Parashurama is an immortal sage who has long been the living guide for seekers in our tradition. In the spiritual history of India, he is regarded as the sixth incarnation of Vishnu and thus is always addressed as Bhagavan Parashurama, or Lord Parashurama. He is the conqueror of disease, old age, and death. He is said to be as pervasive as space, yet he is an individual with a discrete personality. He lives in the world governed by the forces of time, space, and the laws of cause and effect, yet he is beyond these forces.
In our tradition we are told not to bother this master with petty requests, but when destiny seems to have turned against us, and dying without completing our spiritual quest appears inevitable, we are advised to go to Bhagavan Parashurama. He is vested with the power to do what normally cannot be done and to undo what has already been done. Reading and reflecting on the story of Bhagavan Parashurama is a practice in and of itself.
The story of Bhagavan Parashurama begins with the story of his father, Jamadagni. Scriptures cite Jamadagni’s birth as an example of the miraculous power of alchemy and austerity. To beget him, Jamadagni’s father undertook an intense spiritual practice in conjunction with alchemy, which culminated in consecrating a ritual vessel filled with an herbal elixir. In this elixir Jamadagni’s father invoked rudra shakti, the life force. But as destiny would have it, Jamadagni’s mother drank the elixir contained in a vessel meant for someone else. As a result, the baby she conceived would have been born with an aggressive temperament, an outcome her husband averted by undertaking another round of practice. Thus, Jamadagni was born.
Jamadagni was bright, wise, and peaceful by nature. He was adept in a broad range of arts and sciences. Following his family tradition, he adopted the life of a teacher. When his father retired, Jamadagni became the head of the educational institution established by his ancestors. It flourished under his leadership, attracting a large number of teachers and students.
Jamadagni married Renuka, a woman who embodied the highest degree of knowledge and compassion. Jamadagni knew that because his mother had taken the wrong elixir at least one of his offspring would be intolerant, aggressive, and unforgiving. Jamadagni and Renuka were determined to avert this and took care to instill their children with humility, unconditional love, compassion, and forgiveness. Their teachings and training were clearly bearing fruit in all except their youngest child, Parashurama.
A Passion for Justice
Parashurama was the strongest, sharpest, and bravest of their children. His speech and actions were a source of wonder. Even in early childhood, people noticed Parashurama was eka-shruti-dhara, a person with unmatched retentive power. What he heard once, he remembered forever. As a child, he mastered all the Vedas and their branches and sub-branches. He also mastered the complex sciences of rituals and astrology. In the sciences of mantra vidya, tantra vidya, alchemy, and ayurveda, he had no equal.
But despite the fact that he embodied philosophy and spirituality just as his forefathers had, he was keenly interested in the sciences of weaponry and politics. This worried his parents. His father took every opportunity to remind Parashurama that nothing is more precious than peace and, further, that military power and political maneuvering will never resolve any conflict. Parashurama always listened to his father politely, except when the subject was injustice and social oppression. Then he would disagree adamantly, insisting that all oppressors must be crushed. Parashurama was known throughout the land for his position on this matter and, thus, in an oligarchical society made up of kings, nobles, and landlords, he was viewed as a threat.
To avoid the wrath of the rich and powerful, Jamadagni further simplified his life. He adopted a lifestyle of self-imposed poverty and began living like a monk. A single cow was all he had for sustenance. Even though Parashurama joined his father in this act of austerity, the kings and nobles under the leadership of the emperor Kartavirya were determined to eliminate Parashurama.
The Warrior Emerges
One day when the young man was away from his father’s ashram, the emperor sent soldiers to confiscate the cow. Jamadagni resisted and the soldiers beheaded him. When Parashurama returned, his first reaction—grief— flared instantly into incandescent rage. He asked his mother to describe exactly what had happened. Had his father expressed a last wish? His mother replied, “All I remember is that when he was beheaded, his body fell and his hand pounded the ground twenty-one times.”
The warrior in Parashurama woke up. With a calm and resolute mind, he invoked mantra shakti and, holding kusha grass and ritual water in his palms, he vowed, “I’ll wipe out these oppressors and looters and I will do it twenty-one times.”
What unfolded is one of the most horrifying genocides in human history. His repeated rampages, during which he killed all the people of the ruling class and their supporters, earned him the epithet Destroyer of Warriors. The genocide lasted for centuries; Parashurama was able to continue it that long because he had conquered hunger, thirst, sleep, fatigue, disease, old age, and death long before his father was murdered.
With each round of bloodshed his feeling of guilt deepened. Finally, he sought guidance from his teacher, Kashyapa. Following Kashyapa’s instructions, Parashurama confined himself to his own ashram on Mehendra Mountain, and scorched his deeply rooted aggressive samskaras through the purity and intensity of his spiritual practice.
Honoring the Law of Nature
For ages, the story of Parashurama has been told and retold to describe the power of mantra, tantra vidya, alchemy, and the science of rituals. His story tells us that it is important to honor the law of nature.
Spiritual powers are not meant to override the law of nature. Those who have access to extraordinary spiritual powers must exercise their faculty of discernment to ascertain whether it is worthwhile to alter mundane circumstances, especially those involving birth and death. The chain of karmic events originating from spiritual practices is extremely difficult to alter. Because such practices must bear fruit, there was no way for Parashurama to prevent his aggressive samskaras from manifesting. Only when those samskaras had run their course was he able to commit himself to intense spiritual practices with a single objective—inner purification.