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The Ax-Wielding Avatara

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From Vedic history comes the story of the avatar who purged the earth of demonic kings for twenty-one generations.

Once, many thousands of years ago in the age known as Treta- yuga, the great sage Richika approached Varuna, lord of the waters, and obtained one thousand horses, each as lustrous as moonlight and having one black ear. Richika Muni presented the horses to the great king Gadhi as a dowry for his daughter, the beautiful and qualified princess Satyavati.

After the marriage, Satyavati naturally wanted to give her husband a son, so with prayers and mantras Richika Muni created an oblation imbued with his powers of penance. By eating the oblation before procreative union, Satyavati would have her desire fulfilled. The oblation was imbued with brahmana mantras, thus ensuring that their son would have the qualities of a peaceful, content, and forgiving brahmana.

Satyavati’s mother, King Gadhi’s queen, asked that an oblation be created for her too. So Richika Muni prepared the oblation, enchanted with appropriate kshatriya mantras. This would bless the queen with a son of bold, courageous warrior qualities, willing to fight for truth and righteousness.

After preparing the two oblations, the sage went to the river for his ritualistic bath. Meanwhile, the queen, assuming that a husband out of natural affection would put a better effort into the oblation meant for his wife, exchanged the oblations, with her daughter’s permission.

When Richika Muni returned from his bath, he discovered the switch and scolded his wife.

“You have committed a great wrong,” he said. “Because of this your son will be a fierce kshatriya capable of punishing everyone. And your brother will be a scholar learned in all the spiritual sciences.”

Satyavati then begged that her son not be a kshatriya. Pacified by her charm and devotion, Richika Muni adjusted the reaction.

“Since the mantras must have an effect,” he proclaimed, “your grandson, rather than your son, will have an invincible kshatriya spirit.”

Satyavati became the mother of the austere and tolerant Jamadagni. His son was named Parashurama, or “Rama with the ax [parashu].” Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.3.20) says, “The sixteenth incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead (as Parashurama) annihilated the kshatriyas twenty-one times, being angry at their rebellion against the brahmanas.”

Powerful Kartaviryarjuna

The Ninth Canto continues the narration.

A great warrior king named Kartaviryarjuna had received a thousand arms by worshiping the avatar Dattatreya. [See sidebar: “A Thousand Arms?”] The king had also received other opulence and mystic powers that only served to further inflate his ego.

Once Kartaviryarjuna was sporting in the company of many beautiful women in the Narmada, one of India’s seven major holy rivers. With his thousand arms he stopped the river’s flow. Upstream, where the demon-king Ravana had halted with his army, the water overflowed its banks, flooding Ravana’s camp. The powerful Ravana challenged Kartaviryarjuna over the insult, but he proved no match for the thousand-armed king, who captured and then neglectfully released Ravana as one might trap and then set free a wild monkey. King Kartaviryarjuna now considered himself all- powerful and invincible.

Some time after this incident, King Kartaviryarjuna traveled north and met the sage Jamadagni at his forest hermitage. With the help of his kamadhenu, a celestial wish-fulfilling cow, Jamadagni sumptuously fed the mighty king and his vast retinue. The envious Kartaviryarjuna, unable to tolerate a mere hermit’s owning an opulence surpassing anything of his, ordered his men to steal the cow along with her calf. Kartaviryarjuna then took the crying cows to Mahishmati, his capital on the banks of the Narmada in central India.

When Parashurama, the youngest son of Jamadagni, heard of this great offense, he became, the Bhagavatam describes, “as angry as a trampled snake.” Although born of a sage, Parashurama had been influenced by the kshatriya oblations, as predicted by his grandfather Richika Muni. Of course, the Supreme Lord or His plenary expansion is ever above the material world and cannot be influenced by the modes of material nature. Therefore, all these activities are simply His lila, or pastimes. The display of His pastimes is to attract fallen conditioned souls of various natures back home, back to Godhead.

Parashurama took up his ax, shield, bow, and arrows and pursued the thousand-armed king “as a lion chases an elephant.” At Mahishmati, Kartaviryarjuna gasped in fear as he saw the sixteenth avatar of the Lord swiftly approaching. Kartaviryarjuna sent hundreds of thousands of troops to battle Parashurama, but the Lord slaughtered every one of them by rushing here and there as swiftly as the mind. The battlefield at his feet turned to mud from blood spilling from the headless and armless torsos of slain warriors.

