Parasurama, from the Sanskrit parasu ("axe") and rama ("man"), is the sixth avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. The religion of Hinduism teaches that whenever humanity is threatened by extreme social disorder and wickedness, Vishnu will descend into the world as an avatar to restore righteousness, establish cosmic order, and redeem humanity from danger. Parasurama is said to have appeared during the Krita Yuga, in the form of a man wielding an axe, to restore the Hindu social order that was being disturbed by the arrogant and usurping Kshatrya caste.
Parasurama in the Context of the Avatar Doctrine
The avatar doctrine is a seminal concept in certain forms of Hinduism, particularly Vaishnavism, the sect that worships Vishnu as the Supreme God. The word Avatar in Sanskrit literally means "descent" of the divine into the realm of material existence. Through the power of maya ("illusion" or "magic"), it is said that God can manipulate forms in the physical realm, and is therefore able to assume bodily forms and become immanent in the empirical world. Hinduism states that the Absolute can take on innumerable forms and, therefore, the number of avatars is theoretically limitless; however, in practice, the term is most ubiquitously related to Lord Vishnu, of whom Narasimha is an incarnation.
Hinduism recognizes ten major avatars collectively known as the 'Dasavatara' ('dasa' in Sanskrit means ten). Scriptural lists of these ten divine manifestations frequently differ, however, the most commonly accepted has Parasurama preceded by Matsya, a fish; Kurma, a turtle; Varaha, a boar; Narasimha, a man-lion hybrid; as well as Vamana, a dwarf; and followed by Rama, a noble man; Krishna, the teacher of the Bhagavadgita; Buddha, a spiritually enlightened being, and finally Kalkin, the last of the avatars who has yet to arrive. These avatars usually take physical form for the purpose of protecting or restoring dharma, the cosmic principle of order, when it has devolved. Krishna explains this in the Bhagavadgita: "Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness O Arjuna, I send forth Myself" (Shloka 4.7). Vishnu's tenure on earth typically involves the performance of a particular series of events in order to instruct others concerning the path of bhakti (devotion) and ultimately leading them to moksha (liberation).
The most famous story concerning Parasurama describes his actions to restore the declining dharma. During the Krita Yuga, the Kshatrya (warrior) caste had become overconfident in their military and political power, and began to oppress the Brahmins—the priestly caste that was traditionally held to be the highest on the Hindu social order. Parasurama himself was born into the race of Bhrigu, a lineage marred by caste confusion. His father Jamadagni, although born a Brahmin, became a Kshatrya because his mother had erroneously consumed food imbued with the properties of the latter caste. Jamadagni sired Parasurama by Renuka, who bore him a son and was promptly named Parasurama because he carried an axe called Parashu—which was given to him at birth by Shiva, the destroyer god of the Hindu Trinity.
During Parasurama's life the social order had deteriorated due to Kartavirya—a powerful king who had obtained a hundred arms. On one instance, the wicked Kartavirya and his minions went to Jamadagni's hermitage when Renuka was there alone. According to custom, she took care of the king and his followers. Kartavirya saw Kamadhenu, the cow of plenty, which belonged to Jamadagni. Desiring to possess the cow, Kartavirya drove Renuka away and took the sacred cow. Soon thereafter, Jamadangi and others came back to the hermitage and saw what had happened. They pursued the king, then overpowered him and killed him, bringing back the cow that was rightfully theirs. When the king's son heard of his father’s death, he returned to the hermitage with an army in tow and killed Jamadangi. Seeking revenge, Parasurama swore that he would drive all Kshatryas from the earth. In twenty one battles, he thereafter fulfilled his vow and destroyed all the Kshatryas on earth. Subsequently, all Kshatryas were descendent from Brahmanas, illustrating the superiority of the priestly caste over that of the warriors. By his victory and the power it afforded him, Parasurama secured for his father a place within Hindu asterism as the constellation of the Saptarishis, of which he is the Great Bear.
An entirely different story details the origin of Parasurama's name. Originally, he was named Rama. Rama was a brilliant archer, and in gratitude for this skill he travelled to the Himalayas where he did penance for many years. Shiva was very happy with Rama's devotion, and so when fighting broke out between the gods and the demons, Shiva ordered Rama to fight on behalf of the gods. Rama was without his bow, and so he asked Shiva how he could fight without his weapon. Shiva encouraged him to battle regardless, which Rama did, emerging victorious. Shiva rewarded Rama with many gifts and weapons, including the Parasu axe, which became Rama's weapon of choice. From this point on, Rama was known as Parasurama, "Rama with the axe."
Another popular myth involving Parasurama tells of an instance when Parasurama's mother went to the river in order to bathe. Here she saw Chitraratha, king of the celestial muscians known as the apsaras. Upon seeing the divine being, Renuka was gripped by licentiousness. When she returned to the hermitage of her husband, he quickly ascertained the magnitude her transgressions by way of his yogic powers. Enraged, he ordered his sons to kill their mother. The four eldest sons refused, and were cursed by their father to become fools. Parasurama complied, however, and used his axe to behead his mother. As a token of appreciation for his son's obedience, Jamadagni offered his son a boon. Parasurama asked that his mother be restored to life without recollection of what had been done to her, and that his brothers be given back their normal intelligence. Also, he asked his father to ensure that no one would be able to defeat him in combat from that point on.
In Hindu iconography, images of Parasurama usually depict him as a large man carrying an axe. The axe is held in his right hand, while his left hand is positioned in the Suci pose, as if he is pointing toward something. His body is highly adorned with ornaments, and on his head is the jata-mukuta (a headdress formed of piled, matted hair). Parasurama's colour is red, and he wears white clothing.
The Hindu avatar doctrine presents a view of divinity that is compatible with evolutionary thinking because it depicts a gradual progression of avatars from amphibian through mammal to later human and godly forms. Parasurama was the first avatar to appear in fully developed human form. While the stories of the previous avatars operated in a more fantastic mythological mode, the stories of Parasurama are more worldly, often reflecting political and economic struggles that may have been based upon actual events that occurred in ancient Indian history. Parasurama represents an early stage in the development of the homo sapien, one which is still reliant upon tools and weapons in order to subsist and survive, and so he leaves room for future avatars such as Rama and Krishna to improve the social, intellectual, and spiritual sensibilities of humankind.
- Bassuk, Daniel E. Incarnation in Hinduism and Christianity: the myth of the god-man. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1987. ISBN 0391034529
- Gupta, Shakti. Vishnu and His Incarnations. Delhi: Somaiya Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1974.
- Mitchell, A.G. Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1982. ISBN 011290372X
- Parrinder, Geoffrey. Avatar and incarnation: the Wilde lectures in natural and comparative religion in the University of Oxford. London: Faber, 1970. ISBN 0571093191
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