The tale of Garuda starts with the story of Rishi Kashyapa. The ancient Puranas mention Rishi Kashyapa and his genealogy, numerous times. In the Vishnu Purana, Rishi Kashyapa marries thirteen daughters of Daksha Prajapati. Scholar Vettam Mani concludes in his research that Kashyapa may have married more women, thirteen of whom were daughters of Daksha. The story of Garuda originates from the two wives of Rishi Kashyap named Kadru and Vinata, who were daughters of Daksha Prajapati.
Both the sisters were very fond of Rishi Kashyapa. One day they expressed their desire to marry him and the devout rishi agreed. Thereafter, they both served the rishi with piety and devotion.
After years of blissful matrimony, one day the Rishi called his wives and expressed his desire to offer them a boon each. Kadru immediately entreated Rishi Kashyap to bless her with a thousand children, each strong and potent. She desired that they should be fearsome, lustrous, and powerful creatures, and as her children, they should be capable of, vanquishing their foes and striking terror in the hearts of their enemies.
‘So be it!’ Replied Rishi Kashyapa and granted her the wish immediately. Soon a thousand eggs appeared from Kadru’s womb. She cared for them along with her maids and incubated them in a warm and cosy place. And she eagerly awaited the birth of her many children.
On the other hand, a meek Vinata bade her time with equanimity. She carried on with her daily duties, prayers, and rituals and continued to seek the blessings of Rishi Kashyapa but did not ask for anything special. The only thing she wished was that her children, balance the effects, brought about, by Kadru’s children. They should give strength, remove fear, and brighten the world.
Rishi Kashyapa thought long and hard about Vinata’s unborn children. He was reminded of the blessings of the thumb-sized Valakhilya sages. He told Vinata that she would bear two children, who are destined to be the lords of the winged creatures. The Rishi also said they would achieve greatness and be worshipped in all three Lokas. Soon, two eggs sprang forth from the womb of Vinata. She cared for her eggs and showered all her affection and attention on them. Time flew and soon five hundred years passed in no time.
In the meantime, the eggs of Kadru began to hatch. Snakes and serpents of all sizes, forms, and colours began to emerge from these eggs. They hissed and spewed venom around. The attendants of Kadru got terrified and started running helter-skelter.
Meanwhile, Vinata kept eagerly thinking about her eggs. She too was anxiously waiting for her children to be born soon. She was overwhelmed with the feeling of fear, impatience and jealousy. One day when she couldn’t hold herself, she picked up an egg and cracked it open. And from the egg, emerged, a bird-like child. It was not fully developed. But it had a brilliant radiance and shined like God Surya himself. The newborn was not pleased with his mother’s behaviour. So he foretold that an unfortunate circumstance awaited her. He said, ‘Dear Mother! As a result of your impatience, you will suffer as a slave.’ In his later days, the newborn Aruna was appointed as the charioteer of Surya, the Sun God.
One day, Ucchaisravas, the seven-headed celestial stallion, while galloping across the planets reached where Kadru and Vinata lived. Playfully, Kadru asked Vinata if the horse’s tail was black or white. And they argued with each other and finally placed a bet.
‘I say the tail is black. If what I say is true, you have to be my slave forever.’ Said Kadru. ‘No, the tail is white. And if I win the bet, you shall remain my slave forever.’ Added Vinata.
The two sisters then agreed to check the horse’s tail the following day. Meanwhile, Kadru summoned her children and ordered them to do something deceitful. She directed that the snakes coil themselves around the tail of Ucchaisravas, the celestial steed, to make it appear black in colour. The snakes hesitated, making Kadru angry. She cursed them for disobeying their mother’s command and conveyed that they all shall be consumed by fire in a yagna.
Fearing the wrath of their mother, the snakes agreed to accede to her command and the following day, they coiled themselves around the tail of Ucchaisravas, making the tail appear black.
‘Look the tail is black. I’ve won the bet.’ Shrilled Kadru. Having lost the bet Vinata agreed to become the slave of Kadru.
One fine day, the second egg of Vinata began to hatch. A mighty bird emerged from it. His lustre was bright, and he engulfed everything around him in flames. His eyes were like lightning. He grew in size very quickly and covered everything, even the skies. All those around him cowered in fear and ran for help. Agni and the Devas, and the learned Rishis assembled around the divine bird and praised him. They asked him to contain his divine form to which Pakshiraja, the king of birds agreed.
He then took the form of a Kinnara—half-bird and half-man and took to the skies in search of his mother Vinata and flew right into her arms where he found her living with Kadru and his serpentine cousins. Vinata was both happy and sad to see her son. Happy to see him alive and well. Sorry that they were bound by an old bet because of which they had to serve the snakes.
One day, Kadru ordered that she and her children be carried to the island of Ramaniyaka. Vinata lifted Kadru on her shoulders, while the snakes climbed onto Pakshiraja’s back. They were then flown across the seas to the enchanting island. The Pakshiraja flew too close to the sun so the snakes got scorched. They fainted and began to fall down. Kadru prayed to Indra, who provided showers that gave the snakes some respite. Soon they all reached the island of Ramaniyaka safely.
