If everything goes according to the plan of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, then soon we will see at least two grand statues of Parashuram. Both parties also claim to follow social reformer Jyotiba Phule. But now more than ever, it would be pertinent to recall how Phule had called Parashuram ‘undisciplined’, ‘wicked’ and ‘heartless’.
Last week, the Samajwadi Party (SP) announced that the proposed statue will be 108 feet high and a private trust will install this. The number 108 is considered auspicious and the SP leadership must have had that in mind before announcing the height of the proposed statue. Soon after, BSP chief Mayawati announced that her party will install an even grander statue of Parashuram. Mayawati also accused the SP of making a false claim on Parashuram’s legacy and that it is the BSP that is the true saviour of Brahmins.
Both parties are overtly wooing the Brahmin vote bank. Soon, we may hear something similar from the Congress, because the party is desperate to reclaim its lost Brahmin vote bank in Uttar Pradesh.
Who was Parashuram?
Parashuram is not a revered figure, not even in Brahmin mythology. This fact can be empirically verified as we do not have many temples of him. Similar is the case with Brahma. Although he is considered to be one of the ten avatars or incarnations of Vishnu, no prominent tirtha kshetra (religious pilgrimage site) is dedicated to Parashuram. Unlike Ram or Krishna, Parashuram does not have wide acceptance among the devout Hindus.
But in recent years, a section of Brahmins have started propagating the axe-wielding ferocious Parashuram as their icon. Perhaps, they were looking for a muscular and aggressive icon in their ancestry, and ended up making Parashuram the symbol of their Brahminhood. After all, this is the age of rudra Shiva, rudra Hanuman and warrior Ram. So, as angry gods go, an axe-happy Parashuram may actually help Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh as they rise to reassert their long-lost political strength.
There are many narratives associated with Parashuram. So, I have culled out texts from various sources and tried to weave a shorter narrative, which can be agreed upon by almost everyone. Parashuram was the son of Rishi Jamadagni. His father once got suspicious about the moral character of his wife Renuka and ordered his three sons to cut the throat of their mother. Only Parashuram complied and beheaded his mother. Later, he requested his father to resurrect his mother, which Rishi Jamadagni did. After a Kshatriya king killed Jamadagni, an enraged Parashuram avenged his father’s death by killing all Kshatriyas on earth 21 times. Another incident described in Ramayana shows his angry side: when he came to know that Ram had broken his bow in the court of King Janaka. This led to a battle that Ram is said to have won. After his defeat, he went to Konkan in present day Maharashtra and spent the rest of his life there.
It’s beyond comprehension why the Brahmins are making Parashuram their caste icon. Political parties have electoral compulsions and so the BSP or SP wooing Brahmins in the name of Parashuram makes sense. But the community should have chosen a better icon.
But, for the SP and BSP, their move to appropriate the ‘Brahmin icon’ becomes interesting when seen in the backdrop of their claim to the legacy of 19th century social reformer Jyotiba Phule, who had nothing kind to say about Parashuram. One can’t imagine a banner or placard of the BSP without a portrait of Jyotiba Phule. Mayawati in 1997, when she was the UP chief minister, had renamed the Rohilkhand University after Jyotiba Phule and the Amroha district as Jyotiba Phule Nagar.
Although, after coming to power in 2012, the Samajwadi Party reinstated the old name of the district, later on, the party found all the virtues in Phule, and now it never forgets to remember the social reformer and his work.
महान समाज सुधारक महात्मा ज्योतिबा फुले जी की पुण्यतिथि पर आत्मिक नमन!
— Akhilesh Yadav (@yadavakhilesh) November 28, 2019
It’s amazing how both parties are able to reconcile Parashuram and Jyotiba Phule at the same time. Perhaps, they are able to balance both Phule and Parashuram in their pursuit of politics — just like the Hindutva groups today are able to garland Gandhi, Ambedkar and Godse at the same time. Intellectual and ideological consistency is overrated in India’s hyper-competitive cow-belt politics.
