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Satyavati’s historical mix-up


The story of Parsuram or Ram Jamadagnya is central to Sahyadrikhand; that is why we begin with it. We know it well; but, you will soon realise, it tells much more than what we know; that is why we need to listen to it carefully. The crucial part of it which deals with the creation of the Parsuramksetra begins in chapter 7 of the uttarardha of Sahyadrikhand (SHKG). Parsuramksetra is popularly believed to be the west coast of India; SHK puts it as from Nasik-Tryambakesvarto Kanyakumari [SHKG, 151; SHKD 331]. Nasik-Tryambakesvar is not on the coast, and it is difficult to understand how it can mark the northern limit of Parsuramksetra; we shall attend to this anomaly later.

We begin where Parsuram gives ‘the entire land up to the ocean’ to his guru Kasyaprsi as a daksina (offering). Kasyap tells him that now this land has come to be of the bramhan, and therefore Parsuram has no place in it [SHKG, 149; SHKD, 330]. Does that imply that Parsuram was not a bramhan? Does it imply that he was a ksatriya? Parsuram has been called the ksattravrttir brahmanah, meaning a bramhan with the character of a ksatriya. But that does not really tell us much. Remember, by now we know that bramhan and ksatriya are not labels that change on the basis of ‘occupation’ or ‘character’ (vrtti); we have it now on sound evidence that these are essentially ethnic categories, and therefore, cannot be changed at will. We need to understand that we need to answer the question about Parsuram being bramhan or ksatriya in the context of the historical fact of the bramhan making inroads into the peninsular India already occupied by the ksatriya. That would be around the beginning of the Common Era. We also know that ksatriya facilitated the bramhan advance. But at the same time, we come across instances of hostility between them.

The bramhan-ksatriya relation needs to be seen also in the context of the fact that the migration of the ksatriya, the farmers and herders from the Near East, was numerically large; they spread over the entire sub-Himalayan plain and then the peninsular India, with ease and thoroughness. As against this, the bramhan, the nomads from the Central Asian steppes, were small in number; they were neither into farming and herding nor into trade; but they were intellectual and clever. They made up with their brains, what they lacked in their brawn; and supplemented it with the brawn of the ksatriya. Ksatriya functioned as the shield and the sword – the protector – of the bramhan; it was for this, perhaps, that the ksatriya was given a full entry into the arya fold. In the puran and itihas we find several instances of a seamless transmigration of ksatriya into bramhan, and vice versa. The concluding paragraph of the chapter 104 of Adiparva, Mahabharat, perhaps sums up the situation well: “And it was thus that many mighty bowmen and great charioteers wedded to virtue sprung in the Kshatriya tribe from the seed of Brahmanas” (Roy, 1884: The Mahabharat, 317).

This complex relationship between the bramhan and the ksatriya is what is reflected in the interesting legend of Satyavati, the sister of Visvamitr, the king who became a bramhan sage. According to Visnu Puran, Satyavati was a ksatriya who married an old bhrgubramhan named Ricika. Bhrgubramhanor bhargav are supposed to be the descendants of maharsiBhrgu, who was one of the seven great sages, the bramharsi, in Bramharsides. Bramharsides was the sanctum sanctorum of the Kuru – Pancal bramhan, ‘the land of spotless spiritual pre-eminence’ and ‘where the black antelope roams free’ (Vasistha Dharma Sutra, 1. 14-15); and bramharsi were the ultimate experts of religion and spiritual knowledge, often considered by puran to be at par with the dev in power and piety. Bhrigu, Angiras, Atri, Visvamitr, Kasyap, Vasisth, and Shandilya were the seven bramharsi. Shorn of its metaphor, this means that after occupying the Kuru-Pancal, the bramhan made Bramharsides their base; they felt secure and free there, therefore ‘where the black antelope roams free’. As Kramrisch puts it, here they felt safe and free to perform the agni and soma sacrifices; earlier, as they moved eastwards, they felt physically insecure and intellectually threatened by the ‘unholy’ influence of the eastern culture of atmavidya and ahimsa [Kramrisch, 1981: The Presence of Siva, 338]. The bramharsi were the descendants of the pure ‘bramhan’ who had come down from the steppes, unpolluted by the ksatriya blood and culture. Here seems to have begun the project of creating ‘mighty Kshatriya bowmen and great charioteers wedded to virtue from the seed of Brahmanas’. That is why they are called the prajapati – the lords of creation. Fitzgerald calls it “the generative primacy of brahmins over ksatriyas”. [Fitzgerald: The Rama Jamadagnya ‘Thread’ of the Mahabharata – A new survey of Rama Jamadagnya in the Pune Text, in, 95]. Almost two thousand years before the Iberian conquistadores in Asia and America thought of it, here was the ingenious strategy of creating ‘a race that would be forever loyal, being bound by blood’. [Rodrigues, 2018: Souls, Spices and Sex – The Struggle for European Ascendancy in Portuguese India – 1510–1961].

The bhrgu bramhan Ricika who married Satyavati, a ksatriya woman, desired a son having the qualities of a bramhan; for that purpose he gave Satyavat a charu (a dish of rice, barley, and pulse, with butter and milk, offered as ahuti in yajnas). He also gave Satyavati’s mother another charu to make her conceive a son with the character of a ksatriya. But Satyavati and her mother quietly exchanged the charu. This resulted in Satyavati’s mother giving birth to Visvamitra, a ksatriya, with the character of a bramhan, and Satyavati giving birth to Jamadagni, the father of Parsuram, a bramhan with character of a ksatriya [Wilson, 1840: Vishnu Purana, Book 4, Chapter 7, 428]. Well, charu could have been a euphemism for this early experiment in genetic engineering; but that only proves the irrelevance of the question whether Parsuram was a bramhan or a ksatriya. However it lets us understand why bramharsi Kasyap sends Parsuram out of the land that he had received from the latter; he makes a difference between a pure bramhan like himself and an ‘other kind of bramhan’ like Parsuram, if we are to borrow the phrase used by Sathaye [Sathaye, 2010: The Other Kind of Brahman: Rama Jamadagnya and the Psychosocial Construction of Brahman Power in the Mahabharata, in Pollock: Epic and Argument in Sanskrit Literary History].

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