Garuda: Hindu Phoenix

garuda.jpgIn researching the phoenix for my Prophecy 2007 presentation, I was struck by Newt Scamander’s (JKR’s) description of where the phoenix lives from Fantastic Beasts:

It nests on mountain peaks and is found in Egypt, India, and China. (p. 32)

Egypt I knew about; the Bennu from the Book of the Dead is the original mythological phoenix. China I expected to see, because I’ve read about the Feng-huang. But I was sure, before ever turning to Fantastic Beasts, that I’d find the location of the phoenix to be “Egypt, China, and Arabia.” After all, Greek mythology, which Rowling taps on at least one occasion (with Fluffy), claims that as the home of the phoenix.

So I had to go digging for the India reference, and what I found was fascinating. Garuda “is one of the three principal animal deities in the Hindu Mythology that has evolved after the Vedic Period in Indian history” (Sanyal). This Hindu version of the phoenix is attached to an intriguing story about its opposition to snakes. You see where I’m going with this. You can read the whole story here, but the significant details are these:

  • Garuda must fly to a celestial mountain to retrieve ambrosia in order to release his mother from the captivity of snakes.
  • On the way, Garuda passes three tests, one of which is a battle against two “fire-spitting” snakes in which he “flapped his wings rapidly and blew dust into the eyes of the monsters and blinded them.” You see the parallel to the battle with the basilisk in Chamber, of course.
  • The serpents from which Garuda rescued his mother were the Nagas, Hindu symbols of evil and clearly the inspiration for Voldemort’s snake, Nagini.

Looks like I need to spend more time with Hindu mythology.  The image above is a picture of Vishnu and Lakshmi riding Garuda, circa 1700.  Click on it for a larger image.

30 thoughts on “Garuda: Hindu Phoenix

  1. Just to add to this:

    Nagini (Means female Cobra) is Sanskrit (one of the oldest languages in India)name.

    Also there are many Hindu mythogical stories in which the bad guys store their souls in different objects and hide in places under the sea or in mountains to become immortal.

  2. It’s amazing to see how similar myth is between cultures. To me it speaks of a common cultural ancestry. All major cultures have a global flood account and their own “Noah” story.

    Isn’t Garuda the name of the Indian Airlines?


  3. Matthew (or anyone really),

    I’ve heard that about there being many great flood stories, but I’ve never heard any of them. Can anyone point to some examples? It’s not that I don’t believe it. It’s just something I’ve wondered about since I was a small kid, and I’m curious.

  4. Carla Lute,

    Just three examples: Greek Mythology, Old Testament, Gilgamesh, which is the oldest. There is something more that might interest you: As far as I know there are old Sumerian tables where found where real flood is described. Certainly the flood is much smaller but there was a ruler who spent quite a long time on ship.

  5. Carla Lute–
    I know that I’ve read some folklore from North and South American tribes that included worldwide flood stories. I don’t have the reference at hand, though, because it was a long time ago.

    Another, more recent connection with Nagini: the cobras in Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” were called Nag and Nagaina.

  6. Carla, the Epic of Gilgamesh, a semi-lengthy piece that contains within it (I forget exactly which tablet, but it’s in the latter half) the earliest known flood story (actually, Gilgamesh is the earliest known story) can be found here.

  7. Matthew aka korg20000bc,

    Garuda is the name of Indonesian Airways, Garuda Indonesia. And Garuda is our national symbol (I am an Indonesian) but Garuda is Thailand national symbol too.

    Hope can be useful.

  8. Matthew,
    I don’t think so. In Indonesian, Hindus mostly living in Bali, and only minority. But Hindu was spread around Indonesia in the past, so maybe it (Garuda and the things) was already in the culture, not only about religion matter. Indonesian nowadays mostly are moslems.

    And Thailands, I think they’re mostly Buddha, CMIIW.

  9. Isn’t it probable that the Garuda, and these other stories, come from regional folklore and not from the Hindu religion? We Westerners tend to associate India with Hinduism, and assume that any folk story or myth from that area is Hindu. But why should that necessarily be the case? As you said, ambudaff, it was already in the culture, not the religion.

  10. Travis–
    I don’t think I agree with you. Clearly there is an interface, but they are two different things. Jewish culture, for example, is not the same thing as Judaism. A Christmas tree is not a religious symbol.

    It’s all too easy for educated people to make the mistake of supposing that primitive religion and culture are one and the same. It has led to a great deal of condescension in the areas of anthropology and folklore, and sometimes some very egregious errors.

  11. Trish, fair points. I’m guessing you’re more knowledgeable about anthropology than I, so I’ll not argue the point much, but rather offer just a few other thoughts from my own historical and mythological studies:

    The basic principle that “culture” stems from “cult” (what the people worship) is kind of important to all this. If we’re talking about “religion” as a systematic expression of beliefs and their related rituals, then sure, we could try to parse out exactly where the Garuda story comes from, whether from a folk tale or from Hinduism. But I don’t think it’s easy to draw clear lines like that. Early mythologies and folktales stem from what the people believe and value, which is a religious concept, whether institutionalized or not.

    One can very well trace the interconnectedness of culture and religious belief – they’re deeply intertwined (the rise of Marduk as oppose to Tiamat in Sumerian-Babylonian mythology, for example, is directly related to cultural transition from agricultural to military state).

    In any case, where are you going with the original point? If “Garuda” is “one of the three principal animal deities in the Hindu Mythology” (see Sanya article), then what is to be gained by suggesting it is otherwise?

