Garuda

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Garudas are usually represented with a snake in their beak and hands, symbolizing the protection from ophidians and the subjugation of nagas

Garuda (Skt. garuḍa; Tib. & Wyl. khyung) – a mythical bird-like creature symbolizing various elements of the Buddhist path.

Overview

The garuda symbol can have the following meanings:

  • A mythical creature
  • One of the four dignities associated with the windhorse
  • A deity of protection
  • Our primordial nature

A Mythical Creature

On the outer level, the garuda is a mythical semi-divine bird-like creature that is the enemy of the nagas. It is represented in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions (especially in Tibetan, Cham, Khmer and Javan art). In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, the garuda was associated with the khyung, which are important deities of the Bön pantheon, and practised during healing rituals in order to counter certain illnesses provoked by nagas.

One of the Four Dignities

The garuda is also one of the four dignities associated with the windhorse. In this context, the garuda represents the fire element, and it is said to to symbolize freedom from hopes and fears.

Deity of Protection

Garuda is also an important deity of protection. For example:

Our Primordial Nature

In the Dzogchen teachings, the garuda represents our primordial nature. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying says:

The Dzogchen Tantras, the ancient teachings from which the bardo instructions come, speak of a mythical bird, the garuda, which is born fully grown. This image symbolizes our primordial nature, which is already completely perfect. The garuda chick has all its wing feathers fully developed inside the egg, but it cannot fly before it hatches. Only at the moment when the shell cracks open can it burst out and soar into the sky. Similarly, the masters tell us, the qualities of buddhahood are veiled by the body, and as soon as the body is discarded, they will be radiantly displayed. [1]

Further Reading

  • Robert Beer, The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols (Boston: Shambhala, 2003), p.74-77

Notes

  1. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, page 109.