From the Srimad Bhagavatam
Once King Yadu saw Lord Dattatreya (Avadhoot) in a forest and addressed him “Sir, you are indeed quite capable, energetic and wise. Such as you are, why do you live in the forest, free from all desires? Even though you have neither kith and kin nor even a family, how could you be so blissful and self-contented?”
The Avadhoot (one who has shaken off all worldly desires) replied, “My bliss and contentment are the fruits of self-realization. I have gained the necessary wisdom from the whole creation, through 24 Gurus. I shall elaborate the same for you”.
Shri Dattatreya had twenty-four teachers from nature “many are my preceptors,” he told King Yadu, “selected by my keen sense, from whom acquiring wisdom freely, I wander in the world…. The earth, air/breeze, sky, fire, the sun, pigeon, python, sea, moth, elephant, ant, fish, Pingala the courtesan, arrow-maker, infant/playful boy, the moon, honeybee, deer, bird of prey, maiden, serpent, spider, caterpillar and water are my twenty four preceptors.
1. Earth: All creatures, in accordance with their previous store of karma (action) assume different physical forms and live on earth. People plough, dig and tread the earth. They light fires on it. Still, the earth does not swerve from its course even by a hair’s breadth. On the other hand, it feeds and houses all creatures. Seeing this, I learned that the wise one should never swerve from his vow of patience, love and righteousness under any circumstances and one should dedicate his life for the welfare of living beings. The earth along with its mountains and rivers is my first guru.
2. Air: I observed that air is pure and odorless in itself. And it blows on both sweet and foul-smelling things without any discrimination or preference. Though it momentarily seems to take on the smell of its surroundings, in a short while, it reveals its pristine quality. From this I learned that a spiritual aspirant should live in the world, unaffected by the dualities of life like joy and sorrow and by the objects of the senses. He should keep his heart’s feeling and his speech unpolluted by vain objects. As I have learned all this by observing it, air is my second guru.
3. Sky: The soul is also like the sky, which is omnipresent. I have noticed that sometimes the sky (or space) gets thickly overcast, or filled with dust or smoke. At sunrise and during night, it apparently takes on different colors. But in fact, it ever retains its colorless self, and it is never touched or stained by any thing. From this I learned that a true sage should remain ever pure like the sky or space, untouched or unaffected by anything in the phenomenal universe in time, including his own physical processes. His inner being is totally free from emotional reaction to things and events even like the space. Thus I accepted the sky or space as my third guru.
4. Fire: My fourth teacher is the element of fire. Sometimes, it manifests itself as blazing flames; sometimes as smoldering embers, covered by ash. But it is always present in all objects as latent heat. The god of fire accepts the offering of everyone, irrespective of his moral worth and burns down his sins; and it still remains the ever-pure divinity as the fire-god; he is untainted by the sins of such devotees. So too, a sage of perfect realization should accept food of everyone, burn down his sins and bless the giver. Though fire has no specific form of its own, when it is associated with fuel that burns, it assumes such apparent forms. So too, the true Self, though formless in itself, appears in the forms of deities, human beings, animals and trees when it is associated with the respective physical structures. The source of all forms in the universe, as also their end, remains ever mysterious. All the things are manifest only in between their origin and their end. Their source and end is the true Self, which is eternal, unchanging, unmanifest and omnipresent. The nature of the element of fire is such. The manifest fire transforms the various things it consumes into the same ash. So too, the wisdom of self-realization rejects the manifest forms and properties of things as illusion and realizes their one original essence as itself. Thus the element of fire is my fourth guru.
5. Sun: My fifth guru is sun. Though the sun we see in our daily life is one, it appears as many when reflected by water in different vessels. Similarly, the one real Self manifests itself as many selves of living creatures when reflected by their physical structures. As Sun illuminates the many forms in nature to our visions, the sage too illuminates the true nature of all things to his devotees.
6. Pigeon: I have gained wisdom from a pigeon too. Once a pair of pigeons lived together on a tree. They bred their young and were bringing them up with deep affection and love. One day, a hunter caught the young fledglings in a snare. The ladybird, which returned from the forest with food for its young ones, saw their plight and, unable to leave them, she leapt in the snare to share their fate. Shortly after, the male pigeon turned up and, unable to bear the separation from its sweetheart, it too jumped in the snare and met its end. Reflecting on this, I realized how, even after being born as an intelligent human being, man is caught in the coils of possessiveness and brings about his own spiritual destruction. The self, which is originally free, when associated with the body sense, gets identified with it, and thus gets caught in the endless cycle of birth, death and misery. Thus the pigeon was my sixth guru.
