Who is Parashurama, the sixth Avatar of Vishnu?
He’s different from his predecessors in many ways. The first two Avatars had cosmological roles (Matsya saving one good man from the Cataclysmic Flood, Kurma helping churn the Sacred Ocean for the Nectar of Immortality); the next three (Varaha, Narasimha and Vamana) came to vanquish Demons (Asuras).
Likewise, the Avatars who follow Parashurama are also different from him; Rama, the warrior king, spends his narrative in exile, before battling Ravana, the ten headed Demon king of Sri Lanka. Krishna, a passionate trickster God, would play a pivotal role in the Kurukshetra War, chronicled in the epic poem the Mahabharata. Both of these Avatars remain popular deities; by comparison, Parashurama is relatively unworshiped.
Here’s a quick list of what sets Parashurama apart from the other incarnations of Vishnu:
- He’s the only only who is immortal. In fact, he still has one task left to perform before the End of Days.
- His immortality allows him to interact with his future Avatars. He has a small but significant part to play in the events that surround Rama and Krishna. Also, back to the End of Days, he will be there to guide Vishnu’s final Avatar, Kalki, the Destroyer.
- His name means Rama of the Ax. The Ax in question is a magical weapon given to him by Shiva, his chosen God. It also refers to the ax he used to execute his mother at his father’s behest (see below).
- The fact that an Avatar of Vishnu would have Shiva as his chosen deity is an anomaly in and of it itself.
- Asides from the Ax, Shiva gave Parashurama the secret of several magical weapons and fighting styles, some of which he imparted to his students.
- Parashurama has a blood feud with an entire caste of Vedic society, the Kshatriyas, or warrior caste. His rage led him on genocidal rampages against them at least twenty-one different times; to understand why, see below.
With those distinctions in mind, let’s examine a few of his scattered adventures:
Parashurama’s father was a Brahmin, a magical priest. He was the youngest of five boys, and his mother was subject to his father’s ideas regarding purity.
One day, when she was gathering water, she witnessed Sky Beings (Gandarvas) unabashedly making love, and found herself overcome with desire. Her husband sensed this, handed his eldest son an ax, and ordered him to execute his mother. When the son refused, the father cursed him, turning him to stone.
This happened to the second, third and fourth brothers. Finally, when he ordered Parashurama to use the ax, the boy did.
In a classic fairy tale turnaround, the father, overjoyed with filial pride, granted his son two wishes, which the boy used to restore both his mother and his brothers.
If you’re struggling with the moral of this story, join the club…
Parashurama and the Kshatriyas
Now, we’ve established his father was a magical sage, so it’s not surprising that he had magical possessions. One of these was called Kamadhenu; in Vedic literature, this is a Cosmic cow. Here, it represents a cow that grants all wishes.
While Parashurama was away, the local King, a Kshatriya warrior, stole the cow. When Parashurama came home and discovered the theft, he flew into a rage. He stormed the King’s palace, recovered the cow, and murdered the King.
On returning home with the cow, his father told him to leave and do penance for murdering the king. Parashurama complied, and went to the forest to meditate and atone for his sin. However, in his absence, a group of the king’s kinsfolk came to his father’s house seeking retribution.
His family was slaughtered by the Kshatriyas. When Parashurama returned home to the carnage, he grabbed a magical Ax he had been given by Shiva.
Parashurama’s vow was simple: he was going to rid the Earth of every last Kshatriya…
Behavior not exactly becoming of a Brahmin (there is a myth to explain that; it involves a prenatal magical mix-up, but that’s as far as I’m going with that story).
No matter how they’re taken, Parashurama’s tales remain puzzling, at least to this reader.
However, his most significant story involves a warrior named Karna, who might be the greatest tragic figure in all of classical Hindu literature; like Oedipus, he is a man doomed by fate.
Suffice it to say, Parashurama plays a part in Karna’s downfall; I will return to Karna and Parashurama in a follow up post.
The intrinsic strangeness of Parashurama – by Vedic standards, hell by any standards -might be why there’s only one major temple to Parashurama in India. Called the Thiruvallam Sree Parasurama Swami Temple, it is situated in the southern state of Kerala.
Kerala has its own folk traditions about Parashurama, specifically that he reclaimed the land from the ocean using his Axe; as a result, his birthday, Akshaya Tritiya (a variable date based on the Hindu lunar calendar) is celebrated annually (this date is also sacred in the Jain religion).
And so it ends…but not yet. Once again, Parashurama is immortal, and is apparently biding his time, deep in meditation, until the tenth Avatar appears, ushering in the End of Days…
It would seem that the Book of Revelations doesn’t have a monopoly on the Apocalypse…