Phule on Parashuram
Phule had written a lot about Parashuram and held agnostic and critical views of his godliness. In this article, I quote excerpts from his famous treatise, Slavery (originally written in Marathi as Gulamgiri). The Marathi edition of Phule’s book was first published in 1873. The Maharashtra government had commissioned its translation in English because it was supposed to be given to Nelson Mandela. Sharad Pawar, then chief minister of Maharashtra, wrote the preface of the English translation. All the quotes are taken verbatim from this translated version of the 1991 edition.
- “Parashuram massacred the Kshatriyas (the original inhabitants of India) and deprived their poor women folks of their babes-in-arms and perpetuated the massacre of the innocents. He went one step further. He hunted down the pregnant wives of the Kshatriyas who were running helter-skelter to save themselves as also the babies in their wombs and captured and imprisoned them. If they delivered baby boys, Parashuram would rush there and killed the new born. (page xlvi)
- “Perhaps in the whole range of history, it is scarcely possible to meet with such another character as that of Parashuram, so selfish, infamous, cruel and inhuman. The deeds of Nero, Alaric, or Machiavelli, sink into insignificance before the ferocity of Parashuram.” Page (xxxi)
- “By temperament, Parashuram was undisciplined, adventurous, wicked, heartless, foolish and mean (depraved in the extreme). He did not hesitate to decapitate Renuka his own mother.” (page- 27)
- “… Ramachandra, the son of local king Dashratha, successfully strung the celebrated and formidable bow of Parashuram and won the hand of Janaki. This created jealousy in the mind of Parashuram. Parashuram intercepted Ramachandra as he was returning home with his newlywed bride and offered to fight with Ramachandra. Ramachandra accepted the challenge and easily defeated Parashuram. So dejected and crest-fallen was Parashuram at this defeat that he abdicated his kingdom…and settled down in lower Konkan. While there Parashuram (is said to have) repented his previous follies and cruelties and is supposed to have committed suicide there.” (Page-29)
- Phule had in fact writtenan open letter to Parashuram – “Dear elder brother Parashuram, The Brahmins have portrayed you as immortal in their scriptures…Do not try to shun me and run away from me. Should you present yourself (before me) within a period of six months from the date of receipt of this notice, not only myself, but the people in the different countries of the world too would regard you as the authentic incarnation of Adi-Narayana. Should you fail so to do, kindly note that the Mahars and the Mangs of this land will not hesitate to drag out, in the open, your so called versatile Brahmin followers and expose them in their true colours.” (Page 30-31).
Phule, the reformer
One can ask why a social reformer and educationist of the 19th century was engaging with a text and person who is either mythological or part of the hagiography of yesteryears. In Slavery, Phule writes how his project was to raise reasonable doubts in the minds of the readers about Brahminical mythologies, especially the philosophy of avatara or reincarnations. Phule tried to break the sanctity of shastras because he viewed these religious texts as the Masonic Stone of the Hindu social system based on caste and varna.
For his contribution to Indian philosophy, Phule has universal appeal among the political and ideological spectrum. He was not against any particular caste. The translator of his book Professor P.G. Patil explains that “he (Phule) was against the oppressive system of the rapacious, greedy, slothful priestly class who were claiming a divine ancestry and who were exploiting the ignorant populace to their heart’s content.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a great admirer of Phule.
Tributes to Mahatma Phule on his Jayanti. His pioneering and relentless emphasis on social reform greatly helped the marginalised. He was unwavering in his commitment towards improving the condition of women and furthering education among the youth.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 11, 2018
The President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, has called him an “iconic nation builder.”
Homage to Mahatma Jyotiba Phule on his birth anniversary. An iconic nation builder, his efforts towards social reform, women's education, and freedom from caste prejudice remain an inspiration for us #PresidentKovind
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) April 11, 2018
The government of India has also issued a postage stamp in his memory. The Maharashtra government has renamed Pune University after Savitribai Phule, another great educationist and the wife and companion of Jyotiba Phule.
It’s sad that Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have not read Phule well. Else, they would have found some other Brahmin icon for their political schemes.
Ambedkar was so influenced by Phule that he dedicated his book Who Were the Shudras to the social reformer. Ambedkar said Phule was the “greatest Shudra of Modern India who made the lower classes of Hindus conscious of their slavery to the higher classes and who preached the gospel that for India social democracy was more vital than independence from foreign rule.”
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.
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