Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
The incarnation of Parasurāma, or Rāma with axe, was undertaken by Vishnu for the purpose of exterminating the Kshattriya, or Warrior caste, * which had tried to assert its authority over the Brāhmanical. Twenty-one times Rāma is said to have cleared the earth of these men, but by various means some few were preserved alive who were able to perpetuate the race.
[paragraph continues] The story of this incarnation evidently points to a time when there was a severe and prolonged struggle for supremacy between the members of these two classes. Eventually success lay with the Brāhmans. It should be noticed that the scene of Vishnu's exploits in this Avatāra, and in those which follow it, was the earth; and not, as in those preceding, the abode of the gods.
The following legend of the birth of Parasurāma is from the "Vishnu Purāna." * A prince named Gadhi, who was himself an incarnation of Indra, had a daughter named Satyavati. Richika, a descendant of Bhrigu, † demanded her in marriage. The king asked from the decrepit old Brāhman a thousand fleet white horses, each having one black ear, as a wedding present. These horses were obtained, by the help of Varuna, and the Brāhman received the hand of the princess.
In order to effect the birth of a son, Richika prepared a dish of rice, barley, and pulse, with butter and milk, for his wife to eat, and, at her request, consecrated a similar mixture for her mother, by partaking of which she hoped to give birth to a prince of martial prowess, Leaving both dishes with his wife, after carefully describing which was for herself and which for her mother, the sage went away into the forest. When the time for eating the food came, the mother said to Satyavati, "Daughter! all mothers wish their children to be possessed of excellent qualities, and would be mortified to see them surpassed by the merits of their brother. Give me, therefore, the mess your husband has set apart for you, and you eat that which was intended for me. The son which it is intended to procure for me, is destined to be the monarch of the whole world; whilst that which your dish will give you must be a Brāhman,
alike devoid of affluence, valour, and power." Satyavati consented to this proposal, and they exchanged messes.
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THE PARASURĀMA AVATĀRA.
On Richika's return, perceiving what had happened, he said to his wife, "Sinful woman! what hast thou
done? I see thy body of a fearful appearance. Thou hast eaten of the consecrated food that was prepared for thy mother; thou hast done wrong. In that food I had infused the properties of power, and strength, and heroism; in thine, the qualities suited to a Brāhman—gentleness, knowledge, and resignation. In consequence of having reversed my plans, thy son shall follow a warrior's propensities, and use weapons, and fight, and slay. Thy mother's son shall be born with the inclinations of a Brāhman, and be addicted to peace and piety." Satyavati, hearing this, fell at her husband's feet, and asked that she might not have such a son as he had described; "but if such there must be, let it be my grandson and not my son." The Muni relented, and said, "So be it." Accordingly in due time she gave birth to a son named Jamadagni, who married Renukā, and had by her the destroyer of the Kshattriya race, Parasurāma, who was a portion of Nārāyana, the spiritual guide of the universe.
This is all we find about Parasurāma's work in the "Vishnu Purāna." The story of his exploits is told at length twice over in the Mahābhārata, and is found in the Bhāgavata, Padma, and Agni Purānas. The following account is from the Mahābhārata. *
Jamadagni, the son of Richika (whose birth was just described), having married Renukā, "conducted the princess to his hermitage, and she was contented to partake in his ascetic life. They had four sons, and then a fifth, who was Jamadagnya (Parasurāma), the last, but not the least, of the brethren. Once when her sons were absent gathering the fruits on which they fed, Renukā, who was exact in the discharge of all her duties, went forth to bathe. On her way to the stream
she beheld Chitraratha, the Prince of Mrittikāvati, with a garland of lotuses on his neck, sporting with his queen in the water, and she felt envious of their felicity. Defiled by unworthy thoughts, wetted, but not purified by the stream, she returned disquieted to the hermitage. Beholding her fallen from her perfection, and shorn of the lustre of her sanctity, Jamadagni reproved her, and was exceeding wroth.
"Upon this, her sons came from the wood, and each as he entered was successively commended by his father to put his mother to death; but, amazed and influenced by natural affection, neither of them made any reply; therefore Jamadagni cursed them, and they became idiots. Lastly Rāma returned to the hermitage, when the mighty and holy Jamadagni said to him, 'Kill thy mother, who has sinned; and do it without repining.' Rāma accordingly took up his axe [this was the Parasu, or axe, which Siva had given him] and struck off his mother's head; whereupon the wrath of Jamadagni was assuaged, and, pleased with his son, said: 'Since thou hast obeyed my commands, and done what was hard to be performed, demand from me whatever blessing thou wilt, and thy desires shall be fulfilled.' Rāma begged these boons: the restoration of his mother to life, with forgetfulness of having been slain, and purification from all defilement; the return of his brothers to their natural condition; and for himself, invincibility in single combat, and length of days. All these his father bestowed.
"It happened on one occasion that, during the absence of the Rishi's sons, the mighty monarch Kārttavirya, the sovereign of the Haihaya tribe, endowed by the favour of Dattatreya * with a thousand arms, and a
golden chariot that went wheresoever he willed it to go, came to the hermitage of Jamadagni, where the wife of the sage received him with proper respect. This Kārttavirya, by reason of his strength, had greatly oppressed the gods, Rishis, and all creatures. The gods and Rishis applied to Vishnu, who, with Indra, devised the means of destroying him. The king, inflated with the pride of valour, made no return for the hospitality of the Rishi's wife; but carried off with him the calf of the milch cow of the sacred oblation, and cast down the tall trees of the hermitage."
