Most of what I know about Garuda the Lord of Flight is from Vishnu Purana and some partial stories in different sources. The accounts are not always coherent and consistent, but there does seem to be a theme in them - about valor, about courage, about duty. So I am attempting to pen down what my impression of the whole thing is.
So we go back to the early epochs, back in time. Sage Kasyapa, who was one of the prolific progenitors of the yore, had married most of Daksha Prajapati's daughters - at least six of them (see here for more details). He had Vinita and Kadru as two wives among others. Kadru was the elder, while Vinita was the younger of the two. Kadru had many children, and they were called Nagas (snakes or serpents). Prominent among them were Takshaka, Vasuki etc. - but they were countless in number.
Vinita had only two sons - Aruna and Garuda. Actually during pregnancy, Vinita gave birth to two eggs. While she was told to wait for the eggs to hatch, she became impatient to see her children and tried to open one. The embryo was half-formed then and so the first son was born crippled. This boy, Aruna, now only has the upper half of the body, but he is smart and good with horses. He continues to be the Sun's charioteer, ferrying the Lord of Day across the heavens every day.
The second son of Vinita did full term and was born as a radient, golden-red king of birds - Garuda, who was devoted to his mother from the beginning. While Garuda and Nagas grew together, the Nagas were many. But Garuda grew in splendor and strength, was very handsome - glowing with golden feathers and all. To top it, he had wings and would soar high in the sky, while the Nagas were thin, worm-like and earth-bound: they slithered and hid in their dark holes and dungeons underground. As years passed, this one son of Vinita seemed to out-do all of Kadru's. Naturally, Kadru started getting jealous of Vinita, and the sisters would often take potshots at each other and their children, who were a source of pride for each (as it is for most mothers).
One day, while the two sisters were sitting together and watching the sunset, they saw the celestial white horse Ucchaishravas far away near the horizon - as if some superb dream of the ocean, radiating out of the white foam. Vinita exclaimed how amazing and majestic the bright white horse looks, and that she had never seen anything so superbly spotless (really no one had, as it was the first time the horse had come into being). But Kadru took the opportunity to get her confused, and told Vinita that she is probably getting old and losing eyesight, as the horse is in fact not entirely white. Rather, its tail is black and grey.
Shocked, Vinita argued that she is able to see perfectly clearly and that it is Kadru that needs optical adjustments (!). Well, the sisters kept going at each other, and one thing led to another. All the anger and jealousy of the past years manifested into the quarrel, so much so that they finally took a wager - whoever is wrong about the color would lose her and her sons' freedom, become the slave of the other and spend a lifetime of servitude. Harsh, I know, but you just got to see sibling rivalry to believe it.
While plotting this, Kadru quietly sent a word for her sons. She asked them to go to the horse and hang themselves over his white tail, so that it looks dark. The snakes slithered away to the horizon, and having caught hold of the horse, did as their mother had instructed. So by the time the two ladies reached closer to the horizon, the tail started to look black-grey in color.
Once the two were sufficiently close to the horse to remove doubts from Vinita's mind or rather create more doubt and confusion - but making sure that they do not reach too close - Kadru made her to agree that the tail was indeed anything but white. Vinita could not believe her eyes. She seemed to have lost the wager and it seemed that she and her son Garuda were now forever the slaves of Kadru and her snake sons. Dejected, and not knowing that she was tricked, Vinita agreed to it reluctantly.
When Garuda heard from his mother that they had lost their freedom in a wager, he got furious (some accounts suggest that he was born after the incident of the wager - so he was born in slavery and his mother had already spent years doing chores for Kadru and her sons) ... But since the deed was done, there was precious little he could do. His mother was already held in captivity by the slithering mesh-mash that were his cousins. But rather than submitting to his fate, the hero started arguing his case and started negotiating a ransom - something else in exchange of his and his mother's freedom.
Once they accepted the principle of 'ransom' after a while, and knowing that they had him in their grips, Kadru's sons the snakes told him to get them something in exchange - something immensely valuable - the Soma (nectar of life)! Now, this was a task next to impossible. The Soma was in custody of the gods - devas or Adityas - in heaven, and they guarded it with great care as it was their prized possession, delivered to them after great effort (of churning the ocean - called "amrut-mathan") and gained with deceit over their own brothers the Daityas, for which the two parties were at constant war.
