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41 Show me how to Live - A post about Parashurama

Show me how to Live!
भार्गवेन हता माता एका जायाश्च पाण्डवाः |
परदाररतः कृष्णो न देवं चरितं चरेत् ||

Translation: "Bhargava (Parashuram) killed his own mother; (All five) paandavas had but one
wife (Draupadi); Krishna indulged with others' wives; do not perform the deeds of the gods"

If one of the purposes of mythology is so that people take lessons from the lives of others and learn how to live their own lives, some of the oldest civilizations surely do not provide a direct ready reckoner for such modeling.

Take the Greeks and the Romans, for example. Zeus / Jupiter is always wooing ladies from different species - women, nymphs, goddesses. His wife Hera is always fuming mad with jealousy. Hades is always conspiring to overthrow his brother's throne. The Olympians appear to be a petty, squabbling, self-centred lot. The demigods and the so-called heros are no exceptions either. Heracles is a cold, cunning and calculating figure. More so is Odysseus. Achilles is known for his wrath, and Ajax for his simple-mindedness. Oedipus kills his own father, and marries his mother. So by and large, there is no 'model life' that we come across in here. Similar is the case with the Egyptians and the Chinese.

Don't get me wrong. This does not mean I am complaining. There is nothing wrong that I find in this. In fact, this is what makes most of these lives so interesting and endearing. You feel for the gods too, not just the humans. Homer and Sophocles are more readable because you can relate to the characters. And so is the case with the Vedic stories, and the great Epics of Hinduism.

Hindu mythology and characters of gods

Since this is a blog about the Hindu mythology though, let's restrict ourselves to the lives we come across in the Indian pantheon. Indra is known for his vices, just like Zeus. He is cunning, insecure, and takes a special interest in the fairer sex. He is responsible for killing of a brahmin, and also that of foeticide. Varuna is known for his temper. Rudra is wild and untamed. The gods are known to discriminate against the Ashiwini-kumara twins for being close to and doing favors to humans.

Not just the vedic gods, but also the rishis suffer from their own. Narada, unlike Hermes, is known not only as a messanger but also a prankster and a harbinger of mischife. Agastya is known for his abilities to digest vast amounts of food (even a demon called Vatapi, and the entire ocean! But dare you call him a glutton). Durvasa, as the name suggests, had a terrible body odor. He, along with Vishwamitra and Jamadagni, are known for their quick temper. The Sanata Kumaras were so simple and child-like that Vishnu did not allow them to be admitted to his company.

The later gods - the supreme trinity of godhead - also suffers from some of these. Shiva is a mendicant and a simpleton, and does not bother about the worldly affairs even when they affect him or his loved ones. Brahma is not worshipped anywhere apart from a couple of temples (the most prominent being in Pushkar, Rajasthan), and is known to famously chase his own daughter Shatarupa for copulating.

Vishnu, on the other hand, has his wife Laxmi press his feet while sleeping, and in his ten different avatars done many things that in the first instance look 'strange'. He took the form of Mohini during the Amrit manthan episode and tricked the demons from getting their share of Amrita - the elixir of life. In his form of the little Brahmin Vaman, he tricked the mightly demon king Bali - who is righteous and kind and generous - into giving up his kingdom and his life.

As Rama of Ayodhya, he sent his pregnant wife Sita into exile just because one civilian doubted her chastity. He also tricked and killed the Vanara king Vali of Kishkindha to get support from his brother Sugriva. As Krishna, he guided Pandavas to victory, but in doing so he did all he could - right or wrong on the face of it - like killing an unarmed man in battle (Karna), having a woman (Shikhandi) in front of Arjuna so that an old man be killed (Bhishma), spreading false rumors on the battlefield so that the enemy loses focus and gets killed (Drona), telling Bhima to let go of the dharma of battle with maces and hit Duryodhana below the belt etc.

But let's look at the sixth avatar of Vishnu - known as Bhargava ram or Parashu ram - as a case in point and his killing of his own mother.

Prelude to Birth of Parashuram

Jamadagni was a descendant of Sage Bhrigu, one of the original Prajapatis and sometimes included in the list of Saptarshis - the Great Celestial poet priests - of this eon. So by lineage he also comes from the line of Shukracharya (the priest of Daityas) and Chyavana, the preceptor of Ayurveda.

The story of Parashuram's birth is an interesting one. Richeek muni, son of Bhrigu rishi was wandering in Kanyaakubj - the land of King Gaadhi, when the muni saw Satyavati, princess of the state and fell in love.  He went to the king and asked his permission to marry her. King Gaadhi did not have a son, and since Satyavati was his only daughter he did not want to marry her off to a mendicant, however learned and famous.

So, the king told the rishi that, as per tradition, the groom was expected to present a thousand 'bay' horses (horses with reddish brown body color with a black mane) to the father of the bride. You would imagine that this was a difficult task at that time (no cloning yet!).