On the island, the snakes kept ordering the mighty bird to do many tasks. This confused Vinata’s son. He asked his mother why these snakes were ordering him around. Vinata narrated to her son, the story of how she was enslaved by the bet she made in haste. Vinata’s son then requested the snakes to liberate his mother and him. The snakes in return demanded that he bring the pot of nectar held by the Devas in exchange for their freedom. A determined Vainatheya (Vinata’s son Garuda) then took his mother’s blessings and set out for the tough task.
As he flew past many lands, his eyes fell on Rishi Kashyapa, his father. The majestic bird landed in front of the Rishi to pay his respects. He informed him of his quest to bring back the pot of Amrita (nectar). Rishi Kashyapa blessed him and wished him success in the onerous mission. Pakshiraj then asked his father.
‘Where can I find some food to eat? Rishi Kashyapa replied, ‘Near the lake, you’ll find an elephant and a tortoise perpetually quarrelling with each other. Go eat them up. They were sages Vibhavasu and Supratika in their previous birth. By eating them up you will liberate them from their respective curse. The mighty bird took flight and promised to do his father’s bidding. He soared towards the lake and spotted his prey. In one fell swoop, he grabbed the elephant and tortoise – one in each claw. The mighty bird then went in search of a solitary spot to devour his catch. He chanced upon a big banyan tree on which he landed.
The weight of Pakshiraj along with the elephant and the tortoise broke the branch. Pakshiraj realised that the branch had thousands of little sages on it. They were known as Valakhilyas. They were engaged in deep penance while hanging upside down. To avoid injury to them, the emperor of birds caught the branch with his beak and flew further. The sages opened their eyes and saw this feat of strength.
They named the mighty son of Vinata, “Garuda”, one who is able to bear heavy weights. Garuda brought the sages down safely and they blessed him with success in his mission to obtain the pot of nectar. Garuda then proceeded to the peaks of the Gandhamadana hills. There he disposed of the remains of the elephant and tortoise and freed them from their curse. Thereafter, he began his journey towards heaven in pursuit of the pot of nectar.
As Garuda approached the kingdom of Indra, many ill omens began to appear in front of the Devas. Meteors began to fall. Thunderstorms appeared out of nowhere. The weapons held by the Devas began to throb. Filled with anxiety about the well-being of the world, Indra asked his guru Brihaspati, what is happening. And upon hearing the response from his guru, Indra was grief-stricken. He asked his learned guru.
‘What do these ill omens foretell? The guru replied.
‘That it’s time for you to pay for those ignoble acts that you committed many years ago.’ And he reminded. ‘A long time ago, you … mighty Indra, while you were once assisting Rishi Kashyapa in a yagna where, apart from you, many other learned rishis such as Gandharvas, Devas and others were also present to assist him. Among them, there were the Valakhilyas also. They were large in number but were only as big as a thumb. With all your might, you carried a massive pile of Samith (wood for the fire in the yagna) from the forest, but the Valakhilyas collapsed from the burden of only a single Palasha Danda (peepal tree twig) that they were carrying for the yagna. You laughed at the poor plight of those little sages … “Ha-Ha-Ha. Look at you, struggling with a twig!”
This offended the Valakhilyas very much. So they vowed to perform a separate yagna to create another Indra. And they cursed you, wishing that your slayer would be born as Rishi Kashyapa’s son. When you heard about their vows you were terrified. So you ran to Rishi Kashyapa to explain what had happened. Kashyapa lent a patient ear but warned that he would not be able to stop the powerful Valakhilyas from doing so. But he gave an assurance to you that he would work out a compromise. When Rishi Kashyap met Valakhilyas he requested them to drop the yagna for creating a new Indra. But he assured them that whomsoever they create will be the Indra of the birds. Valakhilyas agreed to the new plan. After the yagna, Valakhilyas prasad (offering) was offered to Vinata, one of the two wives of Kashyapa. After eating the same she gave birth to two children. They are Aruna and the most powerful golden-hued eagle, Garuda. The same son of Vinata, the Lord of birds, the mighty Garuda is now approaching our realm to take away the pot of nectar.’
Upon hearing the story, Indra was terrified. He feared losing his position as the sovereign king of the Devas. Indra ordered his entire army to be in a state of readiness and to guard the Amrita at all costs.
Several armies responded to the clarion call of Indra. Soon, the path to the ‘Amrita Kalasa’ was guarded by armies of Celestial beings such as Devas, Yakshas, Maruts, Rudras, Vasus, Adityas, Gandharvas, Sadhyas, and the Aswini twins. But the determined Garuda fought with each army and routed them in no time.
Garuda’s form instilled terror in those who opposed him. He blinded them with the dust raised by his wings, tore them with his talons, broke them with his beak, and cleaved them with his claws. Finally, when Garuda reached the place where the pot of nectar was kept, he found, it was guarded by a giant wheel containing many sharp spikes. Garuda transformed himself into a tiny form and slipped between the spokes, unnoticed.
