The greatness of Lord Sri HayagrIva in Indian tradition

The greatness of Lord Sri HayagrIva in Indian tradition


To understand who Lord Sri HayagrIva is, one needs to know what is jnAna and vijnAna. These two terms need some explanation since they pertain to the subject, namely the I or the knower within us and Brahman, who is the power behind everything including us.

The Traditional name of India is bhAratha. bhA means light (knowledge or jnAna) and rathA means one who is interested in this jnAna. This jnAna is the means for realization of Brahman (God). By realizing Brahman, one can attain pure bliss (Ananda / mOksha). This truth is stated in this famous statement: “jnAnat mOkshah”.

There is no doubt in any of our scriptures regarding the fact that this knowledge (jnAna) is the means to immortality.

These statements:

“tam evam vidvAn amrta iha bhavati” (purusa sukta)

– “One who knows Him in this manner, becomes immortal right here (in this life itself)”


‘Tam Eva viditvA atimrityum Aeti’ – (svetasvatara upanishad)

– “knowing Him alone one attains immortality”

along with several statements from smritis (Bhagawadgita / Brahmasutras etc.), itihAsas (Ramayana and Mahabharatha) and purANas (such as Srimad-bhAgavatha, Vishnu purAna etc.) elucidate the same concept.

Along with the term jnAna, which is the direct means to mOksha, our ancient Rshis were using another similar term – vijnAna as indicated in different scriptural statements given below:

“vEdAnta vijnAna sunichithArthAh”,“vijnAnam yajnam tanute”,“vijnAnatmA sahadEvaishcha sarvaihi”,‘Etam vijnAna mayam AtmAnam upasamkramya”, “jnAnam tEham savijnAnam”, “jnAnam vijnAna sahitam”, “jnAnam vijnAnam Astikyam”

The term jnAna came from the verb root “jnA” which means – “to know”. This knowledge generally refers to the knowledge of paramAtma or “God”. What is the meaning of this term “vijnAna”? This is something very important and needs further investigation. Some people think that the terms “jnAna” and “vijnAna” are synonymous. However, if these two terms were synonymous, then there would be no need to use these two terms together. Therefore, it is evident that there is a difference in meaning between these two terms.

In the Sanskrit language, the term “vijnAna” is formed from the term “jnAna” by using a prefix “vi” to it. Keeping this in mind, some people have explained that the meaning of the term “vijnAna” as “vividham jnAnam” (different forms of knowledge) or  as “vishishTam jnAnam” (specialized knowledge). It seems that these explanations, though valid from a standpoint of grammar, are not capable of fully imparting to the reader, the real meaning of the term “vijnAna”.

Towards getting a better understanding in this regard, the following example is useful. When curd (yogurt) is added to milk, and kept for seven-eight hours, the milk gets converted to curd; this is a well-known fact. This is known as “setting milk into curd”. However, by knowing just this fact, it is not possible to manufacture edible quality curd. First, the milk has to be heated to the right temperature, and then cooled to a luke-warm state, and then a little curd should be added to it. While adding the curd, the quantity of curd to be added depends on the quantity of the original milk. Additionally, if the curd added is sour in taste, the quantity of curd added should be lesser. Further, if this process is done in a tropical hot temperature, the procedure varies. In this way, for making high quality yogurt, one has to know a lot of details. These aspects can be termed as the “vijnAna” of the process of setting milk to curd.

Though in a worldly sense, it is relatively easy to grasp, the actual meaning of these terms “jnAna” and “vijnAna” is quite difficult to comprehend, since they refer to soul or God, which are beyond the grasp of our senses and mind. However difficult it is, one has to understand “jnAna” and “vijnAna” to attain realization. It can be stated in a gross sense that “jnAna” is the means to Realization of Brahman. The term “vijnAna”, includes all the details including the methods and techniques to attain realization of Brahman, the rules to be followed, the activities to be avoided, and so on. This vijnAna is known as  “adhyatma-vijnAna”, since it is the science of Atman (which is a synonym of Brahman). For an aspirant to get full realization, he should be adept in this “adhyAtma vijnAna”. To actually know the meaning of these terms, one needs the help of an able Guru / preceptor. To find the right Guru, one has to earnestly seek! It is definitely hard for one whose time is spent more on succeeding in this rat race of life instead of seeking anything beyond it!

