Parashurama – the epic hero with an axe – was a real ‘Yama’ (God of Death) to the evil and arrogant. He traversed the earth twenty-one times and punished the evildoers who were harassing the people. He was the ‘Guru’ (Master) of such royal stalwarts and savants as Bheeshma and Drona. Parashurama is recognized as one of the immortals and an incarnation of God Vishnu.
Ages ago, in Pauranic times, several kings who had turned into evil beings because of their royal wealth, the arrogance of power, and people’s allegiance, ruled our Bharatavarsha. They had posed a serious threat to the pious, religious and scholarly life – the pursuit of those who wanted to lead a life of moral and social rectitude.
A Prayer Fulfilled
It was at this time that a great man, an incarnation of God, manifested himself on the earth.
He achieved an adventurous, romantic and revolutionary desire. Because of his campaigns, injustice was done away with and justice established on earth.
This virile, powerful and towering person picked up an axe, went around the earth twenty-one times and killed the evil Kshatriya kings like felling trees in the forests, and thus brought solace to the people. The country again smiled with peace and prosperity. And it was as if a New World had been created.
That was Parashurama’s creation. Because his weapon was ‘Parashu’ (axe), he was known as ‘Parashurama’. Our epics tell us that Parashurama is the sixth incarnation of Vishnu on this earth and one among the ageless, immortal beings, like Ashwatthama. Hindus believe this story and worship Parashurama as God.
The Rishi’s Prayer
A ‘rishi’ (sage) named Rucheeka was on a tour of the country looking for a bride. At that time there were two most famous royal clans ruling in Bharat. Suryavamsha (Solar Race) and Chandravamsha (Lunar Race). King Gandhi belonging to the latter had a daughter named Satyavati who had blossomed into a lovely damsel imbued with fine moral qualities. The king was on the lookout for a suitable bridegroom for her.
Just at that time Rucheeka, in the course of his travels, visited the king at his palace. The king entertained the sage with traditional honors.
Pleased with the warm reception he received there, Rucheeka asked of the king:
“O Maharaja, I have come to seek a favor from you. Will you fulfill it?”
“Respected sage! I deem it a privilege and pleasure to make any offer to you. Please let me know what you desire.”
“King! I would like to marry your daughter Satyavati”
From Palace to Hut
The king was taken aback at the thought of sending his beloved daughter grown up in the royal environment, to the poor living in a thatched hut.
But he had given word to the sage that he would fulfill his desire.
The king said: “O sage! You can marry my daughter upon one condition. Can you give us one thousand horses, all with one ear black and the body white-complexioned, as dowry?” Ruchika agreed. He made a penance to please Varuna (the rain-god), obtained the thousand fine horses of the desired prescription and presented them to king Gandhi. The king was happy and now convinced of his son in-law’s worth, married off his daughter to the sage.
Though she had grown up amidst royal riches and pleasures, Satyavati easily adjusted herself to the simple living mode of the hermitage. She served her husband with devotion, considering him to be her god. The couple had no children for some time.
King Gandhi had only one daughter and no sons. He was worried about succession to the throne. His daughter Satyavati also knew his father’s worry. One-day sage Rucheeka asked her: “Tell me what is worrying you. I will give you a boon to solve your problem.” Gladdened, Satyavati requested him to bless her and her mother that they might beget male children to perpetuate the lineage. The sage gave them a consecrated herbal concoction separately to each and asked them to drink it.
Satyavati’s mother, thinking that the sage may have given her daughter something special, took the offering intended for her daughter while the latter consumed that meant for her mother. Thus the sage’s offerings were reversed in consumption.
Both became pregnant in due course. Ruchika noticed ’Kshatriya’ (royal) brightness on the face of his wife and was surprised. By his insight, he understood the reason, and upon his mentioning this to Satyavati, she realized the mishap.
She prayed that her son might become a sage and the grandson a valiant royal hero. Her husband blessed her accordingly. Ruchika’s son was Jamadagni and Jamadagni’s son was Parashurama who, wielding an axe, toured the land getting rid of evil kings and assuring the pious peace and freedom from evil.
Parashurama’s mother was Renuka. She was the adopted daughter of King Prasenajit. She had married sage Jamadagni and was serving him faithfully Parashurama was her first son and he was followed by four others Rumanvanta, Sushena, Vasu and Vishwavasu. Several incidents enraged Parashurama, forcing him into the vow of getting rid of Kshatriya families from this land.
