Thursday, November 5, 2015

Birdlore: The Great Garuda

Mythology has a mixed bag of giant raptor legends, like the Thunderbird and the Roc, or creatures that looked like they came out of a blender with mixed characteristics, like the Piasa Bird.  

Another bird-like creature depicted in Hindu and Buddhist mythology is the part-man, part bird deity, Garuda.   The bird characteristics are usually referred to as eagle-like or kite-like depending on the source.

Garuda, half-man and half-bird (photo: the wikipedia files)

In Hinduism, Garuda was born from a huge egg with the torso and limbs of a man, and the talons, wings, and beak of an eagle.  His father was Kasyapa, an ancient sage, and his mother, Vinata, mother of all birds.  He was born with a radiance that made the gods cry in fear for the end of the world and at their request, Garuda diminished his splendor.

Before his birth, his mother was tricked into slavery with a bet by her sister-in-law, Kadru, mother of serpents.  In a bid to free her, Garuda asked Kadru and her serpent sons what he must do for his mother’s release.  Kadru decreed he must bring them the drink of the gods, amrita, so that she and her sons may become immortal.

However, the amrita was jealously guarded by Indra, King of the gods.  The elixir was protected by a massive fire covering the sky, a spinning mechanical door with spokes on the side blocking the way, and two large venomous snakes guarding the elixir’s resting place.  Not deterred, Garuda fought and defeated the host of gods with his power and drank from many nearby rivers to put out the fire in the sky.  He decreased his size to pass through the deadly spikes of the spinning door.  He snuck past the giant venomous serpents by blowing dust into their eyes.  Garuda took the elixir into his mouth without swallowing it and rose to the heavens.

On his journey back, Garuda was met by Indra, King of the gods.  Indra struck Garuda with his thunderbolt, but Garuda remained unharmed by the strike except for the loss of a single feather.  Faced with the reality of Garuda’s true strength, Indra called for a cease in fighting and formed a pact with the bird-man.  Garuda would be allowed to deliver the elixir to the serpents to fulfill his end of the deal and earn his mother’s freedom.  In return, Garuda would make it possible for Indra to reclaim the elixir from the serpents.  Indra also permitted Garuda to hunt the snakes as food.

Delivering the elixir, Garuda convinced the serpents that a bath of purification was required before partaking in the drink of the gods.  In the serpents’ brief absence, Indra descended from the sky to retrieve the elixir and left for the heavens.  When the serpents returned, they licked the grass on which the elixir had rested, slicing their tongues.  All modern snakes have forked tongues as a result. 

From that day forward, Garuda was a friend to the gods and enemy to snakes everywhere, devouring them at every opportunity.

To learn more about the contemporary bird species that inspire these amazing myths and legends, come to the World Bird Sanctuary and speak with one of our amazing Naturalists.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Santuary Naturalist/Trainer

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