The main plot of the play begins with Kapila, who finds his best friend Devadatta despondently dreaming about Padmini. Kapila, who is a Kshatriya, is a wrestler whereas Devadatta is a learned Brahmin and poet but is physically weak. Kapila goes to arrange Devadatta's marriage to her and realizes that Padmini is as clever as she is beautiful. Although Kapila is attracted to her, he arranges the match, and Devadatta and Padmini are married.
After the wedding, Padmini finds herself getting attracted to the strong-bodied Kapila, and Devadatta is consumed by jealousy. A few months into the marriage, the three travel to Ujjain. On the way, they rest between two temples, one devoted to Rudra (The Howler-a form of Shiva) and the other to Kali. Devadatta decided to offer himself to Kali, but Kapila too is not left behind. The two men behead themselves in the Kali temple. The pregnant Padmini, afraid that she might be blamed for their deaths, then decides to kill herself. However, Kali stops her and offers to bring the men back to life. Padmini rearranges the heads so that Devadatta's head is on Kapila's body and vice versa and asks the goddess to do her magic.
The characters of Kapila and Devadatta are manifestations of the images of different castes in our society. In our society, a Brahmin is learned and wise but physically weak. Likewise, the image of Devadatta is stereotypical of a male Brahmin whereas Kapila, a Kshatriya, is a wrestler and is not as wise as Devadatta. Here the caste of the men plays a major role in the portrayal of both the men, which is true of our Indian society where we judge people on the basis of their caste and creed.
Along with the central theme, there is a sub-plot wherein Hayavadana (the horse-man) reflects incompleteness. With the face of a horse and the body of a man, Hayavadana, the off-spring of a celestial being and a princess, loathes and wants to rid of the horse’s head and longs to be a complete man. He is symbolic of the identity crisis we face today. Karnad implores Existentialism by intensifying the motif of incompleteness by a broken tusk and a cracked belly - which other way you look at him he seems the embodiment of imperfection, of incompletion.
Existentialism implies the quest of the individual for the assertion of the self despite his limitations and failures. In the play, identity and impersonation have been played up leading to conflicts between the mind and the body. When Kapila and Devadatta’s heads get transposed, the identity crisis further deepens and the influence of the bodies on the minds is immense. This brings to the fore a conflict that we face in our lives, if the mind in dependent on the body or vice versa. The conflict between the head and the body, is well expressed in Devadatta’s (whose head is Devadatta’s but body is Kapila’s) words, “I’d always thought one had to use one’s brain while wrestling or fencing or swimming. But this body does not wait for thoughts, it acts.” But the irony has been brought out very well by Karnad. As we in today’s times, often chose body over mind, Padmini too does the same. This reflects the changing preferences in our lives.
In India’s cultural and socio context, mind is given more emphasis over matter and is illustrated through Devadatta’s remark in the play which says, “According to Shastras, the head is the sign of a man.” Karnad represents India’s erstwhile socio- cultural practices like Sati when Padmini commits Sati in order to prove her chastity, which was a tradition in olden days.
Karnad reveals the religious sentiments prevalent in our society, psychology and culture by showing the presence of Goddess Kali. Hayavadana begins with an invocation of Lord Ganesha, who is generally worshipped first among the gods. In the beginning, Devadatta worships Kali in order to win Padmini’s hand for marriage. Later in the course of time, he offers himself to the goddess by beheading himself and his friend Kapila follows suit. The Hindu rituals and superstitions are very well portrayed by showing people offering themselves to Kali. This was a practice that was followed a few decades back. Now people offer goats and animals to Goddess Kali, who is also known as the goddess of Destruction. The theme also reveals the Upanishad principle that visualizes the human body as a symbol of the organic relationship of the parts to the whole.
The sexuality of a woman has been put forth in a very unassuming way by Karnad. Padmini though married to Devadatta is attracted to Kapila. Her consistent existence depends on the presence of either of them. She needs both or either of them for her satisfaction and resorts to Goddess Kali. Eventually, she finds herself in intense euphoria when she combines the head of Devadutta and the body of Kapila thereby according herself a high degree of sexual freedom. Padmini’s end portrays the subjugation of women in our country wherein they have to time and again prove their chastity.
With such references to India’s cultural, religious and social context, Karnad does not mean to condemn them but make readers and viewers understand how even with different human values and behaviours, we seem to follow well set norms. He has blended such issues such as love, identity and sexuality with folk culture and his imagination. Karnad provides us with a glimpse of the past as well as its relevance to understanding the contemporary world.