Last week I wrote about the incarnation of Vishnu as Vamana, the dwarf. This week, I'll be writing about the incarnation of Vishnu as Parashurama (Parasurama), "Rama-with-an-axe."
Parashurama was born into the priestly (brahman) class, the youngest son of the great sage Jamadagni and Renuka. He was born into this world in order to restrain the class of kshatriyas, or warriors.
Parashurama was devoted to the god Shiva, and in reward for his devotions, Shiva bestowed on him the axe from which Parashurama takes his name. He famously used his axe to cut off the head of his mother, Renuka, when his father, Jamadagni, ordered him to do so. Jamadagni was enraged because Renuka had experienced a feeling of lust for a beautiful Gandarva (celestial musician) whom she had seen in the sky, so he ordered his sons, one after another in order of age, to kill their mother. Each of his sons refused to obey his command, so Jamadagni cursed them, one after the other, to become idiots. Parashurama was the only son who obeyed his father's command. Jamadagni was so impressed by his son's obedience that he granted him a boon. Parashurama accordingly asked that his mother be brought back to life and that his brothers be restored to their senses. He also acquired for himself invincibility in combat.
Parashurama later went on to wipe out the entire race of warriors from the earth. He did this in order to avenge the crime committed by the warrior Kartavirya, the thousand-armed king of the Haihayas. When Kartavirya was visiting Jamadagni, he stole a sacred cow, Surabhi. This made Parashurama angry, and he chased Kartavirya, and proceeded to cut off all one thousand of his arms. While Parashurama was chasing Kartavirya, the army returned to Jamadagni's home and killed him. When Parashurama found that his father had been killed, he vowed to kill every warrior on the planet.
There is a great legend about what happened when Parashurama came to Ayodhya, where Dasaratha was king. Dasaratha as yet had no sons, so his wives refused to let him face Parashurama in battle. Instead, they made him dress in women's clothing and hide in the women's quarters. Parashurama searched through the palace and when he finally found Dasaratha, he refused to fight him, scorning him because he had taken refuge among the women.
If you'd like to learn more about the fierce and even violent sages of the Indian tradition, including Parashurama, take a look at this great project one of my students did for the Indian Epics class this past semester: Indian Epics: When Gurus Attack!
Here is an image of Rama-with-the-axe: