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Keshi Suktam and the Sharabha-Narasimha episode

The keSi sUkta is a stuti of bhagavAn as the antaryAmin of Brahma and Rudra in the context of the samudra mathanam incident. In that charitra, bhagavAn appeared in various manifestations as Ajita (who churned the poison), Kurma (who upheld the Mandara), Dhanvantri (who appeared with medicine), the indweller of Rudra (who drank the poison), Mohini (who misled the asurAs) and Vishnu (who married srI mahAlakshmi).
In particular, this entire sUkta is devoted to one incident – the drinking of the hAla hAla poison. The bhAgavatam records that when that poison came out of the ocean, the devas resorted to the indweller of Rudra (nArAyaNa) and thus, bhagavAn used Shiva as his vibhUti to drink up the poison. That the devas only resorted to nArAyaNa as the supreme brahman and eulogised him in the stuti for that section (as opposed to Shiva) – is proven here in the blog :
Shiva was used as a vessel for bhagavAn to drink up the poison. Why didn’t bhagavAn do it directly? Because Shiva, by virtue of his merit, had performed severe austerities to attain the position of the lord of the devas. The mahAbhArata records this as follows –
mahAdEva: sarvamEdhEMahAthmAhuthvaa aathmAnam dEvadEvO BhabhUva visvAn lOkAn vyApya vishtabhya keerthyA virAjathE dhyuthimAn KrutthivAsa: --MahAbhAratha: 20.12
(Meaning): The noble soul known as “mahAdeva” (shiva) performed the sarvamEdha yAga , where He offered Himself as Havis and became the greatest among DevAs. He shines brilliantly in all the worlds with His jnAna, took on eight kinds of radiant forms (ashtamUrthy) and became renowned (keerthimAn ,DhyutimAn virAjathE).
Since Shiva had acquired merit, the gracious bhagavAn fulfilled the fruits of his penances by allowing him to swallow the poison and thus lead the devas as their head. However, it should be understood that Shiva was a vibhUti and the actual act of containing the poison was done by bhagavAn only through the medium of Shiva. This is stated by Shiva himself in the following pramAnAs, which serve as upabrahmaNas for the keSi sUkta:
taMdR^iShTvA ghora saN^kAshaM prAdurbhUtaM mahAviSham.h | dhyAtvA nArAyaNaM devaM hR^idaye garuDadhvajam.h || (~BrahmAndapurANa)

(Meaning): Seeing that terrible poison emerging, (Shiva) meditated on the Lord Vishnu, Garudadhvaja, residing in his heart.
Another purANa says:
yenajIrNaM cha garaLaMkaNThasthaM cha kapAlinaH |antarAtma dhR^itaM tasyahR^idaye garuDadhvaja ||

(Meaning): It is only due to Shiva's meditating on Vishnu, that he was able to digest the terrible poison, right in his neck.
(Note the reference to Shiva as “kapAlinaH”. He had a skull attached to his hand as a result of brahma hatya dosha, which was removed by the grace of vishNu. Highlighting this, the purAna says he prayed to the same vishNu to digest the poison).
In Garuda purana, Shiva tells Parvati:
aprakAshamidaM devi guhyAd guhyataraM padam.h | purAham abdhimathane patagendra viShAvaham.h | avadhyaM garalaM ghoramaJNbhujam amR^itaMyathA ||

(Meaning): O Devi, this is not a well known fact. At the time of samudra-mathana, before consuming poison, I meditated on the Lord. (It is due to his mercy that ) I was able to drink it as easily as I had the nectar (amR^ita)
This one is well known in the mantra-shAstras:
achyutAnanta govinda mantrato.apsushubhaM param.h | OM iti sampuTIkR^ity ajapan viShadharo.aharat.h ||
(Meaning): Lord Shiva did 'abhimantraNa' of the poison with the most auspicious mantra: OM achyutAnantagovinda OM' and then consumed the poison.
Another purANa says:
nAmatraya prabhAvAchcha viShNossarvagatasyavai |viShaM tadabhavajjIrNaM lokasamhArakAraNam.h |

(Meaning): Due to the chanting of the 'nAmatraya' (three names) of that all-pervading Vishnu, that terrible poison, which could have destroyed the worlds, was digested ('jIrNam.h').
Despite all these pramAnAs, some miscreants keep ignoring all this and throwing feeble minded accusations at vaiSnavas. This endeavour is aimed as a rebuttal to the following article:
The Keshi Sukta has been quoted by vaiShnavas to show that Shiva was used as an instrument to drink the poison by vishNu. In the above link, the author says that the mantra in question does not say anything about halahala viSha, but only talks about the sun taking up water with the marutgaNas or vaidyutAgni as per sayana bhAshya.
In particular, srI vedAnta desikan, in his daShavatAra stOtra, hints that this mantra in the kEshI sUkta talks of vishNu drinking the poison through Rudra and saving the devas.
Please note that sayana bhAshya is not an epitome of perfection. Indeed, it was this bhAshya that interpreted the SatarudrIyam as a meaningless description of rivers, forests, dogs, thieves, potters, fishermen, ponds, arrows, bows, etc with a feeble attempt to say that all this was a description of “viSvarUpa”. Sayana clearly did not understand that every word in the Rudram was a metaphor for the tattvas.
Even in this case, exactly what tattva jnAna is obtained by a meaningless interpretation that it is the sun which takes up water? When krishNa says “vedaishca sarvair aham eva vedyaH”, shouldn’t the meaning be related to Brahman, cit or acit, ie, a description of tattvas? So, what is the jnAna obtained from knowing the sun takes up water? Therefore, Sayana bhAshyam is incorrect.
Context is key for any interpretation, without which it is completely wrong. Ignorant of this, the author of that link makes random accusations like vaiShnavas spew venom and etceteras – the usual stuff that vishNu dvEshIs normally do.