The courageous Kartaviryarjuna then decided to confront this ax-wielder on the field of battle. Taking up five hundred bows fixed with five hundred arrows, he issued a challenge. With only one bow, Lord Parashurama cut to pieces each of the king’s hundreds of bows and arrows. Furious, Kartaviryarjuna uprooted trees and hills and rushed at the ax- bearer, intent on killing him. With great force and speed, Lord Parashurama sliced off each of the king’s thousand arms, then beheaded the horrified and helpless king, who followed his fallen army to a grisly doom. As the ten thousand sons of Kartaviryarjuna witnessed their father’s defeat, they ran away in fear. Lord Parashurama then gently released the stolen kama-dhenu cow and her calf and returned them to his father’s ashrama.

Father Displeased

Bowing before his father and greeting his brothers, the warrior-brahmana explained every detail of the war and the heroic death of Kartaviryarjuna. However, Parashurama’s father, the tolerant Jamadagni, scolded him.

“O great hero,” he said, “you have unnecessarily killed the king, who is supposed to be the embodiment of all the demigods. Thus you have committed a sin. We brahmanas are worshipable by others only due to our quality of forgiveness. It is through this quality of forgiveness that Lord Brahma has achieved the post of master of the entire universe. The Supreme Personality of Godhead Lord Hari, the remover of obstacles, becomes pleased with those who are forgiving. Forgiveness is illuminating like the sun, and cultivation of this quality is the brahmana’s duty.”

Rishi Jamadagni then told his son how to atone for the sin. With a father’s love he instructed, tirtha-samsevaya camho jahy angacyuta-cetanah: “O son, expansion of my very self, you must worship the sacred places to atone for this sinful act. You must become Krishna conscious.”

With that, the sage sent his son on a pilgrimage tour of Bharata, ancient India. Lord Parashurama visited the holy cities, abodes, rivers, hills, and lakes throughout the land.

Actually Lord Parashurama had committed no sin in the execution of his divine lila. He awarded liberation to all the warriors who died valiantly before him. The Lord’s pilgrimage was to purify holy places and establish new ones blessed by his lotus feet. Since God is complete, all attributes must reside within Him, from creation and birth, to destruction and killing. That which is not complete cannot be God. But to teach that killing is generally improper, sage Jamadagni ordered Lord Parashurama to “serve the holy spots” (tirtha-seva). Many people visit holy places just to bathe in a sacred lake or river and consider their sins washed away. But the real purpose of tirtha-seva is to associate with holy devotees who reside at these places for the sake of human welfare. The blessings of all the holy places can be found in the instructions of pure devotees like Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, whose very presence created holy places all over the world.

Sage Jamadagni’s instructions to his son included the admonition to wash out the sinful act through achyuta- chetanah, Krishna consciousness. Thus Jamadagni took the position of spiritual master and instructed his son to become Krishna conscious. Here in the sacred Srimad-Bhagavatam is ancient scriptural proof that the Krishna consciousness movement is not a new fad, cult, or invention. It is an ancient process that has been followed by billions of pious souls for billions of years. Here we see the fruit of love of God, Krishna consciousness, being handed directly to Lord Parashurama. This pastime is displayed for our benefit. In the same way, Srila Prabhupada took the position of jagat- guru, “world spiritual master,” and on behalf of his guru freely handed out the Hare Krishna mantra all over the world.

Lord Parashurama’s example of obedience to his father is exemplary. He told his father, tatha iti: “Let it be so.” He then undertook a tour of India for a full year and increased the glory of many holy places by his exalted presence. Then he returned to the ashram of his family beside the Ganges.

The Murder

Meanwhile the miserable sons of Kartaviryarjuna had been nursing a grudge against Lord Parashurama since the death of their father. One day while Parashurama was roaming the woods with his brothers, the vengeful sons of Kartaviryarjuna invaded their forest ashram. They murderously approached Jamadagni, sitting by the sacrificial fire and meditating on Bhagavan Sri Krishna. Renuka, Parashurama’s mother, entreated them not harm her husband, who was absorbed in trance. Despite her pleas, the invaders, devoid of noble kshatriya qualities, beheaded the sage and absconded with his head.

