3. Parashurama, a Soldier in Training

Indian Woman, M. V. Dhurandhar, 1928

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Chapter 3

Parashurama, a Soldier in Training

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Parashurama’s name means “Rama with an Axe.” He grew up as simply Rama, but today he is called Parashurama to distinguish him from a later incarnation of Vishnu, also called Rama. For this story, I will simply call him Rama. You will know when I have gone to his next lifetime, and so there is no need to distinguish between the two.

For the seventh life in a row, Vishnu set about living a life of happiness. Avoiding living in communities of greedy people, he also avoided greed in himself. He sought people who were loving, and he returned their love. When he fell in love with a young woman, she was always a person he correctly understood would return the love he felt.

In the seventh life of this series, however, Vishnu was being set up for a fall. For one thing, the village and the people were simple, as his previous six lives were, but he was different. Though he was born in a small, mountain village, he was part of a Brahmin family.

Actually, his education was atypical for a Brahmin. Though he did learn much that Brahmins normally learned, he was thoroughly taught to be the perfect soldier. From this beginning, he should have known that he was destined for something outside his simple village. But he never guessed. For him it was simply what happened.

It was not a matter of arrogance on his part that he failed to see this. He had lost his edge, in a way, seduced by the joys of living among happy, loving people. The fact that he fell in love with a very beautiful young woman did not help this. His attention was taken by happy thoughts, and it never really occurred to him to put his attention on anything that might be amiss.

Something was very much amiss, however, not far to the south of where he lived. For generations, the India had been divided into petty kingdoms, barely bigger than counties. The men who ruled most of these tiny kingdoms were not interested in goodness or moral uprightness. For them, something was only good if it added to wealth. Conquest was good. Greed was good.

For those men, the way to wealth was to take whatever could be taken from the people around them. They took whatever they could from the people of the countries they controlled, and they took whatever they could from the people of the countries around them. They went on taking until they made mistakes or had losses and then they fell victim to some more powerful neighbor.

That was a time when boys did not grow up to be men. They grew up to be soldiers. And they fought as soldiers. And they were maimed or disabled or killed as soldiers when they were still young. If they survived and returned to their villages, they could get wives and father children. If they were still strong enough to work, they could add what they could add to the welfare of their people. But to many of them never returned home.

It was a time when merchants could not travel through the lands without having their goods stolen by bandits or taxed by the authorities who said they needed the taxes to protect them. Since the merchants were unsafe in those places, they went elsewhere. Without the merchants, there was no trade. Without trade, the kingdoms and the people in them sunk deeper into poverty.

Whole fields of manufacture collapsed. The only things that were made were those things that could be purchased and used locally. And of these, only weapons were considered important by the kings. Without trade, there was nothing to exchange goods for, so potters made pots, and weavers made cloth, but only enough to trade for food for their families.

With the men gone, the business of farming fell to the women. They plowed, planted, and harvested. They raised the livestock, milked the cattle, and made cheese. They did what they could, but they never prospered. Farmers have always suffered from droughts, insect blights, floods, and the like. But in those days, if a crop was good, someone would come to take it away. The women worked for the sake of their children, but without much hope for their future.

For hundreds of years, this situation only got worse, spreading from one land to another until it wasted nearly all of northern India. For hundreds of years, ordinary people suffered because of the greed of their “betters” and the doctrines that might made right and greed was good.

The situation was exactly what Vishnu knew needed to be avoided. The fact is, he was avoiding it. But his doing so was not helping those who really needed help, and so the people of the countryside suffered.

Rama, the young Brahmin who was trained as a soldier, was sent for further education to a village some distance to the south of where he had been raised. There, he was trained in what we might call some very advanced skills. They were not the sorts of things most soldiers learn.

One thing he learned was to be invisible. It is a real skill. A person who has achieved it can function on a battle field without anyone having any understanding of where he is. He can attack almost at will, without his enemy having any defense. He can also defend himself by remaining invisible, so his enemies pass him by without knowing he is even there.

There are different ways to do this. One is to take on the appearance of being nothing. People just do not see you at all. Another is to take on the appearance of being something you are not, such as a goat or tree or a member of a party of the enemy you seek to fool.

