Garuda: Terrifying Mythology or Inordinate Symbolism

How was Garuda originated?

Garuda 'the devourer' is popular in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. In both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Garuda is the mythical 'Lord of Birds'.

In the Hindu Puranic legends, Garuda is the son of father Kashyapa and mohter Vinata. After five hundred years' incubation, Garuda was hatched fully-grown from an egg. His mother Vinata delivered it at his 'first birth'.

His emergence from the egg was a terrifying sight to behold. His scary form filled the skies and his hurricane-beating wings shook the earth. His golden body radiated an unbearable luminosity. It caused even the gods to mistake him for Agni, the god of fire.

Thus rose the frightening Garuda from the egg in all his glory.

The Tale of his Immortality

Garuda's mother Vinata argued with her sister Kadru. It was concerned the color of the tail of a horse. It was Uchaishravas, who emerged from the churning of the primal ocean. Being the mother of the serpents. Kadru held Vinata for ransom in her serpent-pit prison as an act of vengeance.

To free his mother, Garuda stormed the heaven of Indra and stole the sacred amrita as payment for the ransom. He succeeded, but during the transaction, a few drops of amrita fell from his beak onto some kusha grass. The serpents licked the grass and its sharp edges caused their tongues to become forked. The gods, with great difficulty, regained the amrita from Garuda's beak. Such was his power that even Indra's mighty vajra broke on Garuda's body.

Only Vishnu was capable of subduing him and, binding him by oath. Vishnu took Garuda as his vehicle and granted him the boon of immortality. Most variations of the legends of Garuda in the Vishnu Puranas and Garuda Puranas are now lost. In later mythology, Krishna, as the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, takes Garuda as his mount. He subdues the great serpent Kaliya as Garuda has always been the sworn enemy of snakes and nagas.

Serpents and Preys: The Archetypal Enmity

There is an archetypal legend of the enmity that exists between birds of prey and serpents. It occurs across a wide spectrum of trans cultural mythologies. The Sumerian and Greek eagles are popular. Along with the poison-transmuting peacock of Persia and India. Or, the gigantic snake-eating Simurgh of Sinbad's adventures in Arabian Nights.

Garuda in Indian Tradition:

Garuda is also known as Suparna, Garutman, Sarparati, and Khageshvara or Pakshiraj. The Garudi is the female bird. They represented the Indian Garuda, the 'chief of feathered creatures, as a great bird. Later his form assumed that of a 'bird-man.' It was a creature half eagle and half man, combining a human body with a bird's head, talons, beak, and wings.

Zoomorphic variations of Garuda's artistic representation spread around. It diffused throughout India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and South East Asia. In Bali, his animalistic image assumed great popularity. One evokes Garuda to ward off snakes, snakebites, and all manners of animal poisonings. China identifies the Garuda with the God of thunder. He carries a hammer and chisel representing the roar of thunder and flashes of lightning.

Tibetan Implications and Iconography of Garuda

In Tibet, Garuda became assimilated with the Bon khading (Tib. mkha' lding), the golden 'horned eagle', king of birds, and the Bon bird of fire.

They identify the white khading with the swan, the king of water birds. In Tibetan, they use two words for the transfigured Indian garuda (Tib. khyung and mkha' Iding).

Tibetan iconography depicts Garuda with the upper torso and arms of a man. He has the head, beak, and legs of a bird and large wings which unfold from his back, shoulders, or forearms.

Below the waist, his feathered thighs end in ostrich-like lower legs.
He also has large clawed feet ending in sharp talons.
He has a feathered back, with long tail feathers which reach to the level of his feet.
His curved beak is like that of an eagle, falcon, or owl.
Like his talons, it has Vajra nature comparable to indestructible meteorite iron. No serpent can survive his iron grip or bite.
His wings and eyes are striking golden;
the hair on his head blazes upwards, and his eyebrows twist like fire.
Between his sharp horns, a head bump conceals a serpent jewel in his skull.
This jewel was the stolen property of the king of the serpents. It is sometimes represented as a head ornament placed above the sun and moon on his crown.


An alternative legend relates how he took this jewel from Mt Meru. Haying in secret swallowed it, he vomited it back into existence. The vomit of an eagle is a Tibetan folk remedy for poisoning. The jewel is more likely to be a serpent king treasure that grants the possessor power or siddhi. The power is that of having control over all snakes.

In his sharp beak, Garuda devours a serpent king. Textual sources describe Garuda as biting on the head of a serpent whilst holding its tail in his hands. Garuda is usually illustrated with a long snake held between both hands and biting into it in the middle. He is also described as wearing the eight great serpents as ornaments. One binds his hair, two others serve as earrings, two as bracelets, two as anklets, and one as a belt or necklace. 

Garuda According to Other Traditions

Garuda appears in many forms according to different traditions and lineages. He is prominent in the Dzogchen transmissions of the Nyingma and Bon traditions. He is the vehicle of Amoghasiddhi. He is the green Buddha of the north and crowns the apex of the Buddhas' enlightenment thrones. In the Nyingma tradition, he personifies the wrathful forms of Padmasambhava.

Moreover, in the hidden treasure tradition, he is often known as a guardian of treasures. He is also associated with Vajrapani and Hayagriva. They specify Garuda in removing obstacles and illnesses. It is true for serpent-related afflictions such as kidney failure, plague, and cancer. In this triple sadhana of Vajrapani, Garudas are sometimes visualized in the body.

Garuda Statue

Garuda’s Symbolic Representation

A group of five Garudas represents the wisdom and qualities of the Five Buddha Families. A yellow Garuda stands for earth, a white for water, a red for fire, a black for air, and a blue or multicolored for space. The multicolored Garuda is yellow from the waist down (earth) and white from the hips to the navel (water). He's red from the navel to the throat (fire), black from the chin to the forehead (air), and blue or green on his crown (wisdom).

The wings of the multicolored Garuda have feathers of five colors. They symbolize the element of space scintillating rainbow light rays in all directions. Sometimes the ends of the wing feathers are vajra-tipped. The yellow or golden Garuda is the most represented form. He has a yellow jewel body that blazes like a fire.

Not only this, he spreads his golden wings and tramples on the eight great serpents. The Garuda can have two or three eyes, which are usually golden. The auspicious crest of jewel, sun, and moon on his crown symbolizes the union of the solar and lunar winds. They dissolve into the fire of the subtle body's central channel. His two wings represent the union of method and wisdom.

His form symbolizes the transmutation of poison into amrita. His emergence fully-fledged from the egg symbolizes the birth of great spontaneous awareness.

 Source: The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motif, Robert Beer

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