated it to M.M. Kaviraj.  Swamiji was poor and had no regular means of livelihood nor did he ask for anything from anybody. One day when Swamiji (living at that time in a place called Varahanagar), was teaching Vedanta to another spiritual seeker by name Swami Abhedananda, he received an insured envelope containing Rs. 30 (a lot of money in those days of early twentieth century) and a letter.  The letter was from a person by name Pramadadas Mitra explaining that “Three days earlier Lord Shiva came in my dream and told me, ‘I have not been accepting your food offerings because my devotee Shivaram Kinkar of Varahanagar has been surviving on only Bel leaves.’  In the dream itself Lord Shiva gave me your address. Accordingly I am sending you Rs 30.”  Swamiji further told M.M. Kaviraj that nobody except himself knew that he had remained without food for three days. 

Various instances can be found in biographical literature of saints in which the deity they worshipped actually materialized as a human being to help them in the time of their crises. The well known eighteenth century book “Bhaktavijaya” (in Marathi) by Mahipati which gives biographies of many Indian saints like Tulsidas, Kabir, Tukaram, Ramdas, Dnyaneshwar, Namdeo etc. gives many such instances. The book has been translated into English by the Christian missionary late Justin E. Abbott (See Bibliography). Some of the incidents are mentioned in the following:

Damajipant was an ardent devotee of Vithoba of Pandharpur who was the village official at Mangalvedhe then under Muslim rule.   When people were starving during a great draught and the king was indifferent to their sufferings, Damajipant, out of compassion, distributed grains from the Government granary to public.  Some people inimical to him complained to the king who demanded that Damajipant pay for the grains or would be imprisoned. At the last minute a person named Vithu who was obviously Vithoba (Krishna) of Pandharpur, came from nowhere and paid the amount. 

A similar incident is given by P. N. Joshi in the mini-biography of Dasopant in Dattatreya Dnyanakosha (See Bibliography). Dasopnt’s father who was a village clerk of Bidar did a similar donation of grains to starving public as a result of which Dasopant was imprisoned and threatened that he would be converted to Islam if the money was not paid within in a month. At the last moment a person telling his name as Datta Padewar, who could not be any other than Dattatreya, came and paid the dues.

A third incident mentioned by Mahipati concerns Sena the royal barber. He had the duty to visit the Muslim king every morning for his tonsorial duties of shaving, haircut etc. One day, just as Sena was delayed because he was deeply engrossed in the worship of Krishna.  The King was annoyed and sent messengers to Sena’s house to call him four times and every time Sena’s wife told him that Sena was not at home. However an evil minded person saw this and complained to the king that Sena was at home.  King ordered Sena to be arrested. But just at that time Vithoba, realizing that his devotee was going to be in trouble came in the guise of Sena and serviced the king with haircut, oil massage etc. King was surprised at the fragrance of oil he had never experienced before and to see in the reflection in water and the mirror the beautiful form of Krishna.   He felt at strange ease at Sena’s (Krishna’s) touch and even cured his maladies.  In a happy mood he gave a lot of gold coins to Krishna in Sena’s form. Krishna went to Sena’s house and deposited the coins in Sena’s bag and vanished.  In a happy mood after his bath king ordered Sena to be fetched. Fearing king’s wrath Sena hurried to the palace and still more surprised when the king clasped his feet in surrender. It was then that Sena realized that Vithoba had saved him. When this was told to the king he was very sorry that he had troubled a god to serve him and he himself surrendered to Sena and became his disciple.

There are many stories like this in which Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Ganesh and Devi come to devotee's rescue.  Saint Mira survived the cup of poison given by her husband; Narasi Mehta from Gujarat being completely surrendered to Krishna did not know the ways of the world and often came in financial and social trouble from which Krishna saved him every time. So was Saint Kabir saved by Rama; Krishna is known to have served in the home Saint Eknath for thirty-six years as a servant.  Saint Eknath was also a devotee of Shri Dattatreya and Dattatreya met him and his Guru Janardanswami in the form of a Malang i.e. a Muslim fakir. 

And these miracles are not confined to the Hindu world. In the Christian lore of the western world also we have the famous story of Bernadette (born Marie-Bernarde Soubirous in 1844 in France) who had the vision of Virgin Mary who showed her the famous healing waters of Lourdes in France.

