The mythological bird Garuda is usually depicted as part human. It was created from the cosmic egg that also hatched the 8 elephants supporting the universe. Fully mature when it hatches, it can easily traverse the universe from one end to the other. It can kill and eat poisonous snakes with no harmful consequences.
The oldest collection of Indian hymns, the Rig Veda says:
They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni
And he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title;
They call it Agni, Yama, Matarishvan . ... .
In the image at Flight of the Garuda, a song by Shabkar whose Shangpa lineage emblem it is, we see the traditional mount or vehicle [vahana] of the Hindu god Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi ['Abundance']. Besides being found kneeling before shrines and temples dedicated to Vishnu, the winged man-birds are associated with the green primordial [Skt: adhi] buddha, Amogasiddhi.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the garuda is associated with Amoghasiddhi [unerring accomplisher] who is the Buddha of the northern direction representative of the skandha samskara. He is depicted as green, with his hands in the abhaya, the 'do not fear' or protection mudra. He is the conqueror of 'thirst' that is, the desire leading to attachment that is often simplistically expressed as 'greed'. His symbol is the vishvavajra, or double vajra, of resoluteness -- here as concerns meditation and its objective (as in Shabkar's Song 6 linked above.)
The Hindu festival, the Kumbhmela, is held at a different spot on the shores of the Ganges every 12 years. At the beginning of 2001, Allahabad was the focus for this largest of the world's gatherings. It is one of four spots where Garuda is believed to have rested during a battle with demons over the pot of divine nectar of immortality. Garuda's flight lasted 12 divine days, or 12 years of mortal time, so the Kumbh Mela is celebrated at each city, alternating among them every three years.
The Hindu epic, Mahabharata, tells of the connection between sacred kusha grass [Poa cynosuroides] which was offered to the Buddha for his seat under the Tree, and Garuda:
When Garuda brought some amrita from the moon for the Nagas as his mother's ransom, Indra tried to prevent it. The amrita would make the nagas immortal, and they would pose a threat to Indra's position as King of Heaven.
But faithful Garuda would not compromise his mother's liberation. However, he arranged that after the nagas received it, it could then be stolen from them. In preparation for this, Garuda laid the nectar of immortality contained in its flask on the grass. That made it easy for Indra to steal which he did while the nagas were bathing in the stream.
When they emerged from the water, they expected the amrita to be on the kusha grass, itself. As they tried to lick up the divine substance, the spiky leaves of kusha slit their tongues. It is for this reason that the tongues of serpents are forked, and also that kusha [or kusa] is sacred -- for having been in contact with amrita.
Garuda is king of the class of beings known as suparnas. To demonstrate and share his profound understanding of the lure of a woman with a monk who was having difficulty with his vow of celibacy, the Buddha is said to have recounted his own experience as King of the "sunbirds" who once ruled the Isle of Seruma, a land of nagas:
Once while on a gambling junket to Varanasi (anglicized to Benares,) he had a love affair with his host's extraordinarily beautiful chief wife, Sussondi. She had been informed of the garuda's gorgeous appearance by palace attendants, and he was smitten as soon as she entered the gaming room. Under the cover of a dark and dangerously violent wind that the suparna had stirred up, they flew away to his island home. There, they made passionate love, but then he had the nerve to return to the host-king's palace - without her.
Meanwhile, Sagga, the magical minstrel of the King of Benares [or Varanasi -- the city of the Bodhisattva's Enlightenment], was sent to search for the missing Queen. On board ship, his song was so wonderful that a makara emerged from the ocean depths in excitement and smashed it to bits. He drifted on a plank that finally landed under a banyan on Seruma. Queen Sussondi, walking alone by the shore, recognized the nearly-drowned man and took him to her quarters to revive him. She had to hide him in case the garuda should recognize him, of course, and with Sagga living in secret there in her quarters, one thing led to another.
Six weeks went by until a ship from Benares landed to provision there, and Sagga made it successfully back to his home having fulfilled, at least to a certain extent, his royal mission.
Skillfully and with delicacy, he sang of his adventure and his longing to the King and his faithless guest, the suparna, who even joined in with his wonderful voice. On hearing Sagga's story expressed so skillfully, the garuda understood its significance.
Though he was the most splendid of all creatures, he had not been able to keep Sussondi for himself alone. Now filled with regret, he flew away to fetch her and returned her to the King. In that lifetime, he never again visited Benares.
There, in Jeta's Grove, Buddha then told The Four Noble Truths and all about the births, revealing also, that the long-ago King of Benares had been his own student, Ananda.
Besides its stamina and determination, an association with luxury and sensuality is probably another reason the garuda was chosen as the symbol of the airlines of Indonesia, ancient playground of Indian Rajahs and the archipelago where once was, perhaps, the Isle of Seruma.
The Nepali Buddhists tell of Chhepu, one among the three brothers Garuda, Chhepu and Hitimanga. Their mother
requested her husband to give birth of such a son who would be the bravest, most truthful and endowed with all superior marks. Her husband told her to wait for a certain period. She being too impatient to wait for a long period, looked in the nest to see whether he was born or not. She found Chhepu in a premature condition, only with his head formed.
It is also told that Chhepu disappeared from the world as he did not want to see the Kaliyuga, the great yuga, when evil would completely triumph over good and the world would be destroyed by Vishnu in his incarnation as Kalki, the destroyer.