However, to further prove this position, it can be seen that not only smriti, but also shruti, and in particular the keSi sUkta, clearly outlines this fact – that vishNu, as the indweller of shiva, was the actual drinker of the poison.
With that, let us begin. This is the commentary on keSi sUkta of the Rgveda, where the topic dealt is the swallowing of the hAla hAla viSha.
keśyagniṃ keśī viṣaṃ keśī bibharti rodasī | keśīviśvaṃ svardṛśe keśīdaṃ jyotirucyate ||
Meaning: The One who abides in Brahma and Rudra, governs the one (Shiva) who leads the devas, the One who abides in Brahma and Rudra bears the poison (as the antaryAmin of Rudra), the One who abides in Brahma and Rudra, supports (the jIvAs in) the Earth and Celestial Regions (by protection). The One who abides in Brahma and Rudra bears his non-material body designated as “vishvaM” as it is full of auspicious attributes. He supports, ie, sustains all this for the perception of the supreme abode designated as “svaH” (ie, liberation). This Lord who abides in Brahma and Rudra is called “jyOthi” or the supreme light .
“keSI” – This refers to Lord nArAyaNa who is the antaryAmin of brahma and rudra as he has them as his body. “Ka” refers to Brahma and “Isa” refers to Shiva. “keSi” – ka iSa asmin asti iti keSi – he who abides in Brahma and Rudra is “keSi”. Just as “sharIrI” refers to one who abides as the indweller of a “sharIra”, “keSi” refers to one who abides in Ka (Brahma) and Isa (Rudra).
The Upanishads elsewhere refer to bhagavAn as “kEshAnta” – he who is the source, limit or indweller of Ka and Isha. The meaning is same for “keSi” as well.
“keSI” is repeated each time to emphasise that bhagavAn ALONE performed all the actions of – 1) Empowering Rudra to drink the poison, 2) bearing the actual poison in the throat of Rudra without harm, 3) Saving  the Earth or samsAra mandalam and hence the devas from the poison. “bibharti” must be taken in conjunction with each word. Here is the detailed explanation:
“keSyaghnim bibharti” – “agni” refers to Shiva who is the leader of the devas – “agrEnayatI” – means one who leads. As Shiva is the leader of the devas, he is referred to here as “agni” and hence was made the instrument of drinking the poison. “keSi” is sriman nArAyaNa, who governs or rules over this Shiva as he is the indweller of the latter and thus empowers Rudra to consume the poison.
“keSi viSam bibharti” –The Lord, acting through Rudra, bore the hAlA-hAlA viSam and prevented it from harming the world. This shows he alone was responsible for nullifying the effects of the terrible poison. He did this through the vibhUti of Rudra, whom he governs as the indweller.
“keSi rodasI bibhartI” – The Lord saved all the worlds from the deadly poison this way. He alone did this and no-one else. Thus, he is the sole protector of the jIvAs in samsAra.
“keSi viSvambibharti svardR^ishe” – Not content with such protection, he manifests a glorious form made of suddha sattva that is “viSvaM” or full of auspicious attributes for the enjoyment of the jIvAs. This is another form of protection, which is for the satisfaction of the jIvAs.
“svardRi^she” = svaH +drshe” = Why does he support all the above mentioned acts and attributes? For the perception of the supreme abode by the jIvAs, ie, he wants to liberate the jIvAs.
“keSidam jyotir uchyatE” – Because of this, the Lord who abides in Brahma and Rudra is known as “jyOtI” - “nArAyaNaparOjyOtir” – This Lord is verily sriman nArAyaNa, who is the supreme light. Bhattar interprets “jyOtir” nAma in the sahasranAma as referring to him leading one to liberation.
munayo vātaraśanāḥ piśaṅgā vasate malā | vātasyānudhrājiṃ yanti yad devāso avikṣata ||
Meaning: The jIvAtmAs, who are “munis” by nature wear the ropes (attachments), connected with the mind which moves ceaselessly like the wind (vAta), which are tawny-hued impurities as it of the form of desire (pishangAH mala-s). They attain, or experience the impulse/force (dhrajiM) of the mind (vAta), which the indrIyAs (devas) entered into (avikShata).
As Rudra represents the mind and the hAla-hAla viSha represents the experience of the indrIyAs in the inner meanings of samudra mathanam, it is appropriate that this sUkta, from this rk onwards, describes the state of the mind/indrIyAs.

After describing paramAtma as the one who swallowed poison and saved the devas, this rk describes the mindset of the devas who approached paramAtma for help. From here on in, the rks can be taken in both the specific context of samudra mathanam and the general context of elaborating the tattvas.
What is the specific context? For, the previous rk described bhagavAn as the means by providing the example of samudra mathanam incident. But he helped the devas by his actions only after they surrendered to him. Therefore, this rk elaborates from the perspective of the devas who surrendered to the Lord after realizing their helplessness. They realised their helplessness by reflecting on the nature of their existence and the jivAtma.
“munayO” – The jIvAtma in it’s essential nature is a sesha of bhagavAn.  It is signified by the “Makara” of AUM as it is a muni by its’ essential nature (mananam karOti iti muni). The devas in the samudra mathanam context are “munis” because they are constantly reflecting on the truths. These truths are elaborated below.
“vAtarasanAh” – The mind is referred to as the wind as it is ceaselessly moving from one thought to another and is difficult to control. The ropes connected to the mind are the attachments born of karma-vAsanas from previous births. Thus, though the jIvA is a muni by its’ essential nature, its’ svabhAva (dharma bhUta jnAna) is constricted by the ropes which are the attachments/karma-vAsanas.
“pisangA malA” – These “ropes” or attachments which are the cause of births and deaths are of the form of or arise from desire or rajas which is symbolised by tawny color. This desire is like dirt that obscures the true nature of the jivA that is like a diamond. Just as dirt obscures the radiance of a diamond, the desire results in karmas that cover the jivA like dirt and contract its attributive knowledge.
