Lord Hayagriva in Sanskrit Literature

by Anindita Adhikari | 2019 | 56,368 words

This page relates ‘Iconographical descriptions of Hayagriva in different Puranas’ of the study on Lord Hayagriva as found in Sanskrit Literature such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Puranas and Tantras. Hayagriva as an incarnation of Vishnu is worshipped as the supreme Lord of knowledge and wisdom but also symbolizes power and intelligence. His name means “the horse-headed one”.

Iconographical descriptions of Hayagrīva in different Purāṇas

Iconography has several integral elements that include the classification of images, textual principle of image making, mode of casting materials employed in image making, the accessories and the characters of gods and goddesses. Iconography a fascinating branch of Indology had its origin in the womb of ancient past. It is a śāstra called śilpaśāstra, the science of sculpture, as regards Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina vision of iconography. The iconographical details are largely contained in the Matsya, Agni, Skanda, Garuḍa, Liṅga, Bhaviṣya and Viṣṇupurāṇa particularly in the Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa. These purāṇas have contributed a great deal to both temple architecture and iconology. Some of the purāṇas in totality constitute an invaluable source for iconographical studies and present detailed description of the activities of the god. Again, some of the purāṇas specifically deal with pratimālakṣaṇa iconography.

In the long history of art in India, Hayagrīva as a form of Viṣṇu appears in plastic representations not in abundance. The epic and purāṇic literature represented Viṣṇu as an anthropomorphic form along with conventional iconographic character and blazon. Vaiṣṇavisam seems to have been the most popular Hindu sect where Viṣṇu is the Supreme Being alone as the manifestation of the universe. We particularly refer to the iconographical description of Lord Hayagrīva in different purāṇic texts such as, Agni, Garuḍa, Viṣṇudharmottara and Brahmāṇḍa, though there are Āgama, Tantra, Śilpaśāstra and other works too.

1) The Agnipurāṇa portrays Hayagrīva featuring with four hands holding discus, mace, conch, and a manuscript. His left leg is placed on the śeṣanāga (divine serpent) and the right is on the kūrma (tortoise).[1] The Agnipurāṇa surprisingly contains fifty chapters on iconography which have been described by Rocher as “a summary of Pañcarātra Āgamas.”[2] Interestingly, the iconographical representation of Hayagrīva in the Agnipurāṇa is similar in reference to the Pañcarātra texts such as, the Padma Saṃhitā.

2) The Matsyapurāṇa supports the description which is reflected in the Agnipurāṇa. [3]

3) Even though the Brahmāṇḍpurāṇa depicts Hayagrīva , it is slightly different from the description found in the Agnipurāṇa and Matsyapurāṇa, particularly regarding the arrangement of the objects like conch, discus, rosary and book in the four hands[4] of Hayagrīva.

4) Garuḍapurāṇa speaks of Viṣṇupañjara stotra where Hayagrīva is described with a white hue like complexion resembling the conch shell, jasmine flower, the moonlight with silver like brilliance. He is four armed holding the conch shell, discus, club and lotus in the arms and adorned with a garland of wild flowers. He has majestic mouth and cheeks, wearing yellow garments.[5]

5) Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa portrayed Hayagrīva as having the face of a horse and eight arms. In four of the hands he carries the conch, discus, mace and lotus and the remaining four hands are placed upon the heads of the personified forms of the four Vedas.[6] His foot rests on the outstretched palms of the goddess earth. This description is somehow different from the description available in other purāṇas.

Besides the purāṇa text an elaborate description of the iconography of Hayagrīva is from the Hayaśīrṣa pañcarātra, an old and paramount literary document of the pañcarātra sect of vaiṣṇavism. This text furnishes significant details relating to iconographical features of the deity and architectural norms of temple construction. It comprises of four kāṇḍas or volumes such as Ādi, Saṃkarṣaṇa, Laiṅga and Saura. Each of these kāṇḍas are divided into sections named paṭalas. Ādi kāṇḍa of the Hayaśīrṣa Pañcarātra expounds on the iconography of three of the five principal Brahmanical divinities—the Viṣṇu, Śiva and Devī. The Saura kāṇḍa is a chapter dedicated to the images of Sūrya. Saṃkarṣaṇa kāṇḍa deals with the iconography of Gaṇapati. There are descriptions of Brahmā, grahas, Lokeśas, Garuḍa and it also depicts various forms of the phallic emblem of Śiva and its ingredients.