So Richeek searched for this bounty all over the Earth but could not find these horses. Finally he went to a place called Ashwateertha and prayed to Lord Varuna, the god of horses. Varuna, pleased with Richeek's penance, gave him 1,000 bay horses, with which the muni returned to  King Gaadhi. Happy to know that the son-in-law is not only learned but also worldly wise and can provide for his daughter if required, the king duly married his daughter Satyavati to Richeek muni.

After the wedding, Satyavati and Richeek muni went and lived in a forest, where Richeek continued with his penance. Satyavati was a loving wife and took care of her husband. Once, pleased with her devotion and efforrts, Richeek asked her what she wanted. Satyavati asked for two things - she asked for a son as well as a brother, as her motherland now did not have a prince. Pleased with her, Richeek gave her two bowls of porridge - marking one for her and the other for her mother, so that she too can bear a son.

(In some versions, Richeek's father Bhrigu visits the couple, and pleased with Satyavati's hospitality, he is the one who gives the two bowls to her, but I prefer this one better).

Happy, Satyavati returned to her mother with the special gift, and narrated the whole story to her. Since she had just returned home, her mother asked her to take a bath and then they would eat the porridge. While she was gone, Satyavati's mother started doubting the story. She thought that Richeek muni must have naturally given a better serving to his own wife than to his mother-in-law, and so she switched the bowls.

Only after they ate their portions, Satyavati's mother could not keep her guilt hidden and shared what she had done with Satyavati. Grief- and terror-striken Satyavati rushed back to her husband. Richeek was naturally agitated. He said that she has done great harm to herself and to her house. His porridge was made in such a way that Satyavati was supposed to have a son with brahmin qualities and the son born to Gaadhi would have become a great ruler and warrior (a Kshatriya). But now her brother - although he will be born a kshatriya into a kingdom, but he will have all the brahmin qualities. Whereas her own son, born to a brahmin muni, will be warrior like. Not only that, he will take revenge on the doubting kshatriyas across the world and be responsible for their massacre.

Devastated, Satyavati had no words to lament. What was supposed to be a happy incident turned out to be the beginning of a chain of disasters. All she could think of was to postpone this doom as much as possible. So she pleaded to Richeek muni if there was a way to push this curse ahead in time. Richeek said that although he cannot change the nature of her son, he can try to change his son's fate. But her grandson will bear the cross of fate.

And so, Richeek muni and Satyavati gave birth to a son, who was known for his quick and wild temper from childhood, just like a kshatriya king and ruler. He was called Jamadagni. His temper became so legandary that even today someone who gets angry quickly is called a 'Jamdagni'. Thankfully, due to Richeek's efforts or due to fate, Jamadagni continued as a brahmin.

Meanwhile, King Gaadhi and his wife gave birth to a son Kaushika. Kaushika became the ruler of Kaanyakubja after Gaadhi, but his tryst with Rishi Vashishtha made him leave the kshatriya ways of his life and become a rishi. His penance was so powerful that although born a kshatriya, he became a brahmin rishi - and that too, a brahmarshi, the top level in that. Yes, you have heard about it ... He is famous by the name 'Vishwamitra'.

Birth of Parashuram

But let's come back to Jamagadni. The son of Richeek muni and Satyavati, Jamadagni continued with his penance and became known for his wisdom and work. Apparently, the great sage Agastya muni advised king Prasenjeet of Mahur (in present-day Maharashtra) to marry his daughter Renuka off to Jamadagni. Renuka was born out of a yajna that Prasenjeet had done earlier (maybe with Agastya as the head priest) and he was blessed with a daughter who was supposed to be the mother of the universe (in some parts of southern India she is worshipped as Yallamma and in the north as Renuka Mata) and who was expected to give birth to an avatar of Vishnu. Agastya's involvement is likely, since he was the most renouned rishi in the South anyway.

Agastya also convinced Jamadagni to take Renuka as his wife, and the two got married. Renuka and Jamadagni lived in the mountains (supposedly near the modern day Belgaum on Karnataka-Maharashtra border, South India). Renuka was a devoted wife and helped the rishi in his daily rituals. One of her daily activity was to bathe in the Malaprabha river early in the morning, and then carry a pot of water to her husband for his rituals of oblation.

The interesting part was that she would 'create' a pot to hold water, made only of raw sand, not baked ---  one fresh pot every day. She was able to do this feat due to her devotion towards her husband and her chastity. (Incidentally, the word 'Renuka' is derived from the Sanskrit for "a fine grain of sand"). Renuka gave birth to five sons:  Vasu, Viswavasu, Brihudyanu, Brutwakanwa and Ramabhadra. (In some cases instead of the middle two, the names of Sushen and Rumanvaan appear).

Anyway, the most illustrious among these was the last one - Rama. He was also the most beloved. From childhood, he gained favours from gods, and also received a pick-axe from Shiva. The weapon became his signature and he became famous as Parashu - Rama ('Parashu' is Sanskrit for axe).

