One day, when the sage Dattatreya was still a child, the king of a neighboring country came to visit the ashram, and because his parents were away, the boy greeted the guest in the palace. As Dattatreya made arrangements for the visitor’s comfort, the king saw an inner joy radiating from the boy’s countenance. And realizing that this was a spontaneous expression of the intrinsic beauty of the boy’s soul, he was sure that Dattatreya was gifted with great wisdom. Curious to learn how someone so young could be so wise, the king questioned the child, and the following dialogue ensued.

King: You have been studying with your parents?

Dattatreya: There is much to learn from everyone and everything, not only from my parents.

King: Then you have a teacher? Who is it?

Dattatreya: I have twenty-four gurus.

King: Twenty-four gurus at such a tender age? Who are they?

Dattatreya: Mother Earth is my first guru. She taught me to hold lovingly in my heart all those who trample me, scratch me, and hurt me, just as she does. She taught me to give them my best, remembering that their acts are normal and natural from their standpoint.

King: Who is your second guru?

Dattatreya: Water. This force contains life and purity. It cleanses whatever it touches and provides life to whoever drinks it. Water flows unceasingly. If it stops, it becomes stagnant. “Keep moving, keep moving” is the lesson I learned from water.

There is much to learn from everyone and everything.

King: Your third guru?

Dattatreya: Fire. It burns everything, transforming it into flame. By consuming dead logs, it produces warmth and light. Thus I learn to absorb everything that life brings and turn it into the flame that enlightens my life. In that light, others can walk safely.

King: Who is your fourth guru?

Dattatreya: The wind is my fourth guru. The wind moves unceasingly, touching flowers and thorns alike, but it never attaches itself to the objects it touches. Like the wind, I learned not to prefer flowers over thorns, or friends over foes. Like the wind, my goal is to provide freshness to all without becoming attached.

King: The fifth guru?

Dattatreya: All-pervading and all-embracing space is my fifth guru. Space has room for the sun, moon, and stars, and yet it remains untouched and unconfined. I, too, must have room for all the diversities of existence and still remain unaffected by what I contain. All visible and invisible objects have their rightful place within me, but they have no power to confine my consciousness.

King: Who is your sixth guru?

Dattatreya: The moon. The moon waxes and wanes, and yet it never loses its essence, totality, or shape. From watching the moon I learned that waxing and waning, rising and falling, pleasure and pain, loss and gain are simply phases of life. While passing through these phases I never lose awareness of my true self.

King: Who is your seventh guru?

Dattatreya: The sun is my seventh guru. With its bright rays, the sun draws water from everything, transforms it into clouds, and then distributes it without favor as rain. Rain falls on forests, mountains, valleys, deserts, oceans, and cities. Like the sun, I learned how to gather knowledge from all sources, transform that knowledge into practical wisdom, and share it with all without preferring some and excluding others.

King: And your eighth guru?

Dattatreya: My eighth guru is a flock of pigeons. When one fell into a hunter’s net and cried in despair, the other pigeons tried to rescue it and got caught, too. From these pigeons I learned that even a positive reaction, if it springs from attachment and emotion, can entangle and ensnare.

King: Your ninth guru?

Dattatreya: My ninth guru is the python who catches and eats its prey, and then doesn’t hunt again for a long time. It taught me that once my need has been met, I must be satisfied and not make myself miserable running after the objects of my desire.

I must plunge into the flame of knowledge to be consumed and transformed.

King: Who is your tenth guru?

Dattatreya: The ocean, which is the abode of the waters. It receives and assimilates water from all the rivers in the world, and yet it never overflows its boundaries. The ocean taught me that no matter what experiences I go through in life, no matter how many kicks and blows I receive, I must maintain my discipline.

King: And your eleventh guru?

Dattatreya: The moth is my eleventh guru. Drawn by light, it flies from its dwelling to sacrifice itself in the flame. It taught me that once I see the dawn, I must overcome my fear, soar at full speed, and plunge into the flame of knowledge to be consumed and transformed.

King: The twelfth?

Dattatreya: My twelfth guru is the bumblebee, who takes only the tiniest drops of nectar from the flowers. And before accepting even that much, it hums and hovers and dances, creating an atmosphere of joy around the blossom. It not only sings the song of cheerfulness, it also gives more to the flowers than it takes: it pollinates the plants and helps them prosper by flying from one to another. I learned from the bumblebee that I should take only a little from nature and that I should do so cheerfully, enriching the source from which I receive sustenance.

King: Your thirteenth guru?

Dattatreya: My thirteenth guru is the honeybee, who collects more nectar than it needs. It gathers nectar from different sources, swallows it, transforms it into honey, and brings it to the hive. It consumes only a bit of what it gathers, and shares the rest with others. Thus I should gather wisdom from the teachers of all disciplines and process the knowledge that I gain. I must apply the knowledge that is conducive to my own growth, but I must be ready to share everything I know with others.

King: The fourteenth guru, O wise seeker?