In our Indian tradition, there is a specific deity for every aspect. For example, Dhanvantari is the deity for Ayurveda, and Saraswati for music and dance. In the same way, DakshiNAmurthi, another form of ParamEshvara, is the deity for “adhyAtma jnAna”. HayagrIva, who is an incarnation of Sriman NArAyaNa is the deity of “adhyAtma vijnAna”. Lord HayagrIva with the face of a horse, and body of a man, is an extremely praise-worthy and worshipful deity. There are ample references in our ancient literature to the HayagrIva avatAra, and the aspect of truth(tattva)  which Lord HayagrIva represents.

What are these Deities / Devathas? Why Horse-face for Lord Sri-HayagrIva ? Why temples?

For a rational mind, many questions may arise:

  • Who are these Devathas or Deities namely Danvantari, Sarasvati, DakshinAmurthi, HayagrIva? Are they historic figures? Or mythological characters? or spiritual entities that can be realized? Or just mascots?
  • Are these just some sculptures made of stone or metal? What is the purpose of a Temple? How are these temples different from a museum of mythological / historic statues?

It is difficult to answer such questions in a short article like this. However, this is our modest attempt.

Realization of Brahman is essential and an important pursuit

In general we gain knowledge mainly through senses and mind. With all the knowledge of the external world we gaining in this age of scientific advancement,  we are still not able to understand the nature of “I”. Even now scientists and most people are struggling to answer questions pertaining to – what exactly is this is consciousness / awareness? What is this “I” within each of us? We seem to understand the external world to some extent. However, we still do not know the answers to the questions such as what is the nature of our individual selves? or “God”. We do not seem to understand clearly what makes our minds, senses and bodies work? who controls us? or who is this indwelling power in us? or the nature of the power that creates, sustains and controls this universe we are in.

We can classify everything in the universe into two categories: “known” (or external world) and “knower” (self and the inner-controller). These two entities are described in detail in 13th chapter of Bhagawadgita (kshEtra-kshEtrajna-vibhAga-yOga). By performing different types of yoga / meditation, one can directly perceive our self and the inner-controller (antaryami or God).

One might ask – why does one need to go through these arduous paths to realize God?. If one wants to win over sorrows, one has to realize God as stated in Bhuma vidya: tarati shOkam Atmavit.

Can we succeed in this pursuit of realization?

Spiritual texts mention three knots: brahma-granthi, vishnu-granthi and rudra-granthi. These knots are not physical knots, but are difficult problems that affect all living beings – such as fear of death, being overpowered by sensual needs, being dominated by ego, pride, losing the knowledge of who we are, being covered by invincible darkness of ignorance about God. By transcending these three knots (granthis), anyone can actually experience these devathas (divine beings with spiritual form) such as ganEsha (elephant face form), Vishnu ( horse face form) and Shiva etc. These forms are divine, ethereal and blissful, and cannot be realized by the  ordinary people. It is hard for anyone to describe these divine realization in words, since Paramatma is beyond speech. The theory and practice of these topics are explained in detail in tantra and yOga texts. Sincere practitioners or yOgis and bhaktas (devotees) can realize these deities. There are various vedic hymns in support of this truth[1][2][3]

These deities may appear in various divine forms. Saints like Sri vAdirAja and Sri vedAnta dEsika had such experiences as mentioned in their life histories. In their stotra-literature descriptive accounts of the divine form and nature of Lord Sri HayagrIva are given. These truths are so far beyond the experience of ordinary people that it is natural if they do not have any belief.  A bhagawadgita verse[4] states that the state of realization of a yOgi is like darkness for all beings.  The world in which all beings operate is like night for that yOgi who is wide awake in his own world of realization! However, once people sincerely try and get a glimpse of realization, they will believe. We should not forget the words of Bhagawadgita[5]. It may take many lives to realize these truths. One has to do some sAdhana or effort.