To take examples of two well-known saints of Maharashtra, Shri Parnerkar Maharaj was a devotee of Ganesha. He used to do his “Sadhana" late at night. Even his wife did not know about it. Once she woke up and peeped into the worship room to find her husband talking to Ganesha. Gondavlekar Maharaj was a devotee of Rama and he reached great spiritual heights. Once he asked a person to touch his head and that person heard the sound of Shri Ram’s name coming from it. There is no reason to doubt these stories.

How does a deity materialize to help his devotee? Nobody knows. May be the extreme mental state of a devotee, or a person in dire crisis praying for help, makes it possible for the formless to attain a form. Who knows? These matters are beyond material science. In the biography of M.M Kaviraj mentioned earlier a great Spiritualist-scholar Sir Vajrendranath Sheel comments on this issue in reply to a question by M-M. Kaviraj. In those days, in the beginning of the British rule, some people, especially those belonging to the Brahmo-samaj who were greatly influenced by the British education, did not believe in Hindu deities. Many considered Shri Krishna not as a historic person but an imaginary character in the Puranas. In the context of a report that (Maharshi) Aurobindo had a vision of Shri Krishna while in prison, M.M. Kaviraj asked Sir Vajrendranath Sheel whether he believed in Shri Krishna.  Sir Vajrendranath though a Brahmosamaj follower did believe in the historicity of Shri Krishna. Sir Vajrendranath’s reply was: “Whether Shri Krishna was real or not had nothing to do with the vision because it is quite possible that Historic Krishna and Krishna as a principle can exist independent of each other. One would experience according to one’s feelings on the subject. Examples of these can be found in all religions including the Christian. Every saint cannot be a liar. The object of your devotion will make It appear according to how you imagine It to be.”

11.6 All paths are equal   Scriptures depict each deity with different characteristics or attributes. Shiva is called Bholenath because he is simple minded and gets easily pleased with a small service. Devi is a mother and she always helps her devotees in time of crises; so does Ganesh who is a remover of impediments. Vishnu (that includes Rama and Krishna) needs devotee’s love and may wait for an extreme stage before his grace is manifested. But these are the interpretations of scriptures and not necessarily real. It is therefore ridiculous to see people fighting among themselves over matters of which deity is higher in status and better or which path is superior.

As Kaviraj has said, “In conclusion, Vedic, Non-Vedic, Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnava, Bouddha, Jain are various paths to knowledge. None among them is superior or inferior to the others; all are equal.  One of them may be beneficial to some person and another to another person according to his taste or worth. But even if paths are different they have the same ultimate goal. In the domain of eternal power there are no doubts or misgivings and whatever there may be are like guides. Once they are crossed one attains state of unity with the Ultimate.”  (Sinha p 327)

It does not matter therefore whether Dattatreya is the son of Atri or whether he is a composite avatar or when and where he was born or when he was deified.  What matters is the sadhak’s devotion. He will manifest to you in the image you worship him. Rest is all material history in which only the intellectuals would be interested. Looking from another angle, just as spiritual paths lead towards the universal truth that is the Brahman, history is also a study to arrive at truth and must be respected because it helps to prevent people from getting misguided through imaginary legends.  But what a spiritualist needs in mainly faith devotion.  It is with this attitude that a devotee should read these items of historical information and leave it at that.


Lord Dattatreya is a very popular deity in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and South Gujarat. Among the deities worshipped by Hindus Shri Dattatreya is special for many reasons.  He is considered more as a wandering sage, yogi and guru rather than a deity. It is usual to hear from the lips of Datta-devotees frequent utterance: “Gurudeva Datta!” It means “Hail Dattatreya the Guru who is like a god!”

For devotees he is more a human being than a relatively exalted deity and therefore more accessible. We have already seen in the Puranic birth legend how Dattatreya came to be designated Trimurti or the three deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva all in one. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are traditionally assigned Raja, Sattva and Tama attributes respectively and are responsible for creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe respectively.  This brings Dattatreya on par with Brahman.

Dattatreya as a deity is unique in another sense. While most of the Vedic deities are personifications of nature powers like the sun (Surya), wind (Vayu), rain (Varun), fire (Agni) etc., he is a deity who born a human being. It is true that Rama and Krishna are also deities who were born humans and were later deified as avatars of Vishnu but while Rama and Krishna were kings and rulers, Dattatreya was a householder with children. Even then he attained such a spiritual level that he is mentioned as an avatar of Vishnu by some and avatar of Shiva by some others. His devotees also do not treat him as a deity in the conventional sense of a celestial god but more as a human being.

