Going beyond knowledge

The 13th–14th c. Vaiṣṇava theologian Veṅkaṭanātha (also known as Vedānta Deśika) opened various chapters (called vāda) of his Śatadūṣaṇī with a different praise of Hayagrīva. Interestingly, they focus on different aspects of this complex God. The first one focuses on His being connected with the Veda and speech, the second on the latter connection only, the last two on Him as the supreme deity, while the middle one is a sort of threshold between Hayagrīva’s connection to knowledge and Hayagrīva as supreme deity. Accordingly, the translation of this maṅgala is particularly tricky.

viditam anuvadanto viśvam etad yathāvad vidadhati nigamāntāḥ kevalaṃ yanmayatvam |
aviditabahubhūmā nityam antarvidhattāṃ hayavaravadano ‘sau sannidhis sannidhiṃ naḥ ||

The second part of the verse is relatively clear, although I am sure I am missing something in the equation of Hayagrīva with sannidhi:

Let He, as proximity*, with the face of a horse, whose opulence is not understood, take perpetually place close to us ||

The first part is less clear and the following translation is only tentative (comments are welcome):

The Upaniṣads, by repeating what has been understood, properly distribute this all [knowledge], which consists purely of Him |

Now, the tricky part is the echo between vidita/avidita and vidadhati/antarvidhattām. Given that the the first part of the verse refers to the Upaniṣads and the second part refers directly to Hayagrīva, the gist of the passage appears to lie in the idea that the Upaniṣads are an excellent device for gathering knowledge, but Hayagarīva surpasses all possible human knowledge.

*I would now read it as “Let he, the depository of good things” (the puṇya for this translation accrues to H.I.’s comment below).

For Hayagrīva in other Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta texts, see this post. For Hayagrīva in Vaiṣṇava temples, see here.

Hayagrīva in South Indian temples

After the 17th c. and as a consequence of the Vaṭakalai-Teṅkalai split and of the resultant decision of the Vaṭakalai devotees to adopt Veṅkaṭanātha’s theology, the icons of Hayagrīva start to rapidly grow in number and importance in Tamil Nadu–Karṇāṭaka.
Two types of Hayagrīva are reproduced:

The origins of Hayagrīva

The Hayagrīva (horse-head) form of Viṣṇu is slightly disturbing, not only for his half animal aspect (a characteristic shared by various other avatāras, from Narasiṃha to Matsya), but also for the fact that the horse head does not find a proper justification in most texts… And when it does find one, I strongly suspect that it is an ad hoc explanation, in order to solve the riddle. Let me elaborate a bit more:

Hayagrīva in the Hayaśīrṣa Saṃhitā

Hayagrīva previous to Veṅkaṭanātha seems to have a non-specific Vaiṣṇava iconography, with only his horse-head as a fixed element. He is, for instance, a standing figure in Khajurao, where he carries a club and has one hand in the dānamūdrā.

Hayagrīva at Khajurao

By contrast, after Veṅkaṭanātha, the iconography radically changes and two possibilities become fixed:

Hayagrīva in Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta texts —UPDATED

In post-Vedānta Deśika (traditional dates 1269-1370) Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta texts Hayagrīva seems to have assumed the function Gaṇeśa has in all other texts, namely he is invoked at the beginning as the God of learning, protecting the intellectual enterprise one is about to undertake.

(Musée Guimet, Cambodia)