By Swami Harshananda
Hayagriva literally means ‘one with a horse’s head’.
Hayagriva, a Deity
Hayagriva, the god with the head of a horse, is one of the minor incarnations of Viṣṇu. Several stories are found in the Vedic and paurāṇic literature regarding this incarnation. Yājñavalkya, the great sage, lost the Yajurveda as a result of the curse of Vaiśampāyana, his teacher. He performed severe penance, praying to Surya, the Sun-god. Pleased by this, Surya appeared before him as a deity with the horse’s head and taught him the same Veda in another form. This section became famous as the Vājasaney Samhitā.
Hayagriva, a Demon
A demon named Hayagriva obtained several boons from the Devi and became a terror for the world. Since he had prayed that he could be killed only by another like him, having a horse’s head, the gods of heaven worked out a stratagem, by which Viṣṇu lost his original head and the Aśvinis grafted a horse’s head. Viṣṇu, in this Hayagriva form, killed this demon.
Hayagriva, Who Recovered Vedas
According to another story, two demons Madhu and Kaiṭabha, had stolen the Vedas. Viṣṇu took the form of Hayagrīva and killed them. He thus recovered the Vedas.
Hayagriva in Śāntiparva
In the chapter 24 of Śāntiparva of the Mahābhārata, Hayagrīva was a noble king. He had not cultivated any friendship with other kings. Though he defeated his enemies, he was ultimately killed by them due to lack of friends. The lesson that Vyāsa taught to Yudhiṣṭhira by this story was that even mighty rulers must take the help of others.
Parallel to Sarasvatī
Hayagriva is the god of learning. He is believed to be akin to the goddess Sarasvatī.
Iconographical works describe him as having a human form with the head of a horse. He possesses four or eight arms, carrying various weapons and emblems of Viṣṇu.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore