When Rama Wields an Axe by Bibek Debroy
By Bibek Debroy
The story about the battle between Parashurama and Kartavirya is a familiar one. It figures in all Puranas.
At the prospect of the battle, Kartavirya Arjuna was delighted and there were one thousand akshouhinis on his side. He was supported by one hundred crore kings. Bhargava Parashurama hurled his battle-axe (known as parashu) and killed many ordinary soldiers. At this, Mangala, the king of Matsya, advanced against him, showering down arrows. In any duel, the clash always began with ordinary weapons and then escalated to divine weapons (divyastras, named after specific devas). Parashurama countered Mangala’s shower of arrows with vayavyastra (named after Vayu). The king released parvata astra (named after a mountain) in Rama’s direction. To kill the king of Matysa, Paramashurama invoked Narayana astra. Its extreme energy made all the directions blaze. The king of Matsya trembled. Rama saw that he was trembling and killed his horses with four arrows. With one arrow, he severed his standard. With two arrows, he severed his bow. With another arrow, he struck the charioteer and brought him down on the ground. With three arrows, he shattered the chariot. When Mangala left the chariot and sought refuge on the ground, he quickly struck him on the head with the parashu. His head shattered, he repeatedly vomited blood. He lost his senses and died within a short while.
When the king of Matsya was brought down, King Kartavirya sent other great kings. Brihadbala, Somadatta, Vidarbha, the lord of Mithila, the king of Nishadha and the king of Magadha arrived. Accomplished in many kinds of fighting, they showered down arrows. With Pinaka in his hand, Bhrigu’s descendant was like the blazing flame of a fire. He invoked the mantra of a noose of nagas on an excellent arrow and released it. He swiftly hurled that weapon, but the immensely strong Somadatta used the Garuda weapon to cut it down. At this, Rama became angry and using the trident given to him by Rudra, he killed Somadatta. He killed Brihadbala with his club and Vidharbha with his fists, the lord of Mithila with a bludgeon and the lord of Nishadha with a spear. He killed the lord of Magadha with a blow of his foot and the soldiers with his weapons. Like the fire of destruction, when it has been fanned by the wind, he slew all the soldiers.
On seeing that they had been killed by the great-souled Rama, the immensely valiant Suchandra arrived. There were one hundred thousand kings and seven akshouhinis with him. As they fought against Bhargava, the earth trembled. However, the powerful Parashurama destroyed those in an instant. The one hundred thousand kings and soldiers were destroyed by Rama. To slay Suchandra, Rama touched water (water is touched before any auspicious act) and affixed the invincible Narayana weapon to an arrow. On seeing this, Suchandra instantly got down from his chariot and prostrated himself. When he prostrated himself in this way, the weapon left him and returned to Narayana’s presence. If you recall, this is exactly how Narayanastra was pacified in the Kurukshetra war.
Rama angrily hurled a spear, a bludgeon, a javelin, a spike, a club and a battle-axe towards the king’s head. However, as if toying, Suchandra seized all of them. Rama then hurled Shiva’s trident towards the king. But the trident became a garland of flowers around the king’s neck and he saw Bhadrakali, the mother of the universe, standing in front of him. She was hideous and terrible and wore a garland of skulls. She was astride a lion. She possessed three eyes and held an excellent trident. On seeing her, he cast aside his shastras and astras. He prostrated himself and praised her. Rama said, “I prostrate myself before Shankara’s beloved, the mother of the universe, who is adorned in many kinds of ways. You are adorned in many kinds of ornaments and are borne by a lion. You are engaged in protecting those who seek refuge. You are Daksha’s daughter and Himalaya’s daughter. You are established as half of Maheshvara. You are Kali, who wears the moon. You are loved by devotees. You are known as Taraa. You are attached to Shiva. You are greater than the greatest. You grant boons to Parameshthi. You are the mother of every kind of learning and grace. You bestow many kinds of happiness. You destroy many kinds of asuras and danavas. Your radiant complexion resembles that of a blue mountain. You are known as Lalitaa. You are an ocean of compassion. You are devoid of dissolution. You are known as Ramaa. You are the one who dispels disease. You have created everything. You bestow kingdoms. Your complexion is like that of a jewel. O Bhadrakali! Fulfil the pledge I have taken earlier. You are the mother. I bow down. I prostrate myself.” Blessed by Bhadrakali, Parashurama killed Suchandra with Agneyastra. He also killed Suchandra’s son, Pushkaraksha.
