Garuda (from the Sanskrit: Garuḍa गरुड or "devourer") is a large mythical bird or bird-like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. In Hindu myth, Garuda is a lesser divinity, usually the vehicle (or vahana) of Vishnu, the supreme preserver deity. Hindus have bestowed various names of veneration upon him, including Amritaharana ("stealer of amrit") Gaganeshvara ("lord of the sky"), and Suparna ("having beautiful wings"), among others. Although considered a minor deity, Garuda has an independent Upanishad, the Garudopanidad, and a Purana, the Garuda Purana, devoted specifically to him. In Buddhism, meanwhile, the Garudas are an entire race of winged beings who exist in rivalry with the Nagas, serpentine sea creatures.
The Vedas, composed in approximately the second millennium B.C.E., provide the earliest reference to Garuda, though by the name of Śyena (Sanskrit for "eagle"). In Rg Veda (1700–1100 B.C.E.), this mighty eagle fetches soma, the intoxicating ritual elixir, from either a crag in a rock or from heaven itself. Both the Mahabharata (c. 400 B.C.E. - 400 C.E.) and the Puranas, which came into existence much later, have Garuda performing similar mythological tasks, suggesting that Śyena and Garuda are one and the same figure.
The story of Garuda's birth and deeds is told in the first book of the great epic Mahabharata. His father was the creator-rishi Kasyapa, while his mother was Vinata. Garuda was born out of a huge egg with the torso and limbs of a human male and the talons, wings and beak of an eagle. When he first burst forth from his egg, Garuda appeared as a raging inferno equal to the cosmic conflagration that consumes the world at the end of every age. Frightened by his power, the gods begged him for mercy, and Garuda complied with their requests, significantly reducing himself in both size and vigor.
One day, Vinata entered into and lost a foolish bet with her sister Kadru, mother of serpents. As a condition of her defeat, she became her sister's slave. Resolving to release his mother from her newfound state of bondage, Garuda approached Kadru and her serpents and asked them what it would take to emancipate his mother. Kadru decreed that Garuda would have to bring them the elixir of immortality, also called amrita. This was a tall order indeed, considering that the amrita was at that time in the possession of the gods in heaven. Indra, the mighty king of the gods, guarded it jealously. In order to protect the elixir, the gods ringed it with a massive fire that covered the sky. They had also blocked the way to the elixir with a fierce mechanical contraption of sharp rotating blades. Lastly, they had stationed two gigantic poisonous snakes next to the elixir as deadly guardians.
Undaunted, Garuda hastened toward the abode of the gods, intent upon robbing them of their treasure. Well-aware of his powerful design, the gods met him in full battle-array. Garuda, however, defeated the entire host and scattered them in all directions. Taking the water of many rivers into his mouth, he extinguished the protective fire the gods had thrown up. Reducing his size, he crept past the rotating blades of their murderous machine. And finally, he eluded the two gigantic serpents they had posted as guards: even the quickest glance of these snakes was deadly, and so Garuda subdued them by blowing dust in their eyes. Taking the elixir into his mouth without swallowing it, he launched again into the air and toward the heavens. En route, he encountered Vishnu, who was impressed with Garuda's might. Rather than fighting the bird, Vishnu decided to reward him with a boon: the gift of immortality, even without drinking from the elixir. In return, Garuda gratefully requested that he become Vishnu's mount. Flying onward, Garuda encountered Indra. The king of the gods hit Garuda with his thunderbolt, but Garuda was virtually unscathed by the blow, losing but a single feather. Fully aware of Garuda's power, Indra called for a truce with Garuda, and so another exchange of pacts was undertaken: Garuda promised that once he had delivered the elixir, thus fulfilling the request of the serpents, he would make it possible for Indra to regain possession of the elixir and to take it back to the gods. Indra in turn gave permission to Garuda to have the nagas as food.
At long last, Garuda finally arrived before the anxiously waiting serpents. He handed them the pot of nectar, requesting that they cover it with sharp, spiky Darbha grass while taking their purificatory bath. Placing the elixir on the grass, and thereby liberating his mother Vinata from her servitude, he urged the serpents to perform their religious ablutions before consuming it. As they hurried off to do so, Indra descended from the sky to make off with the elixir and return it to heaven. When the nagas came back, they licked the darbha grass in absence of the pot and cut their tongues, leaving them with the forked tongues typical of serpents. From that day onward, Garuda was the ally of the gods and the trusty mount of Vishnu, as well as the implacable enemy of snakes, upon whom he preyed at every opportunity. Garuda is said to have been the first to teach humankind how to cure snake poison; moreover, worship of or meditation upon Garuda is said to remove snakes from one's path.
According to the Mahabharata, Garuda fathered six sons from whom were descended the race of birds. The members of this race were of great might and without compassion, subsisting on the nagas. Fittingly, Vishnu was their protector.