There was a king named Kritaveerya belonging to the Lunar Race. Born to him was Kartaveeryarjuna, a heroic personality. He had worshipped Lord Dattatreya and been blessed with invincibility. He possessed the strength of a thousand arms on the battlefront. He had defeated Ravana at war and was reigning at Mahishmati, full of glory and arrogance.
One day Kartaveeryarjuna went on a gaming expedition to the forest accompanied by his huge army. After the expedition had progressed for some time he began to feel hungry and thirsty and asked his men to look for any sage’s hermitage around.
Nearby they sighted the ashram of Jamadagni. When the king arrived there the sage extended him a warm welcome and also requested that the royal personage could rest at the ashram for the day and move out later. The king, tired after the day’s hunting adventures, could wish for nothing better. He was ceremoniously and sumptuously treated there.
The Surprised King
The sages perform penance for securing welfare in the world. Not only the people on earth but those in heaven also assist them in their task.
Indra, the Lord of Heaven, had sent the divine cow-Kamadhenu-for assisting Jamadagni who was in penance at the time.
Kamadhenu was a wish-fulfilling divine cow.
The king of the land had been visiting the hermitage and he had to be treated with a reception fitting the majesty of royalty. The sage requested the divine cow to oblige him by helping to arrange for a sumptuous lunch. Soon, the ceremonial lunch was ready. The sage treated the guests to a royal feast and all felt happy and contented.
“What a wonderful feast! I had never tasted such fine meals even at the palace. And it is practically impossible to prepare such a festive meal at such short notice even at the palace.
How did you arrange this?” the king queried in surprise.
“O, king! This is the grace of Kamadhenu. Lord Indra has sent this sacred cow to assist me. The cow can bestow any favor instantly. All these are her blessings.”
I Demand This
A strong selfish desire gripped the king and he entreated the sage thus; “O sage! It would be very useful if such a distinguished cow remained at the palace. Thousands of people visit us and we will be obliged to treat them without delay.
But your ashram will not be under such pressure as a routine. I shall leave a lot of land and other property for you. You can look after your guests comfortably. Please hand the cow over to me.” The sage replied: “O king! I can’t present this cow to others. I can get her to help with only the needs of the ashram. I have no right to present her to anyone else. Please don’t ask for her.” The arrogant king was angry. He ordered his soldiers to take the cow by force and they tied her and drove away to the capital Mahishmati.
Jamadagni was distressed. Is this how the king should express his thanks for the reception he received?
By this time, Parashurama who had gone to the woods to collect material for sacrificial worship (‘Yagna’) returned and learned about the king’s taking away Kamadhenu by force.
Enraged, Parashurama decided to go in pursuit of Kartaveeryarjuna and bring Kamadhenu back. ‘The king is to suffer proper punishment’, he thought and armed with his sharp axe and bow and arrows, left on the chase.
What are sages’ children before a king? Kartaveeryarjuna’s soldiers pounced upon Parashurama who however confronted them boldly and began to chop them off mercilessly. Finally, Kartaveeryarjuna himself appeared before Parashurama and the two were engaged in a fierce battle. Parashurama axed down the king’s thousand arms and killed him. His sons and remaining soldiers ran for their lives leaving Kamadhenu behind. Parashurama brought her back and respectfully handed her over to his father.
A Hero, But…
Jamadagni was naturally happy over his son’s heroism. He was very happy at the return of Kamadhenu. But he wondered whether a Brahmin could afford to get so angry.
He advised his son:
“Dear Parashurama, no doubt you are a great hero. Such valor should be the pride of anybody. But you should have kept your wrath under check. See now, you have killed so many people and the responsibility for that cruelty lies upon you. You should rid yourself of this sin. Go on a pilgrimage and visit holy places. Return to the ashram purified.”
“As you order, father”, said Parashurama and bowing to him, left upon the pilgrimage. He traveled for a year and returned to help his father in his chores.
The Sudarshana Chakra Story
There is a story prevalent about the incarnation of Parashurama. Sage Narada (who is also a part of 24 Avatars of Lord Vishnu can be read here) was once visiting Vaikunta, the abode of Lord Vishnu. He extolled the Lord in very colorful terms. Vishnu’s major weapon was the ‘Chakra’ (sharp-edged swinging wheel) known as ‘Sudarshana Chakra’.
So far none could face it and come out of the attack victorious. The Chakra had a deity associated with it and he used to boast that all the powers the Lord had were due to him and He couldn’t kill the demons without his help. Narada’s praising of Vishnu angered him; he was sore that Narada had ignored his prowess.
Learning of this, Vishnu called him and said:
‘Dear Sudarshana, it is true I defeated the Asuras with your help. Go to earth and be born a thousand-armed hero; I will come and appear as the son of a sage. Let us match our strength there!”