Temples are built either by very spiritually advanced people who may be Rshis or their descendants or followers. The purpose of temple is to provide ordinary people who are stuck in the sensual world, the objects of worship and suitable atmosphere, so that they can eventually realize the highest and attain ultimate happiness. These deities or archa-murthis in temples are actually the dEvathAs, with a concrete perceivable form here and are not just symbols or mascots. To see the truth behind these dEvatAs, one has to receive the grace of God and Gurus. The tantra or Agama texts which belong to pancha-rAtra, Vaikhanasa, Shaiva, ShAkta etc. explain the details of temple worship which helps an aspirant to realize them eventually.

An important aspect of temple-worship or worship anywhere should be noted. Many people mainly focus on ritual external worship (bAhya arAdhana) which involve offering of dhUpa (incense), lamps (deepa), and other upachAras or offerings to the dEvatAs. There is an important process of internal worship known as “mAnasIka arAdhana” or mental worship, which is a form of meditation. This is very important aspect of daily worship. One who sincerely performs such internal and external worship will slowly realize the spiritual power behind the archA-mUrthis or deities. The yOga pAda portion of the Agama / tantra texts provide details of such methods of internal worship.

Special aspects of HayagrIva

As assured by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad GIta[6], the Lord SrimannArAyana takes on many incarnations (avatArAs), in order to prevent the decline of dharma, and for its rejuvenation. In this way, the ten avatArAs of Vishnu – Matsya, Kurma, etc. are well known. From the viewpoint of evolution of creation, these ten avatArAs, the dasha avatArAs, have a very special place, and are accepted by many. In Srimad BhAgavatha, the 24 avatArAs of Vishnu are mentioned. In addition, it is stated in our ancient literature that ParamAtman takes on an infinite number of avatArAs (incarnations) in order to grace the devotees. In this way, among the 24 avatArAs of ParamAtman, it would not be wrong to say the HayagrIva avatAra is an important one.

As depicted in some scriptural texts, the legend of HayagrIva avatAra goes like this: Two rAkshasAs by name Madhu and Kaitabha, stole the VedAs from Chaturmukha Brahma and hid them in a secret place. In the absence of the VedAs, which are the source of knowledge, even Chaturmukha Brahma became incapable of further creation. Because of this, the entire world got enveloped in darkness. To remedy the world from this situation, Chaturmukha Brahma took refuge in Lord Sriman NArAyaNa. Then, Lord Sriman NArAyaNa took an incarnation as Lord HayagrIva, killed the demons Madhu and Kaitabha, recovered the vEdAs and gave them to Chaturmukha Brahma, who got back the capability to continue creation.

One may feel that this Hayagriva avatAra happened so long ago. Why should we bother about it now?. We should not forget that Madhu and Kaitabha represent the tamO and rajO gunas (stupor and desire / activity) within us. When satva (or purity) wins over our rajO and tamO gunas, we can progress spiritually to realize Brahman. We need that Lord Hayagriva to give us satva guna to destroy the tendencies deep in us which cause ignorance, since we are unable to win over them by ourselves.

There is an extensive description of Lord HayagrIva in Chapter 375 of the ShAnti Parva of the MahAbhArata (in the Upaparva called mOksha dharma). In the MahAbhArata, which has several thousand anecdotes and episodes, the episode related to HayagrIva avatAra is well known as “Hayashira upAkhyAna”. This has an elaborate description of the speciality and holiness of HayagrIva avatAra.

As mentioned above, Lord HayagrIva shines forth as the presiding deity of “vijnAna”. Swami VedAnta Desika, a great saint of the Thirteenth Century, has written an extensive hymn on Lord HayagrIva that describes His greatness, and the benefits of His grace.