“vAtasyAnudhrAjim” –The jIvAs, despite being muni, is thus, impelled forcefully by the mind towards attachments. This emphasises the helplessness to wean oneself away from the senses and stop the cycle of births and deaths.
“yanti yad devasO avikSita” – Such a mind has the indrIyAs under control. The indrIyAs” are called “deva” as they make objects shine out to the jIvA.
Thus, this describes the mindset of the devas when they saw the hAlahAla viSham. They were aware of their own helplessness and the need for surrendering to the Supreme Brahman.
The bhAgavatam in this context states - arakSyamAṇAḥ saranaM sadASivam” (8.7.19)–The devas felt incapable of protecting themselves from the poison. With full knowledge, they surrendered to the Lord nArAyaNa who is the indweller of Shiva as they knew he would act through the latter.
“sadASivam” refers to nArAyaNa who is eternally auspicious and hence that is the nature of Shiva who is the body (and vibhUti) of nArAyaNa according to srI veerarAghavAchArya. The article on samudra mathanam stOtra in this blog shows that the devas only praised vishNu and resorted to him – this has been proven by the commentary of srI veerarAghavAchArya. In the Gita, srI KrishNa says “mA sucha:” – “Do not grieve”. Thus, self-surrender provides protection from sorrow.
In addition, this sUkta has also clarified that it is keSi, the indweller of Brahma and Rudra, who bore the poison.
unmaditā mauneyana vātānā tasthimā vayam | śarīredasmākaṃ yūyaṃ martāso abhi paśyatha ||
Meaning: Agitated (by desire) by virtue of our intellect or understanding (dharma-bhUta-jnAnA), we (the devas/baddha jivAs) have become situated in wind, ie, the state of ceaseless transmigration. O you jIvAs, who are bound in samsAra (martasA)! Know (the true nature of) our bodies (as different from the self)!
“unmAdita” – Refers to being excited by material desires.
“maunEyanaH” – Here, our “mananam” here refers to our attributive knowledge or dharma-bhUta-jnAna, which is contracted due to karmas and hence directly associated with attachments or desire.
vAtAn AtasthimA vayam - We, the devas, are traversing in samsAra as a result of this, moving from birth to birth ceaselessly like wind which never stays in one place.
“yUyam martasaH abhipashyata sharIredasmAkam” – Therefore, know our bodies are different than our selves and thus do not be swayed by attachments.
It is valid to take the context in two ways – 1) the specific prayer of the devas to bhagavAn as the antaryAmin of rudra for swallowing the poison, 2) the general prayer of all jivAs to bhagavAn for liberation from samsAra.
After all, the specific context does indeed incorporate the general as its ultimate meaning. As mentioned before, in the incident, Rudra signifies the mind and the poison signifies the experience of the indrIyAs. The antaryAmin of the Mind/Rudra, is paramAtma sriman nArAyaNa who is surrendered to. The devas set an example for all baddha jivAs to surrender to bhagavAn.
antarikṣeṇa patati viśvā rūpāvacākaśat | munirdevasya-devasya saukṛtyāya sakhā hitaḥ ||
Meaning: The muniH (jIvA/Shiva) who is agreeable to his essential nature of “seshatva” (hitaH) and friend to all as he sees everyone equally (sakhA), who belongs (as a property of/dependent on/vibhUti of) to the effulgent god (devasya) for the purpose of acting well or in a manner agreeable to the Lord of SrI (devasya saukR^ityAya), traverses (patati) through the intermediate region becoming fully manifested of the nature of Brahman and accessible, ie, entering in all forms (avacAkashat vishvA rUpA)
This rk has a double meaning in that it describes 1) The nature of Shiva, who was made a vessel by bhagavAn to swallow the poison on the appeal of the devas, as well as 2) the characteristics of the liberated self. I will give both meanings.
“muni” – As explained earlier, muni refers to the essential nature of the jIvAtma denoted by “ma”. At the same time, it denotes one (Shiva) who is always reflecting on his dependence on the Lord and that he is the servant of the Lord. Such a person is of sAttvika bhAva as he has no ego. This describes the position of Shiva as a jnAni – the bhAgavatam says “vaiSNavAnAM yathA shambhu:” “Shiva has no illusions and is fully aware of his subservience on the Lord.
He is “hitaH” as he is agreeable to his true nature of seshatva or servitude. He is “sakhA” as he sees that everyone is identical in their essential nature and that the same Brahman is in everyone, so he has no animosity.
He belongs to the Lord who is effulgent in that he is a property/vibhUti who is dependent on bhagavAn.
As he is a property of bhagavAn, he acts in manner pleasing to bhagavAn and srI devi, ie, his sole aim is to see the Lord happy. This is mentioned by Shiva himself in the bhAgavatam:
puḿsaḥ kṛpayato bhadresarvātmā prīyate hariḥprīte harau bhagavati prīye 'haḿ sacarācaraḥ tasmādidaḿ garaḿ bhuñje prajānāḿ svastirastu me…. SrimadBhagavatam, 8.7.40 

Translation: Hari--  the soul of all -- (sarvātmā hariḥ), is pleased (priyate) when one performs benevolent acts for others. When Lord Hari is pleased all living beings including me are pleased. Hence, let there be welfare for all living beings from my act of swallowing this poison.
The reference to “sarvAtma hariH” shows that Shiva was situated in full knowledge that the act he was about to undertake was empowered by his antaryAmin (Hari) and he did not consider himself as superior to other living beings and thought of himself as a vibhUti. He had sama-darSana.
The second meaning for “saukRtya” in the sense of the liberated jivAs is that they perform services to bhagavAn at all times, all places and in all states.
Note that “devasya” is used two times. The first time, “deva” refers to bhagavAn who is effulgent. Thus, it denotes bhagavAn alone, though even his effulgence is due to SrI on his chest. The jIvAtma is said to belong to this paramAtma.
