After a nearly 10,000-year gruelling battle with the demons Madhu and Kaitabha, Vishnu was exhausted. He could not even bring himself to get up or lay down for a bit of rest. He fell asleep on his bow, his head perched precariously and yet comfortably on its string. His body slumped over the bow, was wrapped in an unshakeable stupor.

A sleeping Vishnu was a bad omen. But none dared to break his nidra, neither Shiva nor Brahma nor could any of the gods dare to disturb the sleep of the divine goddess Yoganidra. But something had to be done so Brahma decided to seek the help of the vamsis (white ants). He asked them to gnaw at the string so that it would break and wake up the sleeping Vishnu.

The vamsis were horrified at the suggestion at first. How could they disturb a god? How could they awaken a sleeping lord who had just rid of the world of two horrific demons? This was equivalent to ‘bramhahatya’ they said.

But Brahma convinced them otherwise. Do this, he said, and the gods will never forget your contribution. And the vamsis would get a part of the sacrifice made to the gods during a yagna, the ghee that fell outside the homa-kunda was theirs, he said. So the ants set about their task with the fervour and diligence that was expected of them. But no sooner had they chewed up part of the string, a sharp and sudden jerk snapped Vishnu’s head, severing it from his body in one fell sweep. And the head then disappeared in a flash.

Darkness fell upon the world and the gods lamented while Shiva and Brahma looked on in a state of panic. Brahma said that the only one who could save them all was Bhagavati or Mahamaya, the Devi.

The universe sang hymns in her praise, the Vedas prostrated before her and the gods pleaded for her intervention. Pleased, the Devi stood before them. And she said that there was nothing that ever happened without her knowing or her doing. So Vishnu losing his head was pre-ordained as would be his resurrection.

She then recounted two stories that had led the world to its present predicament. The first one was to do with Vishnu and Lakshmi, his wife. One day, when Lakshmi stood before him, looking her very best, Vishnu burst into laughter. There seemed to be no reason for his mirth and Lakshmi suspected that her husband had been seeing someone else, his laughter was, therefore, an insult to her. In a fit of anger, she cursed him. May you lose your head, she said, not bothering to think that she would then end up a widow. But actions born in anger are never well thought out, the Devi explained. And once the goddess had cursed, the curse would have to be followed through. So Vishnu it was decided, would lose his head temporarily.

There is another reason too that things had come to such a pass. There lived a demon, Hayagriva, who had spent years in penance and prayer to the Devi. Such was his devotion that he earned himself a boon. When asked what he wanted, the horse-headed demon said that he wanted immortality. But immortality was never an unconditional boon, it always came with a rider. In that case, the demon said, let me be killed by one like me. A horse-headed god.

Knowing well that such a god did not exist, Hayagriva felt himself invincible. And soon turned into a tyrant, completely secure in the knowledge that there was none to challenge him. Vishnu would have to take his place as a horse-headed god, the Devi decreed, and bring the cruel demon to his end.

On hearing this, the gods sped in search of a horse whose head would be fitted on to Vishnu. And having found the perfect horse, they beheaded him and brought it to the Devi. Soon Vishnu, wearing his horse head rode to battle and vanquished the demon who had troubled the three worlds for long.

Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta

Location: Pan India

Source: Srimad Devi Bhagvatam translated by Swami Vijnananda, Devi Bhagvatam retold: Ramesh Menon

Image Source: Wikimedia