Garuda, the Bird-Headed God

Garuda is a bird-like creature who appears in the mythology of both Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Garuda is the Hindu name for the constellation Aquila.

Garuda in Hinduism
In Hindu mythology, Garuda is a minor deity who usually serves as Vishnu’s mount. He has the body of a man, with the wings and beak of an eagle. He is so massive that he can block out the sun.

Through time, the Hindus have given him many names. This mighty bird once brought nectar from heaven, sharing it with the beings of the earth. By worshiping Garuda, one can remove poisons from your body.

While Garuda usually serves Vishnu, Krishna and Lord Hari have also ridden Garuda flies, his wings chant the sacred verses of the Vedas.

Garuda burst from his egg as a raging inferno. The frightened gods begged for mercy, and Garuda made himself smaller.

Garuda’s mother became enslaved to his sister Kadru, the mother of serpents. Seeking his mother’s freedom, Garuda approached the serpents. They would not allow Garuda to purchase her for any less than the elixir of immortality, called amrita.

The elixir was guarded by the gods, and was the source of their immortality. The elixir had been ringed by fire, the path protected by a machine of rotating blades. Beside the elixir, two giant snakes stood guard. Garuda was undaunted, and made his way towards the treasure.

The gods sought to protect their elixir, and therefore met him in battle. The root filled the water from many rivers in his mouth, using it to extinguish the protective fires of the gods. He then shrunk his body, becoming so tiny that he could creep past the rotating blades of their deadly machine. Reaching the guard, he mangled the massive snakes. Then he grabbed the elixir in his mouth without swallowing and launched himself for home.

On his way, Garuda met Vishnu. Rather than fight, Vishnu offered Garuda immortality in exchange for which Garuda would become Vishnu’s mount. Further in the flight, Garuda met Indra, the sky God. He promised Indra that once he had delivered the elixir, fulfilling his promise to the snakes, he would help Indra return the elixir to the gods. In turn, Indra promised Garuda the snakes for food.

Finally, Garuda returned to the serpents. He placed the elixir on the grass, liberating his mother. Then he encouraged the serpents to perform their religious rituals before consuming the elixir. As the serpents prepared themselves, Indra swooped down and stole the elixir back. Before his efforts that day, Garuda became Vishnu’s trusted mount and friend of all the gods. He also became a lifelong enemy of snakes, and preyed upon them at every opportunity.

Garuda is seen as symbolic of speed, military prowess, and violent force. Soldiers rapidly advancing on doomed foes are compared to Garuda diving down onto a serpent.

Garuda in Buddhism

To the Buddhists, garudas are large, intelligent birds who live in social groups. They combined the best characteristics of divine beings and earthly animals. Garudas are large, with wingspans of many miles. When their wings flap, the wind is like a hurricane darkening sky and destroying homes. Compared to a Garuda, a man is so small that he can hide in the plumage without being noticed, like a flea in the feathers.

Garudas have kings and live in cities, much like mankind. Some of them have the power to change shape, assuming human form to talk to people or romance women. Liquor routers have been appointed to guard Mount Sumeru and the heavens from the attacks of the wicked asuras, demons that torment the universe.

The Garudas are sworn enemies of the Nagas, and hunt these serpent-like creatures at every opportunity. While the garudas used to capture the nagas by seizing their heads, the nagas learned a clever defense – by swallowing large stones, they could become too heavy for the Garudas to carry. In time, the ascetic Karambiya taught the Garudas to seize the serpents by their tails, forcing them to drop the stones. Buddha was able to create a temporary peace between the Garudas and the nagas.

Today, Garudas are seen in many areas. They are the national symbol of both Thailand and Indonesia, as well as the Indonesian national airline. In Thailand, one form of the Garuda is used as a symbol of the royal family. It is also the symbol of Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

Garuda, the Vahana of Lord Vishnu. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Garuda according to Ida Made Tlaga, a 19th century Balinese artist. Courtesy Wikipedia.