Dattatreya: Once I saw a wild elephant being trapped. A tame female elephant in season was the bait. Sensing her presence, the wild male emerged from its domain and fell into a pit that had been cleverly concealed with branches and heaps of leaves. Once caught, the wild elephant was tamed to be used by others. This elephant is my fourteenth guru because he taught me to be careful with my passions and desires. Worldly charms arouse our sensory impulses, and while chasing after the sense cravings the mind gets trapped and enslaved, even though it is powerful.

King: Who is your fifteenth guru?

Dattatreya: The deer, with its keen sense of hearing. It listens intently and is wary of all noises—but it is lured to its doom by the melody of the deer hunter’s flute. Like the deer, we keep our ears alert for every bit of news, rumor, and gossip, and are skeptical about much that we hear. What I learned from the deer is that we become spellbound by certain words which—due to our desires, attachments, cravings, and vasanas —we delight to hear. This tendency creates misery for ourselves and others.

As long as I remember the fish, I remain free of the hook.

King: And who is your sixteenth guru?

Dattatreya: The fish who swallows a baited hook and is caught by the fisherman. This world is like bait. As long as I remember the fish, I remain free of the hook.

King: Who is your seventeenth guru?

Dattatreya: A prostitute. She knows that she doesn’t love her customers, nor do they love her. She waits for them, and when they come she enacts the drama of love, but she isn’t satisfied with the artificial love she gives and receives, nor with the payment she is given. Through her I realized that all humans are like prostitutes, and the world, like the customers, is enjoying us. The payment is always inadequate and we feel dissatisfied. Thus I determined not to live like a prostitute. Instead, I will live with dignity and self-respect. I will not expect this world to give me either material or internal satisfaction. I will find satisfaction myself by going within.

King: Who is your eighteenth guru?

Dattatreya: My eighteenth guru is the little bird who was flying with a worm in its beak. Larger birds flew after him and began to peck him. They stopped only when the little bird dropped the worm. Thus I learned that the secret of survival lies in renunciation, not in possession.

King: Who is your nineteenth guru?

Dattatreya: My nineteenth guru is the baby that cries when it is hungry and stops when it suckles at its mother’s breast. When the baby is full, it stops feeding, and nothing its mother does can induce it to take more milk. I learned from this baby to demand only what I really need. When it is provided, I must take only what I require and then turn my face away.

King: And your twentieth guru?

Dattatreya: A young woman whom I met when I was begging for alms. She told me to wait while she prepared a meal. Her bracelets jangled as she cooked, so she removed one. But the noise continued, so she took them all off one by one until only one remained. Then there was silence. Thus I learned that wherever there is a crowd, there is noise, disagreement, and dissension. Peace can be expected only in solitude.

King: And your twenty-first guru?

Dattatreya: A snake who makes no hole for itself, but rests in holes other creatures have abandoned, or curls up in the hollow of a tree for a while, and then moves on. From this snake I learned to adjust myself to my environment and enjoy the resources of nature without encumbering myself with a permanent home. Creatures in nature move constantly, continually abandoning their previous dwellings. Therefore, while floating along the current of nature, I find plenty of places to rest. Once I am rested, I move on.

King: And your twenty-second guru?

Dattatreya: My twenty-second guru is the arrow-maker who was so absorbed in shaping his arrowheads that the king and his entire army passed nearby without attracting his attention. Thus I learned to be absorbed in the task at hand, no matter how big or small. The more one-pointed my focus, the greater my absorption, and the greater my absorption, the more subtle my awareness. The goal is subtle; it can be grasped only by subtle awareness.

There is no safety to be found in the complicated webs of our actions.

King: Your twenty-third guru?

Dattatreya: My twenty-third guru is the little spider who built itself a nice cozy web. When a larger spider chased it, it rushed to take refuge in its web. But it ran so fast that it got entangled and was swallowed by the bigger spider. Thus I learned that we create webs for ourselves by trying to build a safe haven, and as we race along the threads of these webs, we become entangled and are consumed. There is no safety to be found in the complicated webs of our actions.

King: And who is your twenty-fourth guru?

Dattatreya: My twenty-fourth guru is the worm who was caught by a songbird and placed in its nest. As the bird began to sing, the worm became so absorbed in the song that it lost all awareness of its peril. Watching this little creature become absorbed in a song in the face of death reminded me that I too must develop the art of listening so that I may become absorbed in the eternal sound, nada, that is always within me.

Listening to Dattatreya, the king realized that the wisdom of this young sage flowed from his determination to keep the goal of life firmly fixed in his awareness as well as from his ability to discover the lessons of life everywhere he turned.

Dattatreya’s teachings are preserved in the vast literature of the Puranas and in the Datta Samhita, Avadhuta Gita, Dattatreya Upanishad, and Avadhuta Upanishad. This story is from the Srimad Bhagavatam.

Source: The Himalayan Masters by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Further Reading

The Himalayan Masters: A Living Tradition

by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

The Himalayan Masters: A Living Tradition explores the lives and teachings of eight prominent sages of this timeless tradition—men who knew how to be successful in daily life while experiencing the innermost truths of life here and hereafter. Pandit Tigunait brings the experiences and teachings of these great masters to life, with practical insights into how to discover and understand life’s richest secrets for ourselves. Purchase your copy of The Himalayan Masters: A Living Tradition and discover the perennial wisdom of the Himalayan sages.

More in this Series

Stories of the Sages