The second “devasya” is interpreted as “Lord of SrI”. For “deva” signifies his vAtsalya guNa, which arises only because of his association with srI. Thus, the jIvAtma acts in a manner agreeable, ie, performs services to the Lord in association with SrI. Meaning, one should not perform services ignoring srI mahAlakshmi.
The first time, only bhagavAn was referred as Lakshmi is a jIvAtma and hence, does not own the jIvAtmas like bhagavAn does. The second time, both are mentioned as both receive services from the jIvAtma.
“antarikṣeṇa patati viśvārūpā vacākaśat”This part applies to the liberated selves. In the case of Shiva, it can be taken that it applies to a jnAni like him after liberation. The idea is that the liberated selves manifest the nature of Brahman and the 8 characteristics like apahatapApmatva, etc. They do not have a body due to karma (arUpAvat); they may be embodied in suddha sattva rUpa or even disembodied according to their will and they travel everywhere signified by “antarikSena patati” at will as well, being unharmed or untouched by karma.
Should they wish to be embodied, they can assume infinitely many forms of any size, shape or dimension (vishva rUpAH). These forms are taken to serve the Lord wherever he is.
vātasyāśvo vāyoḥ sakhātho deveṣito muniḥ | ubhausamudrāvā kṣeti yaśca pūrva utāparaḥ ||
Meaning: By the intellect (deva) is the jIvAtma (muni) impelled (towards Brahman), who is friendly (Sakha) with the mind (vAyu), who is swollen or full (ashva) of that which is desired, ie, sama-damAdhi Atma guNas (vAtaH). Away from the two collections (of punya and pApa karmas) abides he (the individual self) who is prior or ancient (as compared to prakrti) and also inferior (to paramAtma).
This is a continuation of the previous mantra and describes the jnAni. It can again be taken in a more specific context as a description of Shiva’s role in the samudramathanam incident and also in the general context of a jnAni.
“muni” – Again, refers to the jIvA who is a muni by essential nature, or Shiva who is meditating on Brahman.
“deva” – refers to the intellect or dharma-bhUta-jnAna which illumines external objects to the jIvAtma. The intellect impels the jnAni towards Brahman
“vAyu sakhA” – The jnAni is friendly with the mind. As is well-known, the mind can be both an enemy or a friend depending on whether it sways the jIva towards attachments or towards paramAtma.
“ashva vAtaH” – Quoting the brihAdAraNyaka Upanishad - “his body swelled (ashvat), thus it came to be called “ashva”. Thus, “ashva” refers to being swollen, or rather, being full. The jIva who is a jnAni, is full of that which is desired (vAtaH), which are the Atma guNas beginning with sama-dama vide the gita slOka “buddhir-jnAnam asammohaH kṣhamA satyaṃ damah samah...”
In the context of samudra mathanam, Shiva swallowed the poison as a service to bhagavAn. The devas surrendered to bhagavAn for succor. Thus, they were all jnAnIs
“ubhau samudrAvA” – “samudra” in the Upanishads refer to the collection or aggregation of elements. So, anything that is an aggregate can be designated as “samudra”. Here “ubahu samudra” refers to the two collections of punyaand pApa karmas. The liberated self is freed (ava) from punya and pApa karmas.
“pUrva utA paraH” – The individual self is superior to prakrti, hence designated pUrva. However, he is inferior to paramAtma even after liberation, ie, he serves paramAtma. Hence, he is also “apara”.
apsarasāṃ ghandharvāṇāṃ mṛgāṇāṃ caraṇe caran | keśīketasya vidvān sakhā svādurmadintamaḥ ||
Meaning: The Lord who is the indweller of Brahma and Rudra (keshi) moves about (carati) in the (nature of being the) support (caraNa) of those who are opposed to desire (apsarasAM), those who kill their pride (gandharvANAM) and the desirous (mRgANAM). The One who abides in Brahma and Rudra, knows this desire (of the devas), is a friend (well-disposed to the devas), self-dependent and of a most delightful nature.
During the samudra mathanam, bhagavAn helped the devas attain the nectar. The devas fall in the category of aishwaryArtIs who wanted the material benefit of immortality. However, bhagavAn states in the Gita that he regards as mahAtmAs all 4 categories of bhaktas – the arTa, artArtin, jignyAsu and jnAni. So, this rk shows that he is the refuge for not just aishwaryArtIs like the devas, but for all groups.
“apsarasAm” – “sarasa” refers to desire. “apa” refers to those opposed to desire. These are the kaivalyArtis or jignyAsus who remain detached and meditate on the bliss of the individual self.
“gandharvAnAm” – “gandha” refers to ahamkAra and “arva” (arvati) refers to the act of killing it. This refers to the jnAnIs who meditate on paramAtma with the knowledge that they are seshas, ie, servants and hence have no ego.
“mRgAnAm” – “paSu” or “mRga” refers to anger or desire. This refers to aishwaryArtis who seek new material weath (arTa) or those who have lost their property and want it restored (artArtin).
“keSi ketasya vidvAn” – The Lord knows this desire of the devas – that the poison should not harm them -  as he is the indweller of Brahma and Rudra which is an indication of his supremacy and antaryAmitvam
“sakhA” – He is well-disposed to the devas. So, not only does he know the desire of the devas, but he will fulfil it as he is favourable to them.
“svAdhur” – he is self-dependent unlike the devas including Brahma and Rudra who are dependent and can help them by himself. In other words, he does not need Rudra to drink the poison; he can do it himself. It was he who empowered Rudra to withstand the effects of the poison and thus perform this act for his own merit.
“madintamaH” – he is of a most delightful nature, ie, full of auspicious attributes. In other words, he is sweeter than the nectar that the devas wanted and is the true nectar to be sought after.