The first chapter of the Hayaśīrṣa Pañcarātra describes Hayaśīrṣa or Hayagrīva as an incarnation of Viṣṇu. In the chapter twenty five Hayagrīva, the horse headed one with four arms is depicted as holding śaṅkha, cakra, gadā and veda.[7] Elsewhere he is described as multi-handed. In his eight or twelve handed form, he may show other emblems like padma, akṣamālā, vara, pustaka etc. However, nothing definite has been said in the text about his standing or seated posture.

Ichnographically Hayagrīva is represented as having a theriomorphic form, an incarnation of Viṣṇu, which has the head of a horse and the body of a man with lustrous white complexion, holding all four attributes in his four hands. When supposed to have eight arms, four are holding the attributes and the other four are holding the Vedas or touching the heads of the personified Vedas . He is supposed to be shown in a brilliant white hue and his clothes as be blue.[8]

Footnotes and references:


Śaṃkha cakra gadā vedapāṇiścāśvaśirā hariḥ/ Vāmapādo dhṛtaḥ śeṣe dakṣiṇaḥ kūrmapṛṣṭhgaḥ//
Dattātreyo dvivāhuḥ syādvāmotsaṅge śriyā saha/
Viśvaksenaścakra gadī halī śaṅkhī harergaṇaḥ//” Agni Purāṇa, 59.26-27.


Nayar, Kamal. E: Hayagriva: The Many History of Indian Deity, p.125.


Babu, Sridhar: Hayagrīva: The Horse-Headed Deity in Indian Culture, p. 61.


Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa, 4.5.9;55.35-40.


“Pravakṣyānāṃ hyetadvaiṣṇavaṃ pañjaraṃ śubhaṃ/
Namo namaste govinda cakraṃ gṛhya sudarśanaṃ//
Prācyā rakṣasva māṃ viṣṇo tvāmahaṃ śaraṇaṃ gataḥ/
Gadāṃ kaumodakīṃ gṛhya padmanābha namohastute/
Yāmyāṃ rakṣasva māṃ viṣṇo tvāmahaṃ śaraṇaṃ gataḥ//
Halamādāya saunandaṃ Namaste puruṣottama/
Pratīcyāṃ rakṣa māṃ viṣṇo tvāmahaṃ śaraṇaṃ gataḥ//
Muṣalaṃ śātanaṃ gṛhyaṃ puṇḍarīkākṣa rakṣa māṃ/
Uttarasyāṃ jagannātha bhavantaṃ śaraṇaṃ gataḥ//
Khaḍgamādāya carmmātha astraśastrādikaṃ hare/
Namaste rakṣa rakṣogna aiśānyāṃ śaraṇaṃ gataḥ//
Pāñcajanyaṃ mahāśaṅkhamanudvodhañca paṅkajaṃ/
Pragṛhya rakṣa māṃ viṣṇo āgneyyāṃ yajñaśūkara//
Candrasūryasamaṃ gṛhya khaḍgaṃ cāndramasaṃ tathā/
Nairṛtyāṃ māñca rakṣasva divyamūrtte nṛkeśarin//
Vaijayantīṃ sampragṛhya śrīvatsyaṃ kaṇṭhabhūṣaṇaṃ/
Vāyavyāṃ rakṣa māṃ deva Hayagrīva namo’stute//
Vainateyaṃ samāruhya tvantarīkṣe janārddana/
Māñca rakṣājita sadā namaste’stvaparājita//
Viśālākṣṃ samāruhya rakṣa māṃ tvaṃ rasātale/
Akūpāra namastubhyaṃ mahāmīna namo’stute//” Garuḍa Purāṇa. 1.13.1-10.


Priyabala, Shah: Viṣṇodharmottarapurāṇa, Khaṇḍa III, Vol. I, p. 240.


“Tvaṃ cāpyagre sthitaḥ kāryo vedagrahapuraḥsaraḥ/
Apare vāmahaste tu śaṅkha dadyāt suśobhanaṃ//
Dakṣiṇe dvitaye kuryād gadā cakraṃ vicakṣaṇa/
Śeṣanāgadhṛtaṃ pādaṃ vāmaṃ karyaṃ samānagha//
Dakṣiṇe kurmapṛṣṭhasthaṃ pādaṃ kuryād sadaiva me/
Śaṅkhacakragadāvedapāṇiṃ vā kārayīt māṃ//
Aśvavaktraṃ caturbāhumevameva vyavasthitaṃ/
Puṣkarāsanamadhyasthaṃ devīdvitayasaṃyutaṃ//” HayaP, 25.22.25.


T.A, Gopinath Rao: Elements of Hindu Iconography, p.261.

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