Lord Parashuram, is the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, He is son of Renuka and the sage Jamadagni. He is one of the seven immortals or Chiranjivi, of Hinduism, He received an axe after undertaking terrible penance to please Lord Shiva, who in turn taught him the martial arts.
Lord Parashuram is most known for ridding the world of kshatriyas twenty-one times over after the mighty king Kartavirya killed his father. He played important roles in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, serving as mentor to Bhishma, Karna and Drona. Lord Parashurama also fought back the advancing seas to save the lands of Konkan, Malabar and Kerala.
His abode is in Mahendragiri and his consort’s name is Dharini.
History before birth
The grandfather of Lord Parashurama was a great sage named Rucheeka, and was a direct descendant of Brahma. One day, the sage was traveling through the countryside seeking a bride. At the time, there were two dominant clans, the Bharat-Suryavamsha, or Solar Dynasty and the Chandra-vamsha, or Lunar Dynasty. The ruling King Gadhi belonged to the Lunar Dynasty and had a beautiful daughter, Satyavati, who was unwed. Rucheeka visited the king, who entertained him at his court. The sage was petrified with the beauty of Satyavati, and at the end of the evening he asked the king to have her as his bride.
The king was taken aback, but could not deny the request of a Brahmin. As such, he agreed to give his daughter away to the sage, but on condition that Rucheeka give him one-thousand horses, all with one ear black and the body entirely white.
The sage agreed to the demand of the king. He then did penance to Varuna, God of the sea, and was blessed with the horses that the king had requested. Rucheeka gave them as dowry, and in turn received Satyavati for marriage.
Satyavati adjusted well to an ascetic life as she was blessed with a good countenance, but she did not have any children. Meanwhile, at the kingdom, her father had no heir to the throne as well, and this also worried Satyavati. One day, Rucheeka asked her what was wrong, and she told him of her concerns for the kingdom.
The sage agreed to help both Satyavati and her mother. He gave Satyavati two potions, one for her mother so that she would have a mighty Kshatriya son and one for Satyavati so that she would have a son that would become a great sage. Satyavati gave the potions to her mother. However, not trusting the sage, her mother switched the containers.
In time, both mother and daughter found they were expecting children. However, the sage noticed that when he looked at his wife he saw a Kshatriya aura, and he asked what had happened. Satyavati told Rucheeka, to which he responded, ‘Now our son will be a great warrior instead of a sage.” Satyavati begged the sage to instead make her grandson become the great warrior and her son a sage. Seeing her distress, Rucheeka complied. Satyavati gave birth to a son, Jamadagni, who became a great sage, while her grandson Bhargav was sixth incarnation of Vishnu, and the greatest warriors of his age.
His father, Jamadagni, was a direct descendant of Brahma. Renuka gave birth to four sons before Parashuram: Vasu, Viswa Vasu, Brihudyanu and Brutwakanwa. Before the birth of their fifth son, Jamadagni meditated with his wife Renuka at Tape Ka Tiba near Renuka Lake for divine providence. With the blessing of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu answered their wishes and was born from the womb of Renuka as their fifth and youngest son, whom they named Rambhadra, or Ram.
1. Renuka and the clay pot
Renuka was known for her chastity and devotion to her husband. Such was her faith, that she was able to fetch water from the river in a pot of unbaked clay, with the pot held together only by the strength of her devotion.
One day while at the river, a group of Gandharvas in a chariot passed by in the sky above. Filled with desire for only a moment, the unbaked pot she held dissolved in the river. Afraid to return to her husband, she waited at the river bank, uncertain of what to do next. Meanwhile, Jamadagni noticed his wife had not returned. Through his yogic powers, he divined all that had taken place and was enraged. The sage called his eldest son, handed him an axe and asked the boy to kill his mother. Horrified, the boy refused, and so Jamadagni turned him to stone. He then asked each of his sons, and as they refused, one by one, he turned them to stone. Finally only his youngest son, Parashuram, was left. Ever obedient, the boy beheaded his mother.
Pleased, Jamadagni then offered two boons to Parashuram. The boy asked that his mother be brought back to life and his brothers to be returned from stone to flesh. Impressed by the affection and devotion of his son, Jamadagni granted his request.