Once again, both the general and specific (samudra mathanam context) meanings are present in this rk.
vāyurasmā upāmanthat pinaṣṭi smā kunannamā |  keśīviṣasya pātreṇa yad rudreṇāpibat saha ||
Meaning: Ajita, who is vAyu as he moves towards his devotees, ie, the devas  and hurts the asurAs (kunannamA), churned the ocean to bring up (the poison) for (Rudra). He who is the indweller of Brahma and ISa(keSI), making Rudra as the instrument (vessel), drank the poison.
The individual meanings of the words in the rk are as follows:
vAyuH – Ajita, He who moves towards his devotees (the devas), asma – for Rudra, upAmanthat – stirred up, ie, churned the ocean to bring up (the poison), pinasHTismA – hurt, kunannamA – that which is hard/violent (the asurAs), keSI - He who abides as the self of Brahma (ka) and Siva (Isa), viShasya – of the poison pAtrEna - as a vessel (instrument), yad – which, rudrEna saha - making Rudra, apibat - drank
Having explained all the tattvas in a specific way (pertaining to the samudra mathanam) as well as in a more general way (pertaining to all jivAs and not just those involved in the samudra mathanam), the sUkta concludes by pointing out that the poison was drunk by bhagavAn using rudra as his instrument.
“vAyuH”is a name of vishNu and occurs in the sahasranAma. This name is interpreted by Bhattar as “he who moves towards his devotees” as mentioned before. The name suits Ajita, the form of bhagavAn who churned the Ocean perfectly. Ajita came to help the devas churn the ocean when they were fatigued. In order to ensure the devas obtained the amRta, he cleverly employed the asurAs by tempting them with the amRta as well and later on made sure that despite their hard work, the asurAs did not overcome the devas. So, Ajita favoured the devas over the asurAs and hence he is vAyuH.
This Ajita, known as vAyuH, was one manifestation of bhagavAn. The other manifestation of bhagavAn who helped the devas was the antaryAmin of Rudra. He is addressed here separately from Ajita as “keSI” – etymologically as seen earlier, the name means “he who abides in, or is the inner self of Ka and ISa”.
In order to differentiate AjitA and the antaryAmin of Rudra as two different avatArAs, the rk thus uses the terms "vAyu" and "keSI" to connote each of them based on their deeds.
The term “Rudra” is used to denote Shiva here. “Rudra” means “One who weeps” – rOdayati iti rudra. He got this name because he wept on being born after realising he was “anapahatapApma” or not cleansed of karmas. So, by using this name, the rk asserts two things –
  1. As Shiva cried due to his “anapahatapApmatva”, bhagavAn made him the instrument to drink the poison and hence enabled Shiva to cleanse his karmas (as he has acted in favour of bhagavAn). What pleases bhagavAn is puNya, what displeases him is pApa karma. Shiva thus acquired merit in this incident.

  1. Since Shiva is known as “Rudra” – One who wept on being born due to karmas, he is not capable of drinking the poison independently. He only drunk it because the antaryAmin empowered him to. This meaning also comes out in addressing him as Rudra here.

  1. In comparison to the devas, Shiva was called “agni” in the first rk – he who leads the devas. That is an indication of Shiva’s glory as the chief of the devas. But here, in comparison to nArAyaNa, he is rudra – one who weeps because he still has karmas – this indicates he is a jivAtma subject to nArAyaNa.
Thus, this mantra shows that Rudra was used as an instrument, ie, a vibhUti of bhagavAn, and that that it was Rudra’s inner self, namely nArAyaNa, who drank the poison by using the former as his instrument. And this also corroborates the stuti of Shiva in the bhAgavatam being interpreted as pratIkOpAsaNa and Shiva referring to Hari as “sarvAtma” in the same section. 
Sharabha and Narasimha
Now that we have seen the kEshi sUkta, let us get something else finished here as well, this has been something of a loose end. It is a sad thing that whenever a simple google search is done on Narasimha, we get biased shaiva stories claiming that Sharabha killed Narasimha. This story has no basis whatsoever because:
  1. Narasimha is Parabrahman and cannot be overcome by anybody.

  1. This story goes against the meaning of the authoritative shAstra.

  1. This story is only found in the tAmasa purAnas like shivapurAna, which are fit to be rejected and have been done so by all vedAntins.
As if this story was not enough, there is another addition in the form of “pratyangira devi” doing the rounds, whereby Narasimha was suppressed by Sharabha and Sharabha in turn was suppressed by Pratyangira Devi (supposedly a form of Parvati)!
Anyone with a modicum of common sense can see the deep ignorance and absurdity of these stories. While the sharabha story is found in the tAmasa purAnas, this “pratyangira devi” story is found in the mArkendEya purAna, which again, is a rAjasa purAna and fit to be discarded. The idea of one deity progressively suppressing the other only evokes laughter and shows the inherent tAmasatva of these stories.
The truth regarding the Sharabha-Narasimha incident
The anger of Narasimha, which persisted after the destruction of Hiranyakasipu, frightened the devas, upon which they approached Shiva and sought his help. Shiva, being flattered by their praises, was overcome by tamOguNa. Although Shiva is a yOgi by nature who is always meditating on Sankarshana (and hence, Narasimha), this time, due to tamO guNa which is vishNu mAyA, his intellect became clouded and he was unable to recognise Narasimha as his own upAsya mUrthy. Thus, he appeared in the form of Sharabha to engage in battle with Bhagavan.
Narasimha destroyed Sharabha in battle with his mere nails as he did in the case of Hiranyakasipu. The great sri Vaishnava AchAryan, srIkUrEsha, reiterates this in his work, “srIathimAnushastava” as follows:
kreeDaavidhE: parikaras tava yaa tu maayaasaa mOhinee na katam asya tu hanta! jantO:!Hi! Martya simha vapus tavat tEjasOmsESambhur bhavan hi sarabha: salabhO babhoova //
(~SrI AthimAnusha Stava)
Meaning: Oh bhagavAn (sriman nArAyaNa)! Your mAya indeed benumbs the intellect of all living beings. Did not Shiva who took the form of a strange and mighty animal (supposed to have eight legs and wings) called Sharabha get burnt down in just one small spark of your rage like a moth that perishes in the blaze of fire??
