Garuda often identified with the vedic suparna is of great significance in Hindu mythology and art. Known as Periya Thiruvadi (the Big Sacred Feet) in Sri Vaishnava parlance, Garuda has also come to be regarded as a nityasuri (eternally liberated attendant) of Lord Vishnu in Vaikuntha. He is also referred to as Vedatma (of the form of Vedas) by Sri Yamuna. Notwithstanding the fact that Garuda and Naga (Adi Sesha) are traditional antagonists, Vishnu has both of them serving Him – the former as vehicle and the latter, as his couch.
Mahabharata on Garuda’s Origin, Exploits and Status
Details pertaining to Garuda’s birth are available in the Mahabharata. He was the son of Vinata, one of the two wives of sage Kashyapa. The other wife was Kadru. Vinata during her first conception could not carry the embryo for long. She aborted and out came her half-developed son who was named Aruna. He was also called Anuru (one without thighs). In a fit of anger Aruna cursed his mother that she would become a slave to Kadru. He however gave her a hope of relief from the curse when he asked her to await patiently the birth of another son who would set her free from thralldom. With these words Aruna then left her and became the charioteer of the Sun.
The narration continues that Kadru, the other wife of Kashyapa became the mother of snakes.Once both Vinata and Kadru saw Ucchaisravas (the all-white horse of Indra) which came out of the Milky Ocean. There was a wager between the two women regarding the colour of the horse. While Vinata said it was all white, Kadru claimed its tail was black. They decided to find out the truth the next day and simultaneously entered into a wager. If Vinata was proved right, Kadru, along with her serpent sons, would become her slave. On the contrary if Kadru was right, Vinata and her offspring should serve the former. The deceitful Kadru prevailed over her sons to transform themselves into black hair and cover the horse’s tail. The next day when both the ladies came to see the horse, the tail alone appeared black. So it was, that Vinata became a slave to Kadru and her children.
In due course Garuda was born. He was dazzling in golden plumage and was tremendously powerful. He was capable of assuming any form at will. True to his brother‘s curse and conforming to the stipulations of the wager, he along with his mother, began to serve Kadru and her children. Fed up with servitude, one day he asked his mother when and how they could be free. Vinata now directed her son to Kadru. The latter now asked Garuda to bring her amrira (nectar) from Heaven as a fee to freedom.
At heaven Garuda fought a valiant battle with Indra, overpowered him and took away the vessel of Nectar. Indra was horrified for, if the snakes drank the Nectar they would become immortal. But he also knew the reason as to why Garuda was taking away the ambrosia. Indra now drew up a strategy by which Garuda could keep his word and become free while at the same time preventing the snakes from consuming the magic potion. According to the plan, Garuda would first give the pot of Nectar to Kadru and attain his freedom. INDRA would also be there but in hiding. At the opportune moment, he would emerge and carry the pot back to his place. Thus it was that Garuda placed the vessel on a bed of sharp kusha/darbha grass. Kadru immediately set the mother and son free. Garuda however, suggested that snakes bathe first before taking the Nectar. When they went for their bath, Indra who was present there in a surreptitious took away the pot. The serpents returned from their bath only to find that the prized Nectar was missing and what was present was only the bed of darbha grass. The snakes, in feverish anxiety now licked up the grass thinking that at least a few drops of Nectar may have fallen on to it. In the process they cut their tongues. Since then the snakes came to be known as dvijihva-s (the double-tongued).
The Mahabharata further continues the narration that Lord Vishnu was pleased with Garuda since he was not tempted to taste the amruta despite the fact that the vessel of Nectar was with him. He therefore granted him two boons. Garuda now requested that he would like to be given the privilege of being granted a place literally ‘above’ Vishnu as His canopy and that he should remain immortal even without partaking of the amruta. Garuda in turn asked Vishnu also to ask for a boon! Vishnu stated that he become His vahana (vehicle). According to Hindu tradition, the vehicles of deities become the emblems of the respective gods too. It is thus that Garuda became the dhvaja (banner) of Vishnu.
The Valmiki Ramayana details that Garuda comforted Sri Rama when he fainted in the battlefield hit by the Nagasrra. Garuda discloses his identity to Rama merely as his sakha (friend) without referring to Rama’s divinity. However in the Tamil classic Kamba Ramayana, Garuda identifies Rama with Narayana.
Some literary works including the epics, puranas and agamas refer to certain mantra-s, incantations, motifs and rituals, related to Garuda as, powerful antidotes for snake-bites. Some works also speak of Garuda challenging Hanuman in a duel and subsequently being subdued by him. The Garuda Purana has many chapters wherein Garuda raises questions about life and death, and what happens after one dies. There is a tradition that this portion be read only when death occurs in a house and not on other occasions.
Consorts and Offspring
We come across some interesting details about the marital status of Garuda in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the purana-s albeit with some minor changes in events and names. He is said to have married the daughters of Tamra who was the wife of Daksha. They are: Kraunchi (Kaki), Bhasi, Shyeni, Dhritarashtri and Suki.
