Sri Dattatreya’s 24 Gurus:
1. The Earth
The Earth (SB 11.7.37-38) is steadfast in its duties and steady in its cycles. The Earth teaches forebearance, to remain undisturbed even while oppressed (Ambikananda, 2000). In general, it accepts the injuries done by humans and continues to provide crops, etc. to the best of its ability (Sivananda, 1999). “A sober person should understand that his/her aggressors are acting helplessly under the control of God, and thus should never be distracted from progress on his/her own path” (Prabhupada 1977, SB 11.7.37 – Translation). Hence, the Earth teaches “dharma,” the value of steadfast perseverance on the path of duty, equipoise, and forgiveness (Keshavadas, 1982).
2. The Wind
The Wind (SB 11.7.39-41) passes through the world like Truth, unchanged and unattached. Equally, like Truth, it has the capacity to disturb as it swirls about the objects of the material world. “When the wind blows in many directions at once, the atmosphere becomes agitated. Similarly, if the mind is constantly attracted and repelled by material objects … it will be impossible to think of the Absolute Truth” (Prabhupdada, 1977 - SB 11.7.40 – Purport). Hence, the wind teaches the value of freedom and of staying clear of worldly disturbances.
3. The Sky
The Sky (SB 11.7.42-43) teaches that the Self, like the sky, has no boundaries and is beyond the reach of material nature (Tapasyananda, 1982). Sometimes, clouds cover the sky but the sky above is unaffected (Keshavadas, 1982). “When the mind is spotlessly clear like a cloudless blue sky, one can see the actual form of the Personality of Godhead” (Prabhupdada, 1977; SB 11.7.42-43 – Purport). Sri Dattatreya adds: “Know all objects of material perception to be empty, like Space, Know the Pure One as neither bound nor free. The nectar of knowledge, undifferentiated, like the sky” (Avadhuta Gita 3.7). The fragmentary self, trapped in materiality, awaits reunion with the Universal Self. The boundless sky is an eternal reminder of this essential Unity.
4. The Waters
The Waters (SB 11.7.44) serve all without pride and purify those who bathe. They preserve and give life, which is why the Vedas speak of them as the God Narayana-Vishnu (Padma Purana 6.127.3 et seq.). “Just as pure water is trans-parent, a saintly person transparently manifests the Personality of Godhead” (Prabhupdada, 1977; SB11.7.44 – Purport). Pure and holy people are like the sacred Ganga, which purifies by sight, contact, and praise (Tapasyananda, 1982).The lesson is that purification comes from association with purity.
Fire (SB 11.7.45-47; also Avadhuta Upanisad 9) purifies what it consumes and its qualities are not sullied by contact with the material world (Ambikananda, 2000). “I am the fire than burns the sins of the sinless” (Avadhuta Gita 3.10). The knowledge of a teacher is also like fire, which lies latent in fuel like the Supreme in all creation, and blazes to life when conditions are right for the purification of the world (Tagare & Shastri, 1994; Tapasyananda, 1982). Elsewhere, Rabindranath Tagore urges educators and learners to see themselves as “Visvakarmas,” world-makers, while, in line with the aspirations of environ-mental education for sustainable development, Sri Dattatreya urges teachers to use the fire of learning to purify the Earthly body of God (Nelson, 1998). He adds: “One should not even consider the quality of the teacher but only the essence of that which is taught. Does not a boat, though devoid or paint and beauty, still ferry passengers?” (Avadhuta Gita 2.1-2).
6. The Moon
The Moon (SB 11.7.48) waxes and wanes but remains unchanged. There is only one moon, no matter how many names its different phases receive. The world tends to hide single truths beneath a welter of discrete names but “when intelligence is thus divided, it ceases to be all comprehending” (Avadhuta Gita 2.21-22). Of course, the teaching also refers to metempsychosis, the belief that, like the Moon, “the soul is a continuous reality, although material bodies appear and disappear constantly” through birth, death, then reincarnation (Prabhupada, 1977; SB 11.7.49 – Purport).