A great scholar, Sri Srinivasacharya swami quotes an ancient SlOka on these lines:
namOstu narasimhaaya lakshmee sthiti jitakudE /yad krOdaagnou puraa roudra: Sarabha: salabhaayatE //
Meaning: Salutations to Narasimha, who is situated in Lakshmi, and plays (?). By whose fire of anger, the body of the ferocious Sharabha was burnt to ashes like a moth perishing in a blaze.
The AchAryan here is alluding to the destruction of Sharabha being an effortless act of Narasimha, who is sarvasaktan, and tavasastavIyan (stronger than the strongest). Here, the quality of agatitagaTanA sAmarthyam (reconciling contradictions) is also seen in BhagavAn Narasimha. While normally a Sharabha is stronger than a Lion, this was a case where a Sharabha was killed by a Lion. This was indeed an astonishing leela of bhagavAn!
The incident of Narasimha killing Sharabha is justified by the sAttvika purAnas, which alone are authority and faithful to shruti. Here are the pramAnams quoted by both sri Vaishnava AchAryas and mAdhvas (slokas culled from rAmAnuja and mAdhva discussion groups):
hantum abyaagatam roudram sarabham narakEsaree /Nakhair vidaarayaamaasa hiraNyakasipum yathaa // (~varAha purAna)
Meaning: The half-man, half-lion (Narasimha) killed the violent Sharabha who had approached him (for battle) by lacerating Sharabha with his nails in a similar manner as in the case of Hiranyakasipu.
tau yudhyamAnau cha chiraM vegena balavattamau |na samaM jagmaturdevau nR^isiMhasharabhAkR ^itI ||tataH kR^iddho mahAkAyo nR^isiMho bhImavikramaH |sahasrakarajAnatra tasya gAtre nyaveshayat. h ||patitaM bhImamatyugraM nR^isiMhaH sharabhaM ruShA |jaghAna nishitaistIxNaiH nakhairnakhavarAyud haH || sharabhe tasmin.h raudre madhuniShUdanam. h |tuShTuvuH puNDarIkAxaM devA devarShayastathA || (~Padma Purana)
Meaning: The two powerful devas -  Narasimha and Sharabha, who have no equal  in the Universe, fought a prolonged, fierce and violent battle. As a result of that altercation, the large bodied Narasimha (and thus superior in prowess), who possesses terrific valor that controls the asurAs and prevents anything from going against his will (bhIma vikramaH), whose limbs appeared to have a thousand nails (ie, limitless power in his nails) was angered. Being in (that state of) rage, Narasimha, who is terrible to the adharmIs (bhIma) and becomes extremely formidable when the adharmIs continue to remain bent on adharma (ugra), killed Sharabha using his sharp and fierce nails. Sharabha had incited the Slayer of Madhu to wrath and so, the lotus eyed one (pundarIkAksha) was appeased by (the prayers) of the devas and devarishis.
“madhusUdhana” – “madhu” refers to rAjO guNa which in turn is the cause for desire, that leads to anger that is tamO guNa. Just as the Lord killed the asura madhu, so did he kill Sharabha who possessed anger born of tamO guNa.
“pundarIkAksha” – Since he has lotus like eyes that are reddish due to always looking at the golden complexion of the compassionate srI mahAlakshmi, the Lord is easily assuaged and made peaceful due to the mediatorship of lakshmi.
He resurrected Shiva back to life upon the prayers of the devas.
nikR^itya bAhUrushirA vajrakalpamukhairna khaiH |merupR^iShThe nR^isiMhena sharabhashchAtha so.apatat.h || (~vAmana purAna)
Meaning: Chopping off many heads (of Sharabha) with his nails that were equal to adamantine (vajra), Narasimha who towered like Meru (mountain), also (in addition to hiranyakasipu) overcame Sharabha.
a chaJNchupaJNchAnana maShTapAdaM paxadvayADhyaM ghananIlagAtram. h |sphuranmahAtIvrasah asrahastaM sahasrashastraM sharabhasvarUpam. h ||karadAdaya pratyekaM mukhaM chaJNchupuTadvayam. h |vidArya cha nR^isiMhastaM hiraNyakashipuM yathA | (~kUrma purAna)
Meaning:The form of Sharabha had a beak, the face of a lion, with 8 feet and limbs which were a dense black color. It was throbbing with the intensity (of anger), had bloodied hands, with a thousand weapons. Narasimha, acting mercilessly as in the case of hiranyakasipu tore apart with his hands (ie, nails), the beaks on every single one of Sharabha’s faces at their folds.
tataH kshaNena sharabho nAdapUritadiN^ .hmukhaH |abhyAshamagamadviSh Norvyanadadbhair avasv anam.h ||sa tamabhyAgataM dR^iShTvA nR^isiMhaH sharabhaM ruShA |nakhairvidArayAmAsa hiraNyakashipuM yathA || (~Agni Purana)
Meaning: Thereupon, in a moment, the sound from Sharabha’s mouth intensified in all directions, approaching vishNu (the all-pervading one) with a terrible roar. Narasimha, having seen that arrival of Sharabha with that (sound), became furious and disposed (of Sharabha) with his nails as he did in the case of Hiranyakasipu.
Note the usage of “vishNu” – all-pervasive. The idea is that Sharabha was searching for and moving towards the One who is already everywhere and hence can never be caught unawares – such is the wonder of the incident. BhagavAn can appear out of the pillar in an instant and as the isavasya Upanishad says, he overtakes the moving as he pervades everywhere. So, the question of Sharabha arriving unlooked for does not arise.
All these clearly shows that Narasimha destroyed Sharabha. The purAnas state further that when Narasimha was appeased by PrahlAda, he resurrected Shiva back to life upon the prayers of pArvati.
