Thursday, March 13, 2008
102. Legends of Parashurama
Most of the myths in Indian culture are quite ancient in origin and have evolved in multiple chronological stages over the years in tune with the periodic phases of cultural renaissances mostly sponsored by various regalities. In other words the same set of myths have been polished, reedited and repackaged several times in the history to suit the demands of the environment and time of the reprocessing.
The legend of Rama is an example. An ancient folk-lore theme of primitive Bhil archer hero was enriched and updated by Valmiki; it was either re-edited or recomposed subsequently by numerous other bards in several ‘renaissance’ stages. The original composition conceived by Valmiki based on older folk-lores as well as the revised versions by bards of successive generations have altogether enriched the overall cultural fabric of India for centuries.
Another example for the chronological evolution of legends relates to the indefatigable hero Parashurama, the Rama with an Axe.
There are evidences of heroes with axe in the ancient history in the Mediterranean area like Storm God. The axe was an ancient implement in terms of human evolution. In the Stone Age, stone axes were in use, which were later replaced by iron axes. The original folk-lores of an axe wielding indefatigable hero Parashurama (‘Axe- Rama’; or ‘Rama with an axe’; Parashu =axe) was apparently repeated or revived several times in the early literary history by several generations of bards with deliberate addition of doses of supernatural myths. Thus, we find the Parashurama re-appearing in Ramayana, Mahabharata and other ancient works representing distinctly different time periods.
The Parashurama renowned in Vedic age was the son of sage Jamadagni and his wife Renuka. In a fit of anger on his wife, the short tempered Jamadagni ordered his son Parashurama to chop of his mothers head! Parashurama obligingly carried out his order which pleased his father. Parashurama was allowed to ask for a boon in return for the deed he accomplished; and Parashurama immediately asked his father to revive his mother!
The couples, Jamadagni and Renuka had in their possession, Kamadhenu, a mythical cow that gave whatever is wished. One mythical, fantasy character of King Kartha Veerarjun, endowed with one thousand arms (!) intervened and desired that this Kamadhenu should belong to him. He carried the Kamadhenu against the wishes of Jamadagni couple, which enraged Parashurama to pursue the fellow, subdue him and chop of his extra arms.
The legends of Vedic Parashurama may have originated around the northwestern India as these are to be popular in this region. Temples dedicated to Renuka, mother of Parashurama can be found in Himachal-Punjab region.
These legends of Vedic period appear to have been developed on an ancient platform of folk-lores that prevailed around the Mediterranean-Central Asian region.The cult and imagery of Parashurama evidently was an influential one at that time and that prompted Vedavyasa to include it as one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
The Parashurama legends reappeared and were evidently repackaged during the Kadamba period ca. 4 to 6th century CE.
Mayura Sharma (later Varma) during early part of fourth century CE, founded a new dynasty at Banavasi, near Sirsi (present Uttara Kannada district) under the mast of Kadamba (a wild flowering tree, traditionally considered as pious by the ancient Munda tribes of India).The young Mayura went to Kanchi, the ancient Tamil capital of Pallavas, in order to pursue (Vedic) studies. A guard of Pallava king somehow insulted Mayura which forced him to abandon studies and build an army to subdue the haughty Pallavas. He succeeded in recruiting local people at Banavasi into an army and staging armed attacks on the Pallavas.
The story of Kadamba Mayura Varma bears striking similarity to the legends of Parashurama who subjugated the ruling class (Kshatriya).Therefore it can be deduced that Mayura Varma or one of his descendants commissioned court bards to compose the updated myth of Parashurama. Or a few official bards, who equated the Kadamba Kings to incarnation of Parashurama, composed the legends in praise of the Kadamba rulers. The Parashurama legend now popular in the West Coast of India is a part of Sahyadri Chapter (Kanda) of Skaanda Purana. The composition of Sahyadri chapter can be related to Kadamba Kingdom at Banavasi, which is an integral part of Sahyadri or the Western Ghats.
On the basis of these circumstantial evidences, the Sahyadri Kanda and the composition of Parashurama Shristi (creation of land) legend can be dated at ca 350-500 CE. Temples dedicated to mother Renuka also popular as ‘Ellamma’ are found in northwestern Karnataka, in the region of ancient Kadamba kingdom.
The Sahyadri Kanda visualizes that Parashurama threw his axe into the Sea and retrieved as much land as the Axe flew from the King of Sea. A marvellous fantasy that has inspired and mesmerized the coastal folks for hundreds of years! The retrieved coastal land is called ‘Parashurama Srishti’ (creation) or Kshetra (land). Further Parashurama allocated the newly retrieved lands to Brahmins to settle down comfortably. This again is in tune with the works and ethics of Kadamba Kings, who provided lands to immigrated Brahmins to settle down in Karavali and Sahyadri.
Marine transgressions & regressions
The most curious anecdote the Kadamba/Sahyadri bards weaved into the legend is the retrieval of land from the Sea. Infact the transgression (onward march of Sea into the land) and regression (withdrawal of Sea from the land) are periodical natural phenomenon controlled by several factors connected with the earth movements.
From the standpoint of logic and geological science it needs to be clarified that no human being can ever modify or induce such regressions by wielding his modest tools in front of the mighty powers of nature. Infact, there has been several episodes of marine transgressions and regressions in the geological history of the Earth.
However, we may predict that this event of retrieval of land from the Sea visualized in 'Sahyadri Kanda' was based on an actual event of marine regression witnessed by folks that occurred in the past before the Kadamba period. The regression event by all means was a stunning imagery for the innocent folks; and it was described in detail to their kids for several generations.
Thus inclusion of the Parashurama legend in 'Sahyadri Kanda' served to explain a seemingly unexplainable past natural event to the innocent folks and at the same time it glorified one of the mythical (Parashurama) while the Kadamba King was indirectly projected as an incarnation of the mythical element.
Parashurama’s marine regression
The marine regression (retreat event) attributed to Parashurama along the West Coast of India must have actually happened sometime before the composition of the Kadamba Parashurama myths. The historical records of Srilanka discuss a marine regression that took place in the region ca. 300BC.The event must have been a regional one that affected Srilanka and southern India. Apparently the Arabian Sea receded by a distance of a kilometer or two. Since there are evidences of many regressions in West Coast, the actual affect of this particular event (the Parashurama’s regression) needs to be studied in terms of actual geological data.
Parashurama legend did not end with Kadamba-Sahyadri episode during ca. fifth to sixth century CE. Further during tenth century CE, the Natha bards slightly modified and repackaged the Sahyadri legends of Parashurama in Kadali Mahatmye in Bharadwaja Purana to add glory and aura to the Buddhist-Natha-Shaiva center at Kadire, Mangalore.
According to the modified legends, Parashurama retrieved lands around Kadire, Mangalore and handed over to Natha Jogi monks to maintain the temple.
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