Knowing his bravery, truthfulness and endowment with all superior marks, Manjushree wanted to see him and requested Chhepu to show his full form. Chhepu appeared slowly amidst the cloud. Manjushree, as a veteran artist, immediately drew his form with his foot secretly without the knowledge of Chhepu. When Manjushree had only finished drawing his head, Chhepu came to know Manjushree’s deception and immediately disappeared. Due to his bravery, truthfulness and superior marks, he was given the [pride of] place at the top of the main entrance of stupas [as a] protection from all the dangers. Nagas [snakes] are the food of Chhepu.
See an exquisite miniature chaitya/stupa at AsianArts with protective garudas or rather, kinnaras, at the corners. (More about kinnaras, below.)
Myth of Garuda recounted by an Indonesian Airlines pilot.
According to a south Indian legend, a sculptor who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu carved a Garuda image out of wood while in Kanchipuram. When completed, having been carved correctly as decreed by the Shilpa Shastras, it came to life and took off towards the south.
At Parakkai village, the Garuda took a dip in the tank in
front of the temple there, exclaiming with delight. Then he rose
again and hovered
around the deity as if doing pradakshina (Tib. kora, devotional circling.)
An artisan working on a pillar at the temple saw the bird and for some reason,
hurled his chisel at it hurting its right wing. The bird fell to earth crying, "Madhusudhana," to the disbelief of the man. The 4-armed stone image of Vishnu was later carved and installed at that spot.
In some Buddhist cultures, the garuda acquired a human torso too, and became half-human -- a man-bird, the kinnara or Shang-shang. The Shang-shang or the garuda is associated with Buddha Amoghasiddhi whose consort is Green Tara.
Hybrids, or what we might call monsters such as creatures like the makara, originated, according to Buddhist tradition, during the time right after the Buddha's Awakening when all hatred vanished from the world. Then, animals that had been foe and prey mated with each other, and produced offspring such as these.
Garuda in its form as part-human is certainly in this category. Garuda Bherunda is a double-headed form that may have led to the Austro-Hungarian and American forms called the Double Eagle (as in J. P. Sousa's famous march.)
There was once a hunter who caught a pair of kinnara alive in the Himavanta forest. (As you know, the body of such creatures is human but the feet, wings and tail are those of a bird.) The hunter took them to offer to the king. The king asked why he had brought them -- were they offerings? Could they be roasted and eaten?
The hunter answered that kinnara have two interesting qualities: they have beautiful voices and so if you can get them to sing they are able to sing even more beautifully than people. The second interesting point is that kinnara dance beautifully, much more beautifully than people.
The king ordered the kinnara to sing and dance, but even after being ordered two or three times, they just stood there looking at the king. The king, seeing that the kinnara would neither sing nor dance, then ordered his minister to have them roasted for dinner. Confronted by this situation, the female kinnara (called kinnari cf. canary) spoke up:
That we do not dance is not because we can't; that we do not sing is not because we are afraid of losing our voices. In fact, we would really like to sing and dance because we are sure that we do so more beautifully than any human being. The reason why we do not sing is because nearly all the songs known to man are just idle chatter. If we were to sing such songs, then we would not be following the tenet of Right Speech.
Because we are afraid of doing any evil is the reason why we do not sing for you. The reason why we do not dance is that such dancing will only cause Your Majesty to be sensually aroused which again is a source of evil.
That's why we won't sing or dance - it's not that we are lazy or don't want to show our skill or are too stupid to understand you. To sing and dance would be harmful to ourselves and harmful to Your Majesty, and we would both fall into hell as a result.
The king was pleased by what he heard. He said, "This is indeed an artful thing that has been said. Release the kinnari, but have the male which has remained silent roasted for tomorrow's breakfast."
The male kinnara said, "All grass-eating animals have the rain as their support. Farm labourers have beasts of burden as their support. As for my life, at this moment my life has Your Majesty as my support, as this kinnari has me as her support. If Your Majesty wishes to release this kinnari, do as you wish, but she will be without refuge. And I will be faulty in the performance of my duty to her as her refuge.
If you are going to release her alone, please slay me here and now so that the kinnari will have no doubt that I am unable to help her anymore."
(These words were true, polite and said at the right time, with the right intention. Then again, what the kinnara had said also qualifies as artful speech.) Thus the king released the both of them, and had the hunter take them back to where they had been caught, together with a golden ornament fitting for a couple able to speak artful speech.
~ from some "Mangala Sutra" (wedding) teachings at Dhammakaya Institute of Belgium
Some etymological speculations: kinnari = canary, the warbling yellow bird; kinor is the Biblical (and modern) Hebrew for the melodious ancient harp or lyre, the musical instrument whose shape gives its name to the freshwater lake at the northeastern tip of Israel, "Gennaseret" ie. the "Sea" of Galilee that is the source of the Jordan river. What is relevant here is the association with sweetness, either in the sound of its waves lapping the shore, the sweetness of its water or that of the fruit which grows by it.
The garuda is certainly related to the simurgh of Persian mythology. A related creature is the rukh or roc of The Arabian Nights' Entertainment ( a.k.a. A 1000 Nights and a Night.) Both these mysterious creatures of a class known to mythologists as wundervogel, are distinctly but entirely birds.
There is a Garuda Valley, Kyunglung, to the south-west of Mount Kailash. Once the capital of the land called Zhang Zhung, it was the site of the Silver Palace (Khyunglung Ngulkhar) the ruins of which are still there in the upper Sutlej Valley of India.
Bubriski's atmospheric (both senses) photo of Garuda-guardian at the Krishna Temple in Patan.
In one version of the Indian cosmogony, Vishnu is the ground giving rise to the lotus upon which Brahma sits and through whose agency the world arises. Lord Vishnu sleeps and dreams, all the while sweating universes through his every pore. He lies comfortably upon the Tortoise, Kashyapa, who floats on the Profound Ocean which is the ground of all existence.
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