Rama was also taught the problems with this ability. One is that while the enemy does not know you are there, neither does anyone else. While an enemy will not know where to aim arrows to hit you, your friend will not know where you are to avoid shooting you. Invisibility is much more complicated than the simple matter of fooling everyone into failing to see you. You must be vigilant about dangers around you.

Another thing he was taught was to understand an enemy’s mind, to know what the enemy is thinking. This meant that Rama could block enemy moves, if he chose. It meant that he could see through enemy deception.

When a soldier has such training, he is not easy to defeat. Even so, he cannot escape fate. All men are fated to die, even the gods who visit earth in human form.

While he was in that village, being taught the most advanced ways of soldiers, Rama met a young woman. For him, this was the same thing he had done for one lifetime after another, and he almost expected it. She was a gloriously beautiful woman with a joyous disposition. She was very bright. She had a native wisdom that made her even more attractive. Falling in love with her seemed so perfectly right that it seemed like intentional destiny unfolding. Perhaps it was, though not in a way he anticipated.

Naturally, Rama had to go back home to get permission to marry. In this case, his father had already died, and in theory he could have married without permission. But he wanted to see his mother and felt it was proper to get a blessing from his uncle, who was his oldest relative. And so he traveled away, and returned to the village where he had been raised.

He was not gone long, perhaps a month. It was not an easy trip because there were bandits on the roads, and though he found it easy to avoid them, doing so made travel a bit slow. One thing this did was to put him out of touch with the common folk of the countryside, so he lost track of events around him to a degree.

With permission to marry, he returned to village to the south, where the woman he loved was waiting. Again, he traveled in secret, out of touch, but this time it led to a shock. Walking down the path on the last hill of the trip, he expected to come out of a wooded area onto the farmland of a plain, seeing the village where his true love waited in the distance. Instead, he saw a blackened ruin.

The village had been attacked. It had been burned completely to ash, and there were no people left alive. Rama saw a few bodies that were burned beyond recognition. Some were animals. Some were human. No one remained.

It was clear to him that the people of the village who had died were only a small part of those who had lived there. There were not all that many bodies. Those who remained alive had clearly been taken away. Most probably, they were to be the slaves of those who captured them, or those to whom they were sold.

Rama thought of his love. He did not know whether she was alive, but he did not even think about what to do. He set out tracking the small army that had destroyed the town, in hopes of finding the slaves they had taken.

It only took a few days to find the people of the village. He devised a plan to free his young lady. He would go in without disguise, make it clear that he had come looking for a relative, and allow himself to be captured. Then, when he could locate her, he would make himself appear to be one of her captors, convince whatever guards there were that he was to take her away, and leave with her. That was the rough plan, which would have to be improvised as required.

There was one hitch. She had died in the attack.

Rama did not have a plan for how to deal with her loss. He had allowed himself to be captured. He had allowed himself to be enslaved. But his real enslavement was not to the enemy who had burned the village. The strongest bonds on him were of his own making. He was slave to his own dejection. He had lost all interest in living. And so, he did not even try to escape.

Not many days passed before a stranger named Timeer came to see him. The man wanted to know if he was a Brahmin. Rama did not want it to be known that he had been trained as a soldier, and in truth he actually was a Brahmin, so he simply answered in the affirmative. The man told him he would be sent to a town where his services could be used to perform ceremonies.

Rama, having falling into apathy, allowed himself to be led into the countryside, toward a fate that was unknown to him. Fate, however, had more to say about what was happening than either he or his captor knew.

They traveled together on a path into the mountains. It was a more direct and safer journey than following the main roads would have been. After passing a number of tiny hamlets, they came to a group of huts on the brow of a mountain, overlooking a steep valley. There, Timeer fell sick.

There were no men in the hamlet at all. They had all been taken off to fight in wars. Timeer quickly realized that he was dying. He was being tended by the head woman of the settlement, and found himself honor bound to give her something in return. And so Rama was given to a peasant woman to be her slave.

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Justus stopped the story at this point. “I have studied the stories of Parashurama as they appear in scripture,” he said. “This story you are telling me bears no relationship with the life of that Hindu god.”

“None that you are aware of so far,” August replied. “This is just the beginning of the story. There is some background to Rama’s decision to take up an axe.”

“Well, it bears no resemblance to the real story.”

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