This is a prayer that children, especially in a vaishnavaite home, are taught to recite before embarking on any learning activity. Knowledge is held on a high pedestal all across the globe. And the Indian tradition acknowledges this great value of knowledge by paying respects to the divinity associated with this facet of life by offering verses of praise and worshipping through rituals and festivals.
When we talk about the deity of knowledge, we reverently remember Lord Ganesha and Devi Saraswati. Along with them and others, there is one more divinity in the Vaishnava tradition who is considered an embodiment of knowledge – Hayagriva. The opening verse in this article is an obeisance to Him, revered as the Lord of learning.
The name Hayagriva consists of two words viz. ‘Haya’ meaning ‘horse’ and ‘Griva’ meaning ‘neck’. Therefore, it literally means ‘one whose neck is like that of a horse’. And refers to the avatara (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu where he adorned the face of a horse. Though not a part of the popular ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the worship of Sri Hayagriva as a bestower of knowledge is indispensable in the Sri Vaishnava tradition.
The story of Lord Hayagriva appears in the Mahabharata and many other Puranas like the Bhagavata Purana, Matsya Purana, Skanda Purana and Devi Bhagavata. Through the narrative, they explore the why and how of the Lord’s incarnation. The story enumerated in this article brings forth the vital role played by Lord Hayagriva in recovering the lost Vedas that reinforce his lustre as the lord of learning and wisdom.
This story is narrated in the Shanti Parva (Adhyaya 347) of the Mahabharata. It is said that, the entire universe runs according to a higher cosmic cycle of time, and that it gets dissolved and recreated at regular intervals. After one such dissolution of the Universe (Pralaya), as Lord Vishnu reclining in the great waters was thinking about the creation of the cosmos, there appeared Lord Brahma seated on a thousand-petalled lotus ready to engage in the activity of creation. At that very moment, two danavas by the names Madhu and Kaitabha who were embodiments of the qualities of tamas and rajas, arose from two dewdrops of water on the lotus seat. As soon as they beheld Lord Brahma and the four lustrous Vedas, they stole the Vedas and hid them deep inside the great ocean (rasatala). The Vedas were as if the very sight of Lord Brahma, that guided him in the process of creation of the universe. Therefore, he appealed to Lord Vishnu to help him restore his vision – the Vedas. As a response to this request by Lord Brahma, Mahavishnu assumes the lustrous form of Hayagriva (endowed with the face of a horse).
The Mahabharata, describing the divine form of Lord Hayagriva says,
“The nakshatras and the svarga was his head, his mane resembled the shining rays of the Sun, the sky and the nether world were his ears, the entire earth formed his forehead, the rivers Ganga and Saraswati his rear and the two oceans became his eyebrows. His eyes where the Moon and the Sun, the evening his nose, the syllable Om was his embellishment, the lightening his tongue, the Pitrs (ancestors) were his teeth, Goloka and Brahmaloka became his lips and Kalaratri was his neck.” (Shanti Parva, Adhyaya 347, Verses 49-53).
This description of Lord Hayagriva resonates with the description of the cosmic Purusha described in the Purusha Sukta of the Rgveda (10.90) where the various elements of the universe are described as forming a limb of the Cosmic Purusha who is the Supreme Being; enunciating Him as the very substratum and creator of all that exists in this universe.
Coming back to the story, in this way, Lord Hayagriva who assumed a form as radiant as described, went deep into the ocean, where the danavas were hiding along with the Vedas. Having reached there, the Lord began Samagana; the recitation of the Samaveda endowed with enchanting musical notes. As the divine sound of His chant spread all over, the two asuras, having tied the Vedas and thrown them into deep waters, went in search of the source of that divine sound. Lord Hayagriva, taking benefit of this opportunity, gathered the Vedas from the bottom of the ocean and handed them back to Lord Brahma. It is said in the Mahabharata that the Lord established his form as Hayagriva in the North-eastern part of the great ocean before resuming his form as Mahavishnu. And interestingly, there is a temple of Hayagriva-Madhava on the Manikuta hill, near the Hajo village of Assam, a north-eastern state in India that finds a mention in the Kalika Purana. This repeated reference to the north-eastern direction in the context of Hayagriva is indeed alluring.
