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Garuda

by Sumanta Sanyal
Garuda is one of the three principal animal deities in the Hindu Mythology that has evolved after the Vedic Period in Indian history. The other two are Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the goddess Durgha, and Hanuman, the monkey god. It is after Garuda that the Indonesian National Airlines is named. Even today, Garuda is much revered by devout Hindus for his ethics and his strength in applying his ethics to correct evil-doers.

Garuda is the king of the birds. He mocks the wind with the speed of his flight. As the appointed charger of Vishnu he is venerated by all, including humans. Garuda is the son of Kashyap, a great sage, and Vinata, a daughter of Daksha, a famous king. He was hatched from an egg Vinata laid. He has the head, wings, talons, and beak of an eagle and the body and limbs of a man. He has a white face, red wings and golden body. When he was born he was so brilliant that he was mistaken for Agni, the god of fire, and worshipped.

Garuda was born with a great hatred for the evil and he is supposed to roam about the universe devouring the bad, though he spares Brahmins as his parents had forbidden him to eat them. Garuda is also well-known for his aversion to snakes, a dislike he had acquired from his mother, Vinata. There is a story behind this hatred of Garuda's mother. As it is quite interesting it is told hereafter.

Kashyap, Garuda's father, had two wives: Kadru, the elder, and Vinata, Garuda's mother, the younger. There was great rivalry between the two wives. They could not stand each other. Once, they had an argument over the color of the horse Uchchaisravas, produced during the Churning of the Ocean just after the time of creation. Each chose a color and laid a wager on her own choice. The one who lost would become the other's slave. Kadru proved to be right and, as part of the agreement, imprisoned Vinata in the nether regions, Patala, where she was guarded by serpents. The serpents are, according to another myth, the sons of Kadru herself.

Garuda, on hearing of his mother's imprisonment, descended to Patala and asked the serpents to release Vinata. They agreed to do so and demanded as ransom a cup of amrita (ambrosia). So Garuda set off for the celestial mountain where the amrita was kept. Before he could get to the amrita he had to overcome three hazards set up by the gods to guard the celestial drink. First, Garuda came upon a ring of flames fanned by high winds. They roared and leapt up to the sky but Garuda drank up several rivers and extinguished the flames. Next, Garuda came upon a circular doorway. A very rapidly spinning wheel with sharp spikes on the spokes guarded it. Garuda made himself very small and slipped through the turning spokes. Lastly, Garuda had to defeat two fire-spitting serpents guarding the amrita. He flapped his wings rapidly and blew dust into the eyes of the monsters and blinded them. Then he cut them to pieces with his sharp beak. So Garuda finally reached the amrita and started to fly back with it to the nether regions but the gods anticipated his purpose and gave chase. Indra, king of the gods, struck him with his thunderbolt but Garuda proved a superior warrior and defeated the gods and continued unscathed on his journey to Patala.

When the serpents got the amrita they were overjoyed and released Vinata. Garuda got his mother back but he became an inveterate enemy of the serpents, the sons of his mother's rival Kadru. Also the serpents, the Nagas, symbolized evil and that automatically invoked Garuda's hatred.

As end-piece to this myth it must be told that, as the Nagas were about to consume the amrita Garuda had just brought them, the chasing gods entered Patala and Indra seized and took away the cup of amrita. Anyway, the serpents had just had time enough to lick a few drops of amrita and this was enough to make them immortal. Also, since the celestial drink was very strong, their tongues were split and that is why, to this day, serpents have forked tongues.


Article details:

  • Pronunciation:
    guh'-ruh-duh

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