The Lore of Renuka

(Written for mid-day  on April 22, 2012)



A sacred narrative needs to be distinguished from a parable (story with moral ending), a fable (story with animals that express human emotions), history (reportage of an actual event), or literature (an individual’s fantasy that seeks to entertain or provoke thought). The sacred narrative reverberates with mythic power as a culture attempts to answer the primordial and profound questions of life, such as: How did the world come into being? How will it be destroyed? What is the role of humankind in this world? Why is there suffering in the world? What happens after death? The sacred narrative is the ‘truth’ of a people, a community.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Take, for example, the following two stories from the Mahabharata, which involve the same characters. Jamadagni was a warrior-sage skilled in the use of the bow. His wife, Renuka, was so devoted that she would run after every arrow he shot and collect it as soon as it hit the ground. One day, however, she ran after an arrow and did not return till nightfall. She blamed the heat of the sun for the delay. The furious Jamadagni decided to shoot an arrow at the sun. The sun begged for mercy and offered another solution: He gave Renuka an umbrella to protect her from his heat the next time she ran after an arrow.

Renuka was so chaste that she had the power to collect water in unbaked pots. However, she lost this power when she had adulterous thoughts after watching a king make love to his wives on the riverbank. Her husband, Jamadagni, ordered his five sons to behead Renuka. Four of them refused. The fifth son, Parashurama, who was an incarnation of Vishnu, raised his axe and did what was needed. As he was pleased with his son’s unquestioning obedience, Jamadagni offered Parashurama a boon. Parashurama requested to have his mother back. So Jamadagni restored Renuka to life using his spiritual powers.

The first story is a parable; it informs the reader how to solve problems by adapting to circumstances rather than blaming them. It can also be seen as a short story that attributes divinity to the origin of the umbrella. However, it lacks the mythic power of the latter narrative, which is concerned with social order, marital fidelity, filial obedience, and patriarchal values. Perhaps that is why the story of Renuka’s umbrella is hardly known beyond academic circles.

The latter narrative transforms Parashurama into a manifestation of God and provides the inspiration for another narrative that projects Renuka as a manifestation of the Goddess. The latter story is associated with the rather infamous devadasi tradition where women were dedicated to the Goddess and were expected to serve as prostitutes to the community at large, a receptacle for the urges of man that can otherwise threaten social order. Tales of Parashurama and his parents form the mythic basis of cultures along the Konkan and Malabar coast.