Vinata and Kadru were the two wives of sage Kashyap. Kadru was the mother of a thousand radiant snakes, whereas Vinata had two eggs which had not hatched for a long time. Thinking that something was wrong with the eggs, Vinata broke open one of the eggs. She was horrified to find that the child inside the egg was not fully formed. The child – Aruna cursed her to be become a servant to somebody. However when Vinata asked for forgiveness Aruna told her that if she was patient with the other egg, Aruna’s brother would come and save her.
Some time later Kadru placed a bet with Vinata. Kadru won the bet by cheating and Vinata became Kadru’s servant. Vinata served Kadru and her snake sons. It was at this time that the other egg hatched and a child came out of it. The child had the face, beak, wings and talons of an eagle, but the body of a human. The body of the child glowed with a fierce white light.
However as the child was born during the time his mother was a servant to someone, he was also considered as a servant. When he was born, the child – Garuda, saw his mother do all the work in the house whereas Kadru happily roamed doing nothing. Garuda wondered why his mother was the one who did all the work. Garuda felt very unhappy and angry with Kadru and the snakes for treating his mother like that.
At night he talked to his mother, "Mother, why do you do all the work in the house, whereas Kadru just enjoys herself? You look so tired all the time..." He said caressing his mother’s face.
Vinata slowly told him the entire story, "Son before you were born, me and Kadru had a bet regarding the colour of Uncchashravas – Indra’s horse. I said that Ucchashravas was totally white and Kadru said that the horse had a black tail. We had a bet that whoever would lose the bet would become the servant to the other. I was so sure that Ucchashravas was white... But the next day we went to Indra’s palace and we saw..." Vinata sobbed unable to go on...
So his mother had lost the bet and had become Kadru’s servant... Garuda felt even more anger towards his snake brother but realised that now was not the time to act. He would have to wait for the appropriate time to act.
Some days later he was summoned by his snake brothers. "Son of Vinata" They imperiously told Garuda, "We and our mother wish to go an island for a picnic. Your mother will carry our mother..." The snake said carelessly. "...However she cannot carry all of us. I want you to carry us to the island.."
Vinata carried Kadru on her shoulders and walked to the island.
Garuda felt great anger towards the snakes but agreed to their order. He carried them on his back. As he was flying, he purposely flew very close to the sun so that the snakes would get burnt. The snakes due to the fierce heat of the sun were getting scorched and were falling of Garuda’s back.
"MOTHER HELP US..." The snakes screamed from Garuda’s back. Kadru heard this and immediately prayed to Lord Indra to save her sons. Indra heard Kadru’s prayers and sent down cool showers to protect the snakes. Thus the snakes were protected. Garuda saw Indra’s act and felt angry at Indra too. But now he was beginning to have an idea...
After they had all landed on the island, Garuda talked with the snakes. "I wish to make a deal with you..."
The snakes wondered what deal a servant’s son could make to them. But they were still scared of him. He had just tried to burn all of them. "Well..what is it?..."
"What would take for you grant freedom to me and my mother?" Garuda got straight to the point. "I will give you whatever you want and in return, grant me and my mother..." Garuda said pointing at Vinata, "freedom."
The snakes thought that over. They knew that Garuda was extremely powerful and he could accomplish anything that he set his mind on. They knew they would have to think of something which could not be easily accomplished.
It was not long before the snakes came up with the answer. "Son of Vinata, get us the Amrita, the amrita of the Gods." Amrit was the nectar of the Gods, which the Devas had got from churning the ocean. Anyone who drank amrita remained young and immortal. The drinker also became very powerful and strong. The Devas had denied giving any of the Amrita to the Asuras and the Snakes, thinking that if the Asuras and the Snakes became immortal and powerful, they would get back to their evil ways and torment the people.
The Snakes knew that if anybody could get the amrita from the Devas, it would be Garuda.
Garuda knew that what the Snakes had asked was not easy, but then he did not expect it to be easy. But still he needed a lot of energy to accomplish such a feat. He turned to his mother, "Mother, I am going to do it..."
