About the Book:
Freedom is the song of the soul, and the Avadhuta sang that song throughout his Gita. His philosophy is purely nondualistic and can be summed up in a few sentences: Brahman is the Supreme Reality. The world is apparent, like water in a mirage. The real nature of the individual soul is divine, but that divinity is covered by ignorance. It is due to ignorance that human beings limit themselves and think that they are men or women, Americans or Africans, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, learned or illiterate, happy or unhappy. Actually they are the infinite, eternal, blissful Self. Human beings are hypnotized by maya; one has to dehypnotize oneself in order to be free.
“Why do you weep, my friend? In you is all power. Summon up your all-powerful nature, O mighty one, and this whole universe will lie at your feet. It is the Self alone that predominates, and not matter.” When I was a boy of fifteen, I read this beautiful message of Vedanta in one of Swami Vivekananda's letters. “Why do you weep, my friend?”- this line struck my mind so forcefully that even today I remember it vividly. And it is that same timeless message of' Vedanta which is restated throughout the Avadhuta Gita, or The Song of the Ever-Free. That is what inspired me to translate this ancient scripture from the original Sanskrit into English.
Men like Dattatreya Avadhuta, who wrote this song, keep religion alive. They actually transcend the body idea and live unaffected by the pairs of opposites-heat and cold, praise and blame, happiness and misery, birth and death. They remain perfectly calm wherever they are and whatever they do, enjoying the bliss of the Atman. We, on the other hand, spend our lives in craving and pursuing the transient things of the world, and when we do not get them we complain, we cry and bewail our bad luck. And all the while the great Avadhuta, like a friend, philosopher, and guide, is calling to us: “Why do you weep, my friend?” He is reassuring us that he has discovered a technique to break the shackles of bondage and he is ready to help others attain freedom-the goal of human life.
According to Vedantic tradition, one must reach an understanding of its philosophy with the help of scriptures, reason, and experience. It is interesting to note that manmade scriptures can be nullified by revealed scriptures, ordinary reason can be nullified by higher reason, but the experience itself cannot be nullified. Sugar tastes sweet. This is an irrefutable experience which cannot be affected by quoting scriptures or by means of the subtlest argumentation. The teachings of the Avadhuta Gita are based on the experience of Dattatreya Avadhuta. As he himself declared, “The great Avadhuta, after Purifying himself through meditation and becoming absorbed in the uninterrupted bliss of Brahman, has sung this Gita spontaneously.”
The eternal and universal teachings of Vedanta are full of hope and strength, joy and Freedom; there is no place in them for the concept of sin and sinner. Since the all-pervading Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence-Conscious-ness-Bliss) dwells in all, every human being is potentially divine.
Some readers of the Avadhuta Gita may feel that the repetition of certain ideas is monotonous. But one should know that this is a special technique of Vedanta, to continuously remind the spiritual seeker that in reality he is the eternal, Pure, illumined, free, and blissful Self. In this way the Avadhuta beat the drum of Vedanta in order to dehypnotize us, to awaken us from our deep sleep of ignorance.
I express my deep gratitude to Jay Michael Barrie and Pravrajika Anandaprana of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and Irene Bergman and Cecile Guenther of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, who have kindly edited the manuscript, and to Swami Harsh-ananda, Principal, Ramakrishna Institute of Moral and Spiritual Education, Mysore, India, who not only checked the translation with the Sanskrit original, but also contributed a thoughtful foreword. My special appreciation to Christopher Isherwood, who read the manuscript, gave me many valuable suggestions, and edited some verses of the first chapter and the entire eighth chapter. I sincerely thank Eleanor Grzeskowiak and Linda Prugh for typing the manuscript. And finally, I am extremely grateful for the generous contribution from some staunch devotees of Vedanta, which has made this publication possible.
Hinduism stands on a tripod, as it were-the Gita, the Ganga, and the Gayatri being its three legs. The Gita stands for philosophy, the Ganga for rituals, and the Gayatri for spiritual practices like meditation. Among these the Gita, or the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God), occupies a pre-eminent position. It is said to contain the quintessence of the Upanishads. That is why scores of commentaries have been written upon it during the last thirteen hundred years. Not only that, several Gitas, in imitation of the great original, have come into being either as part of important scriptures or as independent works. Among such treatises, which are as many as thirty-six, the “Uddhava Gita” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, XI. 6-29), the “Rama Gita” (Adhyatma Ramayana, VII. 5), the Ashtavakra Gita, and the Avadhuta Gita are better known.
The Avadhuta Gita is an independent treatise on Advaita Vedanta and preaches an uncompromising nondualism. Its authorship is attributed to the Avadhuta Dattatreya. That is why this work is also called Datta Gita, or Datta-Gita-Yoga-Shastra. It is also titled, though rarely, Vedanta-sara.