  12. Something that is a deity may also be a part of folklore that expressed a viewpoint at odds with the core beliefs of that religion, or of the people who believe in that religion, whether “institutionalized” or not. It is a mistake to believe that all early mythology and folklore stem from what a people believes and values. That leads to often erroneous conclusions, such as the statement that “Illapa (lightning) was an Inca god.” (The Incas worshipped the sun; they were not pantheistic.)

    Let’s take Christianity as a case in point. Are you familiar with the story of La Befana? In the tale, she was invited to join the Magi to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. She refused, but later repented, and went looking for them. She found neither the Magi nor the Child, but to this day goes about giving gifts to every child she meets in the hopes it is the right One.
    That’s folklore. As folklore, it simply tells a story about a sort of female Santa Claus. Is it also a story about what Christians believe and value?
    La Befana repented of an error–and was punished with eternal exile. This is completely at odds with the Christian belief in repentance and forgiveness.
    But the story involves Jesus. So is it a part of the Christian religion?

    I think you see what I mean. And my original point was referring to the appearance of the Garuda in countries that are not primarily Hindu. It’s possible that Hinduism took the Garuda from folklore, not that its appearance in non-Hindu countries necessarily stems from religion.

    1. The Befana refused – but only because she still had housework to do, not because she did not want to see Christ.

  13. “The serpents from which Garuda rescued his mother were the Nagas, Hindu symbols of evil and clearly the inspiration for Voldemort’s snake, Nagini.”

    There is a small problem with this statement. Garuda’s mother (Vinuta – the mother of birds) gambles away her freedom to Kadru – `mother of snakes’ on a trivial matter. After that, with the birth of Garuda – the prince of birds, Garuda seeks to free his mother from slavery, and is asked to get ambrosia, which he does. *Some*, not all, of the `naga’ try to sabotage Garuda. But the `nagas’ – which in this context simply means `snakes’ (the collective version of all snakes of all kinds (perhaps you could say `snake race’?)) are *NOT* symbols of evil. There are tons of `naga’ which are good – in fact, some of the `naga’ are part of the `cosmos maintenance squad’. `Nagini’ is the female version of `naga’, not necessarily a cobra. It can refer to any female snake.

  14. I think all the readers here look at myth of garuda using a western eye.There are 1000’s of stories of beings like Garudas,Nagas,Yakshas,Boothaganas,vanaras,vitras etc.Mythology,religion,arts,crafts, fiction and history were all intermingled in india and there was never an attempt to seperate each.For eg yoga was and is still is an part of hindu life.It was never seen as a science in itself unless west came over.Yoga and Tantra,Mantra,purana,astrology,grammer, etc are all part of our cultural consiousness.About garuda there is garuda purana.Its meant to be fiction cum religios text cum mythology.We have gods with human body but lion head(Narasimha),Gods with human body but Elephant head(Ganesa),Gods with human body but eagle head(Garuda),Human body with monkey head(Hanuman),Human body with boar head(Varaha),Human body with abilty to change to snake (Naga),Human body with bear head etc etc.Hindusim was like american hollywood fiction might ten times plus the power of philosophy,science,technology,architecture etc.Its not possible to seperate one from the other.Its too old and too intermingled to seperate

  15. It is first of all necessary to realize that Hinduism is not a religion but, like the Chinese folk religion, just a collection of henotheistic beliefs united just by belief in trinity(creation,preservation,destruction). Hinduism is a widely diverse and acceptable tradition. And as much it goes about Indonesia and Thailand, Indosphere or Sphere of Indian cultural influence stretches from Afghania and Balochistan to East Indies(Indonesia) and Indo-China(till Cambodia) and from Tibet to Srilanka. Because these were as much part of India in ancient times as much were kingdoms of present-day India were, although boundaries did change from time to time.

    Secondly, Indian culture has its completely own taxonomy of magical beasts which is comparable but not identifiable with that of mediterenean or sinosphere (both themselves are not identifiable. Even Fenghuang has nothing to do with fire like phoenix but is just a chimera.) The whole range includes all types of nagas (from serpents to dragons), suparnas (gryffins to angels), etc.

    Thirdly, there is no species (obviously mythical) like garuda but he is the king of “suparnas”. And even a cultural english-speaking Indian translates Garuda as gryffin and not phoenix, although its neither. The most exact reference you can get about the qualities of garuda in west is Digimon, because in season 1 there is a garudamon with more or less same as garuda.

    Fourthly, the nearest reference to phoenix i could get was India itself. India, historically for its wealth, was known as golden bird (national personification or animalification, like dragon for China or bear for Russia) and especially in many poetries of sultanate era it was mentioned about the golden bird rising from ashes left by raiders, expressing hope for renaissance.

    Fifthly, whatsoever it may be, for the purpose of cross-culturalism and entertainment in fiction, the comparision is fantastic.

  16. Garuda is the entire Eagle Nebula within which are the three pillars of creation, the third being Cerberus, minding the end of the Lagoon Nebula, M8, better known as Hades the place. The Phoenix, also a constellation, just rose, setting its perch on fire, flames from its wings and head. Look for the Phoenix on earth, its appearances infrequent but signals rebirth, risen. Must watch video to be updated on all fronts:

  17. Garuda is first mentioned in the Vedas as the Emperor/Maharaja/King of Birds–it is very much part of Vedic/Dharmic/Buddhist/Hindu religion, which is Indian.

    The reason South east asia uses these symbols is because a long time ago they were part of the greater Pali Indian Empires which flourished in these areas before the invasion of Muslims.

    Garuda is not born out of folktales but is very akin to the holy ghost in Christianity.

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