When Guru Dattatreya was a child, a king visited the ashram. Because his parents were away, Dattatreya greeted the king and the king saw an inner joy radiating from the boy. The king immediately realized that the boy was gifted with great wisdom and started talking to him.
(Source: Book – The Himalayan Masters: A Living Tradition by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD)
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 24 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 those who trample me, scratch me, and hurt me lovingly in my heart, 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 it is a force that 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 is the lesson I learned from water.
King: Your third guru?
Dattatreya: Fire. It burns everything, transforming it into flame. By consuming dead logs, it produces warmth and light. Thus, I learnt how to absorb everything that life brings and how to turn it into flame. This flame enlightens my life and in that light, others can walk safely.
King: Who is your fourth guru, sir?
Dattatreya: Wind is my fourth guru. The wind moves unceasingly, touching flowers and thorns alike, but 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, sir?
Dattatreya: This 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, and still remain unaffected by what I contain. All visible and invisible objects may have their rightful place within me, but they have no power to confine my consciousness.
King: Who is your sixth guru, sir?
Dattatreya: The moon. The moon waxes and wanes and yet 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 as rain without favor. 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 recipients and excluding others.
King: And your eighth guru?
Dattatreya: My eighth guru is a flock of pigeons. One pigeon fell into a hunter’s net and cried in despair. 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 ensure.
King: Your ninth guru, sir?
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.
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 never overflows its boundaries. It 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: Who is your eleventh guru, oh wise one?
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 a bumblebee who takes only the tiniest drops of nectar from the flowers. Before accepting even that much, it hums and hovers and dances, creating an atmosphere of joy around the flower. 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 flower 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, sharing 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 growth, but I must be ready to share everything I know with others.
King: The fourteenth guru, oh 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 thought it is powerful.
King: Who is your fifteenth guru, sir?
Dattatreya: The deer, with its keen sense of hearing. It listens intently and is wary of all noises, but 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. But we become spellbound by certain words, which, due to our desires, attachments, cravings, and vasanas (subtle impressions from the past), we delight to hear. This tendency creates misery for others and ourselves.
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 episode of the fish, I remain free of the hook.
King: Who is your seventeenth guru?
Dattatreya: A prostitute who knows that she doesn’t love her customers, nor do they love her. Yet she waits for them and, when they come, enacts the drama of love. She isn’t satisfied with the artificial love she gives and receives, nor with the payment she is given. 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 became determined not to live like a prostitute. Instead, I will live with dignity and self-respect, not expecting this world to give me either material or internal satisfaction, but to find it myself by going within.
King: Who is your eighteenth guru?
Dattatreya: My eighteenth guru is a little bird who was flying with a worm in its beak. Larger birds flew after him and began pecking 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, sir?
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 when I really need. When it’s 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 off all her bracelets, one by one, until only one remained. Then there was silence. Thus, I learned that wherever there is a crowed, there is noise, disagreement, and dissension. Peace can be expected only in solitude.
King: And your twenty-first guru?
Dattatreya: A snake that makes no hole for itself, but who 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 an arrow maker who was so absorbed in shaping his arrowheads that the king and his entire army passed without attracting his attention. Thus I learned from the arrow makes 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, and can only be grasped by subtle awareness.
King: Your twenty-third guru?
Dattatreya: My twenty-third guru is a 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 a worm who was caught by a songbird and placed in its nest. As the bird began singing, 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 my become absorbed in the eternal sound, nada, that is always within me.
Listening to Dattatreya, the king realized that the wisdom of this sage flowed from his determination to keep the goal of life firmly fixed in his awareness and from his ability to find the teachings everywhere he turned.