Throughout the history of India - at least the 4,500 unbroken and documented years since the discovery of the first civilization of the world in 2500 BC., i.e., the Indus Valley Civilisation - India has been called the Poonya Bhoomi, or the Blessed Land. This is so because several rivers crisscrossed it and several rulers made dharma, or righteouness and high moral values, their mantra. It was thus also called the Karma Bhoomi, where each section of society followed the principal of division of labour and the Dharma Bhoomi, where the rule of law and the ruler were the same. In short, India, or Bharatdesha, as it was called in ancient times, was a benevolent place where religion meant leading an orderly life with discipline and morality.
Towards the middle of the tenth century, the invasion from central Asia - Persia to be precise - led to a rule in India by an assortment of slave and tribal rulers, who followed the tenets of Islam. Over two centuries, Islam got assimilated in India and its culmination point was seen in the Mughal emperor Akbar's Din-i-Elahi "religion", in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, however, with the arrival of the Europeans, first for trade and then for political domination, religion was replaced with dogma and the high moral ground of the ruler was lost. These foreigners had themselves fought many a battle under the banner of religious crusades. Under them, India, or Bharatdesha, suffered subjugation for nearly five hundred years; and the moral order, or dharma, on which the society was based, underwent severe and several changes.
It was under such circumstances that the devtas (celestial rulers) and digpalas (celestial guards) and the Bhoodevi (Mother Earth) pleaded to Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, and prayed for deliverance. Their main plea was that for centuries they had ruled piously and looked after the praja (people) of the earth and done their duty - as given by the Lord - properly. But now, due to adharma (loss of moral order) under alien rule, people preferred happiness to duty, wealth to justice, materialism to godliness, and lust to love. They pleaded that unless the Lord manifested himself on earth in some form, there could be utter chaos and breakdown of social order. They further reminded the Lord that as Krishna in his previous incarnation, he had saved mankind and established peace after the Kurukshetra battle. They implored the Lord to manifest again and help mankind.
Lord Vishnu, the ever-kind and sweetly smiling Lord of the Universe, spoke with calm and affection explaining that it was the yuga of Kali, hence Kaliyuga (era of Kali), created by Adishakti itself. As such, He could not do much to change the course set by Adishakti, but as the Preservor of All, he could surely help check the menace. He also elaborated that Kali had visited other parts of the world and left scars of plague and illness on those lands, and that India had to bear with the visit of Kali, created by Adishakti for some purpose. Lord Vishnu added that none could interfere but surely Shiva, the Destroyer of All, could be of help. The assembled devtas, digpalas and Bhoodevi, then went to Lord Shiva and pleaded with him. He promised to come to Earth in the form of Dattatreya and help alleviate the pain and sufferings of human beings.
By another account, Dattatreya was born to Sage Atri and his wife Anasuya. Sage Atri was one of the seven Manasputras born to Brahma (the creator) through his mind. These were Mareechi, Atri, Angirasa, Pulatsya, Pulasa, Karathu and Kashyapa. All seven were great tapasvis (practitioners of austerities) and called the Saptarishis, or the Seven Sages. There is reference to them in the Vedas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Saptarishis shine as fixed stars in the universe, and in India this cluster of stars is referred to as Saptarishimandala of the galaxy. Generally, Hindus worship the Saptarishis on important occasions like upanayana (thread ceremony of young boys, mostly Brahmin), upakarma or namakarana (name giving) and other ceremonies.
Atri's wife, Anasuya, was once tested by the Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) themselves, when they wished to test her loyalty and devotion to her husband. The three changed form and arrived at her ashram while Atri was away. She welcomed them in traditional manner and offered food, at which they came up with a strange request: that they would partake of her hospitality only if she removed all her clothes and served them. The meddlesome Narada had actually created this mischief in the larger good of all involved (in order that God comes to earth in a new incarnation) and he told the wives of the Trinity - Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati - that their respective husbands needed to be taught a lesson!
Anasuya knew through her spiritual powers that the gods were testing her, so she acquiesced. She sprinkled some water on the Trinity, which turned them into toddlers and thus she, as a mother, could reveal her natural form to these infants and feed them!
When Sage Atri returned, he saw the three great gods, the Trinity, lying in the cradle as toddlers! When he heard from Anasuya what had transpired, he could only laugh. The divine consorts by now feared that their husbands would forever be reduced to babies, and so they pleaded with Anasuya to transform the toddlers into their original form. Anasuya washed her husband's feet with water, and sprinkled the water, thus sanctified, on the three babies who attained their original form. Pleased with her devotion to her husband and happy at her ingenuity, the Trinity granted her a boon. It was at this point that she asked that the three be born to her as her real babies! And they were: Brahma as Chandra (Moon), Vishnu as Dattatreya, and Shiva as Durvasa.
Thus, Dattatreya was born to such an important sage, who lived with his wife in an ashram near Sucheendram, near Kanyakumari, at the southern tip of India. A temple honouring Dattatreya stands near the ashram. When they grew up, Chandra went to Chandralok to live and shine, Durvasa went to the forests to meditate, while Dattatreya stayed back and looked after his parents. As Dattatreya was born of a boon granted by the Trinity, he is often depicted as one with three heads representing Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Dattatreya served his parents selflessly and was later born as an avatar purush (holy incarnation), considered to be the Sai Baba of Shirdi.
History of Indian Gods