Thursday, April 10, 2014

From Renuka to Medusa - were Persians connected to Parashurama? (Mundas article-4)

All the articles in this series:-

The current  article can also be read at

The head-alone cult of Renuka worship is not confined to India alone. The head-alone image is seen in the myths and art of ancient Greece too.  It is the Gorgon head which resembles Goddess Kali with protruding tongue and dreadful looks. What is surprising is that many of these art works on Gorgon heads do show them with a Tilak on the forehead, a symbol that is unique to Hindus and Hindu Goddesses.

In this image, the Gorgon head in Vix-krater's handles, unearthed from the grave of the Celtic Lady of Vix, dated at 510 BC shows the face of Kali with a tilak on the forehead. {1}

Yet another popular find from Greek art was a cup having a painting of the Gorgoneion in the image of Kali with a round bindi on her forehead. This is dated at 6th century BCE. {2}

In the Greek myths, there are three Gorgons that are females with terrible faces and winged bodies.  One of them, Medusa found in a clay plaque dated at 570 -550 BC and housed at Syracuse resembles the posture of Garuda or Eagle as carrier (that is found in most temples in Tamilnadu and used in temple precessions to carry the deity), but having the face of Kali with a tilak on the forehead. {3}

Compare this for the iconographic similarities with Garuda, the divine Eagle that carries Vishnu.
The following image is of Garuda found in Badami caves.

Garuda is carrying the celestials. Look at the position of legs and up-turned wings while flying. This is how the Syracuse Gorgon (previous pic) is also seen.

Following is the image of Garuda carrier that is used in procession of Gods in Garuda- vahana and found in numerous temples.

The leg-position is something that is identical in these figures. 

These figures found in India are of recent times compared to the Greek images. But the idea of Garuda as a carrier of Vishnu comes from India and must have pre-dated Parashurama. There are Garudas, Kinnaras, Gandharvas, Nagas etc mentioned at many places in the Puranas. Superficial reading may give an impression that these are all mythical characters. But a branched-out study of Hindu texts would reveal that Garuda symbolises good eyesight. An eagle can see from a greater height a small chick on the ground and swiftly swoop down on it and fly back with it as fast as it came. The link between eye sight and Eagle is made out from texts like Prasna Marga that prescribe donation of the image of Garuda as a remedy for eyesight problems. {4}

From this it is presumed that reference to certain people as Garudas or eagles was because they were endowed with good eye sight and swiftness in movement. It is for this reason Lord Vishnu is supposed to travel on the Eagle whenever he had to rush to the rescue of his devotee caught in the hands of a tormentor. Thus the concept and its application are found in Hindu thought. The image of Garuda / Eagle of the Gorgon of Syracuse must have travelled from India only. 

The strong reason to say this is because the most popular idea of Vishnu having mounted on the eagle to rush to the rescue of his devotee was that of Gajendra Moksha in which an elephant called Gajendra was caught by a crocodile. According to Puranas, this episode happened during the period of Tamasa Manu, who was worshiped by the people in and around the Vindhya region. It was in the same region, the head-alone cult of Renuka got shaped.

The earliest reference to Gorgon comes in Homer’s works dated at 12th century BCE. The focus of reference was the eyes of the Gorgon. They were huge, flashing and depicted variously as spirals, swastikas, fire wheels and concentric circles and so on – something in line with the Garuda concept of sharp eyesight. The Eagle-as- carrier concept was fused with the idea of eyesight, such that it was believed that the gaze from the eyes of the Gorgon, when falls on someone would destroy him / her or turn them into stones (incapacitated). The Syracuse Gorgon Medusa image was symbolic of travelling like an Eagle to instantly reach the tormentor and destroy him. 

Gorgon Medusa has a parallel to Renuka’s head-alone image. Renuka was beheaded by Parashurama. Medusa was beheaded by Perseus.

Persia and Parashurama

In the Greek myth, Perseus beheaded Medusa and carried her head to kill his enemies, by putting it out in front of anyone whom he wanted to kill. The origin of Perseus is still a matter of speculation. There is an opinion that Perseus means “Persian” or that he was from Persia as there are portrayals of him in Persian style pyjamas, boots, cap etc. The word Persia has its origins in Old Persian word “Parsuwash”. No etymology exists for this word, Parsuwash.  

However in the records of Shalmaneser III (reign 858-824 BCE), two names are mentioned in the area of Lake Urmia- one is Parsuwash and the other is Matai.   It is not known whether Parsuwash refers to a people or a place. But "Parsuwash" is considered to be same as the Old Persian word pārsa. {5}. Did this refer to Parashu or Parash-wasi? Was Persia the region where the people who followed Parashurama lived? Were they called as Parashu > Parashu-wasi > Parsuwash? Was the name Perseus rooted in Parashu? Is it merely a coincidence that Perseus, whose name is phonetically similar to Parshu-vas, did a similar act of beheading a woman as Parashurama did?  