7. The Sun
The Sun (SB 11.7.49) is reflected in a million puddles; each reflection seems different but it is the same Sun. Equally, the spirit seems to be contained within different bodies but, in reality, is the same in all (Sivananda, 1999). One’s self is constant, a fragment of the greater Self, that answers to many names and is deluded into thinking it is different. In fact, Nature and Spirit have the same essence, the all-encompassing Brahman-Vishnu. The Sun’s second lesson is that while it drives the hydrological cycle, the climate, and the entire biosphere, releasing its gifts to the needy at the proper time, it does not do this for personal gain (Tapasyananda, 1982; Avadhuta Upanisad 9). Similarly, the teacher should act from a sense of duty, not avarice
8. The Pigeons
. The Pigeons (Kapota) (SB 11.7.52-74) warn against developing obsessive love or attachments in the transient material world. A devoted pair of lovebirds raises a brood of young who become entrapped in a net by a hunter. Unable to live without their children, the parents join the young in the hunter’s trap. Similarly, those who focus on transient things may be destroyed by their loss. Sri Dattatreya reinforces this difficult teaching by taking His own body as 25th teacher. He points out that even this, upon which so much energy was expended, is a temporary possession, destined to be consumed by other creatures after its death (also Padma Purana 6.126.4-18). “After many reincarnations, achieving a human body is a rare privilege for this alone yearned to know the Truth of its own Nature and … might be used to achieve liberation” (Ambikananda, 2000, p. 52). However, human life, a door to God-realization, is wasted upon those who, being distracted by attachments in the material world, neglect their spiritual development (Keshavadas, 1982; Tagare & Shastri, 1994).
9. A Python
A Python (SB 11.8.1-4) eats whatever comes its way and is satisfied. Its teaching is not to run in pursuit of worldly things, but to limit desires and learn to accept what life brings. The Mahatma Gandhi, of course, developed his concept of limited wants into Sarvodaya, the pioneering political economy of sustainability (Doctor, 1967). However, Srila Prabhupada extends the Python’s message of self-regulation and acceptance into one of reflection. “If by God’s arrangement one is forced to suffer material hardship, then one should think, “Due to my past sinful activity I am now being punished. In this way, God is mercifully making me humble” … one must accept the Personality of Godhead as the supreme controller” (Prabhupada, 1977; SB 11.8.3 – Purport).
The Bumblebee (SB 11.8.9-12) actively seeks material benefits in the world. However, it does this with discretion, taking only what it needs from each flower. It collects food from all flowers, high and low, large and small, as a scholar should seek wisdom from a range of scriptural authorities (Tapasyananda,1982). However, it burdens none and even helps them achieve their purpose through pollination, much as a teacher should live gently upon the Earth and help others realize their true goals—but unlike the bee, the wise person should not store up material treasures.
11. The Beekeeper
The Beekeeper (SB 11.8.15-16) profits by honeybees, who may work them-selves to death to build up a horde of material wealth: honey. “Wealth … can bring only pain … wealth horded waits only to fill the thief’s pockets” (Ambikananda, 2000, p. 43).
12. The Hawk
The Hawk (Kurara) (SB 11.9.1-2) picks up some food and is then attacked by other, bigger birds. When it gives up the food, it is left in peace. The message, again, is that worldly possessions are a source of trouble. Happiness and enlightenment belong to one who lives simply and seeks only spiritual goals. “Why do you desire affluence? You have no wealth, you have no wife, you have nothing that is thy own? This is the nectar of Supreme Knowledge” (Avadhuta Gita 3.38).
13. The Ocean
The Ocean (SB 11.8.5-6; also Avadhuta Upanisad 10), like the Supreme, is limitless, timeless, and lucid at the surface, yet so deep that nothing disturbs its lower waters. It receives a million rivers yet remains unchanged. Equally, the wise should seek equipoise, be absorbed by the ocean of Godhead, and remain unperturbed by the river-like inputs of the senses. Elsewhere, Sri Dattatreya teaches that a spiritual aspirant should begin by cultivating a mental white blanket to cover the noise from the bodily senses and then striving to unite with the essence of each element in turn, beginning with the earth, to enter into the mind of all things—a process analogous to ecological Self-realization (Markandeya Purana 40. 15-22; cf. Haigh, 2006).
14. The Moth
The Moth (SB 11.8.7-8) is the first of a series of gurus that expose the pitfalls of the senses. Here, sight destroys reason just as it destroys the moth that flirts with a flame, so one should control the senses and dwell in God rather than the world (Keshavadas, 1982).