The Sudarshana Chakra could no longer remain in Vaikunta and came down to earth.
Kritaveerya, belonging to the Lunar Race, was childless for a long time and later a son without arms was born to him. However, he acquired one thousand arms and invincibility by the grace of Lord Dattatreya. But this arrogant man, Kartaveeryarjuna, and faced Parashurama in battle and died. The Sudarshana Chakra was thus subdued.
It was a pleasant day in spring when the colorful nature had made the surroundings shine with charm and fragrance. Renuka, the devoted wife of Jamadagni, had to get the Ganga water (read more on how Bhagiratha brought down Ganga), for her husband’s Fire worship, and accordingly, proceeded to the river with a pot.
The Ganga was flowing majestically. At that time a ‘Gandharvas’ (celestial being) named Chitraratha was enjoying a festive bath and was engaged in a frolic with his wives. Renuka was watching these activities for some time. She had been somewhat mesmerized and after a while awakened herself realizing her duty to carry the pot of water to her husband. She rushed back to the hermitage.
Jamadagni was a sage possessing supreme vision. He visualized the reason for his wife’s delayed arrival. He was angered at her and took umbrage at her becoming ‘impure’ by witnessing Chitraratha with unbecoming interest. He called out his sons and ordered them to kill her!
The children were shocked; they could not believe their ears. How can they kill their mother? They stood transfixed. Jamadagni was now furious, seeing that his sons were not obeying him. Parashurama returned after a while, and Jamadagni asked his son to kill his mother and also the ‘disobedient’ brothers.
Parashurama did not hesitate even for a moment. Readily he raised his axe, chopped off his mother’s head and later killed his brothers.
As he bowed before his father in reverence, the latter’s anger subsided. However, five persons had been killed.
Jamadagni said: “My son, your devotion to your father has pleased me. Tell me what is your desire and I shall fulfill it.’” Parashurama replied:
“O father, nothing satisfies me more than fulfilling your desire. If you want to grant me a boon, kindly oblige by making my mother and brothers come back to life. Please forgive their disobedience.”
“As you wish,” agreed Jamadagni.
The dead rose to life and prostrated before the sage. The ashram’s rituals were resumed unhindered. Thus Parashurama saved his mother and brothers.
At the same time, the sons of Kartaveeryarjuna at Mahishmati were pining for vengeance.
Having once faced the wrath of the axe-wielding Parashurama, they were afraid of confronting him again and hence conceived a secret plan.
Parashurama, accompanied by his brothers, had gone out on an errand. Hearing of this from their Spies, the sons of Kartaveeryarjuna laid siege to the hermitage of Jamadagni. They vowed to seek their revenge by killing the sage.
The sage was sitting in meditation. Kartaveeryarjuna’s sons stormed the place. Renuka, realizing the danger confronting them, entreated the invaders to spare the life of her husband. But her plea went unheeded. Jamadagni, in penance, was beheaded and his skull was taken away to Mahishmati and to the ashram was destroyed.
Renuka shouted ‘O Rama! O Rama! O Rama!’
Parashurama and his brothers who were approaching the ashram heard their mother’s cry and rushed to the place. They were shocked to see the body of their father lying in a pool of blood; his head was missing. Their mother had lost consciousness and collapsed. The children helped her to regain consciousness. She wept and narrated the happenings. Renuka and the boys surrounded the headless body of Jamadagni and wailed and wailed.
But Parashurama did not sit quietly and cry.
He learned from the inmates of the ashram the details of the incidents. Reddened with anger, he picked up his axe and hurried towards Mahishmati.
On reaching the city, he first butchered the guards at the main entrance. Breaking down the heavy gate, with his eyes like a couple of fireballs, he stalked to the palace like an enraged lion.
There he destroyed the whole army, which came to attack him. He killed all the princes, picked up his father’s head and returned to the ashram.
There the children performed all the obsequies in honor of the departed soul.
Even after this, Parashurama’s wrath did not subside. He felt uneasy and full of anguish whenever he saw his sorrowful mother. In his anguished heart was slowly taking shape of a plan of action.
Finally, Parashurama vowed:
“All these kings are evil men. They stole the cow which had fed them; they killed my father. They made my mother suffer widowhood. This entire kingly class should be destroyed. The pious cannot live in peace till then. Let me sharpen the axe. I am going to wipe out the whole lot of them.”
Carrying the axe on his shoulder, he traversed the earth twenty-one times, chopped off all the arrogant Kshatriya, wiping out the entire royalty.