He is revered and worshipped by a wide variety of sects. Being traditionally considered an avatar of Vishnu with attributes of Shiva as well, both Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites who have been for centuries at loggerheads with each other, worship Dattatreya. He is connected with the Tantric sects also and hence is close to Devi worshippers. His importance closely follows that of Shiva in the Nath sect that considers him as his avatar.  In Mahanubhava sect he is considered as the primordial being and he is worshipped even by the Sufi sect of the Muslims.    

12.1 His Appearance   The most popular and common appearance of Dattatreya is the symbolic one with three heads and six arms. The three heads are of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively. The middle of the three heads is traditionally that of  Vishnu and the one on left is that of Shiva, though in rare cases the middle head is shown as that of Shiva. He is dressed in “Pitambar”, the yellow silk dress of Vishnu. The hands hold Vishnu’s Chakra and conch and Shiva’s trident, damaru (small percussion instrument) and kamandalu (water pot made of dried gourd). Dattatreya is always shown as accompanied by four dogs supposedly representing the four Vedas and a cow signifying the earth.



Many sadhaks worship the Dattatreya yantra given above in the belief that they will give better results in his spiritual pursuit.

But the three headed image of Dattatreya is relatively new. Ancient depiction of Dattatreya, up to at least 1200 BC is one headed.  It is shown as Trimurti by Saraswati Gangadhar in Gurucharitra written in about 1550 BC. (R.C. Dhere: Dattasampradayacha Itihaas, p 33-40 See Bibliography).  Saint Eknath (1523-1599 AD) who composed the famous Dattatreya Arati “Trigunatmaka Traimurti Datta Ha Jana” in Marathi describes Dattatreya as three headed, an image which has taken root.

There are many places where Dattatreya is shown with single head (Ekmukhi Datta).  Bhatgaon in Nepal which some think is the birth place of Dattatreya has one headed idol.  The idol in possession of Shri Vasudevananda Saraswati (Tembeswami) as well as the idols installed by him elsewhere are one headed. Kumtha Narayanacharya, a Gaud Sarswat Vaishnavaite has declared in his book Guruparamparamrita that worshippers of three headed Dattatreya  are anti-God. (Dhere: loc cit).

Another popular way he is depicted suits his personality of a wandering yogi in which he is depicted as a sanyasi dressed in a deer skin, carrying a kamandalu (gourd pot) and a stick. 

Sometimes Dattatreya is depicted as a Digambar i.e. without clothes, and some of his praises refer to this form.  In many places of Dattatreya worship, one can hear the chant: Digambara, Digambara, Shripadvallabha Digambara, Shripadvallabha being one of the names of Shri Dattatreya.

The smile on his face is compassionate and catching.  The bliss of his sagun presence (having form and attributes) is comforting and sweet.  But the bliss of his nirgun presence (without form and attributes), even the great sadhaks who have experienced it, cannot describe in words.

12.2 The Guru Tradition    Dattatreya, being considered as a Guru is mentioned as Dattaguru, or Dattatreya the master or teacher.  Guru worship is an integral part of the Dattatreya tradition. The words “Gurudeva Datta” may be heard at all places of Datta worship or in the company of Datta-devotees.

In this Guru-tradition one’s Guru, living or otherwise, is worshipped like a deity and is considered even more powerful than God.  Scriptures say: “If God becomes angry then Guru can save you; but if Guru gets angry then even God cannot save you from his anger.”  However, a True Guru (Sadguru) is like a mother, beyond anger.  The feelings of a disciple for his Guru can be seen in the following famous Shloka

Gururbrahma, Gururvishnu,

                                             Gururdevo Maheshwara;

Guru sakshat Parabrahma,

Tasmai Shri Gurve Namah,

Translated, it says: “Guru is Brahma, he is Vishnu and he is also Shiva. Guru is actually the ultimate entity Brahman, I bow to such a Guru”.  This Shloka is from Guru-Gita, a bible for Guru-worship and is a part of Skandapurana.