In the Rāmāyana is an account of the wonderful cow whose calf this king stole. When commanded by her owner, on the occasion of the visit of a king to the hermitage, to supply the varied wants of the great multitude which accompanied him—
"When Rāma returned, his father told him what had happened; and seeing the cow in distress, he was filled with wrath. Taking up his splendid bow, he assailed Kārttavirya, and overthrew him in battle. With sharp arrows Rāma cut off his thousand arms, and he perished. The sons of Kārttavirya, to avenge their father's death,
attacked the hermitage of Jamadagni when Rāma was absent, and slew the pious and unresisting sage, who called repeatedly, but fruitlessly, upon his valiant son. Rāma deeply lamented his father's death, performed the last obsequies, and lighted the funeral pile. He then made a vow that he would extirpate the whole Kshattriya race. In fulfilment of which, with remorseless and fatal rage, he destroyed the sons of Kārttavirya; and, after them, whatever Kshattriyas he encountered. Thrice seven times * did he clear the earth of the Kshattriya caste. After he had cleared the world of Kshattriyas, their widows came to the Brāhmans, praying for offspring. The religious Brāhmans, free from any impulse of lust, cohabited with these women, who, in consequence, brought forth valiant Kshattriya boys and girls."
In another passage in the Mahābhārata it is taught that it was in consequence of the curse of a sage named Apava, that Rāma was able to kill Kārttavirya. The king had permitted Agni to devour the hermitage of this Rishi, who, in revenge, declared that his thousand arms should be cut off by Parasurāma.
In the Rāmāyana is an interesting legend in which Parasurāma, himself an incarnation of Vishnu, is described as meeting with Rāma Chandra, the next avatāra of the same deity, and in which the superiority of Rāma Chandra is declared. † "As King Dasaratha was returning to his capital with Rāma (Chandra), he was alarmed by the ill-omened sounds uttered by certain birds. The
alarming event indicated was the arrival of Parasurāma. He was fearful to behold, brilliant as fire, and bore his axe and a bow on his shoulder. Being received with honour, he proceeded to say to Rāma, the son of Dasaratha, that he had heard of his prowess in breaking the bow produced by Janaka, and had brought another which he asked him to bend, and to fit an arrow on the string; and offered, if he succeeded in doing so, to engage with him in single combat. Parasurāma went on to say that the bow Rāma had broken was Siva's; but that the one he now brought was Vishnu's. The gods, anxious to discover which was the greater, Siva or Vishnu, and considering this a favourable opportunity for doing so, sought Brahmā's help. He thereupon excited the passions of the two Rāmas. A great fight ensued. Siva's bow of dreadful power was relaxed, and the three-eyed Mahādeva was arrested by a muttering. The gods were satisfied, and judged Vishnu to be superior. Parasurāma, however, did not agree to their judgment, so offered Vishnu's bow for his antagonist to try his strength on. Thus challenged, Rāma snatches the bow, bends it, and fits an arrow to the string; and then tells his challenger that as he is a Brāhman he will not slay him, but will either take away his superhuman capacity of movement, or deprive him of the blessed abodes he had gained by austerity. Parasurāma entreats that his power of movement may not be taken away, but consents that his blissful abodes may be destroyed. 'By bending this bow,' he said, 'I recognize thee to be the imperishable slayer of Madhu, the great lord.' Rāma shoots the arrow, and destroys Parasurāma's abodes."
The explanation of this strange legend seems to be the one that is commonly received by Oriental scholars, that the passages in the Epic poems which speak of Rāma as
an incarnation of Vishnu are interpolations of a later date than the original poem; and this interview of Parasurāma with Rāma Chandra was introduced for the purpose of giving a quasi-divine sanction to the teaching of these interpolations. If Parasurāma, an admitted incarnation of Vishnu, acknowledged that Rāma was superior to himself, what stronger proof could be given that Rāma too was divine?
162:* There are four chief castes or jātis of Hindus: the Brāhman, or Priestly; the Kshattriya, or Warrior; the Vaisya, or Merchant; and the Sudra, or Servant. These four classes are commonly said to have sprung respectively from the head, arms, thighs, and feet of the Creator, though there is good reason for the belief that in the olden time no such ideas of the divine origin of caste prevailed. The four original castes have become subdivided into an immense number. This subdivision has been brought about by inter-marriage with members of other classes.
163:* Page 400.
163:† See part iii. chap. i.
165:* "Vishnu Purāna," note p. 401; and Muir, O. S. T., i. 447.
166:* A Brāhman saint in whom a portion of Brahmā, Vishnu, and Siva was incarnate.
168:* The reason why Parasurāma had to perform his work so many times was this:—Some Kshattriya children were hidden from his rage amongst the other castes, and in time grew up to be warriors. It was when his work was effectually accomplished, and there was not a single Kshattriya man left, that their widows resorted to the Brāhmans, as noticed above.
168:† Muir, O. S. T., iv. 175.