Parashu in Sanskrit means axe. The very name Parashurama came up due to the axe or parashu he was carrying. It is with that weapon he killed the kshatriyas. Did the people of Parsuwash carry the axe and the Renuka cult to other regions of Europe? This looks plausible, as we find the axe as the Royal symbol of power in the pre-Greek society. The Etruscans who occupied Greece ever since 12th century BCE until the Roman conquest in 3rd century BCE, had axe as their Royal symbol of power to punish and execute wayward subjects.

During Royal processions this axe was carried by an official in front of the procession. This was made with a bundle of sticks having an axe tied to it {6}. It must be noted here that the head-alone Medusa also finds a place only in this period of pre-Greek culture.

Parashurama was known for having beheaded Renuka and been terrible in destroying his enemies. Was that used by a native of Parsuwash – i.e., Perseus, in conquering others and establishing his supremacy?  Did Perseus get the inspiration from Parashurama and killed his enemies while holding the severed head of a woman? It must be remembered that Parashurama’s killing spree started upon the death of his mother and father. 

There is scope to connect Persia with the followers of Parashurama. Parashurama’s anger had gone upto Kashmir as we find Mahabharata mentioning Kashmiras as having fled from his anger. {7}. Son of Sibi, the Sauviras located in present day Pakistan had gone into hiding to escape from Parashurama. Therefore those regions and the adjoining ones must have been populated by the people who helped him in his fight against the kshatriyas. (Certainly Parashurama could not have killed the kshatriyas all by himself. He must have taken local help in every region that he went to flush out the kshatriyas). In course of time that pocket having Parashurama’s followers could have become known as Parashwa or Parshuwas or Parashu- vaasi. The phonetic similarity is not the only indicator. How the idea of Medusa with severed head having the features of the Hindu Goddess got into their myth must be satisfactorily explained. Any explanation would bring us to Hindu traditions only.

Perhaps the much earlier version of head-alone can be traced to Sesklo culture – located in the same place, i.e., Greece and dated at 6000 BCE. 

It was a ceramic mask having a terrible look. 

It looks close to the Kirtimukha image of Hindu temple architecture {8}
 This is also a head-alone figure!


There is a narration in Shiva Purana tracing the story of Kirtimukha, thereby showing its origin in Hindu culture {9}. The Kirtimukha is shown to be eating the tail of the snake! In a surprising connection, Renuka was known to have always picked up a snake, coiled it up like a rope and placed it on her head to support the pot that she freshly made and filled with water. It is possible to visualise how she would have struggled waiting to be beheaded and at the moment of getting beheaded. Picking out the snakes that she used to use as support for the pot, she could have bitten her teeth holding them in her mouth. The shock and pain at the moment of getting beheaded was perhaps depicted in the image of Kirtimukha. Those who suffered intensely were deified in Hindu culture. Her image could have got developed into Kirtimukha image and later re-defined by Puranic sages with mythical symbolisms.

Interestingly the Gorgon images of Greek myths also come with snakes as hair. Of them Medusa was beheaded by Perseus. According to Greek myths, those on whom the gaze of the head of Medusa fell were turned into stones.  Perhaps this was the reaction of people who happened to see the gruesome moment of beheading, becoming numb like a stone. Perhaps that reaction was witnessed in Renuka’s episode and remembered for long. Perhaps that was carried into the myth of Medusa by Perseus. 

One of the drawbacks in establishing the Hindu roots and stories such as these on Parashurama is the lack of evidence from archaeology. However Parashurama’s story comes with verifiable clue on marine archaeology in that it was he who was supposed to have reclaimed the lands on the west coast of India from the Arabian Sea. How did he do that? Did the sea level recede at that time? Or did he reclaim lands and build barriers to stop sea water from entering the lands? The latter seems to have happened.

An expedition carried out by Deccan College of Pune and the Department of Science and Technology of the Central Government had found a 24 km long wall of 2.7m height and a width of around 2.5m off the Konkan coast  in the sea waters. It shows that the land had once extended upto that and the wall had prevented erosion and entry of sea waters. The details with photographs can be read at

Experts from National Institute of oceanography have dated this wall at 6000 BCE. This puts the time period of reclamation, attributed to Parashurama at 8000 years BP. The amazing correlation comes from the Sesklo culture of Greece in that the face mask found there is also dated at around 6000 BCE! Is this only a coincidence? Or did people really carry the Renuka cult of head-alone to the places they went? 

Parashurama’s times and Renuka cult with head-alone image go together, something substantiated by the origin of Tantra practices of Devi attributed to Parashurama kalpa sutra. Either the escapees or the devotees of Renuka cult had taken the ideas to Europe. If they were escapees, they could have safeguarded themselves from any attack by Parashurama or his army of followers by showing the face mask or gorgon as a proof of their allegiance to Renuka cult. In the case of devotees or followers of Parashurama,  the tantra practices learnt from Parashurama could have helped them in vanquishing their opponents. The latter seems to have been infused into Greek myths as Gorgon amulets and myths of Medusa and Perseus. The basic feature is a female face or Renuka with the head. 

Thus it can be said with conviction that the head-alone cult has sprung up from Parashurama’s story. It is also true that a head-less identity had sprung from his actions! A headless body is known as “Mundam” in Tamil. Fearing for his axe, some people had fled while there were others who stood by him in helping him to hunt down the kshatriyas. We will know about the latter category in the next article before proceeding further into analysing who Mundas were.