12.2.1   Gurucharitra is considered the most holy book in the Dattatreya tradition. The book gives biographical sketch of Shri Shripadshrivallabh and Shri Narashimha Saraswati. It is written by Saraswati Gangadhar, a descendant of Sayandeo a close householder disciple of Shri Narashimha Saraswati. Written in Marathi verse about a hundred years after the latter’s Samadhi in 1458 AD).  It is has about 9000 verses in 52 chapters. Many devotees read at least some verses daily. For special spiritual gains it is read in a week according to a prescribed schedule requiring the reader to observe purity of behavior during the period.  It is surprising to note that though Shri Narasimha Saraswati has been equated to Dattatreya in many places in Gurucharitra worship of Dattatreya is not mentioned anywhere. Worship of Vishnu/Narayana is recommended only in two chapters (39 and 42). Elsewhere only Shiva worship has been described and recommended.

Corrupted versions having 53 chapters are being sold in many bookshops. The “purified” version laboriously prepared by Ramchandra Kamat and published by Keshav Bhikaji Dhavale is recommended.   Translations in other languages including English are now available even online.

12.3 Padukas    Guru’s feet are the most important object to a disciple. He considers himself fortunate if he can touch the feet of his Guru. Naturally Guru’s padukas or sandals are the most important object to be revered and worshipped. Just as a child learns at its mother’s feet so does a disciple learn at his Guru’s feet.  Since Dattatreya is a guru, his padukas are installed and worshipped in all Dattatreya tradition temples. Idols of Shri Dattatreya are merely complementary.

12.4  Important Days    The full moon day of the lunar month Ashadha (the fourth month) in the Hindu lunar calendar is dedicated to the Guru and is called Guru Purnima. This is the greatest day for a disciple who pours all his reverence on his Guru even if the latter is not living or is physically away. (Guru Purnima is also called Vyasa Purnima since Maharshi Vyasa was also great guru and writer of books)

Thursday is an important day in Dattatreya a tradition just as Monday is to the devotees of Shiva and Friday to the devotees of Mother Goddess Durga.

Other dates of importance are: Gurudwadashi which falls on the twelfth day of the dark night of the Lunar month Kartik (two days before Narakchaturdashi during Deepavali) and Dattapurnima which is considered as the birthday of Dattatreya according to the lunar calendar.  It falls on the full moon day of the month of Margashirsha which comes in December.

Guru’s birthday is also important to his disciples. They celebrate it with devotion and fanfare if he is living and if the birthday is known.  For saints who have taken Samadhi, the day of Samadhi is celebrated every year by disciples and devotees of the guru. Guru’s padukas are always installed and regularly worshipped at the place of worship. Swami Samarth gave symbolic padukas to selected disciples who were instructed to install and worship them. Receiving padukas thus is considered a sign of guru’s grace. This Guru tradition is followed at all places of Dattatreya worship.

12.5 Dattatreya Temples    Though Dattatreya is believed to be an avatar of Vishnu, unlike Vishnu temples (or those of his avatars Rama and Krishna) are very simple like the Shiva temples, austere and without bright colours.  Shiva temples rarely carry an idol of Shiva.  The object that is worshipped is a Shivalinga (lingam) and not an idol.  Similarly, in Dattatreya temples it is the padukas that are worshipped; idols of Dattatreya (one headed or three headed) even if installed are secondary.

Temples dedicated to Shri Dattatreya and his avatars are, like the Shiva temples, extremely simple, in conformity with the austerity of a yogi. There are no bright colours or pomp and show as in the temples devoted to Vishnu and his avatars.  Another notable thing is the discipline shown by the devotees.  In most Indian temples, devotees scramble and push each other to get darshan (to see the idol), every one for himself and with no consideration for others. If there is any queue, it is only because it has been forced by the authorities.  By contrast, the devotees visiting Datta temples are much disciplined.  They form queues, help other devotees, and are very particular that those who are be meditating or reading are not disturbed.  They make their obeisance to such persons to show their respect but very silently.

The offerings in Shiva temples are austere limited mainly to Bel leaves and white flowers; and so are the food offerings.  In Dattatreya temples also only flowers are offered and the food offerings are also limited.

In contrast Vishnu temples are colourful.  The religious practices of the Vaishnavaite tradition, unlike those of the Shaivaites are more ritualistic and tend towards enjoyment of life. The idols of Lord Vishnu (or his avatars) are colourful, dressed in bright colours adorned with ornaments.  The offerings made during a worship ritual include a variety of delicacies (known in some parts as Chappanbhog or offering of fifty-six kinds of delicacies).

