Monday, August 23, 2010
Parashurama: When Absolute Power Corrupts
This is a story we are all familiar with in India. For ages, every Indian child has grown up listening to it, usually from his mother or grandmother, or father or grandfather, and at times from a professional storyteller in a temple or on the village grounds – and the more recent generations from their Amar Chitra Kathas or the television serials.
In a display of valour and strength, Rama has broken Shiva’s bow that had been in the family of Janaka, thus winning Sita in marriage. The wedding is over and he is on his way back from Mithila, Sita’s place, to Ayodhya. The group returning consists of the sage Vasishtha, who is the royal guru of the Ikshwakus, a few other sages, Dasharatha himself, Rama and Sita as well as Rama’s three brothers and their brides. They are just out of Mithila when all on a sudden the sky begins to darken unexpectedly. Birds begin to shriek frightfully everywhere, some from the trees and some flying above the moving party, sending terror to the hearts of all – for they all know it is a dark omen. Confusing them further, they see deer crossing their path from the left – which is a good omen.
Soon there is no time left to analyse omens. For now the shrieks of the birds have become deafening and animals are running in a mad riot everywhere. The earth begins to shake. A storm begins and soon gathers speed and terrifying power. It pulls out mighty trees by their roots, with the ease of a mad elephant pulling up plants from the ground. The storm sends the trees whirling up into the sky and then hurls them down with stupefying force. The storm gathers dust from the earth and sends it up into the skies. The dust covers the sun and darkness envelops everything. No one is able to see anything. Under the impact of the storm, the whole army accompanying Dasharatha and all the servants and attendants with the party fall down unconscious. In the middle of it all, a few people are left standing: Sage Vasishtha and the other sages with him, Dasharatha, his four sons, the four new brides.
And then they see the cause of it all. Like a whirlwind, the dreaded ascetic-warrior Parashurama appears before them from nowhere. He is terrifying to look at. His eyes burn red and spit fire, his beard flows wildly in the wind, and his matted hair is tied up in a bun over his head.
Here is how Valmiki’s Ramayana describes him: “He was as unassailable as Mount Kailasa and as unbearable as the fire of annihilation. Blazing as he was with his effulgence, he was difficult to be seen by common people. With an axe resting on his right shoulder and a bow on his left, he held in his hand a spear that was like a bolt of lightning. Thus he resembled Shiva, the destroyer of the three cities of demons.”
The very name of Parashurama – Rama with the Battle Axe – is pure dread to every kshatriya. For this is the man who had went round the earth and wiped out every kshatriya in sight, not once, but twenty-one times. He needed vengeance and he needed justice. A kshatriya, a king – Kartaveerya Arjuna, also known as Arjuna with a Thousand Arms for his might – had, in his arrogance of power, desecrated his father’s ashram and he had killed him in a fierce battle that became a legend for all times to come. But the arrogant man’s sons sought vengeance for their father’s killing and finding a time when Parashurama’s father was alone in his ashram, had brutally killed him. It is then that Parashurama decides to wipe out kshatriyas from the earth – and wipe the earth clean of kshatriyas he does.
Power in itself is neither good nor evil. In the hands of the good, it becomes good, and in the hands of the bad, it becomes bad.
Power can turn you good, and power can turn you evil.
One of the ways power corrupts its possessor is by turning him arrogant. When the man who possesses power becomes arrogant, power becomes evil. And evil power has to be wiped out. If not, it will consume the earth itself. Rama with the Battle Axe made destroying such power his life mission. It is said that Rama’s righteous anger was calmed only when he filled five lakes in Kurukshetra – the Syamanta-panchaka – with the blood of kshatriyas and did tarpana to his manes with that blood.
Vasishtha quickly consults the other sages with him. Why has he come? Hasn’t his anger already been quenched a long time ago after he wiped out the warrior caste from the earth? Hasn’t he been meditating ever since on the Mahendra Mountains, living a hermit’s life?
Vasishtha and other sages take water in their sacred vessels – kamandalas – and approach the ascetic warrior who was standing blazing like the fire at the end of the world. They make the ritual offer of water to wash his hands and feet. Bowing down deeply to him, they try to appease him with soft words.
Parashurama accepts their offering of water but otherwise ignores them completely. Instead, he turns to young Rama.
