Garuda, in Hindu mythology, is the name for the large bird-like vehicle, or vahana, of the great Vedic god Visnu. The name Garuda is often said to come from the word garutmat, the winged one, from the root garut, which is the word for a wing (Fausboll 79). Garuda is often associated with power and morality, and both Hindus and Buddhists revere him across the world for his strength and speed. His physical appearance is often inconsistent in texts written describing him. At times, he is described as having the head and wings of a bird, with a human body; other times, he has a human face and the body of a bird (Wilkins 456). In one text, he is described as being emerald in colour with a beak, golden wings, talons, and four human arms. Most commonly, he is described as having the beak, wings and talons of a bird with a human head and body. Although there are some discrepancies to his true form, he is always described as being so brilliant upon his birth that the gods mistook him for a reincarnation of Agni, the Vedic god of fire. (Williams 139).
Garuda’s father was the ancient sage Kasyapa and his mother was Vinata, who was the rival wife to her sister Kadru. Kadru and Vinata were said to be such good wives to Kasyapa that he awarded them each with a boon. Kadru asked for 1000 snake (naga) children and Vinata asked for only two children, each stronger and more powerful than any of Kadru’s (Fausboll 77-78). Five hundred years later, Kadru’s eggs had all hatched but Vinata’s showed no sign of hatching. Shamed by this embarrassment Vinata cracked open one of her eggs and Garuda’s elder brother was born. Aruna, only half developed, cursed his mother with servitude and left to become the charioteer for Surya (Williams 62-63). Garuda was born from the second egg and upon his birth he burst forward, flew up into the sky and spread his golden wings. He was so brilliant that it hurt the gods’ eyes and he was worshipped as Agni by mistake (Williams 139). In Wilkins’ Hindu Mythology, Garuda is described as being born with eyes of lightning, rays that set the world on fire, and powerful wings that caused the mountains to be driven away (451). [Other versions of his birth story told of Garuda as the product of Kasyapa’s practices combined with the magical practices of the Balakhilayas, a class of tiny sages (Williams 138)].
Garuda’s role in Hindu mythology is quite limited, aside from accompanying Visnu, thus he is most known for the story of Garuda and the amrita told in the Mahabharata. This legend tells of the origin of the animosity between Garuda and serpents, and also tells of how Garuda met and pledged his loyalty to Visnu. When the horse Uccaisravas was obtained from the ocean, Vinata and Kadru disagreed on the colour of the horse; Vinata declared that the horse was white, while Kadru said the horse had a black tail. Kadru proposed they make a bet and whoever was incorrect about the true colour of the horse would become a slave to the winner. That night, Kadru went to her sons and told them to transform themselves into black hair and cover the hair on the horse’s tail. The next morning, as they examined the horse, they found it to be white but with a tail dark and black. Kadru cheated and Vinata was now a servant to her and her serpent children (Choudhuri 143).
Once Garuda was born, he was determined to free his mother from slavery, so he went to the snakes asking what he could do to free Vinata. They agreed to free Vinata if Garuda retrieved the divine nectar, amrita, which granted immortality. [In other versions of the story he is told to retrieve the moon (Chandra), whose bright spots are filled with amrita (Wilkins 451)]. Garuda flew to the heavens where the amrita was being guarded, and fought off the gods and obtained the nectar by blinding them with a sandstorm formed by his wings. As he was leaving, Indra threw a thunderbolt that struck Garuda but did not weaken him (Choudhuri 145). Visnu was so impressed with Garuda that he offered him a boon of immortality and Garuda pledged he would serve Visnu and become his vehicle. Indra also admired Garuda’s strength, and the two of them came up with a plan to free Garuda’s mother, and keep the amrita away from the nagas. Garuda took the amrita back to the snakes, exchanged it for his mother and told them that before they could drink the nectar, they must first be ritually pure. As the serpent children went to bathe, Indra stole back the amrita and returned it to the devas (Williams 139). As the amrita was taken a few drops of nectar spilt onto the grass. The nagas, desperate for immortality, licked the darbha grass, which split their tongues. The small amount of nectar they got gave them the ability to shed their skins and have partial immortality (Wilkins 450).
In the Ramayana, it tells of a great conflict between Ravana and Rama. Rama and his brother were badly injured and close to death, due to a flight of serpents sent by Indrajit. As they lay dying, Garuda appeared and healed them, allowing them to continue with their war (Wilkins 455). Another myth describes Garuda’s role in the birth of Airavata, the divine elephant. When Garuda came into existence, Brahma took two half- eggshells from which Garuda had hatched and sang over them seven holy melodies. From this, Airavata came forth and became the mount of Indra.