Beneath the contraption were two snakes each guarding the pot from the opposite direction. Garuda fought them bravely and finally annihilated them. He shattered the wheel above the pot and took off from the heavens along with the pot of nectar. The victorious Garuda then began his journey back to where his mother was enslaved.
Impressed by his selflessness, determination and strength, Lord Vishnu appeared before the mighty bird. He looked at Garuda fondly. The king of birds paid his respect to the king of all beings. Lord Vishnu asked Garuda to be of service as a Vaishnava.
Garuda agreed but placed a request that he shall serve Lord Vishnu from both beneath and above. Happily, Lord Vishnu agreed. Thereafter, as one can see that all flags belonging to Lord Vishnu bear the insignia of Garuda. Garuda was also appointed as the sacred mount of the Lord. So, Garuda got his boons, and Lord Vishnu a devoted attendant.
Indra, who was watching all this, could not believe his eyes. He gathered all his energy and hurled his Vajrayudha (Thunderbolt) at Garuda. But Indra’s weapon did no harm to Garuda.
The mighty bird stopped in his tracks to address Indra, respectfully. He then shed a feather out of courtesy at the weapon and resumed his journey. Indra implored him to return the pot of nectar. Garuda explained his mother’s predicament. The two then decided to fulfil each other’s wishes.
Garuda carried the pot of nectar to the lair of his snake brothers. Eager to drink the nectar and attain a limitless life, the snakes came rushing to Garuda. But he stopped them and requested that first his mother be liberated.
The snakes and Kadru agreed. Vinata was free once again. Garuda then placed the pot on a bed of Kusha Grass. He then told the snakes that the proper way was to first cleanse themselves and then drink the nectar. The snakes acceded to the wisdom and went to the nearby water bodies to bathe. In the meantime, Indra’s son Jayanta descended from heaven and stealthily made away with the pot of nectar and placed it back safely in the realms of heaven. Upon the return of the snakes after their cleansing, they were devoured by Garuda. In this manner, both Indra and Garuda were happy. Since then, Garuda and snakes have been sworn enemies of each other. Garuda, who is eternal, spends his life in the service of Lord Maha Vishnu.
Garuda wears various nagas (serpent-Gods) as ornaments. They are:
Ananta on the crown, Vasuki as sacred thread, Takshaka around the waist, Karkota as a necklace, Padma and Mahapadma as earrings and Shankapala and Gulika on his thighs. Other nagas serve him as his servant.
Garuda is known by many names. They are: Vainateya, Kashyapanandana, Pakshiraja, Tarkshya, Garuthman, Vedatma, Vihageshwara, Vedaswarupi, Suparna and Khagaraja.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have a lot of references to the Valakhilya Rishis. They may be considered the forerunners of English folklore ‘Tom Thumb’ and the Lilliputians of the famous satirical novel ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ by Jonathan Swift.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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ONE TO TANGO … RIA’S ODYSSEY
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AWADH ASSAM AND DALAI LAMA … The Kalachakra
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Short stories, Book reviews and Articles published in Bhavan’s Journal: 1. Reality and Perception, 15.10.19; 2. Sending the Wrong Message, 31.5.20; 3. Eagle versus Scholars June, 15 & 20 2020; 4. Indica, 15.8.20; 5. The Story of King Chitraketu, August 31 2020; 6. Breaking Through the Chakravyuh, September 30 2020. 7. The Questioning Spouse, October 31, 2020; 8. Happy Days, November 15, 2020; 9. The Karma Cycle of Paddy and Wheat, December 15, 2020; 10. Power Vs Influence, January 31, 2021; 11. Three Refugees, March 15, 2021; 12. Rise and Fall of Ajatashatru, March 31, 2021; 13. Reformed Ruler, May 15, 2021; 14. A Lasting Name, May 31, 2021; 15. Are Animals Better Teachers?, June 16, 2021; 16. Book Review: The Gram Swaraj, 1.7.21; 17. Right Age for Achievements, 15.7.21; 18. Big Things Have Small Beginnings, 15.8.21; 19. Where is Gangaridai?, 15.9.21; 20. Confront the Donkey Within You 30.9.21; 21. Know Your Strengths 15.10.21; 22. Poverty 15.11.21; 23. Top View 30.11.21; 24. The Bansuriwala 15.1.22; 25. Sale of Alaska 15.2.22; 26. The Dimasa Kingdom 28.2.22; 27. Buried Treasure 15.4.22; 28. The Kingdom of Pragjyotisha 30.4.22; 29. Who is more useful? 15.5.22; 30. The White Swan from Lake Mansarovar 30.6.22; 31. Bhool Bhulayya 15.9.22; 32. Good Karma 30.9.22; 33. Good name vs Bad Name 15.10.22; 34. Uttarapath—The Grand Trunk Road 1.12.22; 35. When Gods Get Angry 1.1.23; 36. Holinshed’s Chronicles 15.1.23; 37. Theogony 15.2.23
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