Sage Kashyapa was one of the Saptarishis and is considered to be the father of all humanity including the Nagas, Devas and Asuras as he is said to have married the twenty three daughters of Prajapati Daksha who was one of Lord Brahma’s sons. Sage Kashyapa’s sons from one of the daughters Aditi led to the Ikshvaku clan, from another daughter Diti led to Hiranyakashipu and the Daitya clan, from another were born the Apsaras and so on.
The Main Story
Vinata and Kadru were two of the wives of Kashyapa and they were responsible for the Naga clan. Sage Kashyapa wished to perform a Yagna and asked Kadru and Vinata for their choice of offspring. Kadru desired to have many offspring while Vinata desired to have few offspring but wished them to be powerful. Kadru’s wish was granted and she laid thousand eggs which hatched into radiant snakes while Vinata laid two eggs. Anxious about her eggs and thinking that something was wrong with them Vinata broke open one of the eggs. Unfortunately the child inside the egg was not fully formed. It was a boy with healthy hands in a purplish colour but the bottom portion of the body was not fully developed. The child inside the egg was Aruna who was horrified by Vinata’s impatience and cursed her to become a servant. Vinata repentant at her action begged for forgiveness. Aruna then pacified her that if she was patient with the other egg a child would emerge and would save her from the curse. Saying these words Aruna flew away. As he was only half formed he was placed as the charioteer of Surya the Sun God to reduce the glare of the sun. To this day it is believed that it is the body of Aruna that creates the purplish glow at sunrise.
Time passed and one day Kadru placed a bet with Vinata and employing unfair means won the bet. This meant that in the future Vinata would become Kadru’s servant. Hence Vinata became a servant and served Kadru and her snake sons. Soon the other egg hatched and a child came out of it with the face, beak, talons and wings of an eagle but with the body of a human. The child glowed with an inner radiance. He was named Garuda. Garuda too was treated as a servant as his mother was a servant. Garuda observed his mother doing all the work and Kadru doing nothing and was angry and unhappy. One night lovingly patting his mother’s face he asked her why she did all the work which always made her tired. Vinata told him about the bet.
Before Garuda’s birth one day as Kadru and Vinata were taking a walk they saw Uchhashravas, Indra’s horse vanishing across the sky. When the ocean had been churned for nectar it was this horse that had emerged from the ocean. Vinata said that the horse was entirely white while Kadru had claimed that it was white with a black tail. The condition of the bet that Kadru had laid down was that the loser of the bet had to become the servant of the winner. The next day when they went to Indra’s palace it was found that Kadru’s claim was true.
The Actual result
Actually after placing the bet Kadru wondered if she had been right. She dreaded becoming the servant of Vinata if she was proved wrong. Hence after reaching home she immediately called all her snake sons and asked them if she was right. They immediately claimed that she was wrong as the horse was all white. Realising her mistake Kadru was terrified and asked them to go and twine themselves on the tail of the horse so that it would appear black when they checked it out the next morning. The snakes were hesitant to act out a lie but Kadru angered by their reluctance cursed them that they would die by Garuda’s hands or by a yagna fire. Fearing her wrath the snakes reluctantly agreed. Thus using unfair means she won the bet. Garuda heard this sad tale. He knew his mother had been cheated. He decided to bide his time before planning the next course of action.
One day the snakes called Garuda and arrogantly informed him that they all wished to go for a picnic to a nearby island and Garuda would carry all his snake cousins while his mother would carry their mother Kadru. The very meaning of the word Garuda is ‘someone who can lift heavy things’. It is said that Sage Kashyapa had a yagna performed by the powerful Valakhila sages to create the eggs for Kadru and Vinata and in order to help them in the Yagna he also called Indra who was his son from Daksha’s daughter Aditi. Indra began laughing at the short stature of the sages. Feeling insulted the Valakhila sages began to create another more powerful Indra from their yagna when they were stopped by Sage Kashyapa. They then amended their results to create a King of birds (instead of King of Gods) and this was the reason why Garuda was born with great power and he could change his form at will. Feeling great anger but helpless, Garuda carried all the snakes on his back while his mother carried Kadru on her shoulders. While flying he thought of a plan to avenge them and deliberately began flying very close to the sun. The snakes began getting scorched at the extreme heat and falling off his back. They began screaming to their mother for help. Hearing their cries their mother immediately began praying to Lord Indra.