12.6 Oudumber Tree   Just as Tulsi is holy to Vaishnavaites and Bel to Shaivaites, in Dattatreya tradition Oudumber tree is considered as holy and greatly revered.  Another tree revered in Dattatreya Tradition is ashwatha or Peepal tree (ficus religiosa).

12.7 Worship of Dattatreya Avatars and Saints   Since Dattatreya tradition is a Guru Tradition is customary to worship gurus and prominent saints of the Guru ancestry.

We shall see in later chapters how the Dattatreya’s avatars and his other devotees served people of their times. Their work however did not stop after they passed away. Their compassion and spiritual powers created their own congregation of devotees. After their Samadhi these devotees created establishments or maths. These centres have continued the service through the lineage of disciples.  The maths and their chiefs are a solace to people who pray to the founding saint or avatar for their grace and for help to come out of their personal difficulties. Many do experience the grace and get relief, otherwise how can their number increase progressively?

It is part of Dattatreya tradition to worship these avatars and saints in the same way as they might worship Dattatreya himself.  Devotees do not consider worship of Narasimha Saraswati or Swami Samarth as different from worship of Dattatreya.  Even though it is well known and experienced by many that Dattatreya appears before devotees and graces them, devotees seem to feel nearer to the avatars who, probably being living persons of more recent past, are emotionally nearer than Dattatreya.


Four great saints are known as avatars of Shri Dattatreya. They are:

·         Shripad Shrivallabh, the first avatar born in 1320 A.D. (some say 1350 A.D.) at Pithapur in Andhra Pradesh;

·         Shri Narasimha Saraswati (1378-1458 A.D.), born at a place called Karanja (Lad Karanja) in Maharashtra;         

·         Shri Swami Samarth of Akkalkot is considered as the third avatar. It is believed that he is the same  Shri Narasimha Saraswati who had left Ganagapur to retire in kardali forest who reappeared as Swami Samarth three hundred years later in a forest in UP; however according to another version Swami Samarth first appeared as an eight year old boy in the village of Chelikheda about 24 miles from Hastinapur (100 Km north-east of Delhi on the banks of the River Ganga) on the second day of Chaitra month in the year 1149 AD making his avatar even earlier to Shripad Shrivallabh. Such enigmas however are not uncommon among saints.

·         Shri Manik Prabhu is the fourth avatar born in the erstwhile Nizam state at a place now in Marathwada region of Maharashtra state.

The first two avatars, Shripad Shrivallabh and Shri Narasimha Saraswati lived during the reign of Muslim rulers of the Bahamani dynasty which ruled in Maharashtra-Karnataka-Andhra region.  Their task seems to have been to save the orthodox Hindu religion from Muslim tyranny and interference. Shri Narasimha Saraswati is known to have specifically instructed his disciple Sayandeo not to serve Muslims and not allow his sons also to do so in order to avoid danger to his life. Within a century after him some Muslim Sufis became Dattatreya followers, a famous among them being Chand Bodhale.

In contrast, the third avatar Swami Samarth (?-1878 AD) lived just when the British were taking over India. This was the time when Muslims and Hindus were no longer enemies politically; on the other hand they tried to unite themselves to rebel against the British in 1857. Swami Samarth had Muslim disciples and his grace extended to several British persons too who approached him for his grace. 

The fourth avatar Shri Manik Prabhu (1817-1865 AD) born in the Muslim state of Hyderabad ruled then by Nizam has the largest number of Muslims among his devotees and disciples.  In fact the family of Manik Prabhu and their religious activities seem to have been fully supported by the Muslim rulers. Another peculiarity of Shri Manik Prabhu was that while all other avatars of Shri Dattatreya as well as the saints of Datta-tradition are known for their austerity, Shri Manik Prabhu was known for the royal splendour and luxury of his establishment though Shri Manik Prabhu himself was not attached to these.  In fact he always gave away whatever he received in charity.  His sect is called Sakalmat Sampradaya (loosely translated as the sect of universal thinking).  The basic tenets of this sect are that if we ignore the differences due to time and geographical location, the basic principle of all religions is the same and all have considered attaining God and liberation to be the main aim.  The differences do not affect equality and brotherhood.  What we note from this is that the avatars lived and worked in tune with the prevailing environment of their times.