They brought forth a variety of birds. According to srivaishnava stotra literature, Rudra and Sukirti are the wives of Garuda. According to some like to be given the privilege of being granted lexicons, Vinayika and Unnati are his wives.
The vaikhanasa agama-s state that Visoka was his wife. Iconography displays Garuda with 4/8/16/22 arms. When he is shown with eight arms, he is flanked by eight devis on either side.
Representation in Temple Architecture
Usually, Garuda is depicted in a small shrine, kneeling with folded hands, and facing the main shrine of Vishnu. Though depicted as carrying Lord Vishnu during temple festivals, we do not come across representations of his wives. However, on the outer northern wall of a temple of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha at a place called Nuggihalli (1249A.D.), in the Hasan district of Karnataka we find ,a figure, which appears to be Garuda. He is shown in human form, in a running posture with wings spread out, and with his two hands joined in anjali. Here he is flanked by two ladies. In all probability they are his consorts Rudra and Sukirti.
A rare depiction of Thrivikrama Avatara is to be found on the right wall in the ardhamandapa of the main shrine of Lord Narasimha at Namakkal. Here Garuda is shown chastising Sukracharya the guru of Bali who tried to prevent him from giving the gift of three paces of land to the Dwarf. Garuda according to some agama and shilpa texts is to be shown with snakes such as Ananta, Vasuki, Takshaka, Karkotaka, Padma, Mahapadma, Sankha and Gulika. At a Badami cave (No.3, around 8th cent. A.D.) in Karnataka, Vishnu is shown as four-armed, sitting on the coils Of Adisesha. Garuda is seated at the base with his hands folded and crossed against his chest and himself leaning against Adisesha.
According to the Isvara Samhita, a panchararra text, Garuda is an amsa (aspect) of Sankarshana one of the five vyuha-s of Lord Vishnu. Sankarshana is an embodiment of the qualities of bala (strength) and jnana (knowledge). In the Mahabharata he is identified with Sesha. This may perhaps be an attempt at the theological level, to reconcile the two of them.
This form of reconciliation is somewhat indicated in the fact that two important festivals – Garuda Panchami and Naga Panchami are celebrated on the same day i.e., Sukla Panchami of the Sravana month (July- August).
Garuda of Today
This Garuda of Epic fame is often identified as Cemparuntu (in Tamil) and Krishnaparuntu (in Malayalam), which is a Brahmanykite or Coromandel Eagle and is considered an auspicious good omen. But one wonders whether this bird could have been the Garuda of ancient glory. There are some people who even wait for a few hours to see Garuda in the sky before they take their food. It is also believed that the darshana of Garuda on specific days would bring in different results. Garuda on a Sunday would give relief from diseases and solve any confusion. Seeing him on Mondays would bestow family welfare and health. Tuesday would ensure removal of opposition from enemies. Wednesday would bring in success and happiness. Thursday would grant long life. Friday would bestow wealth. Saturday would give liberation.
Also it is believed that wherever Garuda is seen hovering, that place becomes sacred. Sometimes even during the occasion of Kumbhabhisheka Darshana in a temple, people wait for Garuda
Garuda Vahana (vehicle) During Festivals
Tradition and convention make Garuda vahana a special feature in all vaishnava temples. During Brahmotsava, people gather in large numbers to have the rare sight of Garuda carrying the Lord. The kal-garuda sevai at Nachiyar Kovil, the eleven garuda-sevai at Thirunangur and the nine Garuda sevai at Azhwar Thirunagari are very famous.
Noteworthy Garuda Images
The image of Garuda is an independent one and is always installed exactly in front of the Lord in the garbhagriha. Generally he is shown standing with folded hands, sometimes as seated or kneeling with one leg bent, and the other stretched behind. The Garuda in the Garudamandapa in Srirangam is spectacular. It is made of mortar about 14 ft. high on a pedestal that is about 5 ft. He is seated with the left leg folded and placed horizontally. His right leg is vertically folded but the knee is raised. His hands show the anjali-mudra. He is half human and half bird, and is adorned with snakes.
The Kalgaruda at Thirunaraiyur is very popular. The murti is supposed to be made of salagrama and is stationed in a separate shrine. In this sacred place, Garuda is known as modaka-moda (one who is fond of sweet). Daily worship is offered to him and a sweet known as amuda-kalasa (amrita-kalasa) (pot of nectar) is offered.
Though Garuda has acquired importance as a vahana of the lord, his independent position as a deity is unquestionable. Apart from daily worship, his birthday celebrations take place on the day when Swathi Nakshatra is in the ascendant in the Tamil month of Aadi (July-August). No festival in the temple can be conducted without the presence of Garuda. There is also no temple of VISHNU, which has no Garudadhwaja (banner).
By Dr Vanamala Parthasarathy
From NrisimhaPriya series 2004