An Introduction to the Avadhut Gita
From Hari Prasad Shastri’s translation of this Advaita Vedanta classic
The word ‘Gita’ means a song. Many of the holy scriptures were written as songs, their theme being the non-dualistic philosophy of the Upanishads. Among these the least known are the Shiva Gita, Rama Gita, Vyadha Gita and Devi Gita, and the best known is the Bhagavad Gita, which came into prominence when the greatest of the teachers, Shankaracharya, wrote a commentary on it, acknowledging its great metaphysical and devotional value. Another reason for its popularity is that its teachings are universal. The beginner in metaphysics, the layman, the highest initiate, and the greatest philosophical genius can find food there for his spiritual nature.
The Avadhut Gita is a special classic and is meant for the use of those advanced students of Eastern metaphysics who have learnt self-control to an appreciable extent, risen above the prejudice of this or that religion, and who have made the ultimate reality—Truth—their sole God. The narrow worshipper, the fanatical adherent of an exclusive creed, the one who loves anything other than the highest knowledge, the megalomaniac and the egotist will find the study of this Gita brings little consolation. It is for those who practise detachment in daily life, and are eager to realize God at any cost.
The lower form of prayer consists in singing hymns and repeating mantrams in which the ultimate reality, the secondless, all-transcending Brahman, is conceived in terms of duality. The higher form of prayer consists in feelingly singing of Brahman in terms of non-duality, and in the first person, ‘Shivo ’ham,’ (‘I am Shiva’)* , ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ (‘I am Brahman’), and so forth. Our inner life is coloured by those attributes of God which we repeat or of which we sing. In the Avadhut Gita the Rishi Dattatreya sings of the ultimate Reality in terms of absolute freedom.
The aim of life is to realize Truth and to be eternally free. Purification of the heart is essential to this realization. Practice of virtue, devotion to God, pilgrimages and other religious practices, are useful only so far as they purify the heart from the taint of meum and tuum**, and bring before us a great vision of Truth, which makes worldly achievements mediocre and ultimately valueless. These observances create in us an undying desire to realize Truth; but the direct cause of realization of God is knowledge of Truth within. Knowledge is the magic wand which frees the Spirit of peace and bliss (Ananda) within from the rock of personality, converting the fearing ego into a conflagration, burning up all duality and its cause, ignorance.
The Avadhut Gita contains this knowledge in its purest form. The word ‘Avadhut’ means a high renunciate, a great Mahatma, one who has found unity with God, and lives a life of perfect freedom, uninfluenced by ignorance and its effects.
Who was this Mahatma Dattatreya, who gave this priceless gift of his Gita? There is no other writing attributed to him. When and where he lived cannot be said with certainty. To some yogis and devotees he is an immortal, and they still see him and talk with him. In a temple, among the calm and beautiful peaks of the Girnar Mountains, a bed is made for the Mahatma daily.
It is clear that he was a historical person, and not a mythical Mahatma. From the fact that most of his devotees live in the Bombay Presidency we can infer that he lived in Western India. There are many legends about his miraculous birth and life, but they do not take us far.
There is a mention of the Avadhut in the Eleventh Book of Shrimad Bhagavata, a great Indian classic of metaphysics and devotion, attributed to Vyasa, written in a highly poetical style in pure modern Sanskrit. The following is an extract from this book:
Salutations to you, O Sage. Kindly tell what Guru has given you the great knowledge which has made you perfect in wisdom, full of peace, and devoted to the good of all living beings. This was the reply of the Avadhut:
One’s own Self is one’s chief Guru. By knowledge of Self alone through perception, inference and mystic communion one obtains the great bliss. He further said that he did not learn from one particular source, but from many teachers, each source of knowledge being his Guru. He then mentioned twenty-four special teachers. Of them the following are worthy of note:
Water, the earth, the wind, space, the moon, the sun, the sea, and the arrow-maker.
From water I have learnt purity and the good taste of tastelessness. As water is sweet and pure, so is Atman. Man should manifest sweetness and purity in his conduct. I have therefore taken water as one of my Gurus.
Patience, forgiveness, supporting others without expectation of gratitude, I have learnt from my Guru, the earth.
The wind blows everywhere, over the flower-beds, deserts, marshes, palaces and prisons, without being attached to any of them, without preference or dislike. So I, an Avadhut, go everywhere, scattering my blessings of peace, without being attached to anyone. My Guru, the wind, has taught me this lesson.
In the all-pervading space there exist clouds, stars, planets, dust-storms, and so on, but it is not touched by any of them. So is Atman, which, pervading all the bodies of men and animals, of saints, sages, kings, madmen, sinners, and paupers, is untainted by any of them. So do I feel, having learnt this lesson from space, my Guru.
As the moon is perfect, in spite of its waning and waxing, which do not exist in it, so is Atman ever perfect, in spite of its seeming imperfections. This is what the moon, my Guru, has taught me.
As the sun through its rays absorbs water from the earth, only to give it back in a cool and pure form, so ought a Mahatma to take the things of the world, not for his own sake, but in order to give them back in a richer and better form. This is what my Guru, the sun, has taught me.
Though thousands of rivers empty themselves into the sea, yet it remains within its limits; so remains undisturbed the mind of the knower of God, though objects of all kinds pour themselves into it. Thus the sea, my Guru, has instructed me.
From the arrow-maker I have learned the value of concentration. In a certain town there lived an arrow-maker who devoted his full attention to his occupation, Once he was beating the point of an arrow, when the king and his procession went by in the street. He was so attentive to his work that he knew nothing of the king’s passing, and when they asked him how he liked the music of the procession, he said, ‘What procession? When did it pass?’ So ought we to concentrate on Truth that no external object or event should disturb us.
The teachings of Rishi Dattatreya are similar to those of Vasishtha, Lao Tzu, Abou Ben Adhem and Jalaluddin Rumi. There are still many who follow the path of spiritual solitude. They are free from the pairs of opposites, established in Atman, and radiate peace and spiritual upliftment. They do not shun human society, and yet do not relish it. Of them it is said:
Heed then no more how body lives or goes,
Its task is done. Let karma float it down;
Let one put garlands on, another kick,
This frame; say naught. No praise or blame can be
Where praiser and praised, blamer and blamed are one.
Thus be thou calm, Sannyasin bold. Say,
OM TAT SAT OM.
In the calm of the Himalayan valleys, on the banks of the holy Ganges, one often hears this Gita sung by Yogis, Sannyasins and Brahmacharis. The great Teachers who have thrown away all books, having found everything worth knowing in their hearts, still keep this Gita in their caves and huts. It breathes the purest spirit of Shri Shankaracharya and the Sages of the Upanishads.
* ‘I am Shiva’: Recognition of one’s identity with supreme bliss symbolized by the third aspect of the Hindu Trinity—God as the destroyer of ignorance.
** Meum and tuum Latin for ‘mine and thine’, signifying, in this context, the conviction of separative individuality which obstructs the realization of non-duality.