While avatars of Vishnu e.g. Parashurama, Rama and Krishna saved Dharma through wars, the avatars of Dattatreya seem to have been timed to save the Hindu religion from degradation after Muslim and British conquests. They saved Dharma through spiritual guidance and not by punishing the wicked. They have graced hundreds of their disciples and taken them to high spiritual levels; they are still doing so centuries after their leaving the body. The disciples in turn have kept the tradition of this spiritual guidance alive through their spiritual lineage. Some eminent spiritual guides in recent times of this Datta-tradition are: Shri Saibaba of Shirdi, Shri Shankar Maharaj of Pune, Shri Vasudevananda Saraswati and Shri Pant Maharaj Balekundrikar.

Offered at the feet of my Guru Shri Shankar Maharaj.



Famous Devotees of Dattatreya.

Dattatreya in various sects.

Places of Interest and Pilgrimage




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The Bhagvad-Gita as a Synthesis, by M. R. Yardi, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Inst, Pune. (1991) 376pp.

Datta Prabodha by Kavadibuva alias Anantsut Vitthal Pub. by V.N. Zuralemaharaj, Dombivali, Maharashtra. 1988.

Datta Sampradayacha Itihas by Dr. R. C. Dhere, Pub by Padmagandha Prakasha Pune, (2005)

Shri Dattatreya Dnyanakosha by Dr Pralhad N. Joshi, Surekha Prakashan, Parel, Bombay 400012, (1974), 606pp (In Marathi)

Dnyaneshwari (The Philosophical Part) by V.V.Shirvaikar On the Internet at URL:

Gurucharitra, (Researched edition) by R.K.Kamat. Keshav Bhikaji Dhavale, Girgaon Bombay 400004.(In Marathi)

Hindu Timeline ( -1424 Mahabharata war occurs ...) Pub of Himalayan Academy.  Internet  URL:


India in the Vedic Age, P.L. Bhargava; D.K. Printworld Pvt Ltd, New, Delhi (1998) 120pp (2001) 462pp

Indian Saints by Justine Abbot, Motilal Banarasidas

Indus-Sarasvati Civilization by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, Internet URL:


Know Thy-self by G.  K.  Pradhan, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 400007, (1988)

Mahabharata, Its Genesis and Growth, a Statistical Study, by M. R. Yardi, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Inst, Pune. (1986) 254pp.

Mahabharatacha Upasamhar, by  Vaidya C.V. (in Marathi), Surekha Prakashan.

Manishi ki Lokayatra (Life and philosophy of Pt Gopinath Kaviraj) by Dr Bhagwati Prasad Singh (in Hindi) Pub: Vishwavidyalaya Prakashan, Varanashi (1987 3rd ed) 572pp

The Pathless Path to Immortality by Swami Mahendranath (Dadaji)

Ramayana, Its Origin and growth a Statistical Study, by M. R. Yardi, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Inst, Pune. (1994). 302pp.

Retrieval of History from Puranic Myths, P.L.Bhargava, D.K. Printworld Pvt Ltd, New, Delhi (1998) 146pp

Rigveda And Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilization; Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, Chennai 

Dr. R. N. Iyengar  (Deccan Herald News Service, Oct 19, 2003)

The Scientific Dating of the Mahabharat War by P. V. Vartak  Internet URL:

Shri Swami Samarth by R.  C.  Dhere (Ed), Anamol Prakashan, Pune 411002 (1975) (In Marathi)

Towards the Silver Crests of Himalayas by G.  K.  Pradhan, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 400007, (1963)

Tripura Rahasya,  Tr by Swami Sri Ramanananda Saraswathi, pub by  Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai. South India. (1994). URL: http://sss.vn.ua/tripura1.htm

Vedic Religion and Culture, P.L.Bhargava, D.K. Printworld Pvt Ltd, New, Delhi (1998) 120pp

Vishnupurana book III (CH Vi)  Tr. by H.H. Wilson (1840) footnote No 392.1. http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/vp/index.htm

The Vishwamitras and the Vasisthas, Sharma Umesh Chandra, Viveka Publications, 1975)

       Blog 1: Re Bhagvad gita:


          The Philosophy And Significance Of Idol Worship by Sri Swami Sivananda,
         A Divine Life Society Publication, Web edition 2001

               Reasons For Idol Worship in Hinduism by Jayaram V  :

          Hinduism and Idol worship  http://english.vishwahindusamaj.com/idol-worship.htm


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