One of the verses of this hymn is:

Vishuddha vijnAna ghana svarUpam vijnAna vishrANana baddha dIksham |

DayAnidhim dehabhRtAm sharanyam devam hayagrIvam aham prapadyE ||

The term “vijnAna” here indicates “adhyAtma vijnAna”. The divine form of Lord HayagrIva is indeed the pure “vijnAna” itself in concrete form. In Sanskrit this is known as “vijnAna ghana”, solidified form of “vijnAna”. What does Lord HayagrIva, who is indeed the form of “vijnAna” itself, grace to His devotees? It is the grace of “adhyAtma vijnAna” (knowledge and details of self and God. Gracing all His devotees with “adhyAtma vijnAna” is the main purpose of this avatAra. Blessing His devotees, who are subjected to the threefold afflictions, with the coolness of the form of “adhyAtma vijnAna”, and protecting His devotees, is indeed the main purpose of the HayagrIva avatArA; this is the summary of this verse:

VyAkhyAmudrA karasarasijaih pustakam shanKha chakre

Bibhrad bhinna sphaTikaruchire puNDarIke niShaNNah |

AmlAnashrih amruta vishadaih amshubhih plAvayan maam

AvirbhUyAt anaghamahimA mAnase vAgadhIshah ||

The Lord who is HayagrIva has another name as VaghIsha. He is the presiding deity for speech in all languages. Goddess Saraswati performed penance on Lord HayagrIva, and He graced her with this capacity, and Lord HayagrIva is called VagadhIsha in the above verse.

The form of Lord HayagrIva is worshipped in many Vishnu temples as the main presiding deity. In the same way, the picture of Lord HayagrIva, having Goddess Lakshmi towards His left, and resting on a white lotus surrounded by the form of the moon, is also found in the pUjA rooms of many houses. Here, the white lotus, called “shwEta aravinda” represents pure knowledge without any impurities. In the same way, the moon which surrounds the form of Lord HayagrIva, is also white in colour, and it dispels darkness in the form of ignorance, and represents the important aspect of spreading intense coolness in the form of “adhyAtma jnAna”. In yogic texts description of how a yogi attains these triad: sOma(moon),  sUrya (sun) and agni (fire), which are steps in spiritual realization are given. This moonlight (sOma) here refers to that yogic realization. Also, the Lord has the pose of Chin mudra in one hand, also called “VyAKhyAna mudra”, which symbolises the union of jeeva and the ParamAtman. In another hand is seen a book which represents jnAna and vijnAna. And, Goddess MahAlakshmi, who represents the power of Vishnu, and also pure parA prakRuti, is seated towards the left of Lord HayagrIva and supports Him in providing grace towards the devotees. Also, those devotees who closely observe the image of Lord HayagrIva would notice that He also adorns the shanKha and chakra, which are His extraordinary symbols, and which the Lord uses to bless them. All these aspects are detailed by Swami VedAnta Desika in the above verse.

Further, in many books on Tantra ShAstra, we find excellent descriptions of Lord HayagrIva. One of the verses with a similar meaning as given above is:

Vande purita chandra manDala gatam shwEta aravinda Asanam

MandAkinyAmruta abja kunda kumuda kShIrEndu hAsam harim |

MudrA pustaka shanka chakra vidhRutah Srimad bhujAmanDalam

Niryannirmala bhAratI parimalam vishvEshvam ashvAnanam ||

Devotees usually recite the dhyAna verses of Lord HayagrIva at the beginning and end of a study, on a daily basis. That verse is:

jnAnanada mayam devam nirmala sphaTika Akrutim |

AdhAram sarva vidhAnAm hayagrIvam upAsmahe ||

This verse stresses the aspect that Lord HayagrIva is the basis and support for all the types of education or knowledge.

The japa or repetition of HayagrIva mantra is prescribed if one has to realize fulfilment in adhyAtma jnAna and vijnAna. The form of this mantra, its meaning, and special aspects are described in an Upanishad called HayagrIvOpanishad.