15. The Elephant
The Elephant (SB 11.8.13-14) is lured into a pit by the scent of its mate and then fettered, enslaved, and tormented by the mahout’s goad. Lord Krishna calls lust an all-devouring enemy (Bhagavadgita 3.37-39). Srila Prabhupada reflects, “one should remain aloof from sense gratification in the form of sex pleasure; otherwise, there is no possibility of understanding the spiritual world” (Prabhupada, 1977, SB 11.13 – Purport).
16. The Deer
The Deer (SB 11.8.17-18) is driven into nets by the sounds of the beaters. Keshavadas (1982) suggests that vulgar music and entertainment should be avoided, but sacred music and dance is beneficial. However, the deer is driven by fear, another obsession and distraction that helps veil the spirit in illusion. Sri Dattatreya adds: “Here is the One, without purity and impurity, without whole or part. Why do you, who are in union with that identity, feel grief or fear?” (Avadhuta Gita 5.8).
17. The Fish
The Fish (SB 11.8.19-21) rushes to its death lured by greed, the bait of food (Tapasyananda, 1982). Keshavadas (1982) suggests that if the desire for food is controlled, so the other senses are controlled automatically.
18. The Prostitute
“Pingala” (SB 11.8.22-44), the prostitute, after a bad evening, becomes disgusted with her life, her body, and transient pleasures. Realizing the oneness of the Self, hoping for the mercy of the God-within, she decides to change her ways, renounce worldly things, and devote her life to the Lord. “Expectations of this world and the people in it are the sources of our greatest misery, Pingala let these go and retired in peace” (Ambikananda, 2000, p. 47). Pingala’s rejection of her ancient profession is also warning to all who prostitute their time, body, self-respect, and principles in the name of a career or money-making activities. Equally, it cautions those who ruin their lives by rat-racing after prizes, promotions, etc. During a bout of illness caused by over-work, the author found a cartoon on a colleague’s door which read: “The graveyards are full of indispensable people.” Most of the dead are soon forgotten, so what did their work achieve? Ultimately, there is only One that needs to be pleased, who also advises that surrendered service in the world is a sure way ahead (SB 11.11.22-25).
19. The Child
The Child (SB 11.9.3-4) lives in innocent bliss. Of course, “both the fool and the devotee may be said to be peaceful … they are free from the ordinary anxiety of the materially ambitious … [but a] fool’s peace is like … dead stone, whereas a devotee’s satisfaction is based on perfect knowledge” (Prabhupada, 1977, SB 119.4 – Purport).
20. The Maiden
The Maiden (SB 11.9.3-4) is the first of three teachers who illustrate the importance of focus and screening out the clatter of the material world. The maiden is surprised by guests who she must feed. She has to grind grain for them in secret lest she expose her parents’ poverty, but as she works, her arm bangles jangle. To keep silence, she breaks all but one on each wrist and continues working. Company is a distraction (Shirdibaba.org, 2003). “Give up the association of those who are not devoted to the Supreme Lord. This is the actual lesson tobe learned” suggests Srila Prabhupada (1977, SB 11.9.10 – Purport).
21. The Snake
The Snake (SB 11.9.14-15) lives alone in an abandoned hole and avoids humans’ company. Those seeking Self-realization “should abide in the cave of their own heart” (Keshavadas, 1982, p. 15).
22. The Arrowsmith
The Arrowsmith (SB 11.9.11-13) focuses so completely on his work that he fails to notice the fanfare as a King processes past his doorway. Total concentration is the way to achieve Self-realization.
23. The Spider
The Spider (SB 11.9.16-21) builds a beautiful web and then, a day or two later, consumes and destroys that same web. So, the Supreme exudes each material universe and after a while draws it back into the Self. The Supreme Self has no desires and is beyond the reach of cause and effect. However, people make webs from their own ideas and become entangled in them, so the wise abandon all worldly thoughts (Sivananda, 1999).
24. The Caterpillar
The Caterpillar (SB 11.9.22-24) that the wasp takes and keeps in its nest, in time, becomes like the wasp. Equally “we come to be that upon which the mind is set” (Maitri Upanishad 6, 34, v 3). “Whatever an embodied being sets its mind upon, that we become” (Ambikananda, 2000, p. 52). “If one constantly meditates upon the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one will achieve a spiritual body just like that of the Lord” (Prabhupada, 1977, SB 11.9.22 – Purport)
Taken from Martin Haigh’s:
Sri Dattatreya’s 24 Gurus: Learning from the World in Hindu Tradition