The Other Rāma
Matricide and Genocide in the Mythology of Paraśurāma
Series: SUNY series in Hindu Studies
- ISBN: 9781438480398
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: October 2020
The Other Rāma: Matricide and Genocide in the Mythology of Paraśurāma examines a figure of Hindu mythology named Paraśurāma ("Axe-Rāma"), also known as Jāmadagnya ("son of Jamadagni"), who is thus not to be confused with "the other Rāma" invoked in the book's title, namely Rāma, the star of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. Author Brian Collins’ approach in this book is unique and brings to bear on Paraśurāma's mythology a number of striking psychological insights, often drawing on unconventional but surprisingly apropos sources that provide novel contributions to existing studies on this figure. The book's true target audience may be as narrow as the pool of researchers who have already written about Paraśurāma, but The Other Rāma will also speak meaningfully to those engaged in the study of the Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas (ancient legends and myths), and more broadly to those seeking to apply psychological theory to the study of Hindu mythology.
Essential to this study is the identification of a core "micromyth," a kind of lowest common denominator form of the Paraśurāma cycle that can be found at work in all later variations. This micromyth is located in the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata and involves Paraśurāma's complex status as a hybrid Brahmin-Kṣatriya, the axe-decapitation of his mother Reṇukā, his multi-generational "varṇicide" (the murder of all Kṣatriya men twenty-one times over), and his status as a wandering, undying ("cīrañjīvin") refugee. The task of Collins' book is not to survey the sources of these episodes, nor to set them in historic relationship one another, but to apply a variety of psychological theories for articulating the relationship between matricide and varṇicide within the micromyth as he constructs it.
Paraśurāma's decapitation of his mother Reṇukā is at the heart of this construction and becomes a matrix of meaning for Collins and for the entire book, which devotes two of its five body chapters to the matricide. Again, it is the Mahābhārata which supplies the basic materials from which Collins distills his micromyth. Thus, it is worth noting that, while Paraśurāma's varṇicide is referenced many times across the epic, only Mahābhārata 3.115-117 involves the Reṇukā murder (with the subsequent episode of Cirakāri apparently replying to it). The peripheral nature of the matricide to the central motif of varṇicide has been remarked upon by James Fitzgerald in an exhaustive 2002 study of Paraśurāma, which Collins engages only briefly. (While one might expect in a monograph of this kind a comprehensive survey of publications on the figure to date, Collins engages existing works largely in a conversational manner or selective "mining" mode.) One must observe a significant gap then between the gravity and significance Collins assigns to the decapitation of Reṇukā and that episode's relative unimportance in the key source he chooses for constructing his micromyth. Indeed, other Mahābhārata narratives involving Paraśurāma are left untreated, and thus the figure is treated somewhat in isolation from the wider text he inhabits. Having said this, though, once the work of theorizing the Reṇukā-centric mythology gets underway with the help of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Stanley Kurtz (engaged fruitfully but missing from the Works Cited), and others, The Other Rāma delivers an amazingly rich psycho-sexual analysis of Paraśurāma. What is most compelling in all of this, in my view, is the mutual shaping of Oedipal dynamics in and through Brahmin-Kṣatriya class dynamics. That is, Collins makes a very compelling case for linking Paraśurāma's decapitation of his Kṣatriya mother—from whom he inherits a ritually encoded essence of the warrior class, which must then be borne awkwardly within the Brahmin body received from his father—with the subsequent violence towards the Kṣatriya class, which becomes in Collins's analysis a kind of perpetual enactment of primal Oedipal violence towards his mother.
While this basic micromyth has a kind of historic and ontological or essential priority over any and all later variations, Collins places no limits on the hermeneutic power of those later variations to turn back upon and speak to the veracity of his reading of that micromyth, according to the logic that later variations spell out, amplify, and articulate the driving impulses of the original myth. In fact, Collins freely conscripts into service almost any cultural artifact—from ancient Vedic ritual to American slasher films of the 1980s—that he feels can speak to the point at hand. I agree wholeheartedly that variations on a mytheme can render more explicit what is only implicit in earlier sources. Additionally, I think Collins is right that a kind of triangulation between older sources, their variants, and psychological theory can be (and in the case of this book certainly is) powerfully illuminating. However, the net result of this method as Collins practices it is that he asks too much of his readers, for throughout the book he supplements or enriches this already complex triangular reading with multiple layers of additional theory and anecdotal evidence that is understood to confirm, buttress, or otherwise strengthen the point being argued in a complex web of if-then hypotheses.
Thus, even as he psychologizes older and more recent Paraśurāma materials, he introduces multiple interpretive lenses—contemporary Hindu ethnography, 20th century European political philosophy, anecdotes from contemporary American politics, Greek mythology—that are each presented briefly and then displaced by the next. Chapters then tend to conclude with a "mic drop" maneuver, providing only short summaries of the preceding and thereby placing on the reader the burden of digesting the many rich materials presented therein.
The work of synthesis, however, is really only deferred to the book's conclusion, where we do find the chief insights of the preceding chapters brought together in an astounding way. One realizes here with perhaps some surprise that, yes, not only does it make perfect sense to set Norman Bates and Jason Voorhees alongside Paraśurāma within a larger discussion of serial killers and their childhood family traumas, but that it is altogether necessary to do so if we wish to understand what drives the complex figure of Paraśurāma. As such, readers who follow the book's layered psycho-synthetic argumentation through to the end will be rewarded with a suitably complex understanding of what drives this dark and elusive character of Hindu mythology.
Christopher R. Austin is an associate professor of religious studies at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.Christopher R. AustinDate Of Review:April 27, 2022