Rama of the Axe. Ranjith Radhakrishnan. Westland Books. 2023. Price Rs 499. Pages 368.
In Rama of the Axe, author Ranjith Radhakrishnan brings avatar Parashurama to life.
Finally — the last Parashurama story I read was K M Munshi’s Bhagavan Parasurama (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1988), a badly translated version of the original Gujarati edition — the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu has got his due.
Perhaps, it’s the rising receptivity of Dharmic-Indic ideas that are redefining twenty-first century India. Or the new resurgence of the Sanatan way of life that had been smothered in the first seven decades of India’s Independence.
Whatever the case, in Rama of the Axe Radhakrishnan simultaneously rides modern times and carts ancient philosophies.
He melds a freshness of approach, a multi-layered messaging and a deep knowledge of scriptures into a well-crafted magical-real, eternal-ethereal ancient-modern saga; he fuses matter and mind, man and avatar, dharma and adharma, philosophy and religion, all underlined by the Sanatan spirit, into a gripping adventure.
You can smell the forest, touch the animals, sense the dangers. You feel the agony of Parashurama as he beheads his mother Renuka, you transform with him from Ramabhadra to brahmakshatriya Parashurama, and you wield the Parshu (Shiva’s axe), both physically and psychically with him.
Radhakrishnan’s words transport you to several geographies, from Jamadagni’s ashram to Karthavirya Arjuna’s palace, you ride the tall waves on oceans with Arjuna, you see the ferocity of spiritual forces unleashed by Parashurama and Renuka, you enter the minds and motivations of side characters, all of whom add to the story.
The word Avatara, writes Sri Aurobindo, “means a descent; it is a coming down of the Divine below the line which divides the divine from the human world or status.”
This is different from an ascent of man into the divine consciousness. Radhakrishnan captures how the instrument Ramabhadra realises the descent of the amsha in him to become Parashurama.
So vivid is the imagery that often you feel you are not reading the book but watching a film.
Rama of the Axe shows us larger than life cinematic expressions, of S S Rajamouli’s RRR, for instance, in the thousand-armed (sahasrabahu) Arjuna, the king who received Dattatreya’s blessings but frittered them away before his ego; and Parashurama hacking with his axe, and indeed becoming the axe.
He forces you to engage with the tight story-messaging that typifies Amish Tripathi’s writings, The Shiva Trilogy for instance. And yet, Radhakrishnan stands on his own, delivers unique characters, places and narratives. He has a story to tell, philosophies to retell, and he articulates them with aplomb.
The book moves like a river. And like every river that flows with varying speeds, the pace slackens and tightens, the characters intrigue then become repetitive. But that’s how life sagas are — now exciting, now dreary.
That’s also the Indic tradition: you see it in original texts, notably the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Repetition then was a tool to make permanent the underlying philosophies; repetition today doesn’t hold the patience, but remains relevant.
The mind of the modern man has expanded, but the roots continue to seek deeper understandings. These take nothing away from the book as it flows into an ocean of climax.
This is a saga of journeys and the accompanying transformations. The two ends of the story, avatar Parashurama and Karthavirya Arjuna, express themselves with equal conviction.
The violence and action sequences satiate our bloodlust, the faint-hearted be warned. For context, the final battle on Kurukshetra had 18 akshauhinis (one akshauhini comprises 21,870 chariots and as many elephants; 65,610 horses; and 109,350 infantry), eleven of the Kauravas fighting seven of the Pandavas.
In the final battle against Arjuna, Parashurama destroys more than 20 akshauhinis — single-handedly — and yet leaves enough battle courses for the climactic face-off that leaves you breathless, yearning for more.
There are two standout ideas in this book. First, turning Parashurama’s axe into a character, a living entity, as otherworldly as deadly, as physical as spiritual.
The manner in which Radhakrishnan shows how it fuses into the wielder and the wielder being powered by it is a deep read. The Parashu is more than a weapon; it is a celestial being. Rama becomes the Parashu and the Parashu Rama.
And second, the chapter titled, "No God, Dead God, False God", explores and exposes the hollow underbellies of modern religions and destructive ideologies.
In the process, it presents them with a dark mirror to the violence inflicted in the name of religions across the world. It also exposes the narrow and retrograde one-way-one-god limitations that are being thrust on a modern civilisation and earthlings that are far more open and accepting.
And far more Sanatani than ever before. “Self-denigration and meekness are not behaviours worthy of a human,” says Parashurama’s disciple Akrita in a grand speech preceding a major massacre by his guru.
He is probably talking to those hiding their cowardice behind ‘ahimsa’.
“These can be moral only for those who exist as slaves — not for those who live freely. Stand proud, stand tall and proudly claim that a spark of the divine rests in you.”
In terms of recent output, there are several expressions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the avatars in it — Sri Ram and Sri Krishna — but very few about other avatars.
From K M Munshi’s seven-part Krishnavatara series to Maggi Lidchi Grassi’s three-part Mahabharata to S L Bhyrappa’s Parva to Ashok Banker’s eight-part Ramayana Series to Amish Tripathi’s four-part Ram Chandra Series (the list of writers engaging with Sri Ram and Sri Krishna is long and increasing every year).
With Rama of the Axe, Radhakrishnan brings Parashurama to us along with a new and complex villain, Arjuna, in layered alignments. (Arjuna is blessed by Dattatreya), fresh locations (Tripura, for instance) and time stamps (travels into Devalok and Prithvilok).
Beyond that, I hope Radhakrishnan doesn’t stop at Parashurama. He must take his imagination, his skill, his knowledge and his treatment forward, and explore our other avatars — Matsya, Kurma, Varaha (Rishab Shetty has done a great job in his 2022 film Kantara), Narasimha, and Vamana. And then, there are the Puranic characters waiting for their turn, as are the avatars of Shiva.
The ocean of Sanatan Dharma literature and scriptures is vast, the expressions of dharma are infinite. I enjoyed reading Rama of the Axe so much that I was afraid it would end too fast.
Relief has come in the promise that Radhakrishnan will continue this saga in Part II, where perhaps we will get glimpses of Sri Ram and Sri Krishna. As an author, Radhakrishnan is here to stay and steer the Indic course. Track his work.
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