Indra immediately began to send soothing showers to prevent them from getting burnt thus protecting them. Garuda was angry with Indra and after landing on the island asked the snakes how he and his mother could get their freedom from the bet.
The Snakes suggestion
The snakes were now scared of Garuda and knowing that he was extremely powerful decided to give him a task which would not easily be accomplished. They asked him to bring Amrit or the nectar of the Gods which would grant them eternal youth and immortality as the Devas had refused to give the Amrit to the Nagas and the Asuras fearing it would make them more evil and powerful.
Garuda knew it was a very difficult task but was ready for any sacrifice to free his mother from the bet. He turned to her and requested permission to achieve this difficult task. Vinata remembered Aruna’s words and realised that Garuda would surely save her hence she agreed and blessed him. She advised him to go to the Himalayas and eat a tortoise and an elephant which had been fighting each other for many years there as Garuda would need to eat well and be strong to fulfil the task laid before him. Taking his mother’s advice and blessings Garuda flew up to the Himalayas. There he met his father Sage Kashyapa meditating and relating to him all that had happened took his blessings.
Garuda then killed the two animals and sat on a branch to eat them. Unable to bear the weight the branch broke and as it was falling down Garuda realised that the Valakhila sages were hanging upside down in the branches of the tree and meditating. He immediately caught the broken branch and flew on. Opening their eyes the Valakhila sages were awestruck to see the product of their yagna as they had not seen him from birth. They requested him to put them down on one of the mountain peaks and after he gently did so, they blessed him with success in his endeavour. Garuda then finished the food and replete and strong sprang up to the heavens to secure the pot of nectar.
Sensing the bad omens Indra rushed to Brihaspathi, the Guru of the Devas who told him about Garuda’s quest. Indra began to tremble as he realised that Garuda would have been the next Indra if his father had not intervened. All the other Gods like Surya, Agni, Varuna, Vayu etc came to help him on hearing of Garuda’s approach. They were astonished to see the huge size and radiance of Garuda. They used all their powers with fire, water and air but Garuda easily vanquished all of them. He then secured the pot of nectar and joyfully flew back thinking of his mother’s release.
Lord Vishnu’s Compassion
Meanwhile Lord Vishnu observed the entire spectacle and was amazed by Garuda’s courage and strength. He realised that Garuda had not once thought of using the nectar for himself. He approached the great bird. Garuda saw the beautiful Lord looking serene and calm. Filled with devotion and humility he bowed before him. The Lord asked Garuda to become his vehicle. Garuda agreed but requested permission to proceed to free his mother and then return. Vishnu blessed him and Garuda continued on his journey.
Soon Indra challenged him but Garuda easily vanquished him. Indra then humbly bowed to him and asked him to accept his friendship. He requested Garuda to allow him to take away the Amrit after he had freed his mother as he did not want the snakes to become all powerful and consequently begin harassment of humanity. Garuda comprehending the logic of the request agreed and became Indra’s friend and proceeded on his journey.
After handing over the pot of nectar to the snakes Garuda freed his mother and himself from the bet. He then requested the snakes to have their bath before tasting the nectar of the Gods. When the snakes unsuspectingly followed his bidding, Indra came and carried away the pot of nectar. Eventually for the snakes their mother Kadru’s curse too came true and most of them were burnt in the snake sacrifice conducted by King Janamejaya, the son of King Parikshit who wished to avenge his father’s death due to snake bite while the others were eaten up by Garuda.
There are a number of stories related to Amrit or the food of the Gods which granted eternal youth and immortality to them and which was always hankered for by the Asuras. The clever manner of foiling the plans of the Asuras in securing the nectar formed the main theme of a number of stories and the values and morals upheld and transmitted from generation to generation in these mythological stories has enabled Indian culture and spirituality to inspire the masses through the eons.
- Selections from the Mahabharata.books.google.co.in