Garuda has been depicted in a variety of ways, although most often he has the upper body and wings of an eagle with the lower body of a human. His body is golden, his wings red, and his face is white, most notable for its prominent beak. He wears a crown on his head. Garuda typically has two or four arms, and his various adornments including earrings, anklets, and bracelets are rendered from serpents. In his hands he carries either the emblems of Vishnu or the pot of amrita; alternatively, when his hands are empty, they are held in the Anjalimudra, a pose of greeting typical of lesser dieties. When Vishnu is mounted upon his back, two of Garuda's hands support the preserver god's feet.
Throughout the Mahabharata, Garuda is invoked as a symbol of impetuous force, speed, and martial prowess. Accordingly, the field marshall Drona uses a military formation named after Garuda. Krishna even carries the image of Garuda on his banner. Powerful warriors advancing rapidly on doomed foes are likened to Garuda swooping down upon a serpent. For instance, Section 77 of the Karna Parva reads that:
Defeated warriors, meanwhile, are like the serpents who are repeatedly beaten down by Garuda.
Garuda also plays an important role in Krishna's incarnation within the Mahabharata, assisting him with many of his most harrowing challenges. Krishna and Satyabhama ride upon Garuda to kill Narakasura, the tyrant ruler of the kingdom of Pragjyotisha in Assam. Krishna rides upon Garuda in order to save the devoted Elephant Gajendra. In chapter ten of the Bhagavad Gita, in the middle of the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Krishna explains his omnipresence by likening himself to many prominent aspects of Indian mythology and culture. In verse 30, he claims that "Of birds, I am the son of Vineeta," that is, Garuda, indicating the immense importance of the bird-man.
Outside of the Mahabharata, Garuda is also symbolically linked to emeralds. In the Garuda Purana, after the demon Vala is killed by Indra, his bile is pilfered by Vasuki, king of the Nagas. Garuda confronts Vasuki before he can make off with his loot, causing him to drop the bile. Garuda catches the bile in mid-air, but it eventually falls from his beak and crashes to the earth, solidifying into the form of an emerald. The belief that touching emeralds can mitigate the effects of poison derives from this myth.
In Buddhist mythology, the garudas (Pāli: garuḷā) are a race of enormous predatory birds of great intelligence and social organization. Another name for the garuḍa is Suparṇa (Pāli: supaṇṇa), meaning "well-winged" or "having good wings." Garuda is occasionally depicted as the vehicle of Amoghasiddhi, one of the five Dhyani or "self-born" Buddhas. The term Garuda is sometimes even used as an epithet for the Buddha himself. Like the nāgas, garudas combine the characteristics of animals and divine beings, and so they are considered to be among the lowest devas or gods in Buddhism.
Just as in Hinduism, the garuḍas are enemies to the Nagas, whom they hunt. The garuḍas at one time caught the nāgas by seizing them by their heads, although the nāgas quickly learned that by swallowing large stones, they could make themselves too heavy to be carried in the garuda's talons, wearing them out and eventually killing them from exhaustion. According to Pandara Jātaka (J.518), this secret was divulged to one of the garuḍas by the ascetic Karambiya, who subsequently taught him how to seize a nāga by the tail and force him to vomit up the stone he had swallowed. In the Mahasamyatta Sutta, the Buddha is shown making temporary peace between the Nagas and the garuḍas.
The exact size of a garuda is uncertain, but its wings are said to have a span of many miles. Buddhist mythology claims that when a garuda's wings flap, they create hurricane-like winds that blow down houses and darken the sky. According to the Kākātī Jātaka, J.327, a human being is so tiny in comparison to a garuda that a man can hide inside the plumage of a garuda's wings without being noticed. Garudas are also capable of tearing up entire banyan trees from their roots and carrying them off.
The garudas are ruled by kings and live together in large cities. Their dwellings are in groves of the simbalī, or silk-cotton trees. They are apt protectors of wherever it is they reside, and garuḍas were among the beings appointed by Śakra to guard Mount Sumeru and the Trayastrimsa heaven from the attacks of the asuras. At least some of them have the magical power of changing into human form when they wish to have dealings with people. On some occasions Garuḍa kings have had romances with human women in this form.
The Sanskrit word garuda has been borrowed and modified by the languages of several Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia. In Burmese, garuḍas are called ga-lon. In Japanese a garuḍa has traditionally been called Karura, while the form Garuda has been brought into usage in contemporary Japanese fiction. In Thai, the word for a garuḍa is Krut (ครุฑ). Thailand and Indonesia use the garuḍa as their national symbols. One form of the garuḍa, used in Thailand as a sign of Royal family, is called Krut Pha, meaning "garuda acting as the vehicle of god." The Indonesian national airline is called "Garuda Indonesia." Mongolia has also appropriated the symbol of Garuda, referring to him as Khangard, a servant of Yama, the god of death. According to popular Mongolian belief, Khangard is guardian of the Bojdochan-ula mountain range, and appears on the flag and coat of arms of Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital city.
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