7. Python: The python is a sluggard, unwilling to move out briskly for its prey. It lies in its lurch and devours whatever creature it comes across, be it sufficient to appease its hunger. From this I learnt that the man in search of wisdom should refrain from running after pleasures, and accept whatever he gets spontaneously with contentment. Like the python, he should shake off sleep and wakefulness and abide in a state of incessant meditation on the Self. Thus the python was my seventh teacher of wisdom.
8. Sea: Contemplating the marvelous nature of the ocean, I have gained much wisdom. Any number of overflowing rivers may join it, yet the sea maintains its level. Nor does its level fall even by a hair’s breadth in summer, when all the rivers dry up. So too, the joys of life do not elate the sage of wisdom, nor do its sorrows depress him. Just as the sea never crosses its threshold on the beach, the wise one never transgresses the highest standards of morality under the pull of passions. Like the sea, he is unconquerable and cannot be troubled by anything. Like the unfathomable ocean, his true nature and the depths of his wisdom cannot be easily comprehended by anyone. The ocean, which has taught me thus, is my eighth guru.
9. Moth: I often observed that the moth (or, more precisely, a grasshopper) is tempted by fire to jump in it and get burnt down. So too, the unthinking man is enticed by the illusory pleasures of the senses and thus gets caught in the ceaseless cycles of birth and death. On the other hand, the wise one, when he catches even a glimpse of the fire of wisdom, leaves everything aside, leaps in it and burns down the illusion of being a limited self. Thus the moth was my ninth guru.
10. Elephant: The elephant was my tenth guru. The human beings raise a stuffed cow-elephant in the forest. The wild tusker mistakes it for a mate, approaches it and then skillfully bound in fetters by the cunning human beings. So too, the unregenerate man is tempted by the opposite sex and gets bound by the fetters of infatuation. The seekers after liberation should learn to be free from lust. The elephant was thus one of my teachers.
11. Ant: The ant stores up lots of food materials which it neither eats nor gives away in charity to any other creature. In consequence, other more powerful creatures are tempted to plunder the ants. So too, the man who lays by treasures of merely material things becomes a victim of robbery and murder. But the ant has something positive to teach us, too. It is a tireless worker and is never discouraged by any number of obstacles and setbacks in its efforts to gather its treasure. So too, a seeker after wisdom should be tireless in his efforts for Self-Realization. This noble truth has the little ant taught me and became my eleventh guru.
12. Fish: The fish greedily swallows bait and is at once caught by the angle-hook. From this, I realized how man meets his destruction by his craving for delicious food. When the palate is conquered, all else is conquered. Besides, there is a positive feature in the fish. It never leaves its home, i.e. water. So too, man should never loose sight of his true Self, but should ever have his being in it. Thus the fish became my twelfth guru.
13. Pingala: The thirteenth guru that has awakened my spirit is a prostitute named Pingala. One day, she eagerly awaited a particular client in the hope that he would pay her amply. She waited and waited till late in the night. When he did not turn up, she was at last disillusioned and reflected thus: “Alas! How stupid I am! Neglecting the divine spirit within, who is of the nature of bliss eternal, I foolishly awaited a debauchee (sensualist) who inspires my lust and greed. Henceforth, I shall expend myself on the Self, unite with Him and win eternal joy. Through such repentance, she attained blessedness. Besides, reflecting on its obvious purport, I also realized that a spiritual aspirant should likewise reject the lure of lesser spiritual powers, which are mere by-products of sadhana (spiritual practice). I learned that the temptation to secure things from other’s hands are the seeds of misery; that renunciation of these is the sole means of realizing infinite joy.
14. Arrow-maker: Once I observed an arrow-maker who was totally absorbed in molding a sharp arrow. He grew so oblivious of all else that he did not even notice a royal pageant that passed by. This sight awakened me to the truth that such single-minded, all-absorbing contemplation of the Self spontaneously eliminates all temptation for the trivial interests of the world. It is the sole secret of success in spiritual discipline. Thus the arrow-maker is my fourteenth guru.
15. Playful Boy: Little boys and girls know neither honor nor dishonor. They do not nurse a grudge or a prejudice against anyone. They do not know what is their own, or what belongs to others. Their happiness springs from their own selves, their innate creativity and they do not need any external objects or conditions to be happy. I realized that the sage of perfect enlightenment is also such. A playful boy thus happened to be my fifteenth guru.
16. Moon: Of all things in nature, the moon is unique. It appears to wax and wane during the bright and dark fortnights. In fact, the lunar globe ever remains the same. In this, it is like the self of the man. While a man appears to pass through the stages of infancy, boyhood, youth, maturity and old age, his real self remains unchanged. All changes pertain only to body and not to the self. Again, the moon only reflects the light of the sun, but has no such of its own. So too, the soul or mind of man is only a reflection of the light of awareness of the real Self. Having taught this truth, the moon became my sixteenth guru.