Killing of Renuka Mata

However, the happy family was about to face tough challenges next. One day when Renuka went to the river, she saw some gandharva (celestial beings known for their beauty) couples frolicking in water For a moment, she lost her concentration and devotion and fantasized about playing in the river with her husband. 

Instantly, Renuka checked herself and also cursed herself for her indiscretion. She hurriedly bathed, and tried to create the pot from the sand, but alas! Today she was unable to as she had lost her concentration.

Seeing Renuka returning empty-handed, Jamadagni became furious, and in his infamous anger, asked her the reason. When Renuka narrated the truth, Jamadagni went wild with anger. He forgot all the years of marital bliss, and called out to his sons and asked them one by one to behead her. The first four of them refused flatly. This further angered the sage and he burned his own sons to ashes in a fit of rage.

Parashurama, who was not there when this happened, found his mother weeping by four piles of ashes when he arrived and his father still raging mad. Jamadagni told him what happened and ordered him to behead Renuka for her infidelity. Without a moment's hesitation, Parashurama took his axe and beheaded his own mother.

With the deed done, Jamadagni became calm. He praised his last and only remaining son for his devotion and asked what he wants in return. Quick in thinking, Rama asked his family back - mother and brothers too. Jamadagni, pleased with his son's wit as well as devotion to the family, smiled sadly and brought all five of them back to life with his yogic powers. The five family members woke up as if from sleep, and did not remember what had happened earlier.

This is the incident that has inspired the famous quote, with which I started this post:

भार्गवेन हता माता एका जायाश्च पाण्डवाः |
परदाररतः कृष्णो न देवं चरितं चरेत् ||

"Bhargava (Parashuram) killed his own mother; (All five) paandavas had but one wife (Draupadi); Krishna indulged with others' wives; do not perform the deeds of the gods"

It is after the incidents of this story that Parashuram's family, although alive and together, did not really continued the same way. They decided to move to north in order to get away from these unpleasant incidents, and most likely settled in the present-day Himachal Pradesh.

However, luck did not change much for the poor family and they were tormented by the Haihaya king of Mahishmati, Sahasrarjuna. See here for the details of these.

After the incidents of the Haihaya episode, Parashuram got rid of the Kshatriya clans 21 times over, until finally his grandfather Richeek muni had to step in and stop him. After this, Parashuram seems to given away the bounty of the Earth to Kashyap rishi and moved back closer to his birthplace, towards the south and was instrumental in creating the land of Malabar and Konkan, and settling new establishments.

04 April 2012 


Kayn said…
Hmm.. indeed. Very colourful characters.

So, how does the game work?

Do not do as the Gods do.
But worship them? What for?

An excerpt from J. Krishnamurti:

I said one has to be aware. By being aware, one discovers how one is conditioned. By being aware, I know I am conditioned - as a Hindu, as a Buddhist, as a Christian; I am conditioned as a nationalist: British, German, Russian, Indian, American, Chinese - I am conditioned. We never tackle that. That's the garbage we are, and we hope something marvelous will grow out of it, but I am afraid it is not possible. Being aware doesn't mean a chance happening, something irresponsible and vague. If one understands the implications of awareness, one's body not only becomes highly sensitive, but the whole entity is activated; there is a new energy given to it. Do it, and you will see. Don't sit on the bank and speculate about the river; jump in and follow the current of this awareness, and you will find out for yourself how extraordinarily limited our thoughts, our feelings, and our ideas are. Our projections of gods, saviors, and Masters, all that becomes so obvious, so infantile.
Akash K said…
Nice! i would also hope if you could get some mythological stories about Lord Buddha also whether he is indeed the 9th avtar of Lord Vishnu. There is some debate on that.But, nevertheless Buddha being one of the finest examples of wisdom.
Unknown said…
Every mythological story has some hidden meaning. Let us try to unearth this hidden meaning in Lord Parashurama's tale.
Jamadagni (Fire) represents The Lord, The Creator, The 'Paramatma and Renuka (Fine grains of sand) represents 'Maya'.
The first four sons, 'Man, Buddhi, Chitta & Ahankar' become useless, if they lack the vital ingredient - total surrenderness (Nishthaa).
The fifth son, Lord Parashurama is the ideal symbol of total surrender to his Master.
Parashurama is not affected by 'Maya' and can easily snap his ties with her [beheading Renuka Mata, actually means this]. On the other hand, he is always 'connected' to 'Paramatma'.
Thus, he deserves the inheritance of Lord Jamadagni.
Plato said…
Mythology is man made, if you accept this then Human Imperfection has manifested itself into the Imperfect Character's they have created. If you read Kabir's poetry "Ram Niranjan Nyara"..he says Only "RAM" can be thought of as Niranjan ( ~ spotless) , rest all portrayals, rituals have issues. Even "RAM" has demonstrated debatable ( i say intentionally) characteristics. However he still remains the best portrayal among all Mythological creations.
Hi Unknown,

Thanks for this. The hidden meaning seems nice in this case. Anyway, sometimes I wonder if the stories were written for such moral or if the moral emerged after people 'ruminated' on these. Good going though!

Peace -