Vinata smiled as she remembered the words of Aruna. My brother will save you if you are patient with him. Vinata realised that her days of being a servant were numbered. She turned to Garuda. "Son, you are going to need a lot of food to keep you strong, if you are going to do this. Go to the Himalayas, son. There you will find an elephant and a tortoise fighting each other for many years. You can eat them to satisfy your hunger."
Garuda smiled, "Bless me mother" Vinata raised her hands and blessed her son. Garuda then spread his wings and without another word flew up to the Himalayas.
There he met his father Sage Kashyap who was meditating and told him of Vinata’s predicament and his own mission. Sage Kashyap also blessed him and asked him to eat the elephant and the tortoise.
Garuda spied the two animals from far and came close to them and in a single swoop caught them both in his claws and flew off. Being a bird, Garuda went to sit on a branch of the tree to eat his food. Garuda was huge and in his hands were the two heavy animals. Unable to bear the weight, the tree branch snapped under his weight and came falling down.
As it was falling down, Garuda realised that the Valakhila sages were meditating hanging up side down from the branches of the tree. Clutching the two animals in his hands, Garuda caught the broken branch in his mouth and flew on. The Valakhila sages opened their eyes and realised that a massive bird was a carrying them and also the two animals in its hands.
The Valakhila sages looked at awe in Garuda. Though they knew that the person emerging from the yagna would be strong, this was not what they expected. The bird was way powerful than they expected. The Valakhila sages turned to Garuda. "You can put us down on one of the peaks, strong one."
Garuda gratefully nodded his head and placed the branch in one of the peaks.
The Valakhila sages blessed the bird, "Because you are so strong, henceforth you shall be called as "GARUDA"" [Garuda means one who can lift immensely heavy loads]
That is how Garuda got his name. After depositing the rishis on another peak in the Himalayas, Garuda then finished his lunch.
Now that he felt full and happy, Garuda let out a loud shriek. He then set out to the Heavens to obtain the pot of Amrita.
Meanwhile as Garuda approached the heavens, there was many bad omens there. The Devas were worried. Sensing that something was seriously wrong, Indra ran to Brihaspati, the teacher of the Devas.
Brihaspati had just come to know that Garuda was on the way to take the nectar from the Gods. He was about to send for Indra, when Indra came hurrying inside Brihaspati’s home.
"Indra, thank the Gods! I was about to send for you! We are all in trouble." Brihaspati said in a rush.
"What is it, Acharya? Even during our fight with the Asuras, I have never seen anything like this..." Indra said breathlessly.
"Garuda, Vinata’s son is on the way here Indra. He wants the pot of Nectar..." Brihaspati told Indra all about the order of the Snakes and Garuda’s quest.
When he heard Garuda’s name, Indra turned pale with fear. He remembered the yagna and how Garuda would have almost been the next Indra. Indra resolutely shook his head. He had a war to fight right now. He could not let the nectar go to the Snakes.
Indra hurried back to his own palace. "Summon all the gods, we are going to a war." Indra said quickly dispatching the guards.
Soon the other gods had come and Indra told them about Garuda’s attack.
Agni spoke crisply, "We will have all the thousand Devas lined up in the first line of defence. Getting past that itself would be difficult for him" Agni said arrogantly.
I don't think so. Indra wanted to tell Agni, but he did not say anything.
Vayu continued. "I think that alone would not sufficient. After the line of Devas, I think Surya and Agni should both create a wall of fire. It should be so hot that no one should be able to penetrate it. Looking at Vayu and Indra, both Surya and Agni nodded realising that they were after all defending the pot of Nectar and they would have to use all the defences they had.
"Wait!..."Wait that must not be all" Varuna came forward excitedly. "We can keep the pot of nectar in the centre and have two of those metal wheels with the pointed blades around it so that no one would be able to some close to it. And... so that no one sneaks under the metal wheels, we will have two snakes there protecting that area..." Varuna finished triumphantly.
