This is a legend from the life of Dattatreya, the first ‘Acharya’ or teacher, i.e., guru. He is considered a deity who embodies the attributes of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
A Story from the Dattatreya’s Life
Once, while wandering happily in the forest, Dattatreya met King Yadu, who asked him the secret of his happiness and the name of his guru. He replied, “The Self alone is my guru. Yet, I have learned from twenty-four other individuals and objects. So they, too, are my gurus.” Dattatreya then mentioned the names of his twenty-four Gurus and spoke of the wisdom that he had learned from each: Earth, water, fire, sky, moon, sun, pigeon, python, ocean, moth, honey-gatherers (black bee), bees, elephant, deer, fish, the dancing-girl Pingala, raven, child, maiden, serpent, arrow-maker, spider and beetle.
The 24 Gurus Found in Nature
1. The Earth: I learned patience and doing good to others from the earth.
2. The Water: From water, I learned the quality of purity.
3. The Air: I learned from air to be without attachment though I move with many people.
4. The Fire: From fire I learned to glow with the splendor of Self-knowledge and austerity.
5. The Sky: I learned from the sky that the Self is all-pervading and yet it has no contact with any object.
6. The Moon: I learned from the moon that the Self is always perfect and changeless and it is only the limiting adjuncts that cast shadows over it.
7. The Sun: Just as a sun, reflected in various pots of water, appears as many, so also God or Brahman appears different because of the embodiment caused by the reflection of the mind. This is the lesson I have learned from the sun.
8. The Pigeons: I once saw a pair of pigeons with their young ones. A fowler spread a net and caught the young birds. The mother pigeon was so attached to her babies that she fell into the net and was caught. From this I have learned that attachment is the root cause of earthly bondage.
9. The Python: The python does not move about for its food. It remains contented with whatever it gets, lying in one place. From this I learned to be contented with whatever I get to eat.
10. The Ocean: Just as the ocean remains unmoved, even though hundreds of rivers flow into it, so also the wise man should remain unmoved amid all the various temptations and troubles.
11. The Moth: To control the sense of sight and to fix the mind on the Self, is the lesson I learned from the moth.
12. The Black Bee: I take a little food from one house and a little from another house and thus appease my hunger. I am not a burden on the householder. This I learned from the black bee which gathers honey from various flowers.
13. The Bees: Bees collect honey with great trouble, but a hunter comes along and takes the honey away easily. From this I learned that it is useless to hoard things.
14. The Elephant: The male elephant, blinded by lust, falls into a pit covered with grass, even at the sight of a female elephant. Therefore, one should destroy lust.
15. The Deer: The deer is enticed and trapped by the hunter through its love of music. Therefore, one should never listen to lewd songs.
16. The Fish: Just as a fish that is covetous of food, falls an easy victim to the bait, so also the man who is greedy for food loses his independence and gets ruined.
17. The Dancing Girl: There was a dancing girl named Pingala. One night, being tired of looking for a client, she had to be content with a sound sleep. I learned from this fallen woman the lesson that the abandonment of hope leads to contentment.
18. The Raven: A raven picked up a piece of flesh. It was pursued and beaten by other birds. It dropped the piece of flesh and attained peace and rest. From this I learned that people undergo all sorts of troubles and miseries when he runs after sensual pleasures and that become as happy as the bird when they abandon them.
19. The Child: The child that drinks mother’s milk is free from all cares, worries and anxieties, and is always cheerful. I learned the virtue of cheerfulness from the child.
20. The Maiden: The maiden was husking paddy. Her bangles made much noise and there were people around. To silence the bangles, she removed them one by one. When she had only one, it did not make any noise, and she was happy. I learned from the maiden that living among many can create discord, disturbance, dispute and quarrel. Even between two people there might be unnecessary words or strife. So, the ascetic should remain alone in solitude.
21. The Serpent: A serpent does not build its own hole. It dwells in the holes dug out by others. Even so, an ascetic should not build a home for himself. He should live in a temple or a cave built by others.
22. The Arrow-maker: I learned from the arrow-maker the quality of intense concentration of mind that is required in making an effective lethal weapon.
23. The Spider: The spider pours out of its mouth long threads and weaves them into cobwebs. Sometimes, it gets itself entangled in the net of its own making. Humans too make nets of their own ideas and get entangled in it. The wise man should, therefore, abandon all worldly thoughts and think only of Brahman.
24. The Beetle: The beetle catches a worm, puts it in its nest and stings it. The poor worm, always fearing the return of the beetle and its sting, thinks constantly of the beetle and becomes a beetle itself. I learned from the beetle and the worm to turn myself into the Self by contemplating constantly on It; thus I gave up all attachment to the body and attained liberation.
Dattatreya’s enlightening words impressed the king so much that he abandoned the world and led a life of austerity and meditation on the Self.
~ Based on the Puranic story retold by Swami Sivananda