Garuda (Jap. Karura) is a mythological bird usually described as having a human form with the head of a bird. Created from the cosmic egg that also hatched the 8 elephants supporting the universe, he was fully mature when hatched. Garuda can easily traverse the universe from end to end. It can kill and eat poisonous snakes with no harmful consequences to itself.
The oldest collection of Indian hymns, the Rig Veda says:
Garuda and the Sacred Kusha Grass
The Hindu epic, Mahabharata, tells of the connection between Garuda and sacred kusha grass [Poa cynosuroides,] the same kind of grass provided as a meditation seat for the Buddha.
Garuda and the Kumbh Mela
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 of 3 towns, alternating among them every three years.
According to South Indian legend, in Kanchipuram an ardent devotee of
Lord Vishnu, who was a sculptor, carved a Garuda image out
of wood. Having been correctly carved according to the Shilpa Shastras,
the figure came to life. It flew into the air, heading towards the south. At
the village of Parakkai, 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 temple deity as if doing pradakshina (Tib. kora, devotional
< Kite for annual festival in Parakkai.
Near Nagarkot in Nepal there is a Vishnu temple dating to the time of King Manadeva, who is also associated with the stupa of Bodhnath. In the courtyard is a pillar inscribed with one of the earliest histories of Nepal. The place is called Changu Narayana. Atop the pillar is a kneeling figure facing the shrine known as the Manadeva Garuda since the moustached face is believed to represent the king.
Buddhists also worship at this temple, where the deity is called Hari-vahanodbhava-Lokeshvara.
Śakra (or, Shakra) is the name that Buddhist scriptures give to the king of the god realm, Indra. He appointed the garudas to guard Mount Sumeru and the Trāyastrimśa heaven from the attacks of the ashuras ("titans" or opponents of the gods.)
Garuda the Compassionate Observer
In the Shaiva tradition of Hinduism, Garuda is a guardian of
Lord Shiva. A tale is told how once, perched on Mount Kailash, Garuda
noticed a tiny bird. He was struck by the contrast between the majesty of
Kailash and Shiva's palace, and the delicacy of " . . . a beautiful creature, a little bird
seated on the arch crowning the entrance to Shiva's place. Garuda wondered aloud: "How marvelous is this creation! One who has
created these lofty mountains has also made this tiny bird -- and both seem equally wonderful."
Himalayan Buddhist Tradition
In some cultures, the garuda acquired the lower body of a bird and became known as a kinnara or shang-shang. The shang-shang is associated with Buddha Amoghasiddhi (Unerring Accomplisher,) whose consort is Green Tara.
Amoghasiddhi is the Buddha of the northern direction and is 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, working with visualizations and other Vajrayana methods that focus on him, we can transmute yearning that leads to attachment -- that which is often simplistically expressed as "desire" or "greed." Another of his symbols is the vishvavajra or double vajra that stands for Foundation and also, for resolve and stability.
In the Kalachakra tradition, Garuda bears the speech chakra. His mantra is Om Pa Kshim, Swaha.
The Shangpa lineage is named for the garuda and it is the lineage emblem.
Cha Khyung (Bird-Garuda) was a mountain deity of Rebkong, Tibet, an area on the west side of the river in Amdo province. After he was subjugated by Padmasambhava he became a worldly protector.
Kyunglung or, Garuda Valley, lies to the southwest 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.
When Buddha Was a Suparna
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 (formerly anglicized as 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, 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.
Today Indonesia is largely Muslim, but the culture is rooted in its past as the ancient playground of Indian rajahs. The legendary Isle of Seruma may well have been somewhere in that extensive archipelago. Hence, besides embodying stamina and determination, the garuda's association with luxury and sensuality is probably why it was chosen as the emblem of Indonesia Airlines.
Myth of Garuda recounted by an Indonesian Airlines pilot.
In Nepal, the "mask of protection" is the face of a garuda-child called Chhepu. Folklore tells of his origin. He was one among the three brothers, Garuda, Chhepu and Hitimanga. Their mother had requested her husband to help her produce a son
~ Japanese Houhou in Ueno Park, Taito, Tokyo.
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.
~ Loden Sherap Dagyab Rinpoche. Buddhist Symbols in Tibetan Culture. Wisdom Publ.,
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 the title of J. P. Sousa's famous march.)
The Two Kinnara
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 the king, who 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 sublime voices, so if you can get them to sing they are able to do so more beautifully than people. The second interesting point is that kinnara dance wonderfully, much more beautifully than people.
The king commanded 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 dreadful situation, the female kinnara (called kinnari cf. canary) sat last spoke up:
Some etymological speculations: kinnari = canary, the warbling yellow bird; kinor is Biblical (and modern) Hebrew for the melodious ancient harp or lyre, the musical instrument whose shape provides the name for the freshwater lake at the north eastern tip of Israel, "Gennaseret" ie. the "Sea" of Galilee, 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.
Vishnu: 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.