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Updated: June 22, 2010 15:35 IST

The making of an Avatara

Kesavan Veluthat
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The story of the evolution of cults and practices is of great interest to students of the history of religions in India. It can shed light on the processes of religious development and show how one or the other hegemonic “religion” seeks to expand its base by affiliating local cults and practices. Alternatively, it can also demonstrate how a local cult seeks to apparent itself to a larger system.

Interesting study

This book by Pradeep Kant Choudhary is an attempt to examine the evolution of the myth and cult of Parasurama through the ages. The problem addressed by him has implications that go beyond the restricted theme; it has the potential to raise questions relating to the nature of the Vaishnava denomination of the so-called Hindu religion and show how it was a matter of recent invention, a hold-all packed with numerous cults and practices. The story of Parasurama offers an interesting case study in the process of religious evolution in India, with a large number of cults and practices incorporated into the greater systems. What is of particular interest is that Parasurama is a Brahmanical hero, which means his acceptance into the “greater system” was not a case of Brahmanical groups accommodating or appropriating an “indigenous” cult.

An outlandish character, Parasurama is at once a sage and a fighter, a great warrior-hero and a slayer of warrior-heroes, an avatara of Vishnu and a disciple of Siva, a matricide propitiating the pitrs. He donates land to Brahmanas and recovers more land from the sea only to donate it. The evolution of his cult at the levels of doctrine, mythology, and practices makes for an extremely engaging study.

In tracing the evolution of the various myths related to Parasurama, the author takes up for analysis the annihilation of the Kshatriyas, rituals and donations, the Bhargava clan, and the matricide, as also the relationship of Parasurama and other Bhrigus with the heroes of the Mahabharata. A little more attention to detail would have brought out the similarities between the stories about, for example, different Bhrigus and this in turn would have led him to critically examine the social function of tradition, given particularly the identical structure in which many of the stories are cast.

Discussion

Another significant aspect of the study is Choudhary's treatment of the different aspects of the Parasurama cult. The sacred geography, the various tirthas and kundas, and the temples associated with the cult are discussed extensively. A question that may possibly be asked is: Why is it that only a very few of the tirthas and other spots of worship dedicated to Parasurama are found in the Konkan, Canarese and Malabar coasts that are associated with him in the myths of his origin?

Apart from a chapter on the rituals, sacred performances, fairs and festivals and the presentation of Parasurama as an avatara, there is an enlightened discussion of the somewhat complicated relations between him and Renuka. The identification of Renuka with Yellamma and her worship by the Virasaivas, who have nothing to do with anything Vaishnava, is interesting. How the Parasurma-related myths get transformed as they enter into the folk narratives is yet another dimension of the study.

Over different periods, these myths and the cult have served a variety of purposes. They have been used to gain some kind of legitimacy or other by various Brahmanical groups, dynasties of Kshatriyas/non-Kshatriyas, a few other caste groups, and even some tribes that were yet to graduate into ‘castes'. An appreciation of the social function of tradition would have helped the author in finding answers to many questions.

Well researched and equally well produced, the book will be found extremely useful by students of Indian tradition. However, it cries for a careful copy-editing.

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