Sai Ram. This year the jayanti (birth tithi) of Lord Dattatreya was celebrated all over the country and even abroad (mostly in Datta and Sai mandirs) on 1st or 2nd December, 2009 (Margasira Purnami). With prostrations at His feet, we will take up the story of His father Atri Maharshi (Atreya means of the Atri clan). There are many Brahmins, who belong to the Atreyasa Gotra (belonging to the same Gotra, lineage of Atri). The word Atri (used by many Maharashtrians) and Atreya in Andhra Pradesh originate from sage Atri.
Atri Gotra is from the lineage of Brahmarshi Atri and Anasuya Devi. Anasuya is the daughter of Kardama Prajapati. Brahmarshi Atri is the seer of the fifth mandala (book) of the Rigveda. He is the Manasa Putra of Lord Brahma and was created to help Lord Brahma in the act of creation. He had many sons, including Soma, Datta, and Durvasa, who are the incarnations of the Divine Trinity Brahma, Vishnu, and Rudra (Siva) respectively. The Trinity channeled through Brahmarshi Atri when they granted boons to his wife Devi Anasuya for helping the Sun to rise in the east every day. Let us recall that story now.
Story of Sati Sumati and Sati Anasuya
There was a great pativrata named Sumati, who served her husband with great devotion. He was afflicted by leprosy and was unable to walk. However, one day he saw a beautiful courtesan and desire arose in his mind (alas, that is the problem with all sadhakas). He asked his wife to intercede on his behalf with the courtesan and take him there to fulfill his desire. Being a pativrata, she went to the courtesan and conveyed her husband’s desire and requested the courtesan to accept his request. Knowing that Sumati is a great pativrata and refusing her request would not be in her interest (the courtesans were well read and were God fearing in those days, though compelled to lead a profession that may not be to their liking), she agreed to satisfy his desire for one night.
Since he had no legs to walk, Sumati carried him in a basket on her shoulders and set out from her house after it became dark. Since it was a nil moon night, and she was going through a route away from the city lights, it was pitch dark and she could not see or hear the great sage Mandavya who was impaled but was silent in meditation. The leg of Sumati’s husband brushed the body of the sage causing him a lot of pain and the sage cursed that the person will die at sunrise. The husband and Sumati were greatly affected by this and returned home without completing the purpose of the ill-fated journey! A deeper meaning given to me by grace of Datta is that when the sun of jnana arises in the mind, all desires will die!
Sumati, being a great pativrata willed that the sun should not rise in the eastern sky so that the curse of sage Mandavya will not come to fruition. Needless to say, all the worlds were thrown into a big turmoil and the Gods went to Lord Brahma. He asked them to approach Anasuya and they rushed to her. Being a pativrata herself, she looked at her lord sage Atri. He asked her to accede to the request of the gods and help the worlds. So, they all came to Sumati, who was sitting with the head of her husband in her lap. When Sumati saw them, she was surprised and paid her respects to Anasuya and others. Anasuya requested Sumati to lift her injunction against sunrise and help the world and assured Sumati that she will bring her husband back to life with her pativrata powers. Sumati agreed and allowed Sun to rise in the eastern sky. Anasuya also brought back life to the husband of Sumati. All gods were very pleased and praised Anasuya and Sumati for their pativratya.
Sage Atri and His great Tapas
When sage Atri did great tapas on the Para Brahma, the fire / heat of the tapas became unbearable to the whole world and Lord Brahma had to accept it and gave it a form of a man. He also gave a boon to sage Atri that at the right time a son would be born to him. As he continued the tapas, the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (Rudra) appeared before the sage. To his question, they replied that they were all equal with different roles and pleased with his great penance they promised to be born as his children.
Soma is called Chandratreya or Chandratre, and Durvasa is Krishnatreya or Krishnatre. Somatreya (Chandra) established the Someshwara Jyotirlinga, used to overcome all kinds of passion. Soma, as the incarnation of Brahma, has the power to cause any species to continue survival.
Soma (Chandra) and Durvasa gave their powers to Datta (Amsa of Vishnu) and went for Tapas etc. Datta, or Dattatreya as He prefers to be known thus carries all the powers and attributes of the Trinity and thus the Nirguna Para Brahma Tatwa and became a Guru and continues even now.
Sage Atri is the first among the Sapta Rishi (seven luminous or eternal sages in the sky) symbolized by the great bear (Ursa Major) and the seven stars around it.
Sage Atri punishes Indra
Once when he was in need of some money, he approached Prithu Chakravarthy for help. Prithu agreed to help the rishi but in turn requested him to help with the Aswamedha Yaga that he was taking up. He asked sage Atri to help his son who was appointed as guardian for the yaga aswa. Indra wanted to cause interruption to the yaga presumably to prevent Prithu from getting more powerful. So, he came disguised and stole the yaga aswa and was carrying it away in the sky. Prithu’s son asked sage Atri whether he should kill him with his arrows.
Sage Atri saw what Indra was doing and wanted to teach him a lesson and so advised that whoever is causing obstacles to the yaga deserves punishment and killing that person or injuring him is allowed by dharma. He indicated that the person was none other than Indra but no one is above dharma. So, the son of Prithu shot an arrow at Indra and Indra was badly hurt. Indra left the horse but again stole it and became invisible. Atri made Indra visible by absorbing Indra’s powers (like a black body absorbs radiation) and Prithu’s son punished him again!
The yaga was completed successfully and the emperor praised Atri to the sky. Sage Gautama, who was present (and is a very great sage himself) felt jealous (or pretended to be so!) and when sage Atri returned the compliments to Emperor Prithu praising him as Chandra and Indra, sage Gautama objected saying that it is against dharma. Atri maharshi responded that he did not do anything wrong and asked the assembly to pass their ruling on this tricky matter. The assembly of learned sages could not decide and they in turn submitted the question to Sanatkumara, another manasa putra of Brahma. He confirmed that since a king or emperor cannot become so without an amsa of Vishnu in him, Atri did not err in equating the king to Indra. All sages including Gautama accepted this ruling.
It is quite probable that sage Gautama wanted to bring out the subtleties of dharma through this incident and of course it is possible for the greatest soul also to momentarily succumb to the internal enemies. For us, the morals of the story are important.
Sage Atri helps Surya and Chandra
Once upon a time, there was a fierce war between devas and danavas (it is a never ending war in our own mind) and Surya and Chandra lost their tejas (effulgence, energy) due to Rahu and Ketu. They approached sage Atri and prayed for his help. He restored their energies so that they can carry out their duties. He also gave them a boon that in future, they would not be adversely affected (except during the brief periods of eclipse?). It just shows the enormous powers that sage Atri had because of his tapas. Let us bow to Him and request His help in regaining our own glory and realize our true nature.
Sage Atri in Mahabharatha
Atri Maharshi had a close
connection with Mahabharatha. Drona was made the head of the Kaurava
army after Bhisma's fall. Dronacharya fought ferociously and the number
of wounded and the dead soldiers was thousands .Their cry of pain rented
the skies, blood flowed on the battle field. Dead bodies got piled up
and provided a feast for the birds of prey. In this carnage which went
beyond all human estimation, Drona stood like a mad hero of demonic