As I write these lines, words from the Malayalam Ramayana that I listened to as a child come to my mind. There Rama begins his speech with these words: njanozhinchunto raman ittribhuvanattinkal? His powerful words, spat out in fury and contempt, question the right of another Rama apart from him to exist in all the three worlds.
Parashurama is one of the seven immortals of Indian legends. This warrior who decimated kshatriyas is a brahmana by birth, born to practice serenity and meditation, to study and teach the Vedas, and to perform sacrificial rites.
The ascetic-warrior whose mission it was to wipe out arrogant power from the face of the earth had himself become arrogant power.
The fiery ascetic-warrior turns to Rama and asks him, in the words of the Valmiki Ramayana: “O Rama, son of Dasharatha, I have heard of your wonderful prowess. I have heard all about how you broke Lord Shiva’s bow. It is inconceivable that someone could have broken that bow. Hearing of that, I have come here, bringing another excellent bow. To this awesome bow which was given to me by my father Jamadagni, fix an arrow and draw it. Show me your strength. After seeing your strength in drawing the bow, I shall offer you a fight which will give credit to your valor.”
Parashurama’s words shake Dasharatha with dread. His dear son, his heartbeat, young Rama, is just about sixteen years of age – a mere boy, a child. And the man standing before him is dread itself – the one who went around the earth and wiped out kshatriyas from the earth twenty-one times. No warrior has ever existed equal to him in might. And now he was challenging his young son.
Dasharatha rushes to Parashurama and bowed deeply to him. He says: “O glorious brahmana, after giving up your anger against the warrior caste and becoming pacified, you should assure the safety of my juvenile sons. Born in the line of the Bhargavas, who are distinguished in erudition and asceticism, you put down your weapons, promising so to Indra. You then dedicated yourself to piety, giving the earth to Kashyapa. Going to the forest, you took up residence on Mount Mahendra. You have come here to totally destroy me, O great sage. If you kill Rama, we shall all be unable to live.”
Rama of the Battle Axe does not so much as look at Dasharatha. He does not think the old king deserves an answer. He has slaughtered a thousand kings like Dasharatha, and so many of them have fallen at his feet and begged him to spare the lives of their children. He hadn’t listened to a single one of them, nor had he spared the life of a single male kshatriya, however young he was.
Ignoring the begging Dasharatha, he says to young Rama: “Two divine bows honored by the whole world are superb, firm, strong, outstanding and well-made by Vishvakarma. The first is the bow given by the gods to Lord Shiva when he wanted to fight the demon Tripura, which has now been broken by you, O descendant of Kakutstha. The second unassailable bow was given by the foremost gods to Lord Vishnu. This is that bow of Vishnu, O Rama, which can destroy the enemy’s stronghold. It is in fact equal in strength to Shiva’s bow.”
Parashurama then tells Rama the history of the bow and explains to him how it came to his family and eventually to him. He then commands Rama, binding him to his vows as a warrior, “Take this excellent bow. Put an arrow to it and draw it. If you are able to do so, I shall thereafter engage you in battle.”
Rama, who was silent all this while, speaks for the first time. With his first words he pays his respects to the aged ascetic-warrior brahmana. He commends him on what he did to avenge his father’s brutal killing by arrogant men. And then, he tells Parashurama that to prove that he is not worthy of the contempt in which the ascetic holds him, he will accept the challenge and prove himself.
What Parashurama had done was ask Rama to accept an impossible challenge. No man living, other than Parashurama himself, was capable of handling the bow Vishnu which he was asking Rama to draw.
Rama swiftly grabs the bow and arrow from the old ascetic. And the next instant he stands ready to shoot, the bow fully drawn and the arrow in place.
Having done the impossible in a flash, Rama again turns to Parashurama and speaks to him. And there is anger in his voice as he speaks to the ascetic-warrior. Rama says: “You deserve my worship because you are a brahmana, and also because of your kinship with Vishvamitra. Therefore, I cannot shoot the deadly arrow at you, O Parashurama. I shall therefore take away either your ability to move swiftly everywhere, or the unequaled worlds which you have attained by dint of your austerities—this is what I intend to do. This transcendental arrow of Lord Vishnu, which can crush an enemy’s stronghold or smash the pride of an adversary by its power, never misses its target.”