The other gods listened and nodded their heads. They decided that they were going to crush Garuda.
Indra was the only one who felt otherwise, but he did not say anything and kept his thoughts to himself. I hope this is enough to stop him...
When Garuda reached the gates of heaven in a massive form, even Varuna felt troubled. Garuda was not just huge... he was massive. The Devas were nowhere close to him. Anyway they were all ready for war, and he could not show weakness now. He pulled himself togerher.
"Ok, this is it..." Indra muttered under his breath. As all the Devas had drunk the nectar they were very powerful and could not die. But if the Bird were to crush them, it would hurt terribly and it would take some time to come back and fight.
Garuda looked at the tiny Devas and let out another shriek. Indra yelled, "ATTACK!" The Devas then as one attacked all Garuda.
Garuda flapped his wings hard. The air from the wings was so fierce and the dust was so high that the Devas could barely see anything. The Devas did not know who to attack as they could not even see anything before them!
"Vayu!" Indra commanded. "Swallow the air! We cannot fight if the bird keeps pulling up more dust in our eyes." Vayu nodded and in one huge gulp swallowed the air. The Devas cheered as the air became clear. Indra yelled again, "ATTACK!"
For a few minutes, the Devas actually thought that Garuda had stopped by the stream of weapons. But only for a few minutes...Then Garuda showed his true form.
He grew even larger and his body was giving out a bright light that the Devas almost looked away. Then in a swoop, he scooped hundreds of Devas in his hands, talons and beak and threw them all away. In a few minutes, there were nothing more than 50 or Devas out of the original thousand. Indra was flabbergasted. Never before had he been routed so completely. Fear totally overcame him and he along with a few Devas ran away from there.
Now that the Devas were all gone, Garuda immediately proceeded forward. However a huge fire stopped him. The fire was so hot that Garuda felt the searing pain in his flesh. I need water...he thought plenty of it...
No sooner had Garuda thought it, he grew to a massive size with 80,000 faces! He then flew back to the earth and in each of his mouth carried one river of water. He then returned to heavens with the water in his mouth and poured the water on the fire.
Though the fire was hot, the quantity of water was so high that the water was snuffed out immediately. The wall of fire evaporated as Garuda stepped through the second line of defence.
Then Garuda saw the metal wheels. There was no way to go above it, as he tried again and again to go from the top. The side of the metal was too sharp and that way was out too. If not up or by the side...down! Garuda thought triumphantly as he became the size of a small mosquito and went underneath the wheels.
That was when he saw the two large snakes slithering towards him. Quick as thought, Garuda flapped his wings so hard that he again racked up the dust again. The snakes were unable to see. In between the dust and the smoke, Garuda caught the two snakes and killed them.
He then went near the centre of the metal wheels and got hold of the pot of nectar and then he grew bigger and bigger. The metal wheels shattered when he grew of immense size.
With a whoop of joy Garuda then flew in the air with the pot of nectar in his hands. He was going to be free. His mother was going to free...Garuda thought happily as he flew through the air.
Garuda then flew straight back to Kadru’s place. That was when he was seen by Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu had seen the entire spectacle and was amazed by the strength of the bird. Now looking at Garuda, he was even more amazed. He has not even once thought of taking the nectar for himself...
"Garuda, stop!" Lord Vishnu said. Garuda stopped to see a beautiful, dark God. The God looked so serene and calm. Garuda felt a surge of devotion, when he looked at the God.
He bowed his head, "My Lord!"
Lord Vishnu smiled. All this and humility too..."Garuda, I saw the whole thing. I am very impressed with you. I want to grant you any two boons, ask and it shall be given to you."
Garuda said, "I wish to be immortal and free from all diseases, my Lord" Lord Vishnu smiled and blessed Garuda, "...and the next boon?" Lord Vishnu asked.
Garuda smiled as he came up with a very playful answer, "Lord I wish to be above even you!" He said impishly.
