Garuda

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This content appeared in a very early post with kind permission from Khandro, but was not copied over very well, and didn’t include all the relevant info and pictures.

Indian Mythology

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:

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 .  . . .  .

< Vishnu and Lakshmi (Laxmi) surveying creation

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.

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 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.

South India

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 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 man’s disbelief.  The famous 4-armed stone image of Vishnu was later carved and installed on that spot.

< Kite for annual festival in Parakkai.

In Nepal

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.”

Just then Yama, the god of death appeared, riding his black buffalo.  Garuda noticed that the gaze of the Master of Death briefly fell upon the bird, but then he continued on his way into the abode of Shiva.

Since a mere glance from Lord Yama presages death, Garuda’s heart was filled with pity for the tiny bird.  He gently picked it up and flew off with it clutched carefully in his powerful talons. He took it far, far, away to a deep forest where he gently placed it on a rock beside a rushing brook. Then he returned to Kailash and assumed his customary position at Shiva’s gate.

When Yama emerged from his consultation with the Great God, he nodded to Garuda in
recognition.  Garuda took this opportunity to ask Lord Death, “Just before you went inside, I saw you notice a little bird. You seemed to have a pensive expression on your face.  May I know why?”

Yama answered, “When my eyes fell on the bird, I saw that soon it would find its death in the jaws of a great python. But there are no such serpents here, high on Kailash, and I was  briefly puzzled.”

Again, Garuda marveled; this time at the inevitability of the process which is karma.

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.

  • A famous song of realization (Tibetan: doha) by Shabkar, the Shangpa Kagyu master, is called Flight of the Garuda. 

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.

Mongolian papier-mache Garuda w. cloth snakes.

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.

Indonesia

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.

Brother Chhepu

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

“. . . 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.”   ~ Nepali site,  no longer available.

Hybrids

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:

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 a Mangala Sutra (wedding) teaching at Dhammakaya Institute of Belgium

Canary

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.

Rukh, Bennu and Phoenix

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The wicked witch in the film, The Wizard of Oz, had flying monkeys as her minions.  Traditionally, however, sorcerers and evil-doers have allies in the form of birds who can go far, fast, and high enough to spy on anyone anywhere even in the dark of night.  In the Tibetan epic, Gesar of Ling, when living beings do not cooperate with the evil hermit, Ratna, the wizard has to construct “robots” out of metal.

The Sinister Metal Birds

From the Tibetan folktale, Gesar of Ling:

“Gongmo watched her son as he sat putting the finishing touches to the bow, his usually mobile face set in concentration. She had to admit that Gesar was not a very handsome child, certainly he did not have the sort of face one would associate with a child of the gods. In fact his broad, frank smile, laughing eyes, and snub nose made it far more believable that he was the child of nomadic bandits. But when he talked with Gongmo about his mission, he became serious, his whole personality seemed to change and he showed a compelling and definite charisma.

Terrible screeching filled the air. Gongmo ran to the window, “Gesar, what is it?” She looked up and saw three enormous birds circling over the house, like vultures over carrion. “What are they, Gesar? Never have I seen such birds!” As Gongmo went outside for a better view, Gesar held his mother’s arm.

“No, Ama-la. Do not go outside.”
“Why? Tell me! What is going to happen? What are these birds, Gesar?”

The screeching was directly overhead. Gongmo slammed the window shutters and bolted them.  Gesar did not reply. The little boy, no more than eighteen inches high, with bare buttocks beneath his tiny sheepskin chuba, was concentrating totally on putting the final touches to his bow. His nimble fingers worked on silently, as though racing against time.

“Holy gods, they’re going to attack us!” The cry of the birds had an urgent, threatening quality. “What shall we do?” Gongmo backed away from the windows and grabbed Gesar as the room darkened and the shutters shook violently, wings beating against them. Gongmo instinctively held the child close, both to protect him and to seek reassurance. She looked down at Gesar, her “magic” child, small round face, dark, wise eyes; but still he was a child.

Suddenly he slipped from her hold and stood alone in the middle of the room as the shutters of one windows splintered, and, for a few seconds, framed in the window, Gongmo saw an enormous bird filling the room with an eerie metallic rattle from its shimmering black feathers, its metal beak flashing with reflected light, the edge as sharp as a well-honed blade. As the bird launched itself at Gesar, the child, who already had an arrow on the bow, loosed it, a fragile wand only a few inches long.  It pierced the bird’s feathers. The creature screamed with pain, arched its body, then fell so close to Gesar that the point of its beak touched Gesar and drew blood.

Gongmo was terrified at the viciousness of the creature and ran to the window. Already the other two birds were preparing to swoop through the window.

“No, Gesar!” Gongmo ran over to him as he struggled to lift the bar from the door. He looked up at his mother.  “Do not fear, Ama-la. Let me go to meet them. It is better.”

Gongmo hesitated, then reluctantly unbarred the door for her son. Swiftly the birds came out of the sky, close together. As they dived toward Gesar, Gongmo saw townspeople crouching on roofs and in doorways, terrified by the malevolent looking creatures. Quicker than the eye could follow, Gesar fired two arrows.  Each found its mark and the two birds fell from the sky.

. . .  .

Tondon was furious when he heard the news. His rage alternated with desperation at what seemed the inevitable outcome of his struggle with the boy. He was even more out of humor when he had climbed again to Ratna’s hermitage. The hermit was sitting outside the cave and clearly expecting Tondon. The steward thrust a scarf [as a gesture of respectful greeting] at the hermit, who was slightly disconcerted with his client’s changed attitude.