This little book of two hundred seventy-one verses is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter deals with the nature of the Atman, which is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent; which has no birth, no death, no bondage, and no liberation either. The second deals with the proofs for the same. Duality is born out of ignorance of the real nature of the One. Incidentally, even the great Avadhuta has hinted at the need for a guru (II. 23) in spiritual life. The next two chapters deal with the inner nature of the Atman in a highly poetical tone. The fifth chapter advises a man to avoid all lamentations, as the Atman is the same in all conditions. The sixth chapter negates all kinds of distinctions-whether of caste or family, of senses or their objects, of the mind or the intellect or their activities-because none of these exists when looked at from the standpoint of the Atman. The seventh describes the state of the Avadhuta. The eighth gives a definition of the word Avadhuta by interpreting each of the syllables of that word.
Who is this Avadhuta Dattatreya to whom the authorship of this work is ascribed? He is Lord Vishnu, born as the son of the great sage Atri and his chaste wife Anasuya. Very often he is described as the incarnation of the Hindu Trinity, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, born of the same parents. Sometimes he is stated to be one of the Seven sages. It was he who taught knowledge of the Self to Prahlada, Alarka, Yadu, and Kartavirya. He managed to destroy a host of demons just by the Power of his austerity. He has been spoken of very highly even in some of the Upanishads such as the Jabala Upanishad, Narada-parivrajaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya Upanishad, and the Bhikshu Upanishad. The Shandilya Upanishad gives an explanation of the term Dattatreya and also narrates his story briefly. From all these we can surmise that Dattatreya is a very ancient spiritual personality, be he a sage or an avatara, highly venerated through the ages.
It may not be out of place here to make a brief mention of the Dattatreya symbology. Dattatreya is usually pictured as having three heads and six hands. He is surrounded by four dogs and a cow. The three heads are those of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The six hands, which signify six supernatural qualities (bhaga), hold the conch (shankha), the disc (cakra), the drum (damaru), the trident (trishula), the rosary (akshamala), and the water-pot (kamandalu)-these being the typical emblems of the three deities Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. He wears wooden sandals on his feet, which bespeak his austerity. That is why he is worshipped as an ideal monk. The garland of rudraksha beads round his neck represents the series of universes created by him. The matted hair is symbolic of the fire of knowledge. The four dogs are the four Vedas. Even the Vedas, which give us knowledge leading to enlightenment, follow him like dogs. Just as a dog tries to protect his master but in reality is protected by him, even so the Vedas try to protect God, the personification of righteousness, though in reality it is God who protects them. The cow represents the goddess earth or nature.
The Avadhuta Gita, though apparently simple, is a difficult text to translate intelligibly. The difficulty is further enhanced by the ambiguous words and irregular grammatical constructions. Added to this, there are highly poetical verses and several repetitions. There is no Sanskrit commentary available, which might have helped to solve some of the riddles at least. In spite of all these handicaps, Swami Chetanananda has made a fine and highly readable translation which, I believe, will help the spiritual aspirants in better comprehending the text.
Every religion has three parts: philosophy, ritual, and mythology. Philosophy is the foundation on which ritual builds the superstructure, and this in turn is decorated by mythology. In ancient times mythology was highly valued by men, because these collections of stories embodied their traditional, cultural, and religious views. Modern men, or the other hand, view mythology with scepticism. They feel myths are fables concocted stories, unhistorical traditions, and, above all, they have no practical application in human life. But, in fact, the fascinating power of mythology holds the spirit of religion for the masses of the world. The seeker of Truth, however, must possess an alert mind and clear judgment; otherwise he might simply enjoy these myths as charming tales and miss their teachings.
Innumerable stories are found in the Vedas, Puranas, and epics, most of which illustrate the eternal teachings of Vedanta. But it is the teachings rather than the stories-fascinating and entertaining though they may be-that are the raison d’etre of these scriptures. For example: Although the Mahabharata is composed of one hundred thousand verses containing innumerable stories and hosts of characters, it is the teachings contained in the seven hundred verses of the Bhagavad Gita that are the quintessence of that great epic.
The Avadhuta Gita, one of the most celebrated and important books of Vedanta, is reported to have been written by the sage Dattatreya. There are several anecdotes concerning Dattatreya in the Mahabharata, Bhagavatam, and Vishnu Purana, as well as the Markandeya Purana which contains a short biographical sketch. The story goes like this.
There once lived an old brahmin who was a leper. His wife, known far and wide for her wonderful chastity, was very dutiful and loving to her husband, nursing him with great devotion and steadfastness.
One night, while carrying her invalid husband along a road, she passed by a tree under which a hermit was meditating. Since it was a very dark night, the wife did not see the hermit and, as she walked by, the feet of her husband accidentally brushed against the body of the meditating hermit. The hermit was furious and cursed her husband, saying, “He who has kicked me and disturbed my meditation shall die at sunrise tomorrow.”