Of course, in the meantime, the asuras reached the source of the divine sound and finding nothing, they rush back to where they had left the Vedas only to find it empty. They came out from the rasatala and found Lord Vishnu reclining on Shesha above the ocean and inferred Him to be the rescuer of the Vedas. As the danavas implored the Lord to fight, He woke up from his yoganidra, a fierce battle ensued between them and the danavas were killed by the Lord. The story in the Mahabharata finally ends with a phala-shruti saying,
“The one who listens to or remembers this tale of incarnation every day, his learning never fails to bear fruits.” (Shanti Parva, Adhyaya 347, Verse 76).
In fact, the text even gives an example to establish this. According to the Mahabharata, a brahmana named Galava residing in the Panchala region, propitiated Lord Hayagriva on the advice of Lord Shiva and succeeded in mastering the Krama style of reciting the Vedas. The Bhagavata Purana also mentions the same example and goes further to elaborate that in this way, Galava became the first to master the krama style and was also responsible for the discovery of shiksha (the science of phonetics), a vedanga that deals with the principles and proper pronunciation of words in the vedas.
This motif of retrieval of the Vedas is the main source of inspiration for Hayagriva being revered as the bestower of knowledge. And this motif is found not just in the Mahabharata but across other Puranas like the Bhagavata Purana, Matsya Purana, Devi bhagavata as well. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, in the story, even when the Vedas are hidden by Madhu and Kaitabha, Lord Hayagriva recites the Vedas. Therefore, Lord Hayagriva is seen as the source of Vedic knowledge and the one who can bring to fore hidden or a specialized field of knowledge. This is reinforced by the reply to sage Agastya in the Bhagavata Purana by Lord Hayagriva where he states that ‘he did not initiate him (Agastya) into a specific field of knowledge as it is considered to be a great secret.’ These scattered references across Puranic literature go a long way in reinforcing the vital position of Lord Hayagriva as the deity of learning and wisdom.
Moreover, it is an interesting confluence that Hayagriva Jayanti (the day Lord Hayagriva is supposed to have restored the Vedas) is celebrated on the same day as the annual upakarma ritual of the Rgvedis and the Yajurvedis ie. Shravana Paurnima. Upakarma is the annual thread (changing) ceremony. According to Ancient Indian tradition, a child was sent to gurukula to study the Vedas after the Upanayana Samskara where he is given to wear the sacred thread. Therefore, Upanayana is a sort of initiation into Vedic studies. And once initiated, all boys and men, as a ritual, renewed their sacred thread every year by changing it; as if suggestive of their renewed vigour towards performing the Vedic duties. Thus, it is of vital importance to note that this ritual that marks a sort of rejuvenation of Vedic studies is celebrated on the same day that is considered as the day Lord Hayagriva reinstated the lost Vedas. There cannot be a stronger reasoning to the reverence of Sri Hayagriva as the bestower of knowledge in the Indian tradition, more so in the Vaishnava culture. For, many alwars like Nammalwar, Tirumangaialwar, Kulasekharalwar as well as Yamunacharya, Ramanujacharya, Vedantadesika, Madhavacharya, Vadirajatirtha, etc have written the glory of Sri Hayagriva – the lord of learning and wisdom. Also, there is no dearth to stories from the lives of acharyas like Vadirajatirtha where Lord Hayagriva is said to have appeared in the form of a white horse to partake the offering made by them.
And as far as the history, form and worship of Hayagriva is concerned, the Vaishnava agama texts like Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra elaborate on the ritualistic practices together with the underlying metaphysical and mystical conceptions while tantric texts like Lakshmi tantra, Sharadatilaka tantra, Meru tantra and the Yoginitantra speak of the mantra, yantra and various forms of worship regarding Hayagriva.
The day of restoration of the Vedas, that are the source of highest eternal knowledge, known as Hayagriva Jayanti, falls on Shravana Paurnima as per the Indian calendar and was celebrated in the year 2019 on 15th of August.