Parashurama is the sixth avatar of Vishnu, descendant of Brahma and pupil of Shiva. He is son of Renuka and the saptarishi Jamadagni. He lived during the last Treta
Yuga, and is one of the seven immortals of Hinduism, or Chiranjivi. He received an axe after undertaking terrible penance to please Shiva, who in turn taught him the
Parashurama 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 Karna and Drona. Parashurama also fought back the advancing seas to save the lands of Konkan, Malabar and Kerala.
Parashurama is worshipped as mool purush, or founder, of the Bhumihar, Chitpavan, Daivadnya, Shukla and Tyagi Brahmin communities.
The exact birthplace of Parashurama is contested, although the history of his lineage took place in the Haihaya Kingdom located in modern day Maheshwar.
The grandfather of Parashurama was a great rishi named Rucheeka, and was a direct descendant of Brahma. One day, the rishi 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 rishi was besot 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 rishi, but on condition that Rucheeka give
him one-thousand horses, all with one ear black and the body entirely white.
The rishi agreed to the demand of the king. He then did penance to Varuna, and was blessed with the horses that the king had requested. Rucheeka gave them as dowry,
and in turn received Satyavathi for marriage.
Satyavathi 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 rishi agreed to help both Satyavathi and her mother. He gave Satyavathi two potions, one for her mother so that she would have a mighty Kshatriya son, and one for Satyavathi so that she would have a son that would become a great sage. Satyavathi 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. Satyavathi told Rucheeka, to which he responded, 'Now our son will be a great warrior instead of a king." Satyavathi begged the rishi to instead
make her grandson become the great warrior and her son a rishi. Seeing her distress, Rucheeka acquiesced. Satyavathi gave birth to a son, Jamadagni, who became a great saptarishi, while her grandson Parashurama was sixth incarnation of Vishnu, and one of the greatest warriors of his age.
According to Puranas, Parashurama was born at Renuka Tirth as the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. His father, Jamadagni, was a direct descendant of Brahma. Before
his birth, Jamadagni meditated with his wife Renuka at Tape Ka Tiba near Renuka lake for divine providence. With the blessing of Shiva, Vishnu answered their wishes
and was born from the womb of Renuka as their fifth and youngest son, whom they named Rama.
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 rishi called his eldest son,
handed him an axe and asked the boy to kill his mother. Horrifed, 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, Parashurama, was left. Ever obedient, the boy beheaded his mother.
Pleased, Jamadagni then offered two boons to Parashurama. 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.
Kartavirya Arjuna and the Haihaya Kingdom
The time of Parashurama was a tumultuous one for the Indian subcontinent, with puranas indicating frequent battles between several rival Kshatriya clans and
kingdoms. Parashurama lived within the Haihaya kingdom, located in modern day Maheshwar on the banks of the Narmada River. The Haihaya were a savage people,
described in the Srimad Bhagavatam as 'the Uncivilized'.The generations of enmity between the Kshatriya Haihaya and the Brahmin Bhargavas, from whom Parashurama 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, a prideful 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 saptarishi Atri. For his obeisance, Aryadatta 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, even defeating and imprisoning the demon king Ravana at the river Godavari. He then went on to conduct
many military conquests. The military corporations of the Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Pahlavas and Paradas, known as the Five Hordes, also gave their support to the Haihaya and Talajunga.
Haihaya was of the Lunar Dynasty and went on to sack Kashi, killing its kings Haryaswa and Sudeva. In return, Divodas and his son Pratarddana of the Solar Dynasty fought back, and expelled the Haihayas from the kingdom of Vatsa. Kartavirya then defeated the Nāga, after which he made Mahishmati in present day Maheshwar
capital of his kingdom. Kartavirya also prevented Ikshvaku King Bahu, descendant of Harishchandra, from taking back Ayodhya, which Bahu felt was his by birthright. A
generation later, Sagara, son of Bahu, recaptured Ayodhya after defeating the Haihaya and Talajangha. Sagara punished the foreign hordes by ordering their heads
shaved in humiliation.
Genocide of the Brighu and the sacred calf
The violent persecution of Brahmins by Kshatriya had at the time spanned generations. Aurva, great-grandfather of Parashurama, recalled a vivid childhood experience:
While lying unborn, I heard the doleful cries of my mother and other women of the Bhrigu race who were then being exterminated by the Kshatriyas. When those
Kshatriyas began to exterminate the Bhrigus together with unborn children of their race, it was then that wrath filled my soul. My mother and the other women of our
race, each in an advanced state of pregnancy, and my father, while terribly alarmed, found not in all the worlds a single protector. Then when the Bhrigu women found
not a single protector, my mother held me in one of her thighs.