Naturally the wife was very upset. But calming herself, she replied, “From tomorrow there will be no sunrise.” Since what is uttered by a chaste woman must come true, the sun did not rise the next day; the world was filled with darkness, and chaos prevailed.
The gods went to Brahma, the creator, for a solution. He said: “Only power can overwhelm power, and only tapasya [spiritual practice] can surmount tapasya. The power of a chaste woman has stopped the sunrise, so we must seek the help of another chaste woman who can counteract her power and restore the sunrise."
At Brahma's suggestion the gods sought out Anasuya, the pure and virtuous wife of the sage Atri. They told her the whole story and asked for her help. Moved by their pleas, Anasuya approached the brahmin’s wife with sweet words, saying: “The power of your word has stopped the sunrise and, as a result, the whole creation is in a chaotic condition. I have come to see if we can reach an amicable agreement. If you withdraw your command and ask the sun to rise again, I shall restore life to your dead husband with my power of chastity.” The brahmin’s wife agreed, the sun rose, and Anasuya kept her promise. The gods, extremely pleased, offered Anasuya a boon. In reply she asked that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva be born as her sons-a wish that was granted; and in due course Brahma was born as Soma, Vishnu as Dattatreya, and Shiva as Durvasa.
Dattatreya, an incarnation of Vishnu, was a great sage and yogi who practised various kinds of austerities and many, forms of yoga. He had a magnetic personality which attracted young sages so much that they followed him wherever he went. Dattatreya, however, wanted to be alone, since solitude is more conducive to the practice of yoga. In order to free himself from the distraction of these young followers, he submerged himself in a lake, remaining on the bottom for a long time. Still they would not go away. They stayed on the shore of the lake waiting for him to reappear.
Dattatreya then hit upon another plan to avoid the crowd. He arose from the bottom of the lake in the company of a beautiful woman who was none other than his consort, the goddess Lakshmi Dattatreya thought that the students, not knowing who the woman was, would think that he had fallen from his high state of yoga and, disillusioned, they would then leave him. But the young sages were not deceived. They knew that Dattatreya was an incarnation of Vishnu and a great yogi, that he was beyond good and evil, and that his outward behaviour was a mere show. Consequently, nothing could contaminate him. As a lotus leaf cannot be moistened by the water on which it floats, so the mind of a yogi cannot be touched by worldliness. The young sages reasoned in this manner and remained with their revered teacher, Dattatreya.
At another time there was a war between the gods and the demons. The gods fought valiantly but were defeated and banished from heaven by the demons. In desperation they went for counsel to Brihaspati, their guru, who sent them to Dattatreya. But when Dattatreya was approached by the gods for help, he said: “Why do you come to me? I eat defiled food and live with a woman. Do you think such a person can help you conquer your enemies?"
“O venerable Lord,” the gods replied, “you are always sinless. Be gracious unto us. You are a yogi. Your mind shines with the knowledge of Brahman and no ignorance dares come near. This woman is the Mother of the Universe and ever pure, the very embodiment of purity, so her company cannot make you impure.”
Dattatreya was pleased and said: “All right. If you have such unwavering faith in me then challenge the demons and lure them here before me. Through my spiritual force I shall reduce their power, and then you may attack.”
Following Dattatreya's command, the gods challenged the demons, who immediately gave chase, pursuing the gods to Dattatreya’s hermitage. There the demons found Lakshmi seated beside Dattatreya, who was immersed in meditation. Completely overcome by her charm and beauty, they seized Laskhmi and carried her away on their heads. At this, Dattatreya laughed and said to the gods: “Victory is yours, for it is a sinful act to touch another’s wife. By doing so they have weakened their physical power, and at the same time their unleashed passion has driven them out of their minds. Now attack and conquer.”
The gods followed his command. Destroying the demons, they rescued Mother Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, and returned her to the side of Dattatreya. Once more the gods were happy.
The greatness of Dattatreya has been recounted in many scriptures. At times he is portrayed as an ascetic and a yogi who grants lavish boons. Again, he is described as being worldly, luxury-loving, and carefree. This second side of him, of course, was his maya, which he displayed before ordinary people, hoping that they would become filled with disgust and leave him alone. But the wise saw his real nature and stayed in his company, receiving his blessings and boons.
The beauty of Indian mythology lies in the fact that by means of vivid and unforgettable stories, devoid of philosophical argument, practical lessons are presented to ordinary people for their edification and inspiration. Thus, the legend of Dattatreya keeps us mindful of the supreme goal of human life: Seek God if you want peace and bliss. If you allow yourself to be hypnotized by maya, then, like the demons, you will be destroyed.
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