It is said Parashurama built lakes out of the blood of the evil princes he killed. There he prayed for peace to his father’s soul. These lakes are known as ‘Syamanta Panchaka’. He conducted ’Ashwamedha’, ‘Vajapeya’ and other sacrifices to purify himself and gifted the land he had acquired after killing the princes to the priestly men who had come to these sacrifices.
Finally, he bathed himself in the river Saraswati, built a hermitage at the foot of the Mahendra Mountain, and settled down for penance.
It is believed Parashurama is living there even today, as he is ageless. When Parashurama decided to build a hermitage for himself, a problem confronted him. He had given away all the land he had acquired. Now, any plot upon which he settled down would mean his taking back the land he had donated, and it would be a wrongful act.
He then found a solution to the problem.
He threw his axe into the sea and requested the King of the Ocean to give him land up to the spot where the axe hit the seawaters. There he built his ashram. This came to be known as ‘Parashurama Srishti’. It is an age-old belief that this stretch of land would always be prosperous and no drought or disease would ever affect the region.
Though bloody, Parashurama’s rebellion contains many instances of his submission to ‘Dharma’. He did not kill those kings who performed religious sacrifices (‘yajnas’) and kings like Janaka were thus saved; he did not kill married princes and thus king Dasharatha and others were spared. He did not attack women. It is said that upon knowing that Parashurama would not harm women, some Kshatriya princes donned the robes of women and escaped amidst female groups. One such person came to be known a ‘Narikavacha’ (one who sought protection amidst women.)
Parashurama And Sri Rama
There are stories about Parashurama in Ramayana and Mahabharata. Vishnu appeared on the earth as Sri Rama, son of King Dasharatha, and his consort Lakshmi was born as Sita, daughter of King Janaka. On her reaching marriageable age, a ‘Swayamvara’ (an assembly wherein a princess chooses a prince as her mate from amongst the invitees) was arranged.
Many were those who came with high hopes of securing her hand. At the palace of Janaka, there was an ancient bow said to have been blessed by Lord Shiva. Janaka announced that his daughter would marry the prince who could bend the bow and tie it up. All the assembled princes attempted it and failed while Sri Rama easily accomplished the task broke the bow into two and Sita married him.
Dasharatha was returning to his kingdom Ayodhya with his sons and daughters. Parashurama, upon learning of Sri Rama’s breaking the bow, became angry. Parashurama had learned archery from Lord Shiva. Added to his anger was the fact that the feat had been accomplished by a Kshatriya prince.
As Sri Rama was heading towards Ayodhya with his father Dasharatha wife Sita and others, Parashurama confronted them and a battle ensued between him and Sri Rama. The former wielded his axe while Sri Rama replied with his famous ‘Kodanda’ bow. As they stood to confront each other, their eyes met, and both instantly realized that they were the incarnations of the same Supreme Power.
The Vishnu-effulgence of Parashurama merged itself with Sri Rama’s personality. Parashurama realized that his incarnation had come to an end and returned to his hermitage in the Mahendra Mountain.
In The Mahabharata
According to references in the Mahabharata, a king was ruling Kashi (Benaras). He had three daughters named Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika.
They had reached marriageable age and the king arranged a Swayamvara; for finding bridegrooms for them. The contenders had to participate in a battle and the victorious princes would marry the princesses.
A king named Shantanu was ruling in another kingdom Hastinavati. Devavrata was his son.
The queen had left Shantanu for some reason and the latter wanted to marry again. To fulfill his father’s desire, Devavrata undertook to fulfill two vows – that he would not become a king and that he would not marry. He came to be known as Bhishma signifying these vows. Upon the death of Shantanu, Bhishma crowned his stepbrother Vichitravirya as the king.
Bhishma came to know of the ‘Swayamvara’ of the Kashi king’s daughters and thought it would be a good idea to marry the girls to his brother. He attended the assembly, defeated all other princes, brought the three princesses, and asked Vichitravirya to marry them Ambika and Ambalika agreed for this proposal.
Amba, from the beginning, wanted to marry the king of Salwa. She requested Bhishma to send her to that prince. He accordingly agreed and sent her away. But the Salwa king refused to marry her as she had been taken away after victory in a battle.
Amba came back to Bhishma and entreated him to marry her. An avowed celebrate, he did not wish to depart from that state of life.
Amba knew that Bhishma highly respected Parashurama and would not say ‘no’ to the latter’s words. So she went to him and narrated her story. Parashurama thereupon accompanied her to see Bhishma and said: ‘Bhishma, marry this girl.’
‘I cannot do so. If I do, it would be breaking my vow.’