The Nagas told Garuda to bring them the Soma in ransom from the gods, and they will let him and his mother walk away free again. They chuckled, thinking this cannot be done. Garuda would have to go to Indra's palace in heaven where it was heavily guarded, fight the mighty devas and carry Soma back on earth - this was unthinkable at that time.
But the courageous Garuda rose to the challenge - literally. The gigantic, radiant, golden-red king of birds spread his wings and shot up in the sky without fear. He crossed vast lands, great mountains, suffered great perils and reached Indra's heaven (Swarga). At the doors, he met with the guards and fought like a champion with them. With great show of strength and ability,the mighty bird reached the halls of Indra (Indra-sabha). He was only just about to seize the jar of Soma that the devas heard the commotion and rushed to protect from this intrepid intruder their prized possession - the elixir of life.
By this time Garuda had already seized the jar of Soma. With his prize in one hand, he confronted the mighty devas and fought tooth-and-nail (rather talons). The Adityas - sons of Aditi, led by Indra - ganged up against the brave warrior, but he was impossible to subdue in his fury. The more they fought him, the more he resisted, and the devas got highly impressed with this superb warrior. After a long and tiring battle, the gods realized that here is a young warrior who will never give in. His love of his cause - freedom of his mother - had made him almost invincible. Indra, the leader of Adityas and the king of devas realized that it was better to convert this gigantic hero into a formidable alley than have him as a feverish foe. He asked the devas to stop the battle, and walked up to his enemy.
Indra praised Garuda, complimented on his strength and abilities, asked who he was and his purpose of stealing the Soma. It made them feel proud to hear that he was a son of Kashyapa - as they themselves were sons of Kashyapa and Aditi. This made them cousins of Garuda.
But when they heard his entire story, the devas huddled together for a solution. This was a tough one. Garuda needed Soma for his mother's freedom, and he was ready to kill - and die - for it, with a ferocity they had all witnessed not long ago. But the devas needed Soma too, to keep their superiority over Daityas (demons). It was Soma that was keeping them alive during their constant wars. How could both have the same thing?
After much brainstorming and going through conflict management techniques, it seems one of the inherent assumptions was surfaced by one of the Adityas - Vishnu. Garuda, Vishnu argued, has only promised the Nagas that he will 'bring' them Soma, he had not actually promised that he will let them drink it. His ransom was to get them the jar - that's all. Once he hands it over, it was the responsibility of Nagas to keep it to themselves. That was brilliant! ... So Indra hatched a plan with Garuda. He was only to take Soma with him, show the jar to the snakes and ask Vinita to be released. Garuda agreed and took the jar of Soma with him.
As soon as he reached the Earth, he called out to the Nagas, showed them the bounty and demanded his mother be released. Fooled in thinking that they have Soma in their grips, the over-confident Nagas let go of the lady, who rushed into her heroic son's arms. As soon as Garuda found his mother safe, he signaled to Indra who was hiding in a cloud cover. In a blink of an eye, Indra seized the moment, rushed down and swooped away the jar of Soma.
The Nagas were utterly bewildered. As soon as they realized what had happened, they jostled behind Indra. Being earth-bound, though, they could not pursue their trickster. All they managed to do is find a few drops spilled on the ground. As they slithered, their skins rubbed on the drops of Soma. This is why snakes have an undying, ever-growing skin, being rubbed with the elixir of life.
Coming back to Garuda, the snakes could do nothing - as he had fulfilled his promise and brought Soma to them in ransom. It was their own inability to protect it from being taken back by Indra. So Garuda freed himself and his mother Vinita from a lifetime of servitude. Once clear of the challenge, he flew back to the heaven - where he took to reading and learning Vedas and became the companion and carrier of one of the smartest devas and a key figure in the ancient scriptures - Vishnu.
To this date, though, the animosity between the birds and snakes continues. Eagles, kites and other large birds prey on serpents. This is because as an aftermath of the above incident, their ancestor Garuda asked it as a boon (in a revenge that lasts eternity) from the gods who were impressed by his prowess and devotion to mother - to have Nagas as his kill / food. Not only did the devas grant him his wish, but they also included him in their exclusive community by letting him drink Soma and learn the Vedas like them and the great rishis.
Mumbai, 27 October 2013