(Continued in Part 5)


{4} Prasna Marga, Chapter 23, Verse 11.
{7} Mahabharata 7-68


Jayasree Saranathan said...

Just thought of sharing what I wrote on "Nagas" to a query given under this article published in Vijayavaani.

The link is

//Please inform us on the history of Nagas from authentic hindu literature b'cos lot of canards have already spread by christian missionaries//

My reply:-

It will take another series of articles, if I were to write on Nagas with quotes from Hindu scriptures. Hence I will confine to the basic ideas.

Nagas are there in many places - There are Nagas in Nazcal - Inca traditions. (Refer Mu concept of James Churchward). Nagas are there in Nagaland - they were called as Kiratas. Shiva and Uma appeared as Naga Kirata and gave Pasupatha astra to Arjuna. The Mayans also claim that they came from the Nagas of India. There was a Naga cave near Nagappattinam where a Cholan king married the Naga princess and begot a child who founded a dynasty in Kanchipuram. There were Naga dwellings in West and North West India too from where Arjuna got his Naga wife. Like this the Naga- identity list is a long one.

The basic idea behind who a Naga is, can be derived from the idea of a serpent. A serpent lives in underground holes. A person who dwells in underground caves lives like a snake! Such a person is Naga. In other words, an underground cave-dweller is a Naga. Such dwellings are there in India, Africa, Europe, Andes and Polynesian islands. The names in these places sounding Naga prove that the concept or idea of Naga came from Indian / Vedic society.
Reading this one may wonder why then Nagaland is called so, even though it is mostly mountainous. Nagaland is situated on an extension of a mountain range called 90 degree East Ridge that is submerged in the Bay of Bengal from south to north direction ramming into India near Bengal. It is made up of hot mantle that has erupted from the ocean bed. Such formations would give rise to underground passages and caves once the hot mantle ran away or cooled. At one time there were visible peaks in this range, something made out from Valmiki Ramayana in the narration of Sugreeva in detailing the land features in the south (VR – 4- 41- 24 onwards) . This range enters Indian mainland and is seen in Nagaland. There are references to tunnels in this range through which people moved and even lived. A dynasty of Thondaiman was established by a person born to a woman (Naga woman) who lived in a tunnel in the mountain off the coast of Nagappattinam in the South East India.


Nagas or Serpents are depicted as 2 main ideas in Hindu Thought. One is the sub-terrain mantle that comes out of the vents during earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. They are known as Naga or serpents. The underground tunnels and vents upon cooling became underground caves where the snakes started to live. Those who made the caves their dwelling places were also known as snakes or serpents or Nagas. Destruction by earthquakes or volcanoes is seen as dance of snakes.

The core of the earth is said to be the foremost snake, the Adhisesha. It is because of the core, the earth remains intact. This is metaphorically said that Adhisesha is bearing the weight of the earth. An adaptation of this is Atlas of Greek mythology. While Adhisesha bears the weight from within the globe, Atlas bears it on his shoulders. The same idea in two cultures cannot have been conceived independently of each other. Adhisesha concept is earliest and symbolic, whereas Greek Atlas is a depiction of an impossible type. This is the result of loss of touch or continuity with the original concept.


Jayasree Saranathan said...

The snake is once again associated with the two main entities of Godhead in Hinduism. Shiva’s ‘twilight’ dance is indeed known as ‘playing with the serpent’ (BhujangastrAsa). That marks the collapse of the worlds and breaking of the lands. The liquid magma shoots out on all directions. They are called as snakes that once dwelled in underworlds, now coming out.

It is for this reason, Shiva or Naga prathishta is seen in underground holes in many places. Popular examples are Kusheshwar, the original deity of Dwaraka before Krishna moved there. Balarama’s last place of departure was in an underground hole in Mukti Dwaraka. The Shiva linga in Brahma's temple at Pushkar is an underground cave. These are Naga dwellings. The people who lived in such places (underground) were Nagas.


Another type of snake is the life form, our jiva or the soul – which is what we are in our inner self. The soul or jiva gives life to the body and is of the size of our thumb according to Upanishads. It resides as a coil of a snake in the tail of the spinal cord. The very purpose of meditation is to rouse that jiva. It is characterised as a serpent lying dormant within us. Almost everyone would have had a dream of snake some time in their life. It is due to the nature of this snake- like jiva. When aroused through Yoga or meditation or breathing procedures, this snake- like jiva (called Kundalini) rises up. It is because Sage Patanjali gave us the wisdom of Yoga and meditation and he himself has mastered the rise of Kundalini, he has been depicted as snake bodied in iconography.
It is here another entity of Hindu Godhead is connected. After deluge – during cosmic devolution, where would the snakes (jivas) go? They are infinite (ananta) and are held by Vishnu or Narayana in sleeping posture (on the snake bed). When the physical worlds spring up again, these serpents (jivas) enter them and start new life. By this logic every human entity can be called as a Naga! By the logic of being a cave-dweller in early period of evolution, the identity of Naga has stuck with many people around the world.