2. Getting the Divine weapon ‘Parashu’ from Lord Shiva
Parashuram left home to do devout austerities to please Lord Shiva. Considering his extreme devotion, intense desire and unmoved and perpetual meditation, Lord Shiva was pleased with Parashuram. He presented Parashuram with Divine weapons. Included was his unconquerable and indestructible axe, Parashu. Lord Shiva advised him to go and liberate the Mother Earth from felons, ill-behaved people, extremists, demons and those blind with pride.
Once, Lord Shiva challenged Parashuram to a battle to test his skills in warfare. The spiritual master Lord Shiva and the disciple Parashuram were locked in a fierce battle. This dreadful duel lasted for twenty one days. While ducking to avoid being hit by the Trident (Trishūl) of Lord Shiva, Parashuram vigorously attacked him with his Parashu. It struck Lord Shiva on the forehead creating a wound. Lord Shiva was very pleased to see the amazing warfare skills of his disciple. He passionately embraced Parashuram. Lord Shiva preserved this wound as an ornament so that the reputation of his disciple remained imperishable and insurmountable. ‘Khanda-parshu’ (wounded by Parashu) is one of the thousand names (for the salutation) of Lord Shiva.
3. Kartavirya Arjuna and the Haihaya Kingdom
The time of Parashuram was a tumultuous one for the Indian subcontinent, with puranas indicating frequent battles between several rival Kshatriya clans and kingdoms. Parashuram lived within the Haihaya kingdom, located in modern day Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada River. The generations of enmity between the Kshatriya Haihaya and the Brahmin Bhargavas, from whom Parashuram hailed, were mentioned in the Mahabharata numerous times.
The Haihaya were ruled by a powerful and cruel king named Kartavirya Arjuna. He was the incarnation of Sudarshana, Lord Vishnu’s Celestial weapon, Chakra that had taken birth in human form. In addition, Kartavirya worshipped a divine being known as Dattatreya, embodiment of Trimurti and descendant of the sage Atri. For his obeisance, Dattatreya had granted the king a flying golden chariot that would travel wherever he wished, and one-thousand arms.
With these boons, Kartavirya became immeasurably powerful, conducting many military conquests after which he made Mahishmati capital of his kingdom. Kartavirya became so powerful that he was even able to defeat and imprison the demon king Ravana at the river Godavari. Ravana, in turn, would later be the nemesis of the Ramayana.
4. Genocide of the Bhrigu and the sacred calf
As Ram grew older, he was sincere in his piety, and pleased Lord Shiva with the performance of excruciating tapas. As blessing, he was granted the Parashu of Shiva, after which he was known as Parashuram, or ‘Ram with axe’.
Soon after Parashuram received his blessing, King Kartavirya of the Haihaya came upon the hermitage of Jamadagni. The visit happened at a time Parusharam was away in the forest and although the king had a massive entourage, the great sage was able to serve the king a grand feast. When Kartavirya asked how he was able to do so, Jamadagni showed him a blessed Kamadhenu calf, given to Jamadagni by Indra, which was able to grant wishes. Kartavirya was covetous and wanted the calf as his own. The sage refused, and Kartavirya stole the sacred animal.
Returning home, Parashuram was infuriated and traveled to the royal palace. Brandishing his axe, he decimated its guards and killed the mighty King Kartavirya, retrieving the calf. When he returned home, his father was pleased, but seeing the blood stained axe of Parashuram, also concerned. He cautioned his son he must be aware of wrath and pride. Parashuram accepted the reprimand of his father, in penance, and went on a pilgrimage to holy places for one year in purification.
Meanwhile, the sons of Kartavirya discovered their father at the palace and knew that only Parashuram could have killed him. In revenge, they traveled to the hermitage and murdered Jamadagni, surrounding the sage and shooting him to death with arrows like a stag. Afterwards, they decapitated his body and took his head with them.
When Parashuram returned home, he found his mother next to the body of his father, crying hysterically as she beat her chest twenty-one times in a row. Furious, he hunted down the sons of Kartavirya at the palace. He killed them all and returned with the head of his father to conduct the cremation. Parashuram then vowed to enact genocide on the war-mongering Kshatriyas twenty-one times over, once for each time the hand of his mother hit her chest.
5. Vengeance against Kshatriya
Parashuram then travelled the whole of Earth, killing all men of the Kshatriya caste, guilty or innocent. One legend describes Parasharum returning to a village after battle in what is now the Badami Taluka, Bagalkot district of Karnataka. While the warrior-sage washed his axe beyond a sharp turn in the river Malaprabha, unknown to him, village women were cleaning their clothes downstream. His mighty axe stained the entire river red, and the women exclaimed “Ai hole!” translating to ‘Oh, what a river!’ This is said to be the etymology of the present-day village Aihole.