17. Honeybee: Honeybee wanders from flower to flower and, without hurting them in the least, draws honey. So too, a spiritual seeker should study all the Holy Scriptures but retain in his heart, only that which is essential for his spiritual practice. Such is the teaching I imbibed from my seventeenth guru, the honeybee.
18. Deer: It is said that deers are very fond of music and that poachers employ it to lure them before hunting them. From this, I learned that passions and sensual desires will soon bog down a spiritual aspirant who has a weakness for merely secular music, till he ultimately loses whatever spiritual progress he has achieved earlier. The deer that taught me this truth is my eighteenth guru.
19. Bird of prey: A bird of prey is my nineteenth guru. One day, I saw one such carrying away a dead rat. Many other birds like crows and eagles attacked it, now kicking on its head and again pecking on its sides in their endeavor to knock off the prey. The poor bird was thus very much pestered. At last, it wisely let its prey fall and all the other birds rushed after it. Thus freeing itself from so much botheration, it sighed in relief. From this, I learned that a man who runs after worldly pleasures will soon come into clash with his fellow-beings who too run for the same, and has to face much strife and antagonism. If he learns to conquer his craving for worldly things, he can spare himself much unhappiness. I realized that this is the only way to the peace in the world.
20. Maiden: Once, I observed a family visit a maiden’s house, seeking her hand in marriage for their son. At that time, her mother was away from home. So the maiden herself had to entertain the guests with refreshments. She at once started pounding food-grains with a pestle. The bangles on her hand started knocking against each other, pounding sound. She was afraid that the guests might hear the sound and be unhappy for having caused her so much of trouble. As a Hindu maiden, she is not expected to remove all the bangles on her hand at any time. So she kept two on each hand and removed all the rest. Even then, they were knocking against each other and were making noise. So she kept only one bangle on each hand this time and she could finish her task in quiet. Reflecting on this, I realized that when a number of spiritual seekers live together, a lot of unwanted gossip ensues and no spiritual practice can be pursued with a single-minded effort. Only in solitude, a spiritual aspirant can carry his task. Knowing this truth, I henceforth resorted to solitude. Thus, a maiden happened to be my twentieth guru.
21. Serpent: I observed that a serpent never builds a dwelling for itself. When white ants have raised an anthill for themselves, the serpent eventually come to inhabit it. Similarly, worldly people have to endure many hardships in raising houses for themselves, while a recluse monk does no such thing. Worldly men raise the monasteries and the monk lives in them; or, he leaves in old dilapidated temples, or underneath shady trees. The serpent moults, leaving off its old skin. So too at the end of his life Yogi leaves his body deliberately and in full awareness of his own true self and is not frightened by the phenomenon of death. On the other hand, he casts off his old body as happily as he does his worn out clothes and dons new ones. Thus has my twenty first guru taught me.
22. Spider: The spider is my twenty second guru. It weaves its web from the thread in the form of a fluid. After sometime, it gathers up the web into itself. The supreme projects the whole creation out of itself and after sometime, withdraws it into itself at the time of dissolution. The individual soul too, bears the senses and the mind within itself and, at its birth as a human being or any other living creature, it projects them out as the sense organs, organs of action and the whole body. In accordance with its latent tendencies, the creature thus born, gathers up all the means and objects needed for its living. At the end of its life’s duration, the soul again withdraws the senses, mind and acquired tendencies at the hour of death. Thus have I learned from the spider.
23. Caterpillar: The caterpillar is also one of my teachers of wisdom. The wasp carries its caterpillar to a safe corner and closes it up in its nest and goes on buzzing about it. The young caterpillar is so frightened by the incessant buzzing, that it cannot think of anything else than the buzzing wasp. Through such unintermittent contemplation of its mother, the caterpillar too, soon grows up into a wasp! In a like fashion, a true disciple is so charmed and over-awed by the spiritual eminence of his own guru that he cannot think of any one other than him. Through such contemplation, he soon blossoms into a great spiritual master himself. The caterpillar is thus my twenty third Guru.
24. Water: Water is my twenty fourth Guru. It quenches the thirst of every creature, sustains innumerable trees and all creatures. While it thus serves all living beings, it is never proud of itself. On the other hand, it humbly seeks the lowliest of places. The sage too should likewise bestow health, peace and joy to every creature that resorts to him. Yet he should ever live as the humblest of God’s creation.
With such humility and devotion, I looked upon the whole of God’s creation as my teacher, gathered up wisdom and, through patient effort I realized my goal of spiritual enlightenment.
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