A humbled Parashurama now speaks slowly in his deep voice. He needs his power to move about, he says, and asks Rama to destroy the worlds he has gained through his austerities.
Rama shoots the arrow and the arrow empowered with great spiritual power destroys all the worlds Parashurama had acquired through his tapas. The old ascetic bows down in humility to Rama and then circumambulates him in an action reserved to those whom you revere at the highest level. He bows down to Dasharatha and the other ascetics too and returns to Mount Mahendra, his abode, to engage in tapas again. As he departs, says the Ramayana, all directions were cleared of darkness.
Through his victories, Parashurama had acquired absolute power. And absolute power can corrupt even the greatest of men. That is what had happened to Parashurama. His power went to his head, and he became what he had lived to destroy.
Every leader is in danger of being corrupted by power. Wisdom is to guard against this. For once power goes to your head, your doom is decided.
There is another lesson for all of us in this. Vengeance is tamasic. True, there are times when vengeance is right, and called for. But one has to guard oneself against the power of vengeance to turn one into those against whom one is taking vengeance.
Parashurama always had an element of tamas in him. Without that tamas, he would not have been able to carry out the order of his father to chop off the head of his mother – an order that all his four elder brothers had refused to obey. And then, seeking revenge for his father’s death, he kills not only the perpetrators of the crime, but all kshatriyas of the world. And not once, but twenty-one times. And fills five lakes with their blood. And filling five lakes with their blood, he offers a dark tarpana – a propitiatory rite – to his ancestors with that blood. That is deep, dark tamas indeed.
It is this tamasic power that the Ramayana describes graphically in terms of shrieking birds and running animals at the approach of Parashurama. The earth shakes, storms uproot mighty trees and hurl them about, dust storms arise and block the sun – all signs of the destructive power of sinister tamas.
Power and tamas – that is the most terrifying combination. That creates monsters. In modern times we have had this in leaders like Hitler and Stalin.
All of us, says the Gita, have an element of tamas in us. And we have to be on the guard against it. When we allow tamas to take over us, we destroy ourselves and harm everyone we come across. And the more powerful we are, the more will be our destructive power.
When Parashurama leaves Rama at the end of the story, humiliated and humbled, the power of darkness too ends. The sun is revealed again, and nature becomes calm again.
In Indian legends, Parashurama is a great warrior and a great ascetic. And what he destroys is arrogant power. Arrogant power needs to be destroyed. It was the great mission of his life. But after he completes that mission, the stories we hear of him all have an element of darkness in them – whether it is his attempt to battle with Bhishma, his disciple, seeking what he believed was justice for Amba, or in his cursing Karna, another disciple of his, for his kindness to him, for his devotion to him, for Karna’s enduring unendurable pain for his sake. True, the reason given is that Karna had told him a lie about who he was in order to learn from him since he would not have accepted Karna as a disciple otherwise.
Many leaders of men today have unlimited power with them. That power should be used for the good of the world – lokasangraha – says Indian culture. And on no account should we use it in arrogance and haughtiness to satisfy our ego. If we do, what will happen to us is what happened to Parashuurama: destruction of all the worlds we have acquired. That is apart from the harm we cause the world.
The Mahabharata too tells us its own version of this story of the encounter between Rama and Parashurama. According to this telling, when Rama’s fame spread everywhere from Ayodhya, “impelled by curiosity” Parashurama takes his bow with which he had killed the kshatriyas and goes to Ayodhya to meet him there and to test for himself how great young Rama is. Dasharatha hearing of the arrival of the ascetic-warrior sends Rama to receive him at the outskirts of Ayodhya with all respect due to the great hero that he is. When Parashurama meets Rama, he offers his bow to him and asks him with a smile to string the bow. Rama accepts the challenge and eventually Parashurama’s pride is humbled.
This telling of the encounter differs in many significant details from Valmiki Ramayana’s telling. But here too, the essential message is the same: when power gives birth to arrogance, it is evil and ultimately it harms oneself, apart from harming others. In this telling also Parashurama loses all his powers and the great master who conquered the earth so many times, is reduced to nothing.
Valmiki Ramayana translation courtesy: Robert Biggs