Lord Shree Dattatreya
In our age-old Vedic-Aryan religion, based upon the standards set by the Vedas [Holiest Hindu scriptures], the institution of disciplic succession is of unique importance. Since time immemorial, India has witnessed the emergence of traditions of different sects and their decline too in the course of various times. Yet there were some, which besides standing the tests of time rose to fame, lasted and gained recognition because of manifestation in them of some eminent personages endowed with divine splendour and they also appeared before the world in their renewed form.
The Swaroop - Sampradaya (a sect) that follows the Advaita (the doctrine of the identity of the human soul or the universe and the divine essence) philosophy and the philosophy of meditation, has come from the divine Preceptor Adinath Bhagwan Shankar (Lord Shankar). It was when Lord Dattatreya, manifested Himself in the form of Shree Swami Samarth in its sub-sect called 'Saraswati', that the sub-sect came to be more popularly known as Shree Datta Sampradaya.
The attributeless one without a second Brahman desired to be many and it created Maya (illusion). The Maya then created the triad of Gods Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh who were personifications of three Gunas [qualities of nature] - Satva (stands for qualities like goodness, purity, and excellence), Rajas (stands for passion, attatchment and fickleness), Tamas (stands for darkness whence proceed folly, ignorance, worldly dillusion, blindness of lust,pride).
The Lord Brahma then created infinite sons, amongst whom, were the seven great Rishis (Sages). The senior most amongst them was the Atri Rishi. His wife Mahasati Anasuya was the daughter of the highly devoted and pious couple, Kardam Rishi and Devahuti. Atri Rishi & his wife Anasuya desired for a son, who would be an incarnation of Nirguna Parabrahma [the Infinite Supreme]. Atri Rishi performed tapasya [penance] standing on one leg for 100 years on the Ruksha mountain abjuring food and water. Pleased with his tapasya [penance], the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh appeared before him to grant him a boon.
On hearing Atri Rishi's desire, the Gods explained that since the Nirguna Parabrahma cannot be seen, they, as manifestation of the Nirguna [infinite / attributeless] have appeared. They blessed him saying that his wish would be fulfilled.
In the course of time, the Gods Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh took birth in the form of Atri Rishi's sons namely Chandra [Moon], Dattatreya and Durvas Rishi. Amongst them, Chandra [Moon] and Durvas wanted to perform tapasya [penance] and hence they left home, assuring Atri Rishi that they would remain in microform in Dattatreya, who was to stay with him.
Thus the attributeless, formless Parabrahma, which had manifested itself in three different forms, integrated again in one form of Lord Dattatreya and enlightened people.
Out of the 24 incarnations of God described in Shrimad Bhagawat (a Holy Scripture), the incarnation in the form of "Dattatreya Avadhoot" (Dattatreya the Ascetic) is the sixth one.
The typical form in which the Lord Dattatreya appears is that of an ascetic with 3 heads & 6 arms (symbolizing the unification of the three Gods). His whole body is covered with Vibhuti (holy ash). He has an aura of a rising Sun around him and has lustrous Jatta (long hair) tied in a knot over his head. He is dressed in a deer skin and is a radiant and assuring figure for the devotees. His arms are seen to be holding various objects each of which has a spiritual connotation. Thus, he is seen with a Mala (rosary), Kamandalu (holy pot), Damaru (holy musical instrument), Trishul (trident), Shankh (conch) and Chakra (a holy weapon).
A cow behind him represents the mother earth and four dogs at his feet, the four Vedas (the Holiest Hindu scriptures). Lord Dattatreya 'the ascetic', is known to have disciples through the Yugas [cycle of creation], well known among them are Lord Parashuram, Sahasraarjun, Prahlad, Ayu Raja, Yadu, Alarka, Samvarta etc.
Lord Dattatreya 'the ascetic' helps the devotees in times of calamity and also leads them to Moksha (freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth) and hence is worshipped widely by the masses.