After he had finally rid the world of Kshatriyas, Parashuram conducted the Ashvamedha sacrifice, done only by sovereign kings, and gave the land he had conquered to the Brahmin head-priests, who performed the yagya Kashyapa. The Ashvamedha demanded that the remaining Kshatriya kings either submit to Parashuram, or stop the sacrifice by defeating him in battle. They were unable to do either, and so perished.
History in Ramayana
Parashuram is unique in that although he is the sixth avatar of Vishnu, as an immortal, he has also lived to see the subsequent incarnations of Vishnu in Rama and Krishna. Parashuram played an important role in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
1. Shiva’s Bow
In the Ramayana, Parashuram had given the bow of Shiva to the father of princess Sita for her swayamvar, an ancient practice of choosing a husband. As a test of worthiness, suitors were asked to lift and string the mystic weapon. None were successful until Ram, but in the process of being strung, the bow snapped in half. This produced a tremendous noise that reached the ears of Parashuram as he meditated atop the Mahendra Mountains.
In Valmiki Ramayana, Parashuram stops the journey of Ram and his family after his marriage to Sita. He threatens to kill Ram and his father, King Dasharatha, begs him to forgive his son and punish him instead. Parashuram neglects Dasharatha and invokes Ram for a challenge. Ram meets his challenge and tells him that he does not want to kill him because he is a Brahmin and related to his guru, Vishwamitra maharshi. But, he destroys his merit earned through penances. Thus, Parashuram’s arrogance gets diminished and he returns to his normal mind.
In one version played in Ram lilas across India, Parashuram arrived to the scene deeply angry. The Kshatriyas were advised by great sage Vasishtha not to confront the sage, but Sita still approached. Parashuram blessed her, saying “Dheergha Sumangali bhavah “or” You will have your husband alive for your lifetime.”
When he then turned to confront Ram, Parashuram was unable to lift his axe. He was held back by his own word and pacified by the brilliance of Ram. When the warrior-sage realized he was looking at his own subsequent reincarnation, his own bow flew to Ram along with the essence of Vishnu, and thus the seventh avatar was fully realized.
1. Vow of Bhishma
Parashuram and Bhishma, two of the greatest warriors of the epics, shared an interesting history together as guru and student. Bhishma was a Kuru prince, and Parashuram instructed him in the martial arts as a boy. Their conflict began years later, with the beautiful princess Amba. Along with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika, princess Amba had been abducted by Bhishma in a misunderstanding between two kingdoms. Now, with her honor tainted, no man would take her for bride, and she was condemned to remain destitute. Bhishma himself was unable to marry due to his bhishana pratigya, or vow of celibacy, and allegiance to Hastinapur. Amba then sought the help of Parashuram to kill Bhishma.
Taking pity on her plight, the avatar agreed to fight his former student on her behalf. The battle lasted twenty-three days, by the end of which, both warriors were bloodied and filled with arrows. Bhishma had knowledge of the divine deadly weapon ‘Pashupatastra’, which is considered the most powerful weapon of Shiva and Kali, and of which Parashuram was unaware. When he was about to use the celestial weaponry, all Gods rushed to Bhishma and asked him to hold his hand, as it would humiliate his guru. Out of respect, Bhishma acquiesced.
Pitrs then appeared and obstructed the chariot of Parashuram, forbidding him from fighting any longer. The spirit of Parashurama’s father, Jamadagni and his grandfather, Rucheeka, spoke to him:
“O son, never again engage in battle with Bhishma or any other Kshatriya. Heroism and courage in battle are the qualities of a Kshatriya, and study of the Vedas and the practice of austerities are the wealth of the Brahmans. Previously you took up weapons to protect the Brahmans, but this is not the case now. Let this battle with Bhishma be your last. O son of the Bhrigu race, it is not possible to defeat Bhishma”.
In the end, the Gods showered praise on Bhishma, and he sought the blessing of Parashuram as his guru. The avatar then acknowledged that his former student was truly invincible, telling Amba:
“Using even the very best of weapons I have not been able to obtain any advantage over Bhishma, that foremost of all wielders of weapons! I have exerted now to the best of my power and might. Seek the protection of Bhishma himself; thou hast no other refuge now”.
