Religion is a way of life in India.  It permeates almost every aspect of daily living but not in an obtrusive or militant fashion.  The landscape is dotted with temples, mosques and to a lesser extent gurudwaras and churches reflecting the religious composition of the population.  There are grand complexes several centuries old and modest one room structures.  As a young boy, I was fascinated by the figures that adorned the gopurams of Hindu temples.

Gopuram at the entrance of Subramanya Swamy temple, Bangalore

Gopurams are the ornate gateways to South Indian temples and are monuments in themselves.  They are oblong in shape and taper towards the top.  They are decorated with sculptures that reflect characters from Hindu mythology.  Now Hindu mythology has a rich and diverse set of characters and it was hard to identify all the characters.  One of the sculptures that stood out and was easily identifiable was that of Garuda.  And I could identify him since I had an ally – Amar Chitra Katha.  Literally translating to “immortal stories in picture form”, these comics retold stories from Hindu mythology.

In Amar Chitra Kathas, Garuda is the vehicle of Vishnu.  Vishnu is one of the principal deities of Hinduism and is part of the triumvirate – Shiva and Brahma being the other two.  Garuda is depicted as an eagle with sharp talons and a hooked beak.  He is the natural enemy of the Nagas – snakes and devours them in battle.  Garuda is also depicted in an anthropomorphic form with wings and a sharp beak.  While Garuda was featured in different editions of Amar Chitra Kathas, he was considered important enough to have an issue dedicated to him.

I’ve often wondered about the origins of myths.  Fantastic stories that strain our credulity and easy to dismiss today as superstitions or fairy tales.  However, early man must have been awed by the forces of nature and sought explanations for phenomena that could not be explained otherwise.  It is not uncommon to find slabs of stones being venerated in the countryside in India.  Called “ghost stones” in the region where my father grew up, these have some kind of ritualistic offerings and prayers offered to them.  My dad has what seems to be a rational explanation for this.  Imagine a seemingly hale and hearty man walking through the fields one day and then suddenly keeling over either due to a heart attack or a stroke.  His kin find him dead, with no external injuries.  They would surmise that a spirit killed him with a “ghost blow” and hence the spot is marked with a stone and the spirit is appeased with some form of offering.

In Hindu mythology, Garuda is conceived as the result of a boon given by the sage Kashyap (one of the “Saptarishis” or 7 ancient sages) to his two wives – Vinata and Kadru.  Kadru asks for a thousand snakes as offspring while Vinata asks for two sons who are mightier than the offspring of Kadru.  Boons, in Hindu mythology, have a tendency to cause problems.  In the Ramayana, Rama has to give up his throne to fulfill a wish or boon his father had given to Rama’s stepmother.  That sets into motion the sequence of events that leads to the kidnapping of Rama’s wife, Sita and the subsequent war with Ravana.  Hiranyakashipu, king of the Daityas (a clan of Asuras who are rivals of the “devas” or gods) is given a boon by Brahma that makes him almost indestructible.  He proceeds to wreak havoc and finally, Vishnu has to take one of his avatars (Narasimha avatar) to vanquish him. 

A Tibetan figurine of Garuda – The British Museum, London

It’s fair to wonder why Vinata would want a 1000 snakes as offspring.  There is a story behind this.  The Varaha Purana explains that the early serpents who were created by Brahma were venomous enough to paralyze humans by just their gaze.  Brahma, the creator,  threatened to destroy them and they pleaded for mercy stating that they were not responsible for their nature which was endowed to them by him in the first place.  They asked for a place where they could live and not come in contact with humans.  Brahma relented and said that they could stay in the first three regions of the netherworld – Patala Loka.  He decreed that in another time (Kalpa) they would be born as the offspring of the sage Kashyap and his wife Vinata.  So, as it is in Hindu mythology, this was pre-ordained.

The boon by Kashyap in this case leads to a sequence of events where Vinata becomes a slave to Kadru and her “snake” children and in order to win her freedom, Garuda has to retrieve the pot of Amrit (elixir that grants immortality) from the Gods.  All ends well when Indra steals the Amrit from the snakes after Vinata is released but before the snakes can consume the nectar.  Vishnu is impressed enough with Garuda to grant him a couple of boons.  Garuda asks to be above Vishnu and to be granted immortality and freedom from disease.  Vishnu asks Garuda to perch on his flagstaff, thus Garuda is above him.  In return, Garuda grants Vishnu a boon wherein Vishnu requests Garuda to be his vehicle.  Garuda is also blessed with powers that allow him to change his size at will. He is said to be able to sweep across the cosmos with one flap of his wings.  In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Garuda adorns the banner of Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, thus metaphorically still remaining above Vishnu.  Interestingly enough, King Hiranyakashipu is the eldest son of the sage Kashyap and his wife Diti, an earth goddess.  This makes Garuda his half-brother.

In History, Garuda was the symbol of the Gupta emperors and was depicted on silver coins from this period.  Just as mythology has him perched on Vishnu’s flag staff, he is depicted on top of pillars in temples.  Garuda Purana is one of the holy texts in Hinduism and was composed well over a 1000 years ago.  It encompasses a wide variety of topics including cosmology – myths tracing the origin of the universe, architecture and design of temples, gemology, code of conduct, governance, medicine and yoga.  My fleeting acquaintance with the Garuda Purana came in the form of rituals that my brother and I had to perform after my mother passed away.    The Purana details the procedures to be followed starting from the moment of death, to cremation and post-cremation rites.

Eagles feature in the myths of many cultures.  As winged spirits in the Assyrian culture, as the symbol of Zeus in Greek mythology, as the national symbol of Rome under the Caesars and as Garuda in India.  It is not hard to imagine why.  A magnificent bird with sharp talons and keen eyesight, flying high in the sky and able to spot and ambush its prey by swooping majestically from the sky.  Many of these symbols have now passed into history but Garuda lives on into modernity.

A pair of Garudas flank the entrance to a house in Amritsar

I have seen sculptures of Garuda in temples India.  I’ve been surprised to find him flanking the entrance to an old house in the bylanes of Amritsar. The British Museum has a 19th century figurine of Garuda from Tibet.  If you have flown on Indonesian Airlines, you have flown on Garuda Air.  He is the symbol of Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.  Besides being the national symbol of Thailand, he shows up on their currency, the Baht.  He adorns temples in Cambodia and Nepal and also finds references in Japan.  The adoption of Garuda in these countries can be explained by the spread of Hinduism to places like Cambodia and Thailand in the past as well as the coopting of Garuda in Buddhist myths and hence the references to Garuda in Tibet and Myanmar.  This winged mythological vehicle of Vishnu still makes his presence felt in India in the form of daily rituals.  Fittingly, a special forces unit of the Indian Air force is called the “Garud Commando Force”.  Still flying high in the sky as a protector of his people!

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