In addition to the above, the most exalted among all PurANAs, Srimad BhAgavatha MahApurANA, is also named as HayagrIva BrahmavidyA; this fact is clear from a careful study of the BhAgavatha itself. In the BhAgavatha we find special descriptions of Lord HayagrIva. Additionally, in BhAgavatha, we find various details of “adhyAtma vijnAna” are given.

When we study the Upanishads, we come across places where differentiation between soul (jIva) and God (paramatman) is stated; we also come across places where it is stated that there is no such differentiation at all. A superficial study of the Upanishads indicates that there are several contradictions like this one. It is the opinion of the knowledgeable ones that the very purpose of ShwEtAshvatara Upanishad, is to resolve all such apparent contradictions. At the beginning of this Upanishad, there is a statement that a RiShi, who is actually an epithet of Brahman, incarnated in the form of Lord HayagrIva taught this Upanishad. It is not possible to determine whether there is differentiation or no differentiation between jeeva and ParamAtman, on the basis of mere statements or words. It is the opinion of this Upanishad that only by taking resort to adhyAtma vijnAna, can one determine the real truth. On this subject of identity or difference, there is a verse:

Sarva vyApinam AtmAnam kshIre sarpirivArshitam |

TilEshu tailam dadhanIva sarpih, apasrOtassu, araNIShu chAgnih |

Paramatman (God) is to be grasped within this jIvAtman (individual self). Just as oil is present in sesame seeds, just as ghee is present in milk, just as fire is present in firewood, the ParamAtman is present in jIvAtman in a subtle form; having said so, this Upanishad examines the aspects of difference and identity between jIvAtman and ParamAtman. If one places his hand in milk, ghee is not perceived. The milk needs to be boiled, converted to curds and then churned properly to get butter and then heated again to get ghee. Similarly, if one has to realize the ParamAtman present in the jIvAtman, one has to meditate (dhyAna); this is the basis of all adhyAtma vijnAna. This knowledge of how to do meditation is not easy and it is not something one can effectively engage in without a capable teacher(Guru). If a question is asked whether there is difference or identity between milk and ghee, it can be said that ghee is present in milk without being explicitly perceivable, and therefore there is in a way identity. However, if one asks for ghee, and if milk is given instead, obviously, he or she may say that, “I asked for ghee, not for milk”. Therefore, it can also be said that there is difference between ghee and milk.

To summarize, “One should not get into arguments and debates about difference or identity between jIva and paramAtma, but one should continuously meditate on paramAtma, and should realize Him through adhyAtma vijnAna”; this is the message given in this Upanishad by Lord HayagrIva, who is the presiding deity of vijnAna.

This aspect is declared in the Upanishads as “VijnAnena AtmAnam vEdayatE”, which means – the realization of ParamAtman is possible through adhyAtma vijnAna.

Sarvam Sri KrishnArpanam astu

Asmad gurubhyO namah


[1] Tasya madhye vanhi sikhA. anIyOrdhvA vyavastitah. nIlatO yadamadhyasthA vidyullEkhEva bhasvara. nIvAra sUka vartanvI pItAbhAsyattanUpama. tasyAsshikhAyA madhyE paramAtma vyavasthitah. Sa bramha sa sivah sEndrah sOksharah paramassvarAt.

[2] Hiranya kEshah hiraNyas smashruh. A pranakhAt sarva Eva suvarNah

[3]  yattE rupam kalyAnatam tattE pasyAmi |

yOsAvasO purasah soahamasmi

[4] yA nishA sarva bhutAnam yasyAm jagarti samyamI yasyAm jagarti bhutAni sA nishA pasyatO munEh

[5] bahUnAm janmanAm ante jnAnavAn mAm prapadyate

[6] YadA yadA hi dharmasya glAnirbhavati bhArata |

AbhyuttAnam adharmasya tat AtmAnam srijAmi aham ||

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