Lord Vishnu gave Garuda a very playful smile with twinkling eyes, "Make yourself small, my dear Garuda!"
Garuda looked curiously at Lord Vishnu and made himself very small. Looking at the small Garuda, Lord Vishnu pulled out a Staff about his own height, "This is my Staff. Now climb to the top of it and sit there."
Garuda sat on top of the Staff and saw Lord Vishnu from above and laughed out. He regained his original form and bowed to Lord Vishnu, "Lord! You are wise, loving and compassionate. I will give you whatever you want.
Lord Vishnu said, "I wish you to be my vehicle, to carry me around!"
Garuda smiled, "It would my honour to carry you around my Lord! But first I have to finish my job. I have to give the pot of nectar to the Snakes and free myself and my mother from the Snakes. Then I will come to you my Lord.
Lord Vishnu blessed him, "Go forth Garuda!"
Garuda was flying back to Kadru’s palace, when Indra came back to fight Garuda. Garuda remembered how Indra had thwarted his plans when he had carried the Snakes on his back. Garuda fought with Indra and was about to defeat him when Indra hurled his weapon at Garuda. Indra’s weapon is called as Vajrayuda [thunderbolt]. It was the most feared weapon of the Gods. The effect of the Vajrayuda was devastating.
However Indra in this case had wasted his weapon. Nothing happened to Garuda, other than the fact that a single feather shook and fell down from Garuda’s back.
Indra was astonished and then went and bowed to Garuda, "I know I cannot fight and win you. I know that you are a good person and will not harm anyone. I wish to stop fighting with you and I wish to be your friend. Please accept my friendship."
Garuda saw the sincerity in Indra’s eyes and soon they both became friends.
Indra asked Garuda, "Garuda, even my Vajrayuda had no effect on you. Can you tell me how strong you are?"
Garuda smiled, "Friend, a single feather of mine is strong enough to lift the whole earth."
Indra stared at Garuda dumb folded and realised that no army could ever defeat Garuda. "Garuda, I would like to ask you one more thing. I understand that you have to give the Snakes the amrit and once you give it to them, you would free right?"
Indra continued, "Would you mind, if I take away the nectar after you give it to the Snakes. That way you would be free and I will make sure that the Snakes do not harass people after taking the amrit and becoming immortal."
Garuda thought that over. That way he would have kept his bargain and also made sure that the Snakes do not get any nectar. It was a good deal. He nodded. "I have no problem, friend."
Indra was overjoyed, "Friend ask me anything and I will grant you the wish" he cried.
Garuda again thought that over. The whole mess started because his brothers has mistreated him and his mother. Even now Garuda felt angry when he thought about the Snakes. They had to be taught a lesson. He turned to Indra, "I want snakes to be my natural food!" He said.
Indra nodded and vanished. He was a happy man.
Garuda took the pot and gave it to the Snakes. The Snakes were very happy when they saw the pot. They turned to Garuda and Vinata, "You are both free. You are no longer our servants.." Garuda and Vinata were overjoyed. However Garuda had one more task in hand. He turned to the Snakes, who were eyeing the pot.
"Snakes" He said solemnly, "You are about to taste the nectar of the gods. Would it not be better if you had a bath before you actually tasted the nectar?" He said slyly.
The snakes then placed the Pot of nectar on the sharp "Kusha" grass and then went to the river to have a bath. When all the Snakes were gone, Indra came in and at that time carried away the pot of nectar. Garuda and Vinata watched this with a smile on their faces.
The Snakes came in to find Indra carrying away the pot. They yelled and tried to stop Indra, but Indra had already carried away the pot with him. As he was carrying the pot, a few drops of the nectar fell on the "Kusha" grass. The Snakes decided that they would get atleast some drops of nectar and licked it. However the sharp grass cut the tongues of the snakes and since then it is believed that snakes have a forked tongue!
Thus Garuda, the Lord of the birds won his freedom, became a friend of Indra and became the vehicle of Lord Vishnu!