As the third book of the Mahabharata begins, Akritavrana, a disciple of the avatar speaks:
With pleasure shall I recite that excellent history of the godlike deeds of Rama, the son of Jamadagni who traced his origin to the race of Brighu.
As Rama grew older, he was sincere in his piety, and pleased Lord Shiva with the performation of excruciating tapas. As blessing, he was granted the Parashu of Shiva,
after which he was known as Parashurama, or 'Rama with axe'.
Soon after Parashurama received his blessing, King Kartavirya of the Haihaya came upon the hermitage of Jamadagni The visit happened at a time Parusharama was away in the forest gathering yagna, and although the king had a massive entourage, the saptarishi 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 rishi refused, and Kartavirya stole the sacred animal.
Returning home, Parashurama 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 Parashurama, also concerned. He cautioned his son he must be
aware of wrath and pride. Parashurama 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 Parashurama could have killed him. In revenge, they traveled to the hermitage
and murdered Jamadagni, surrounding the rishi and shooting him to death with arrows like a stag. Afterwards, they decapitated his body and took his head with them.
When Parashurama 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 his fathers head to conduct the cremation. Parashurama then vowed to enact a
genocide on the war-mongering Kshatriyas twenty-one generations over, once for each time the hand of his mother hit her chest.
Vengeance against Kshatriya
Parashurama then travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent, killing all men of the Kshatriya caste, guilty or innocent. The first book of the Mahabharata writes:
In the interval between the Treta and Dwapara Yugas, Parashurama, great among all who have borne arms, urged by impatience of wrongs, repeatedly smote the
noble race of Kshatriyas. And when that fiery meteor, by his own valour, annihilated the entire tribe of the Kshatriyas, he formed at Samanta-panchaka five lakes of blood.
Parashurama returning with the sacred calf with Jamadagni cautioning him to not be controlled by anger One legend describes Parasharuma 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.
There is another legend that the Nairs, Bunts and Nagas of Kerala and Tulunadu, receiving word as Parashurama approached, took the sacred threads that marked them twice-born, hid them in the forest and traveled south. Parashurama then gave their land to the Nambuthiri Brahmins, and the Nambuthiri then denied the Nairs and
Bunts their status as royalty when Parashurama left.
After he had finally rid the world of Kshatriyas, Parashurama 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 Parashurama, or stop the sacrifice by defeating him in battle. They were unable to do either, and so perished.
Parashurama 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, Krishna and Bhudda. Parashurama played an important role in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Meeting of Rama and Parashurama
In the Ramayana, Parashurama had given the bow of Shiva to the father of princess Sita for her swayamvar. As a test of worthiness, suitors were asked to lift and string
the mythic weapon. None were successful until Rama, but in the process of being strung, the bow snapped in half. This produced a tremendous noise that reached the
ears of Parashurama as he meditated atop the Mahendra Mountains.
In one version played in Ramlilas across India, Parashurama arrived to the scene deeply angry. The Kshatriyas were advised by Brahmarishi Vasistha not to confront the
sage, but Sita still approached. Parashurama blessed her, saying "Dheergha Sumangali bhavah," or "You will have your husband alive for your lifetime."
When he then turned to confront Rama, Parashurama was unable to lift his axe. He was held back by his own word and pacified by the brilliance of Rama. As soon as
warrior-sage recognized that he was looking at the embodiment of Vishnu, and thus his own subsequent reincarnation, his own bow flew into the hands of the seventh
Vow of Bhishma
Bhishma taking the bhishana pratigya
Parashurama 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
Parashurama 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 Parashurama 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 had the power to put a foe to sleep, and of which
Parashurama 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 Parashurama, 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 Parashurama 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.
Mentorship of Drona
At the end of his time in the Vedic period, Parashurama was renouncing his possessions to take sanyasi. As the day progressed, Drona, then a poor Brahmin, approached Parashurama 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 behoveth thee to give me all thy weapons together with the mysteries of hurling and recalling them.
Thus, Parashurama 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.
Fate of Karna
Karna was half brother to the pandavas and son of Surya, but raised by a low caste charioteer. Karna came to Parashurama after being rejected from the school of Drona
due to his caste. Karna lied and said he was Brahmin, and so Parashurama accepted him as his student, giving him knowledge of the powerful Brahmastra weapon.
