The Meaning and Origin of the Legendary Garuda
Garuda is a large humanoid bird creature who plays an important role in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Garuda is considered the king of all birds, so he is one of the most important creatures in the Himmapan forest.
Garuda is also the enemy of the naga, snake creatures, and in Hinduism he is the mount of Lord Vishnu. All of these important roles mean that he appears prominently in Southeast Asian art and architecture in many different cultures.
Garuda is half man and half bird, with his bird features usually resembling an eagle or a kite. Depictions of him can vary, but they have some similar characteristics. Garuda has the torso of a man, but he usually has the wings, talons, head, and beak of a bird. In some cases, however, particularly when he is serving as Vishnu’s mount, he may appear entirely as a bird.
He is typically depicted with a golden torso, red wings, and white face. His number of limbs varies between two and eight. If he is holding snakes in any of those limbs, it’s a sure sign that it’s Garuda. Garuda is impressively large. Some descriptions say that his wings are miles long, while others describe his as big enough to block out the sun.
Garuda in Hinduism
Garuda is an important deity within Hinduism, known primarily for being Lord Vishnu’s mount. Garuda’s story is told in the Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit epic. Garuda is the second son of Vinata and is born immense and powerful.
After taking a bet, Garuda’s mother is tricked into being a slave to her sister Kadru and Kadru’s offspring, the snake nagas. Garuda is determined to free his mother, and the naga request the elixir of immortality in exchange for her freedom. Garuda ascends to Heaven, fights past the gods’ defenses, and returns with the elixir.
However, Garuda tricks the naga and prevents them from drinking the elixir after his mother is freed. From this point on, Garuda is the enemy of the naga, and he eats snakes as food for the rest of his life. On his way down from the heavens, Garuda meets Lord Vishnu, one of Hinduism’s most significant gods, and agrees to act as his mount. Garuda therefore gains immortality and a place of lasting importance within Hinduism.
Garuda in Buddhism
Garuda also plays an important role in Buddhist mythology, drawing on the deity’s role in the Mahabharata. Rather than viewing Garuda as a single being, Buddhism views the garuda as a type of being: enormous, wise bird creatures with some human features. Garudas are powerful enough to create storms by flapping their wings are to rip entire trees from the ground.
Within Buddhism, garudas have many human characteristics, such as building cities and being governed by kings. Sometimes garudas change into human form in order to interact with humans. As in Hinduism, garudas are the enemies of the naga and habitually eat them. However, the Buddha eventually makes peace between the garuda and the naga.
Garuda’s Cultural Significance
In addition to playing an important role within both Hinduism and Buddhism, Garuda is present in many parties of Southeast Asian culture. Garuda is seen as wise and immensely powerful, so he is often invoked as a protector. Because of his vast size, speed, and strong wings, Garuda is seen as a forceful warrior.
If you visit temples in India or Thailand, for example, you may see depictions of Garuda as Vishnu’s mount, but you may also see him appear alone as the site’s protector. Garuda also draws cultural importance from his lasting rivalry with the naga. He is frequently depicted on amulets and charms meant to ward off snakes and snake bites.
Garuda as a Symbol
Garuda’s powerful qualities also make him ideal as a national symbol. In fact, both Thailand and Indonesia use Garuda as their national emblem. Thailand’s emblem depicts a traditional Garuda: he has the torso of a man with the talons, wings, and beak of an eagle, all shown in red and gold.
Indonesia’s emblem appears as a golden bird that closely resembles javan hawk eagle. Garuda appears as a symbol in many other Southeast Asian institutions, particularly within the armed forces. If you travel to Southeast Asia, you should expect to see Garuda represented in many different ways.
- Campbell J. and Kudler D. Oriental Mythology (The Masks of God Book 2). Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2014, 618 p.
- DK. The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India s Greatest Epic. DK, 2017, 512 p.
© 2019 Sam Shepards