As a random extra bit of information, “Sharabha” is a name of vishNu as well and occurs in the sahasranAma (atulas sharabhO bhIma) and is interpreted by srI parAsara bhattar as the destroyer of the adharmIs (sRnAti iti sarabhaH).
Therefore, the supremacy of Narasimha alone is seen in this incident.

Regarding the keshi sUkta, we have some additional details to share.“keshI” refers to bhagavAn who is the antaryAmin of ka (Brahma) and Isa (Shiva). But we found out it can refer to another deity, who is the devatA for this sUkta.
padma purANa samvAda between shiva and pArvati, extols the deity “vAyu” for drinking the hAla-hAla viShaM and refers to him as “kEshi” as follows:
mahAviShaM mahAghoraMsaMvartAgnisamaprabham |dRRiShTvApradudruvuH sarve bhayArtA devamAnatAH |tatastadvidrutAndRRiShTvA brahmAlokapitAmahaH | jagAda vAyuM tarasAharerAj~nApuraHsaram | niHsheShaM kuru vAyotvaM lokasaMhArakaM viSham | tvadanyo nAstimad grastuM sarvajIvahitaM kuru | itidhAturvachaH shrutvA dashapramatirabravIt |

bhakShayAmi harerAj~nAM puraskRRityavidhervachaH | harernAmochchAraNenatadbhaktyA cha visheShataH | sarvavyAdhiviShaMghoraM pAtre nyasya kare dadhat | bindumAtraMpRRithaggRRihya tadviShaM mardayaMstataH |parIkShaNArthaM chAnyeShAM devAdInAM chapArvati | mama haste dadau ki~nchidbhakShasvetimArutaH | iti nAmamAtreNa sahitaMmantrAnugrahamAdishan |tadvishaprAshanAdeva mama dAhobhyavardhata| jihvAgradhAraNAdeva mama prANA vinirgatAH |kRRipayA pavamAnasya tathA nAmatrayeNa cha |achyutAnantagovindanAmamAhAtmyataHshubhe | jIvitosmi tadA kAleviShNornAmatrayAdaho | pashchAttu tadviShaMsarvamekIkRRitya sa pAtrake | anAyAsAtpapauvAyuH sarveShAM rakShaNAya  cha | hareshchaprItaye devi brahmaNo vachanAttathA |RRichobruvaMshcha devasya keshItibrahmavAdinaH | itthaM vAyormahattvaM hiviShNubhaktasya pArvati | iti | (~ Padma Purana)
These slOkas in a nutshell, say that bhagavAn summoned the deity known as “vAyu” and “pavamAna”, and by his orders, this deity drank the bulk of the poison (giving a portion to shiva) and saved the worlds with ease. This deity is mentioned to be the devata of the keshI sUkta.
We are aware of how mAdhvas interpret this. I'm providing the sri vaishnava view. Readers can choose.
This deity is Garuda, who is called vAyu here. The following are the pramANas.
1) There are five forms of Sri Garutman, according to Sri SAtvata Samhita of pAncarAtra Agama-"Satya: SuparNa: Garuda: Tarkshyastu VihagEswara:", each of whom is the presiding deity for PrANa, apAna, vyAna, udAna and samAna. In that sense, Garuda is termed as “vAyu”. The context is appropriate, as Garuda, who is the presiding deity of prANa that sustains life, saved the lives of all by drinking the poison.
2) Garuda is also called vAyu on account of being the vAhana of the Lord, and he moves like wind. The context is also appropriate for this meaning, as the term “harerA~jnA” implies that at the command of the lord, he swiftly obeyed him, this swiftness at executing the command thus implied by the name “vAyu”.
3) Garuda is called “pavamAna” because he is “vedAtma”, the embodiment of the Veda and thus purifies all. Alternatively, he is an amShaof SankarshaNa, who purifies the mind. He is called “kEshI” because he is “suparNa”, very brilliant and shining, thus he possesses rays of light (kEsha-s). Thus, Garuda is the devata for kEshI sUkta, which describes the Lord.
4) Garuda can drink any posion as he, being the King of Birds, feeds on poisonous snakes. It is his prime ability.
Besides these, there are sufficient pramANas to prove that this deity is Garuda, as follows:
taMdR^iShTvA ghora saN^kAshaMprAdurbhUtaM mahAviSham.h | dhyAtvAnArAyaNaM devaM hR^idayE garuDadhvajaM.h || ~ Brahma purANa
Meaning: Seeing that terrible poison emerging, (Shiva) meditated on nArAyaNa, the effulgent God, Garudadhvaja, residing in the heart.
Note the mention of “garudadhvaja” – The Lord who has Garuda as his banner. This implies that Garuda was instrumental in helping Shiva on behalf of the Lord.
yEnajIrNaM ca garaLaMkaNThasthaM cakapAlinaH|antarAtma dhR^itaM tasyahR^idayEgaruDadhvaja ||
Meaning: It was only due to kapAlin (Shiva) meditating on the Lord, who is garuDadhvaja, indwelling in the heart, that he was able to digest the terrible poison, right in his neck.
Again, “garuDadhvaja” is mentioned. Why else, if not to highlight that he was the one who acted on behalf of the Lord for saving Shiva? His ability to kill and eat poisonous snakes thus implies that he was most suited to drinking the poison.
aprakAshamidaM devi guhyAd guhyataraM padam.h | purAham abdhimathane patagendra viShAvaham.h | avadhyaM garalaM ghoramaJNbhujam amR^itaMyathA ||
Note the usage of “patagEndra” in the above shloka.
Thus, garuDa is the “vAyu” mentioned in the incident as all logic points to it.
If anyone is going to question why garuDa's name is not explicitly mentioned, the answer is because the context suits calling him "vAyu". Even in the mahabhArata, it is said "dharma saved Draupadi" instead of saying "krishNa" directly . Here "dharma" means krishNa, the eternal means (dharma), so it is a question of using names as per context.