“Well? Your news?”
“You do not know,” Tondon sounded faintly sarcastic, “that your metal birds have been destroyed by this devil child?”
Hermit Ratna was shaken.

Tondon continued. “I am lost. There is no one else who can do anything. You were my last chance.”
The hermit irritably spun a prayer wheel on the table to relieve his feelings. “Do not be troubled.” he said, trying to sound persuasively confident. “It was a trial. I do not expect you to understand the subtitles of my actions,” he said airily.

Tondon knew enough about the hermit and his ways to see that he was trying to cover his error.  Tondon wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and said “Rinpoche, remember this. If this devil child becomes king, you, all of us, will be in danger.”

Wrathful Kyung

Gigantic Birds

Folklorists such as the Grimms referred to the motif of the mysterious gigantic bird as the wundervogel — vogel is German for bird.)  The wondrous man-bird, Garuda, is certainly in this category and so it is related to the roc or rukh of Arabian and Persian mythology that snatches Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights (“The Arabian Nights.”)  He escapes its nest by riding on the back of mother bird.  His ” Fifth Voyage” begins with the discovery of a rukh’s egg on the beach.  When, against orders his men break it, the parent birds bombard the ship with boulders, and only Sindbad survives.

Sir Richard F. Burton, renowned 19th century adventurer and linguist said that rukh is a Persian word with many different meanings:  cheek (Lalla Rookh  or “tulip cheek,” title of Moore’s poem,) hero as the rook chess piece and also, it is a term for rhinoceros, a similarly mysterious beast.  Burton compared it to the eorosh in the Zoroastrian scripture, Zend Avesta.

He also recognized the rukh’s relation to other mythological birds such as the ancient Egyptian bennu bird or ti-bennu, and says that some give the pronunciation of the glyph of a large bird with one claw raised as rekhit and that it denotes pure, wise spirits.

In the Persian epic, The Shanamah, we encounter the Sên-Murv (or, simurgh.)  The poet, ‘Aufi ( 13thC.),  described it as inheriting “energy from the falcon, power of flight from the Huma, a long neck from the ostrich, a feathery collar from the ring dove, and strength from the karkadann.”  In the epic, it saves Zal by feeding him her own chick when his father abandoned him.  Later, she returned him to Sam, but gave him a feather that, if set a-light, would instantly call her should he ever again need help.

Egypt

The ancient Egyptian bird with a human head is the Ba, symbolic of one of the  aspects of an individual that continues after death.  The Bennu was called “ba of Re” and also, “that which emerged from the heart of Osiris.”  Usually rendered into English as “phoenix,” a bennu is sometimes depicted with two primary feathers on its crest, or crowned with the Atef symbolic of Osiris (a white headdress with an ostrich plume on either side) or with the solar disc symbolic of Re (Ra, Aten.) Bennu derives from weben, which seems to have the meaning of “begin to shine.”

At Koptos, there is an image of Bennu with two human arms stretched up and out towards the morning star.  Long thin arms are used in hieroglyhs to stand for light, and life-giving energy.

The Bennu was the symbol of Heliopolis (the name given by the Greeks to the spot where the sun seems to appear, as a tribute to Helios, the sun god)  since it rises “at dawn from the waters of the Nile.” As a symbol of rebirth, it is related to Khepera, the scarab deity that rolls the sun in the manner of a dung-beetle, from its setting in the west around to its point of rising in the east.

The shape of the Bennu evolved into that of a heron, the most apparent of the birds to perch on islands of high ground as the Nile floods subside.  As such, it was associated with primordial Horus who formed earth from water.  In that connection,  it is shown perched on its nest in the sacred willow at the top of the first mound. This mound was called the ben-ben a term also used for a most sacred artefact.

The Bennu combines the two main types of wundervogel.  One is an embodiment of Spirit, like the Feng, the Chinese bird symbolic of female energy (another case in which ‘phoenix’  is the usual English translation) and also an embodiment of wisdom similar to Kirni, the “wise and ancient bird” that in Norse mythology perches upon the World Ash-tree, Yggdrasil.

The name, Kirni reminds us of Kinara (see part one of Garuda,) but its role as a prophetic bird or store of knowledge evokes Gamayun, the bird that recounts the ancestral Russian myths of the gods and their descendants.

The Phoenix, Roc & Simurgh

The phoenix is a symbol of transformation and a Christian symbol of death and resurrection, for the Phoenix‘ eggs require fire to hatch.  It is rumoured to live a 1 000 years and then it dies in flames.  In the European alchemical tradition, she is a symbol of transmutation, but in fact it is not she who is directly changed, since it is her children who are born from the fire.  Nevertheless, fire is required for their birth just as some of our finer qualities require dire experience to emerge.

An other kind of wondrous bird has superior or unique physical qualities of  size and strength.   Marco Polo’s Journal says that the “Ruch” had wing-feathers twelve paces long.  The name of the Persian Simurgh means ‘like thirty fowl’, the Hebrew Gemara mentions a bird so large its feet are in the ocean and its head in the sky.  The Arabs have Anka or ‘longneck.’ Buddhaghosha (early 5th century CE) mentions in the Parables, the hatti.linga bird with the strength of five elephants.  The Turks refer to the Kerkes; the Greeks gave us the griffon from gryps, and the Russians have a ‘norka.’

Burton was convinced that references to gigantic birds were founded in fact, citing the remains discovered in Madagascar of an enormous ostrich ( Aepyornus) whose egg could hold 2.35 gallons.

 

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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.

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