As regard texts, there is not only complete unanimity in regard to his divine status as Lord Vishnu’s incarnation but such claim dated back to very early period. His divinity has been specifically alluded to in the great epic Mahabharata, a sixth century BC text. In his famous poem Shishupala-vadha, dated 650 AD, the well-known Sanskrit poet Magh alluded to Dattatreya as Lord Vishnu’s incarnation. Far ahead of this position in such early texts, the popular worship tradition as also some of the subsequent Puranas perceive Dattatreya incarnating not merely Lord Vishnu but also Brahma and Shiva, the other Trinity gods that in early texts Soma and Durvasas, his brothers, are claimed to incarnate. This popular tradition, not perceiving in Soma and Durvasas elements of such divine status, seems to have assimilated in Dattatreya the incarnation aspects also of his two brothers, thus revering him as incarnating the entire Trinity : Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Later some myths, especially that in the Brahmanda Purana narrating how once Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva conjointly granted to Anasuya, in recognition to her rare services, her wish to take births as her sons, also supported this position. As the text has it, one Animandavya once cursed Ugrashravas that his head would burst and he would die before the sun rose. The enraged Silavati, Ugrashravas’s virtuous wife, commanded the sun by the power of her chastity not to ever rise. The darkness eclipsed the universe endangering the very existence of man, animal and nature. Ultimately Anasuya persuaded Silavati to take back her curse and let the sun rise. When reached for expressing their gratitude for her help Anasuya wished that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were born to her as her sons and the three Great Gods gave their assent.
However, besides such allusions these early texts do not allude to Dattatreya’s form or the figure’s anatomy. His three-faced and six-armed image seems to be a late cult inspired, perhaps by ‘Gurucharita’, a 1550 AD text by Saraswati Gangadhara, in which the author, as if seeking to justify Dattatreya’s Trinity-incarnating aspect, perceived his figure with three faces and six hands, the three sets having broad resemblances with Trinity Gods. Almost completely rigidified Saraswati Gangadhara’s image of Dattatreya also included a cow and the icons of four dogs around him. Obviously, with three faces : the central one – the figure’s principal face, with the Vaishnava ‘tilaka’ mark revealing the identity of Vishnu, one on the left with ‘tri-netra’, the Shiva’s, and that on the right with ‘tri-punda’, the Brahma’s, this image completely adheres to the image-form as perceived in ‘Gurucharita’. The artist has conceived all three faces with identical coiffures except that on the left representing Shiva having attached to it the crescent and the river Ganga emerging from it. Each of the three faces are endowed with great spiritual energy, oceanic sublimity, deep composure, divine aura and saintly bearing appropriate for a saint representing, not one, but all of the Trinity Gods.
This Trinity aspect has been further emphasized by the attributes the figure has been conceived as carrying in the its six hands : in the upper two on the right and left, Lord Vishnu’s disc and conch, in the lower two, the Shiva’s trident and ‘damaru’ – double drum, and in the normal right, a rosary – Brahma’s main attribute, and the main tool of a saint’s commemoration, and thus Sant Dattatreya’s own. The normal right hand has been conceived also as imparting ‘abhaya’ – freedom from fear, and the left, reveals a sense of absolute ease. He has retained the ‘pitambara’ – yellow lower wear typical of Lord Vishnu, Dattatreya’s main incarnating form; however, in conceiving his body colour the artist has adhered to the principles of colour-aesthetics and has alternated with his blue the reddish gold in delightful contrast to the blue of Shiva and Brahma. He has been painted as seated on a tiger skin. Highly innovative, instead a plain background he has painted the graphic sign of ‘AUM’ which further emphasizes his Trinity-aspect that the sacred syllable AUM has always symbolized.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.