A large bird that captures a snake is a common motif in storytelling traditions around the world. In Hindu and Buddhist myths, Garuda–the giant King of Birds–is in constant battle with the serpentine Naga race. In Southeast Asia, Garuda is the national symbol of both Thailand and Indonesia.
Through the insignias that are chosen, we convey an important underlying story that carves out our identity. Many countries use animals as a part of their national emblem. Some emblems are common: like the lion. Other emblems are specific to a particular place: like the kangaroo.
Garuda, in particular, is not any old eagle. It is a vahana: a vehicle for the Divine. The half-bird and half-man symbolises the means of transportation for Lord Vishnu: the Preserver and Protector of the Universe. Garuda and his many adaptations are commemorated in many Southeast Asian nations.
Garuda is usually depicted as having a beak, talons and wings of a bird along with the body of a human. Sometimes he is depicted entirely as an eagle. His attributes include: speed, protection, victory and foresight. Even from birth, he was able to fly faster than any bird. As an adult, Garuda is said to have been impressively large. Some descriptions say that his wings are miles long, while others describe that he is big enough to block the sun.
Garuda is seen as wise and immensely powerful. He is often invoked as a protector. Because of his vast size, speed, and strong wings, Garuda is seen as a fierce warrior. He is a protector of the Gods.
Children of Different Mothers
In Hindu mythology, Nagas and Eagles are half-siblings. They are born of the same father, but have a different mother. The Nagas are many and the Eagles are few. The story draws our attention to what two wives asked from their co-husband as way of a ‘boon’.
Boons are a commonly occurring motif in the Hindu storytelling tradition. When a wife asks something of her husband, he cannot deny her. Upon granting the wish, a rivalry emerges between the wives for whom the wishes have been granted. Since they wished for conflicting things, it creates conflict through the successive generations.
In the story of Garuda, one mother asks for many progeny, while another mother asks for only two. While the Naga are considered ‘Gods’ in their own right, they are devious, cunning and crafty. Garuda, on the other hand, represents foresight, vision and aptitude. Even though he is a lone ranger, he is King.
If you had to choose between the two, which would you choose? To be many or to be few? Each decision has a cost. While eagles are few in number, they destroy or consume the snake.
In the story, it is said that the Nagas hatched quickly, but it took time for Garuda and his sibling to be born. In light of that, I feel the Garuda myth also draws our attention to the importance of maturity in decision-making.