Garuda is the mythical bird in Hinduism who acts as the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. In the Adi Parva of the great epic of Vyasa, retold by Vaisampayana at the sarpasatra of king Janmejaya, and further narrated by Ugrasrava Sauti to the host of Rishis headed by Saunaka, we find the story of this invincible Gaurda.
Once Rishis Kashyapa was performing a fire-sacrifice (yagya) for a desirable offspring. He had asked all devatas to assist him in the same. The mighty Indra, Lord of the devas, was assigned the task of bringing fuel for this grand sacrifice. As he flew through the sky carrying a heavy piece of wood, he looked down and saw a vast multitude of the Valakhiya Rishis – by some accounts sixty thousand in number – struggling to carry a single stalk of the Palash leaf. Apart from being thumb-sized, the severity of their ascetic practices had resulted in their physical body becoming emaciated and weak which made the task of carrying a single leaf appear extremely difficult. A watery depression along their path caused by the hoof of a cow posed an insurmountable obstacle for these miniature Rishis. Drunk as he was with the arrogance of his own might, Indra stopped and laugh at their misery, insulted them thus and finally flew over their head without offering any assistance. This angered the Valakhilyas and filled them with terrible resolve. They decided to create another being more powerful than Indra who would move at the speed of thought, who could muster any amount of strength as the occasion demanded, who would be unbeatable in war and unmatched in ferocity, who will strike fear in the heart of Indra and finally be the one to replace the Lord of the devas. With this intention in mind they participated in the yagya of Kashyapa pronouncing powerful mantras to aid their cause.
Indra was terrified when he realized what has happened and what was about to happen. He rushed to Rishi Kashyapa explaining everything and begging to be rescued. Kashyapa then went to the Valakhilyas and asked them if they were satisfied with the sacrifice. Tied to a vow of truth-speaking, the Valakhilyas disclosed to Kashyapa that they have set in motion a process by which a new Indra will be born. The mind-born son of Brahma then explained that Indra has been pronounced sovereign of the three worlds by the promise of Brahman. Trying to replace Indra would tantamount to falsifying the words of Brahman, which will prove futile. To rescue the situation, Kashyapa suggested that let there be a new Indra, not of humans but of birds and winged creatures! The Valakhilyas, already pacified by now, agreed forthright. This was how the mighty and fearless Garuda was born as the son of Rishis Kashyapa from his wife Vanita.
The Pouranik story of Garuda can be interpreted as a psychological description of certain spiritual states of a seeker. If we look at the Devas as various life-fulfilling and positive qualities in man, while Asuras/Rakshas and the whole host of negative entities as all that is animalistic in man, then Indra is the intellect which presides over the various sensory-inputs transmitted through the agency of the sense organs (Indriyas). During the ancient times Indra as a deity held a position of prestige and honor as evident from the various Vedic-hymns attributed to him. However, by the time when Dwapara Yuga was to end and Kali Yuga was to start, Indra lost his grandeur. Krshna, as the SrimadBhagwatam mentions, forbade residents of Vrndavana from worshiping Indra. When the human intellect is subtle, it has the ability to directly perceive spiritual truths and subliminal realities. But as the quality of time progressively deteriorates from Satya Yuga to the Kali Yuga, the nature of the average intellect too degrades, making a direct intellectual realization of a higher and deeper Reality far more difficult if not impossible. When a certain rigidity of the mind and thought gets added to this spiritual impotency of the intellect, it compounds the problem manifold resulting in a mental fanaticism that is often a precursor to practical fanaticism, exhibiting itself through a mindless affinity for dogmas, religious or otherwise, that have outlived their purpose. The next obvious step to this mental fanaticism is arrogance and supremacist behavior. This is the essential reason why Krshna stops the worship of Indra and tells him, while diffusing Indra’s delusions of grandeur in the Govardhan episode, that he (Indra), unlike in an earlier era, has become arrogant and overconfident. Consequently, we hardly find any temple dedicated entirely to Indra. But if Indra is the normal human intellect, what then is the Garuda?
The average human mind functions through a rigorous and fragmented labor of reason and piecemeal logic. It is however eminently possible, employing serious effort and practice, to push beyond the abilities of the normal mind and experience a larger integrative quality of thought. As the mind expands, so does its basic nature and operating principle. It acquires an equanimous ability to handle apparently contradictory information in the right balance and flow with abundant ease, and without being swept, stressed or disturbed, residing in a greater stillness and calm. Even further as it goes, a definitive and unfailing intuition starts pouring in and directing the seeker. This is what the imagery of Hari riding the Garuda represents. Garuda is the Indra – the vast and powerful Lord for all that flies above the normal human mind – practically manifesting in a seeker as the activation of a greater, more supple and more subtle intellect, while Vishnu is the spotless Divine intuition that rides this new and fitter vehicle. Garuda moves at the speed of thought because it is a higher and superior kind of thought itself, it is fearless because an exalted mind which can see things from multiple sides has no cause for fear, it is unassailable (by human negatives) because it abides in detachment and objectivity, it is wise because true wisdom is a natural byproduct of such a mental condition, and it is unfailing because it is ever guided by the Supreme all-seeing Intelligence. And it is this spiritual state, as it becomes a settled realization, that can bring the Nectar of causeless Ananda (Amrita) to the seeker.
Garuda is the greatest enemy of the Nagas. The Adi Parva of the Mahabharata states that the Nagas, born of Kadru and fathered by the same Rishis Kashyapa, were a bickering lot, steeped in jealousy, rancor and possessiveness. To make the normal human mind ascend to the status of a Garuda, it is imperative that the seeker must move beyond all that constricts the consciousness. Steady detachment is the perfect antithesis to low pettiness. Unlike the others, Sesha Naga who remained unaffected by the environment of low intrigue that surrounded him and eventually disassociates himself from the other Nagas, was bestowed with the title of Ananta (Infinity) by the Creator. He too finds a place in the pantheon of Vishnu and becomes a friend of the mighty Garuda. It is interesting that both Garuda and the Nagas, though diametrically opposite by nature, are fathered by the same individual. The conscious human instrument can choose to live in the lowly depth, or ascend to the masterly heights.
When we look at the above from the perspective of Kundalini Yoga, we can explain this phenomenon as the rise of Shakti above the head. This automatically causes a terrific, impregnable silence to descend on the mind, accompanied by a commanding Divine guidance which cannot be disobeyed.
A mind that tears itself away from the tyranny of ceaseless and unwashed thoughts, operating from a much higher station of equanimity, selflessness, and accompanying wisdom and compassion is the spiritual essence of the iconography showing Hari (the Supreme) astride the transformed mind (Garuda).
Om Garudadhwajaya Namaha!