Wisdom from the axe-wielding warrior
CHENNAI : For most of us mytho-heads, Parashurama is an angry rishi who makes an appearance in the Ramayana when Rama breaks the bow during the swayamvara. So, when first-time author Ranjith Radhakrishnan released Rama Of The Axe: The Epic Saga of Parashurama, it was but natural to pick it up and enter the world of mytho-fiction, with Parashurama as the protagonist.
In 300-odd pages, which is just the first volume of the book, Ranjith takes the readers through how a 20-something-year-old Rama takes to the axe and saves the world. The plot of him being an avatar of Vishnu is seamlessly woven in, another story through which mythology lovers largely know him from.
Ranjith finds Parashurama an endlessly fascinating avatara. He’s counted among the Dasavataras of Mahavishnu, among the foremost devotees of Mahadeva — not Ravana!, he tells CE — A Devi upasaka and a disciple of Avadhuta Dattatreya. “There are Vedic hymns and tantric texts credited to him. Further, he’s a Brahmakshatriya, a Chiranjeevi, a future Saptarishi, one of the first teachers of kalarippayattu and the Rurujit Vidhana of temple formation. And he is the creator of the Konkan coast, from Goa to Kanniyakumari. There is lore across the length and breath of our country, yet he remains largely unsung. The first time I visited a Parashurama temple was when I went to Thiruvallam, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, for the last rites of an elder of my family. There were unfortunately a series of deaths, and I went there again and again. The urge to know more about him sparked then, along with a curiosity about mortality and spirituality,” he says.
What made you opt for this genre of mytho-fiction for your first book?
We have this stupendous treasure of stories in our Puranas, Itihaasas, folklore and regional legends, and so many variations of them. Most of them are imbued with our dharma and culture, and I don’t think we’ve brought many of them to light yet. The stories are fascinating, that’s what drew me to them. The urge to retell them, to perhaps discover a new aspect to them, is what keeps me interested. I’ve never thought of them as ‘mytho-fiction’, that’s just a book category, but always as incredible lessons that we can learn from.
The book has a very Harry Potter-esque approach in several instances – Parashurama’s Agya chakra throbbing, a version of the Mirror of Erised, when he is in dhyana...
I think there must be an inversion of the gaze, to see what Western writers have taken from our culture, consciously or inadvertently. The Agya chakra on the forehead has two petals, Shiva and Shakti, or Paramatma and Atma. It is to portray a divine portion merging with a mortal. It is also called the third eye, and I used it to foreshadow the Banalinga and how Parashurama succeeds in his penance. This has nothing to do with a scar on the forehead.
The mirror is profoundly important and auspicious in Hinduism. It is one of the essential parts of the Vishu festival, used for darshan in the morning, and there is a temple with a mirror instead of a murthi, in Kerala. There are mirror similes in Thirukkural and Thiruppavai. ‘The person that is in the mirror, on him I meditate’ says Kaushitaki Upanishad, meaning to know yourself. This ties in with the Mahavakya I used in the book, Tat twam asi, that thou art.
The mirror of Erised shows your desperate desire. The mirror in Rama Of The Axe shows you the truth, whether you like it or not.
A lot of Western fantasy writers have used Eastern philosophy, concepts of reincarnation, karma, and dharma, though they may not call it by the same names. For example, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series uses so many concepts from Indian and far eastern cultures. The Wheel of Time itself is the kaalachakra, the Indian concept of cyclical time.
The prophecies in the form of poems, add an interesting touch to the narrative. Did you explore your love for poetry through this?
Yes! We are a culture, a people of songs. We have not one, but ten or more for each rasa and bhava. Poetry lent a mystic, mysterious feel to the prophecies, and I wrote the Aghori song as an invocation to the manifestation of the Mahavidya. It gave me so much confidence that I wrote an entire narrative poem, Tushara Swayamvara, published in the anthology Aryaa.
Some of the themes explored in the book mirror the current realities of society. Was this a deliberate attempt to make us reflect?
It is more cultural than political, to portray a sense of understanding of the original true message. As it says in the book, ‘There is a morality to mercy, and a morality to killing.’ A sword swung at you cannot be stopped by a sharp argument. Himsa and ahimsa aren’t the polar opposites as is made out to be, rather, they complement each other. One’s guna and karma decide what one must do in one’s life, not a system that pigeon-holes you at birth. I think we must all beware of the wisdom of half-sayings. Yes, ahimsa paramo dharma. But, dharma Himsa tathaiva cha, as well. Yes, hell has no fury like a woman scorned. But heaven has no wrath like a man wronged as well.
How have you balanced the fiction and the existing mythological stories?
Research accrued over the years as my fascination and devotion to this avatara took root. I’ve used the Malayalam Brahmanda Purana by Akkitham as a reference, but the Mahavidya aspect of the story doesn’t appear there. Renuka is a kuladevi to many people in northern Karnataka and southern Maharashtra and is more folklore than Puranic. The spiritual aspects come from my bhakti to Devi and an emphasis on staying true to the essence of all characters.
When one writes about Puranic characters, one must approach them with a certain regard to who they actually may be, rather than warp them to suit one’s narrative. That is disrespect and the story will not ring true. The creative liberty I’ve taken is to hasten the timeline of the story, introduce some ideas about the ‘Parashu’, who a Brahmakshatriya is, and how certain events may have played out.