Kartavirya Arjuna himself arrived. The immensely valiant one was astride a golden chariot. The king’s chariot was ten nalvas in size and was yoked to one hundred horses. (A nalva is a measure of distance, equal to 400 hastas or cubits.) He possessed one thousand hands and held many kinds of weapons. He had one hundred valiant sons and they were accomplished in fighting. Following their father’s command, they arranged the army in vyuhas and prepared for battle. To defeat Parashurama in the battle, Kartavirya Arjuna held five hundred arrows in his right hands and five hundred bows in his left hands. There was a tumultuous battle between them. The powerful king was accomplished in the use of all shastras and astras. To kill Bhargava in the battle, he affixed Brahmastra (named after Brahma). However, Rama countered Brahmastra with his own Brahmastra. The two weapons clashed against each other in the sky and increased in their energy. They resembled blazing suns in the horizon. The three worlds and the nether regions witnessed this great wonder. Rama saw the universe would be destroyed and remembered what Krishna had told him at the time. “I must restrain and control it now. It is my task to protect.” Thinking this, he used his two eyes to drink up those two weapons. As a result of the power of his dhyana, those two Brahmastras lost their power. They violently fell down on the ground and everything in the world was immediately restored to its natural state.
Thereafter, he again started to kill those from the Haihaya lineage. He picked up a pair of arrows from his quiver and fixed the feathered ends to the string of his bow. He desired to cut off the king’s crest jewel. But instead, he took his aim at the two ears of the king. The two ears of the great-souled king were sliced off. His valour had exceeded that of everyone else in the worlds. He was the one who had obtained victory over Ravana. Desiring victory, the king opened his eyes again and thought of Dattatreya. It was because of his power and favours that he had obtained the energy he had used to chastise all the kings in the world. But the great and noble Dattatreya had left and did not show himself to him. The great-souled Rama, who could see everything in the minds of the worlds, saw that the king was immersed in grief. He said, “O lord of men! Do not be overcome by sorrow. Resort to fortitude in your mind. At the time of a battle, one should grieve.
Destiny brings about calamity. Every person enjoys the consequences of his own good and bad deeds. You caused harm to my guru. That is the reason I have severed your ears. You will now see me take away your energy by robbing you of your crest jewel. You will lose your fame.” Bhargava fixed an arrow and drew his bow-string back. Light in speed, the arrow severed the king’s crest jewel and brought it back to Rama. Desiring to kill the dvija who was his enemy, Arjuna raised his weapons again. He used tridents, spears, clubs, chakras, swords, javelins, bludgeons and many other weapons to strike. However, with dexterity, Rama used his own arrows to counter these. The king released Agneyastra. However, Rama swiftly pacified this with Varunastra.
The king released Gandharvastra, but the lord countered this with Vayavyastra. Rama used Garudastra to slice down Nagastra. In the battle, the king seized the infallible trident that had been given to him by Dattatreya. That trident resembled one hundred suns and gods and asuras were incapable of repulsing it. With great force, he hurled it in Rama’s direction. It descended on Bhargava’s head. Struck by the blow of the trident, Bhargava lost his senses. As he fell down, he remembered Hari.
When Bhargava fell down, all the devas were filled with fear. With Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshvara at the forefront, they assembled there. The lord Shankara possesses great jnana. Using the knowledge of mritasanjivani, he revived Bhargava. Rama regained his senses and saw the gods in front of him. He devotedly prostrated himself before Brahma and the others. Bhargava remembered the Pashupata weapon given to him by Shiva. He used this to immediately destroy the immensely strong Kartavirya. The king, Dattatreya’s devotee, entered Vishnu’s Sudarshana chakra. His body was reduced to ashes.