Deep in the forest, Parashurama and his brothers heard their mother shouting, “O Rama! O Rama!” They rushed to the ashram and found her beating her chest in frantic despair over the sudden loss of her husband. Lord Parashurama then vowed to rid the world of all devious members of the kshatriya class twenty-one times.

Parashurama sped to Mahishmati, which was doomed by the murder of a peaceful brahmana, and extracted a terrible toll. Just as Kartaviryarjuna’s sons had mercilessly beheaded his father, Parashurama created a mountain of heads severed from their bodies. When still other arrogant kings, who also lacked respect for brahmanas, saw the river of blood created by the Lord, they trembled in fear.

Eventually Lord Parashurama rid the world of sinful warriors twenty-one times. At Samanta Panchaka near Kurukshetra, where thousands of years later Lord Krishna would speak the Gita, Parashurama created nine lakes with the slain kshatriyas’ blood.

Lord Parashurama returned with his father’s head to the ashram by the Ganges. There, with the power of mystic arts and mantras, he rejoined the head to his father’s body, which had been watched over by his brothers. By the touch of the Lord, Jamadagni returned to life as if waking from a restful sleep. The all-victorious Lord Parashurama then completed his great sacrifice of ridding the world of unqualified leaders by taking his ritualistic bath in the Saraswati River.

These are some of the wonderful descriptions of Lord Parashurama’s lila as narrated in the Ninth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Other Puranas say that after ridding the earth of the burden of defiant kings maddened by a lust for power, Lord Parashurama per-formed penance in the Vindhya Hills, a chain of small mountains running through central India, roughly following the course of the Narmada River.

Lord Parashurama is known as one of three ciranjivas, or persons who will live as long as the earth exists. (The other two are Vyasadeva and Ashvatthama.) Before the Kurukshetra war five thousand years ago, Lord Sri Krishna’s brother Balarama met Parashurama at Mahendra Parvata. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.16.26) states, “Lord Parashurama still lives as an intelligent brahmana in the mountainous country known as Mahendra [in Bihar State]. Completely satisfied, he has given up all the weapons of a kshatriya.”

A Thousand Arms?

In the following excerpt from Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy (pp. 39-40), Sadaputa Dasa, in commenting on a pastime of Lord Krishna’s, gives a logical explanation for such seemingly impossible phenomena as a person’s having a thousand arms.

It is interesting to note that the Brahmas visiting Krishna had varying numbers of heads, ranging from four to hundreds of millions. It is rather difficult to understand how millions of heads could be arranged on one body in three-dimensional space, and it is also difficult to see how millions of Brahmas could all be seen simultaneously within one room. We suggest that these things are made possible by the fact that the underlying space is not three-dimensional.

Similar observations could be made about the incident in which Banasura used 1,000 arms to work 500 bows and shoot 2,000 arrows at a time at Krishna. In this case we are dealing with a materially embodied being living on the earth. One might wonder how 500 material arms could be mounted on one shoulder without interfering with one another. And if this is possible, how could they aim 500 bows in the same direction at once? (Did the bows pass through each other?) We suggest that stories of this kind implicitly require higher-dimensional conceptions of space.

We can sum up the idea of dimensionality of space by saying that the greater the degree of access between locations, the higher the dimensionality of the space. Since Krishna has simultaneous access to all locations, He perceives space at the highest level of dimensionality. Different living beings will perceive space at different levels of dimensionality, and thus they will have access to different sets of locations (or lokas).

The idea of higher-dimensional access between locations is a key feature of quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanical atom cannot be represented in three-dimensional space. In fact, to represent something as commonplace as an atom of carbon, quantum mechanics makes use of a kind of infinite- dimensional space called Hilbert space. The three-dimensional bonding of carbon and other atoms is made possible by the higher-dimensional interactions within the atoms. Thus, although the idea of higher-dimensional realms may seem to be an extreme departure from accepted scientific thinking, it is possible to interpret modern physics as laying the groundwork for such an idea.