Paraśurāma’s Rise to Avatāra-hood. A Glimpse of Early Avatāra-Theology

(Abstract from: Paolo Magnone, “Paraśurāma’s Rise to Avatāra-hood. A Glimpse of Early Avatāra-Theology”. Paper read at the XI World Sanskrit Conference (Turin, 3-8 April 2000))

Paraśurāma, later to be regularly reckoned as the 6th in standard daśāvatāra lists, does not yet appear to entertain any special relationship to Viṣṇu in the earlier portions of the Epics, where the first details of the main features of his legend are to be found: i) the uncanny circumstances of his (and Viśvāmitra's) birth; ii) the killing of Kārtavīryārjuna and the 21-fold extermination of the kṣatriya-s; iii) the beheading of his mother Reṇukā; to which the Rāmāyaṇa adds the episode of the meeting of the two Rāmas and the defeat of the elder at the hands of the younger. Indeed, in the Karṇaparvan of the Mahābhārata he is rather depicted as Śiva’s bhakta, as would seem more in character with the ‘deviant’ traits of his behaviour. How then did he win acceptance among the ranks of Viṣṇu's avatāra-s? The Viṣṇudharmottara Purāṇa (VDh) I, 23-73, is arguably the first full-fledged account wherein we may inquire for the mode of his newly acquired dignity. As it turns out, such acceptance, which even later was seldom unreserved on account of the scarcely Viṣṇu-like ruthlessness of his exploits, is right from the beginning only partial, and qualified by certain doctrines which, if not altogether peculiar to the VDh, do nevertheless come in a distinctive flavour in that Purāṇa, such as the doctrine of the “thousands of manifestations” (prādurbhāva-sahasrāṇi) and above all that of vaiṣṇava tejas. In the VDh Paraśurāma is certainly not what will be later termed a pūrṇāvatāra, not even an aṁśāvatāra, but just another instance — side by side with his arch-enemy Kārtavīrya — of those powerful beings which partake in an eminent degree of Viṣṇu's own world-sustaining energy.