Since the quarrel between Vinata and Kadru, the mother of serpents, Garuda has been the natural enemy of serpents. When Vinata was still a slave to Kadru, Garuda was ordered to carry Kadru’s naga sons over a sea. As Garuda was transporting them, he flew too close to the sun. As the hot sun began to scorch the serpents, Kadru prayed to Indra who sent clouds and rain to save her sons (Choudhuri 144). Garuda is often referred to as “Destroyer of Serpents” as he devours snakes as his preferred food. Vausboll’s Indian Mythology declares that from the time of the creation the serpents are intended by the creator for Garuda’s eating (80). On the day of Garuda’s marriage, the serpents, so afraid of the idea of Garuda having children, attacked him. Garuda slew all but one, which he saved and wears as an ornament around his neck (Wilkins 451). Garuda had six sons who are also sworn enemies to the serpents (Fausboll 79). To this day, as a protection against snakes, certain Hindus may repeat Garuda’s name three times before going to sleep (Wilkins 451).
Although Garuda is not strictly divine, he appears alongside Visnu in his exploits, and is seen as a symbol for Visnu and worshipped together with his lord (Wilkins 449). As Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia and Nepal, the independent worshipping of Garuda became more popular. Many started to believe that Garuda was a personification of sacred mantras, and that on his wings, one was transported to the realm of the gods (Williams 138). As Buddhism started to adopt Hindu ideas, Garuda became a symbol of royalty in many Buddhist countries. In Buddhist Thailand, Garuda the sun eagle represented the royal power and divine approval given to royalty (Williams 139). Garuda is also seen as representing the mind, which can instantaneously soar skyward, pervade all creatures and is immortal. Garuda is so powerful “his haste and violence is so great that he seems to drag the earth itself with its waters, mountains and forests after him”(Fausboll 79). If he ever boasted of his power and strength, Visnu would often punish him, thereby keeping Garuda humble.
Garuda is often depicted carrying Visnu on his shoulders or back. He also holds a sharp –rimmed battle discus called “Fair to see” or sudarsana. He uses this fiery, sun battle discus against his opponents by hurling it at them (Zimmer 76). In other depictions he stands in meek obedience with his right palm placed on his mouth and his other hand held reverently close to the chest. When Garuda is paired like this with Visnu, he personifies Vedic knowledge. As Garuda and the serpents are enemies, they represent balance and harmony, one of the most important aspects of Visnu (Bunce 103).
Interestingly enough wings, although often seen in western tradition, are not commonly seen as physical characteristics of Hindu gods. The gods either float or are carried by vehicles or vahana (Zimmer 93). Garuda is an exception of this, and is therefore used as a symbol for flight in many different countries. We can see examples of this today as the national airline of Indonesia is called Garuda Indonesia.
It is very rare to find a temple dedicated to Garuda alone, as he is often worshipped alongside Visnu. Near the city Mulbagal, India, a temple dedicated to Garuda was found named Koldevi. It was said to have been built under the supervision of Sri Ramanujacharya, a Hindu theologian and philosopher, and has an idol of Garuda seen kneeling on one knee while carrying Lord Visnu and Goddess Laksmi in his hands. There are other temples that have depictions of Garuda, but they are often dedicated to Visnu. In Cambodian architecture, instead of just carrying Visnu, Garuda is depicted as supporting the entire temple. Images of Garuda are multiplied and arrayed in rows bearing the structure and are seen along the entire temple. This temple is regarded as an earthly copy of Vaikuntha, the god’s celestial dwelling (Zimmer 76).
Although Garuda is not regarded as entirely divine, he symbolizes power, strength, morality, immortality, and much more. He is an important icon in many countries in Southeast Asia, and is even the national symbol for Indonesia and Thailand. He is not only an essential figure in Hinduism, but Buddhism as well. Therefore, many depictions of him can be seen in many Buddhist and Hindu countries. Garuda is regarded as the King of the Birds and, most importantly, the mount of Lord Visnu.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bunce, Fredrick W (1997) A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography: Illustrated: Objects, Devices, Concepts, Rites and Related Terms. New Delhi: Printworld.
Choudhuri, Usha (1981) Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology. Delhi: NAG.
Fausboll, V (1981) Indian Mythology: According to the Indian Epics. Delhi: Cosmo.
Wilkins, W. J (1900) Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Purānic. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink.
Williams, George M (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Zimmer, Heinrich (1974) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Article written by: Carissa Peterson (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.