One day, Parashurama 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 Parashurama. Convinced that only a Kshatriya could have
borne such pain in silence, Parashurama realized the lie of Karna, and cursed his student that his knowledge of the Brahmastra would fail him when it was most crucial.
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. Parashurama
revealed that he had known all along Karna was a Kshatriya, but because he was a worthy student Parashurama 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.
Parashurama asked Karna to accept his curse and die at the hands of Arjuna, that the world might live in peace.
Parashurama mythology in different epochs
There are a number of accounts of the exploits of Parashurama in different Puranas, detailing his interactions with different gods of the Hindu pantheon, and even
occurring during different Yuga due to his being Chiranjivi.
According to Puranas, Parashurama 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 and Ganesha, knowing it had been given to Parashurama by his father, allowed it to sever one of his tusks.
His mother, the goddess Parvati, was infuriated and declared that she would cut off the arms of Parashuram. She took the form of Durgama, becoming omnipotent. At
the last moment, Shiva was able to pacify her by making her see Parashurama as her own son. Parashurama also asked her for forgiveness, and she finally relented when
Ganesha himself spoke on behalf of the avatar. Parashurama then gave his divine axe to Ganesha and blessed him. Another name for Ganesha because of this encounter
is Ekadanta, or 'One Tusk'.
Beating back the Arabian Sea
Puranas write that the western coast of India was threatened by tumultuous waves and tempests, causing the land to be overcome by the sea. Parashurama fought back
the advancing waters, demanding Varuna release the land of Konkan and Malabar. During their fight, Parashurama threw his axe into the sea. A mass of land rose up,
but Varuna told him that because it was filled with salt, the land would be barren.
Parashurama then did a tapasya for Nagaraja, the King of Snakes. Parashurama asked him to spread serpents throughout the land so their venom would neutralize the salt filled earth. Nagaraja agreed, and a lush and fertile land grew. Thus, Parashurama pushed back the coastline between the foothills of the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, creating modern day Kerala.
The coastal area of Kerala, Konkan, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, are today also known as Parashurama Kshetra or Land of Parashurama in homage. Puranas record that Parashurama placed statues of Shiva at 108 different locations throughout the reclaimed land, which still exist today. Shiva, is the source of kundalini, and it around his neck that Nagaraja is coiled, and so the the statues were in gratitude for their baneful cleansing of the land.
It is also said that while beating back the sea, Parashurama fired an arrow from his mythical bow that landed in Goa at Benaulim, creating Salkache Tollem, or 'Lotus Lake'.
Kshetra scripture has a legend in which a king named Ramabhoja worshipped Parashurama. He was the ruler of the lands between Gokarna and Kanyakumari and was proclaimed king of the entire Parashurama Kshetra. While performing aswamedha yajna, he was plowing the land, but mistakenly killed a snake that was a raksha in disguise. In repentance, Rambhoja was directed by Parashurama to build a rajathatpeetha, or large silver pedestal, with the image of a serpent at its four corners in obeisance. Parashurama also ordered that he distribute gold to the needy equal to his own weight as Tulabhara.
Rambhoja performed the ashwamedha yajna successfully and Parashurama appeared before him again, declaring that he was pleased. To this day, the silver pedestal remains a center of pilgrimage. The surrounding land is known as Thoulava, in remembrance of the Tulabhara of Rambhoja.
Parashurama 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
Parashurama 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
Parashurama and gifted him with two inventions that have since been attributed to the avatar, sandals and an umbrella.
Nath tradition holds that Parashurama, after enacting his vengeance, sought out Dattatreya atop Mount Gandhamadana for spiritual guidance. Their conversations gave rise to Tripura-rahasya, a treatise on Advaita Vedanta. It was here the deity instructed the warrior-sage on knowledge of scripture, renunciation of worldly activities, and non-duality, thus freeing him from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth.
Parashurama and the saptarishi Agastya are regarded as the founders of kalaripayattu, the oldest martial art in the world. Parashurama 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 kung fu.
By the end of the Vedic period, Parashurama had grown weary of bloodshed and became a sanyasi, giving up his possessions to practice penance. The first book of the Mahabharata writes:
The son of Jamadagni, after twenty-one times making the Earth bereft of Kshatriyas, wended to that best of Mountains Mahendra and there began his ascetic penance.
He traveled to central India at the northern end of the Eastern Ghats and western Orissa, and ascended the Mahendra Mountains. Before he left, Parashurama distributed the territories he conquered among a clan of Brahmins called the Bhumihar, who ruled for many centuries. Kingdoms included the Cheras, Pandyas, Dravida, Mushika, Karnata and Konkana.