Parashuram, the Sixth avatar (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, was born as the eldest son to great rishi (sage) Jamadagni and his wife Renuka. Though a Brahmin; he possessed some of the best qualities of a warrior.
The Legend has it that his grandmother Satyavati, married to rishi Ruchika, was concerned that due to her Kshatriya parentage, her children might display tendencies of warriors. She appealed to her husband to use his divine powers to ensure that her offspring would turn out to be a knowledge seeking Brahmin, who would worship word and not sword. At the same time Satyavati’s mother and wife of King Gadhi, lacked a son and heir who would inherit Gadhi’s throne and continue the lineage. She desired a child who’d be disposed towards war and weaponry or in other words Kshatriya tendencies.
With this in mind, rishi Ruchika performed a Yajna (Vedic ritual) and divided the Payasam sanctified through that Yajna into two parts. One part was given to Satyavati and the other to her mother. Somehow they exchanged their portions and drank other’s share. They realized their mistake only after consuming the Payasam. Concerned Satyavati appealed to her husband to do something about this. After all, as a wife of a Brahmin avowed to live modestly how she could – ever – bring up a son with Kshatriya tendency? Though rishi Ruchika could not entirely alter the potency of his mantras he did take some steps to ensure that the effect of Payasam would be delayed by one generation.
So the effect of Payasam was only delayed… not entirely annulled. Since rishi Jamadagni was born to Satyavati and his son Jamadagneya (meaning: born to Jamadagni) Parashuram displayed Kshatriya tendency. As for Satyavati’s mother… she was blessed with a son named Vishwamitra, who grew up as a Kshatriya with keen interest in learning than his father might have wished but eventually turned out to be a rishi.
Parashuram’s birth name was Rama. Since childhood he was a devout seeker of Vedic wisdom. Owing to his enlightened parent’s upbringing he did not suppress or deny his Kshatriya side but kept it under check through training obtained from austere and disciplined gurus possible – the mighty Lord Shiva, himself – Destroyer of the worlds!
Shiva’s training demanded impossible penance and discipline which no ordinary human – could dream of adhering to! With Shiva as his guru – Jamadagneya Rama – proved himself to be a Brahma-Kshatriya that rare and enlightened being who possess the best qualities of both Brahman & Kshatriya varnas. It was in acknowledgement of this very austerity and pacifist approach that Lord Shiva gave his divine Parashu (axe) to Rama – thus earning him the epithet Parashuram.
King Chitraratha was a magnificent specimen of masculine perfection endowed with great physical beauty and artistic talent. He sang and recited lyric poetry while he danced and cavorted with his Gandharvas. Innocent and pure of life, when Renuka accidentally witnessed King Chitraratha copulating with Apsaras she was defeated by the erotic assault. On her returning home rishi Jamadagni was startled beyond words. As a man of wisdom and insight, he instantly knew what emotion assailed his wife.
One after another when their sons returned home Jamadagni ordered them to chop their mother’s throat. Everyone declined except Parashuram. Jamadagni was happy to note obedience of his son and asked his son to seek any boon he may desire. Though a Brahmin hermit he lived in abject poverty, in a state of near destitution, by choice. As a matter of fact, he possessed the power to grant almost any desire or wish through the use of powerful mantras he knew. He now offered to grant his obedient son any wish he demanded.
The obedient son – Parashuram – thanked his father and desired that his father restore his mother to life. Indeed, it was because he knew that his father possessed the knowledge of restoring life to dead that he willingly executed his mother. Now that her punishment was meted out it was only fair that Jamadagni should give Parashuram & his brother their mother back again.
Jamadagni was left speechless by his son’s intelligence and obedience. His anger dissipated by now, he agreed that being executed was punishment enough for his wife. He brought his wife back to life and embraced her and accepted her unconditionally once again.
During his military expedition Haihaya king Arjuna Kartavirya accidentally happened to visit rishi Jamadagni’s ashram. There he found a cow – Kama Dhenu. Originally belonging to Indra it is said to have magical powers to produce literally anything! Fascinated by its magical prowess Haihaya king took the cow away from Jamadagni by brute force. When Parashuram came to know that the evil Haihaya King was the one responsible for abducting of his father’s calf he wasted no time and went to Haihaya capital Mahismati, killed Arjuna Kartavirya after a fierce battle and returned to his ashram with the calf.
A few days later Arjuna Kartavirya’s son came to Ashram they killed Jamadagni in cold blood and butchered his body in revenge. When Parashuram realized the evilness of Haihaya clan and vowed to avenge the entire Kshatriya Varna for the death of his father. He made the world bereft of Kshatriya youths and men 21 times.
He would have continued this slaughter endlessly if the spirits, including that of his grandfather rishi Ruchika had not appeared before him and appealed to him to cease his campaign of vengeance.
Weary of slaughter, his task done, he decided to go home. Crossing the river Malaprabha on his way home, he paused to clean his axe. Parashu had drunk far too much blood. Twenty one generations of Kshatriya had died under its perennially sharp blade. Parashuram dipped it into the cool waters of the river rid it of its burden, for the blood it drank added greatly to its weight and Parashuram had borne that weight too long.
The axe relented, also weary of blood thirst, and began to purge itself of the blood it had consumed. Like a man who has consumed too much will vomit up the excess, Parashu began to spew forth the blood of its countless victims. The river had begun to turn red.
Parashuram realized that if he allowed Parashu to relive itself here the entire Malaprabha would be filled with the store of its accumulated blood. And eventually, all that blood would be carried down to the great ocean which would also be tainted. He lifted the axe of the river and went in search of a suitable place to relinquish the blood of his victims.
He found it in the great northern plain. There he unleashed the blood from Parashu five times. When it was drained five enormous lake of blood lay upon the ground. Samanthapanchaka was the name given to this place. Over time the land absorbed the blood; but was forever tainted. It was on that very site that great Mahabharata war was fought!
Author of this article, U. Mahesh Prabhu, is Fellow of the distinguished Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London (UK). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org