Parashurama and Bhishma thereupon engaged themselves in a battle and the fighting went on for many days. Both were valiant and could not be vanquished. Ultimately, they stopped fighting and returned to their places.
Amba, a dejected damsel, threw herself into the fire and died. Later she was reborn as Shikhandi and took revenge on Bhishma.
As mentioned earlier, Parashurama had learned archery from Lord Shiva himself and had mastered all the fine points of that discipline. It was said that Shiva was very pleased with his disciple’s prowess and had bestowed him with the axe; Goddess Parvati had blessed and given him many fine weapons. Many young men were coming to him for training in the art of archery.
But Parashurama would not teach the Kshatriya. He felt that a weapon the hands of an evil person would pose a danger to the pious.
Karna was a hero of Mahabharata. He was separated from his mother at a very young age. He desired that he should learn archery from Parashurama. But how to achieve it? Karna decided to act as a Brahmin boy and went to Parashurama; Parashurama taught Karna and in fact, was very pleased to notice the keen interest and capabilities of Karna. He became a particularly beloved pupil of Parashurama and continued his training to reach greater heigh
One day, Parashurama, resting his head on the lap of Karna, was sleeping. Indra, the king of the Devas, had a special affection towards Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers, because the latter had been born to Pandava’s mother Kunti by his (Indra’s) own blessings.
Indra knew that Pandavas had to wage war against their cousins, the Kauravas led by Prince Duryodhana and that Karna would be the right-hand man of the prince. He decides that Karna had to be vanquished so a toward off danger to Arjuna.
Indra pondered over how to realize this objective. Karna had completed his training from Parashurama successfully; who can match him now?
Indra had to think of some incident wherein the Guru’s wrath would descend upon his disciple. He assumed the form of a diamond-sharp insect and began biting into the flesh of Karna’s lap. Can anybody withstand such severe torture for long? But Karna was worried that even the slightest dislodging of his lap would disturb the Guru’s sleep.
He suffered all the severe pain of the insect’s biting with tenacity. His lap began to bleed, and as the floor got wet with blood, Parashurarna suddenly woke up. And what did he see? His disciple is sitting quiet, while his lap was bleeding. He was suffering such great pain silently.
A doubt confronted Parashurama. This boy is certainly not a Brahmin, for only a Kshatriya could suffer this pain in silence. The boy must be a Kshatriya; he had deceived him and learned archery.
Parashurama was red with anger. He cursed:
“Let the training you have had from me be of no avail to you at the time of your difficulties. Later, during the great Mahabharata war, a fierce battle ensued between Karna and Arjuna. The ‘Sarpaastra’ (the serpent-arrow) let off by Karna failed to kill Arjuna and Karna also could not remember another great ‘Astra’ taught by Parashurama. He succumbed to Arjuna’s arrows.
Thus the story of Parashurama is one of the most exciting episodes in our mythology. Parashurama was not only a great hero; he was also a savant rich in wisdom. Just before the Mahabharata war, Lord Krishna visited Duryodhana and advised him to hand one half of the kingdom in a just manner. Parashurama at that time was sitting in Duryodhana’s court along with other dignitaries, and he too counseled Duryodhana:
“Pandava’s have kept the word. You should now act justly.”
Give them their share of the kingdom Otherwise, that injustice may destroy you.’ But Duryodhana was adamant. He waged war in which thousands of people died. His brothers, near and dear relatives, friends – all perished, he had his leg betoken, and breathed his last.
Parashurama embodied several noble qualities. His utter devotion to his father whose words he readily fulfilled, his great respect for his mother and regard for his brothers for whose resurrection he ardently prayed, the determination with which he set about to destroy the kingly clan which had brought about the death of his father, the generosity with which he donated the lands he had conquered, his asking the sea-king for land up to the point where the axe hit sea waters, his mastery in archery, and above all his magnificent sense of ‘Dharma’ (virtuousness) – all these features shine in his life like pure diamonds.
And therefore, Parashurama is hailed as the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. There is a traditional verse, which is popular
‘Ashwatthamo Balir Vyasah Hanumanascha Vibhishanah, Kripah Parashuramascha Saptaite Chirajeevinah’
Ashwatthama, Bali, Vyasa, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Kripa and Parashurama – these are the seven eternal, ageless, immortal souls according to our traditional belief. In particular, it is believed Parashurama is sitting even today in penance at Mahendra Mountain. Why this great penance? Not for himself, but for the peace and happiness of the whole world.
Parashurama is thus one of our celebrated epic Heros who, down the ages, is acclaimed as Vishnu’s incarnation.