2. Mentorship of Drona
At the end of his time in the Vedic period, Parashuram was renouncing his possessions to take sanyasi or retire. As the day progressed, Drona, then a poor Brahmin, approached Parashuram asking for alms. By that time, the warrior-sage had already given the Brahmins his gold and Kasyapa his land, so all that was left were his body and weapons. Parushurama asked which Drona would have, to which the clever warrior responded:
“O son of Bhrigu, it behooved thee to give me all thy weapons together with the mysteries of hurling and recalling them”.
Thus, Parashuram gave all his weapons unto Drona, making him supreme in the science of arms. This would be crucial when he was teacher to both Pandavas and Kauravas in the upcoming Kurukshetra War.
3. Fate of Karna
Karna was half brother to the Pandavas and son of Surya, but rose by a Suta charioteer. Karna came to Parashuram after being rejected by Drona because he imparted knowledge only to Kshatriyas, and Karna was, a son of Suta. Karna did not know of his true parentage and hence said he was a Brahmin, and so Parashuram accepted him as his student, giving him knowledge of the powerful Brahmastra weapon. Parashuram trained Karna to such a point that he declared Karna to be equal to himself in the art of warfare and archery.
One day, Parashuram was sleeping with his head resting on the lap of Karna and a scorpion crawled up the leg of the student and bit his thigh. In spite of the pain, Karna neither flinched nor cried so his guru could rest. Warm blood, however, trickled down his leg, waking Parashuram. Convinced that only a Kshatriya could have borne such pain in silence, Parashuram realized the lie of Karna, and cursed his student that his knowledge would fail him when it was most crucial. Upon Karna’s pleading, Parashuram gifted him the celestial weapon called Bhargavastra, along with his personal bow called Vijaya, for being such a diligent student.
Years later, during the Kurukshetra war, Karna had a dream in which he envisioned his guru and asked him to take back the curse he had given years back. Parashuram revealed that he had known all along Karna was a Kshatriya, but because he was a worthy student Parashuram had instructed him regardless. The avatar explained to Karna that the Brahmastra had to fail him when he needed it most. If he killed Arjuna, Duryodhana would be king instead of Yudhishthira, and chaos would ensue. Parashuram asked Karna to accept his curse and asked him to die at the hands of Arjuna,so that the world might live in peace. Karna accepted his gurus words and in return the grateful guru, Parashuram blessed Karna with immortal glory and everlasting fame. Later during the war, Karna died when shot fatally by Arjun for the sake of his guru’s words.
Other Adventures of Parashuram
There are a number of stories of Parashuram in different Puranas, detailing his interactions with different gods of the Hindu pantheon, and even occurring during different Yuga due to his being an immortal.
According to Puranas, Parashuram travelled to the Himalayas to pay respect to his teacher, Shiva. While travelling, his path was blocked by Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. Parashurama threw his axe at the elephant-god. Ganesha, knowing the weapon had been given to Parashuram by his father, allowed it to sever his left tusk.
His mother Parvati was infuriated, and declared she would cut off the arms of Parashuram. She took the form of Durga, becoming omnipotent, but at the last moment, Shiva was able to pacify her by making her see the avatar as her own son. Parashuram also asked her forgiveness, and she finally relented when Ganesha himself spoke on behalf of the warrior-saint. Parashuram then gave his divine axe to Ganesha and blessed him. Another name for Ganesha because of this encounter is Ekadanta, or ‘One Tusk’.
Parashuram once became annoyed with the sun god Surya for making too much heat. The warrior-sage shot several arrows into the sky, terrifying Surya. When Parashuram ran out of arrows and sent his wife Dharini to bring more, the sun god then focused his rays on her, causing her to collapse. Surya then appeared before Parashuram and gave him two inventions that have since been attributed to the avatar, sandals and an umbrella.
Parashuram and the great sage Agastya are regarded as the founders of Kalaripayattu, the oldest martial art in the world. Parashuram was a master of shastravidya, or the art of weaponry, as taught to him by Shiva. As such, he developed northern kalaripayattu, or vadakkan kalari, with more emphasis on weapons than striking and grappling. Southern kalaripayattu was developed by Agastya, and focuses more on weaponless combat. Kalaripayattu is known as the ‘mother of all martial arts’.
Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, also practiced kalaripayattu. When he traveled to China to spread Buddhism, he brought the martial art with him, which in turn was adapted to become the basis of Shaolin Kung Fu.