As regards the incarnation status of Dattatreya he seems to have acquired recognition as Vishnu’s incarnation quite early. Allusions to Dattatreya’s divine powers occur in the Mahabharata around the sixth century BC. As early as 650 AD the great Sanskrit poet Magha alludes to Dattatreya in his famous poem ‘Shishupala-vadha’ as the incarnation of Vishnu. The Brahmanda Purana gives a detailed account of how the Great Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva conjoint, themselves have granted to Anasuya the boon that they would take birth as her sons in appreciation of her services she rendered in persuading Silavati to take back her curse and let the sun rise. Ugrashravas, the husband of Silavati, the faithful wife, was cursed by Animandavya that with the rise of the sun his head would break and he would die. Silavati by the power of her chastity ordained that the sun would never rise. This imperiled the existence of life on the cosmos. The crisis compelled Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to make joint effort in persuading Silavati for taking back her curse. In this Anasuya proves to be the ultimate help.
This style of image with three faces and six arms seems to have emerged around early sixteenth century. In his ‘Gurucharitra’, a text dated 1550 AD, Saraswati Gangadhara alludes to the worship of the three-faced and six-armed images of Dattatreya. Obviously, this image, now completely rigidified, had emerged in popular worship sometime before 1550 AD. The three faces represented Brahma whom Soma incarnated, Vishnu, he himself incarnated, and Shiva whom Durvasas incarnated. As his image in this statue, besides his normal right hand, in his other five hands he is represented as carrying the essential attributes of the Great Trinity, usually Brahma’s ‘kamandala’ – pot with spout, Vishnu’s ‘shankha’ – conch, and ‘chakra’ – disc, and Shiva’s trident and ‘damaru’ – double drum. The cow behind him is symbolic of the earth, and thereby, of the entire space that he protects as Vishnu. As per ‘Gurucharitra’, Dattatreya is Parabrahma – Transcental God.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.