Dharmapala Thangka CentreIconography

Tibetan Iconography


Hayagrîva [also called "horse neck" or "the one with the horse in his neck"] is an angry-heroic meditation deity and is one of the most important archetypal deities [yidam] of Tibetan Buddhism. Especially within the Nyingma school, he was given an important place from the beginning. He is regarded as the wrathful manifestation of Buddha Amithâbhas or Avalokiteshvara, who as a heruka or "blood drinker" of ego attachment embodies the enlightened male principle. This fills every situation with creativity and power. As such, he is the yidam of wrathful compassion and can thus also be regarded as Padmasambhava's manifestation. One of his original mantras, which is recorded in Guhyasamaja Tantra, is OM HRIH PADMA SAMBHAVA HUM.

He is known in various forms, often with three heads, six arms, four legs and sometimes with large wings. This pair of wings is considered a sign of victory over unhealthy conditions. He is easily recognized by the small horse head that emerges from his wrathful main head, and to which he owes his name Hayagriva, the "horse-naked". The horse's head whinnies loudly, and it is said that its sound penetrates all false phenomena that feign the existence of actual substance, thus revealing the radiant reality of freedom.

Everything about him is frightening: his sinister face with three staring eyes, his roaring mouth with protruding fangs, his warlike, aggressive posture, his belly bulging with inner energy, the sword he fearfully raises with his right hand, the gesture of threat from his left hand, and his jewellery of living snakes. This frightening aspect expresses the firm will of compassion to overcome selfishness and external obstacles. Deep-rooted misconceptions and characteristics such as lust, hatred, pride and envy, which cause unhappiness and suffering, can only be overcome by anger, which has been transformed into truth-penetrating wisdom. In the figure of Hayagrîvas love and wildness are united. It is also often depicted standing on two human creatures. Then he stands with his outstretched leg on a female figure and with his wrapped leg on a male figure, which symbolize passion and hate respectively. These negative qualities are transformed by Hayagrîva into compassion and wisdom.

Hayagriva originates from Hinduism where he is said to have been worshipped by a horse breeding tribe and later identified with the god Vishnu. In Mahayanana Buddhism he is the guardian of the holy scriptures, who expels evil spirits by neighing. He is often referred to as the incarnation of the transcendental Buddhas Amithâbha or Akshobhya and appears in many different forms in the artistic representation.

Hayagrîva bears a resemblance to the funeral judge Yama in a two-armed form; the small horse's head in its bristled hair above the crown of the skull, however, makes his identification clear. Standing sideways to the right [pratyalidha] on two beings of different sexes, he holds in his right hand the sceptre staff with skull [danda] and in his left hand the lasso snare [pasa] for catching and binding the enemies of religion. He is clothed in a tigerskin apron, and like Yama, he wears the Wheel of Teaching [like Yama] as a decorative agraffe, and a snake [naga]. The elephant skin thrown over his back is knotted with the leg skins at his neck. The head of the skinned elephant is visible on Hayagrîva's right side of the body.

Hayagriva carries the sceptre staff [danda] and the skull bowl with him when he is depicted together with a partner [yogini]. He is standing on the right side of two downed beings in lunges. He is clothed with a garland of heads, a snake, and a tigerskin apron.

In another two-armed form Hayagrîva appears with the attributes of a cleaver and a skull bowl; in the crook of his left arm there is usually, but not always, the Magic Wand [Kathvanga] crowned by a vajra. In the arched position [capasthana], the Dharmapala has his right leg drawn up, and his left foot stands on a being lying crooked on the ground.

The vajra-crowned crook of the arm is usually, but not always, the vajra-crowned staff [Kathvanga]. In the arched [cãpastháni] posture [cãpastháni], the Dharmapála has his right leg drawn up, and his left foot stands on a crooked being lying on the ground.

The cult of Hayagrîva is widespread in Tibet, especially among horse traders, although the horse trader does not actually have the function of the patron saint of horses, but with his terrible nature he knows how to drive away demons.

According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he is also the goalkeeper of the West, who appears to the deceased on the 6th day of the third stage of Bar do.

Hayagrîva is also found in the Bon religion, where he is connected with the ritual oath of allegiance that the subjects had to take to their local rulers every three years and on the occasion of which, among other things, horses and dogs were sacrificed. Accompanying meditation exercises of the Bon priests in this context brought forth the vision of a Garuda bird and Hayagrîva merged into a fearsome deity who, at the moment of the oath of allegiance, expelled all dangerous demons and spirits and thus provided for a new, happy three-year period.