Of course, there is yuga bhEda– in some yugAs, shiva meditates on garuDa and nArAyaNa, and drinks all the poison himself (as per the account in the bhAgavataM). In other yugAs,garuDa directly appears to drink the poison.
The keshI sUkta is thus a praise of paramAtma with garuDa as the devata. This can be taken as it has purANic sanction. Dual meanings for garuDa and nArAyaNa can be provided.
In the garuDa dandakam, shrI vedAnta desikan mentions the following:
1) He hails garuDa as "prANApAnAdi bhedAt pratitanu maruta daivataM" based on the pAncharatra declaring garuDa's 5 forms as the presiding deities of the 5 prANas.
2) The AchArya says garuDa destroys the poison of material attachments or samsAra.
Then the most telling detail in the garuDa dandakaM. ShrI nigamAnta mahAguru then gives a beautiful description - the kaustubha maNi of the Lord always has the reflection of garuDa's form, as the latter is the vehicle of the Lord, by virtue of angle.
AchArya claims that the kaustubha maNi is ever afraid of being contaminated by the hAlahAla viSha that arose out of the milky ocean and thus has garuDa's reflection to ward away the poison!
Seems like the AchArya is clearly hinting the incidence of garuDa swallowing the poison. That settles it.
Another proof - In the sahasranAma, one of the names for bhagavAn is "vAyu vAhana". Bhattar's commentary is that "vAyu" signifies garuDa, the King of Birds, on account of his swift movement. The full meaning of the nAma is that bhagavAn uplifts those who have fallen in samsAra, using garuDa, who is "vAyu" as he is swift.
So, we have a shAstric pramANa referring to garuDa as vAyu as well.
We have already provided the meanings that pertain to paramAtma. I will summarize the meanings that relate to garuDa as "keshI".
With the above knowledge, let us look at the sUkta from the perspective of garuDa as the devata.
“kEShi” means one who possesses “kESha-s” or rays of light. Garuda is known as “suparNa”, and he possesses feathers which are shining like rays of light. Thus, this name refers to him alone (besides the Lord, who is the referent of every name anyway).
For the first rk, these are the meanings.
1) The one who is endowed with feathers like shining rays of light, bears (as the vehicle) the Lord who is “agni” as he leads all out of samsAra and to moksha.
2) The one who is endowed with feathers like shining rays of light, bore or endured the poison (hAlahAlaviSha)
3) The one who is endowed with feathers like shining rays of light, sustains the body which is known as “earth” (rodasI) as he is the presiding deity of the prANas that nourish the body.
4) The one who is endowed with feathers like shining rays of light, has the perception of the supreme abode (svardRsE) which is “viSvaM” or complete, as he is eternally liberated.
5) This kEshI (ie, such a one with the attributes described earlier), who is endowed with feathers like shining rays of light, is thus called “jyOti” as he is the “vedAtma”, the soul of the vedas, who illumines the meaning of the Vedas.
The second and third mantrAs have the same meaning when taken for both bhagavAn as well as garuDa. No changes.
Here is the meaning of the fourth mantra – “antarikShEnapatati…”
“Garuda is the muni (one who meditates on the Lord), who is agreeable to his essential nature of seshatva (hitaH) as he is always serving the Lord as his vehicle and well-disposed to all jIvAs as he always brings the Lord swiftly to them in times of need, as he did for Gajendra the Lord of elephants (sakhA). He belongs (as a property/vibhUti) to the effulgent god, for the purpose of acting well or in a manner agreeable to the Lord of shrI (devasya saukR^ityAya), which is to bring him quickly to the devotees who are dear to him. He traverses through the samsAra mandala that is called “air” as it is full of jIvAs who are transmigrating ceaselessly (antarikShEnapatati), perceiving (avacakSte) the jIvas who are (in their natural condition), complete forms of the Lord (vishvArUpA).”
The jIvAs are the body of the Lord and hence they are called “rUpAs” or forms. In their natural condition, when they are divested of karmas, they are omniscient and possess the 8 attributes of apahatapApmatva, etc, so they are called “viSvaM”. This rk says that Garuda is always perceiving them, ie, he knows their sufferings and is eager to bring the Lord to them, to save them.
Now, the fifth mantra, vAtasyAsvo vAyoH…
“By the deva (Garuda), is the muni (the jIva who meditates) impelled (towards Brahman, by cutting off material attachments), who is well-disposed (Sakha) with the jIva who is transmigrating ceaselessly in samsAra (vAyu), whose mind (vAtaH) is swollen or full (ashva) of material desires.  Away from the two collections (of puNya and pApa karmas) abides he (Garuda), who is prior or ancient (as he is a nitya sUri or eternally liberated) and also inferior to, ie, subordinate to paramAtma.”
Garuda is known as the one who destroys the poison of material attachments. “pUrva utAparaH” means he is a nityasUri or eternally liberated, hence he is prior to the baddhasand muktAs. But he, being a jIva, is inferior to the Lord and dependent on him.
The sixth mantra “apsarasAm” remains the same, whether it is taken as referring to the Lord or Garuda. In Garuda’s case “svAdurmadintamaH” – he is self-dependent, means that as he is eternally liberated, he is not dependent on anyone or anything other than the Lord. When taken as referring to the Lord, it means he is independent.
Then, the last mantra here. “vAyurasmA upAmanthat…”
“Ajita, who is vAyu as he moves towards his devotees, ie, the devas and hurts the asurAs (kunannamA), churned the ocean to bring up (the poison). Garuda, who is endowed with feathers like shining rays of light, together with Rudra, drank the poison.”
As the purANa verse said, only “kEshI” denotes Garuda here. “vAyu” still denotes Ajita.
Thus, this sUkta has garuDa as its’ devata, and thus can be interpreted in two ways, for both garuDa and paramAtma. This has been done.