Garuda is popularly known as the vahana or vehicle of Vishnu. In this form he can be found in every South Indian temple dedicated to Vishnu and even in the temples of South-East Asia. However, his stature is far greater than this apparent submissiveness. Garuda and Hanuman are the strongest of the strong powers in the universe. Even Shiva and Vishnu would find it hard to match strength and abilities with them. Both these great beings, Garuda and Hanuman, have dedicated their lives to service instead of using their powers to rule over the cosmos. Garuda’s reward is immortality and a stature that is, literally, always above Vishnu.
The commonly accepted Garuda story in India is as follows. The great rishi Kashyapa was the progenitor of most life forms on the planet. This happened because the creator god, gave him thirteen wives who were only partly human and retained many aspects of their origins from vegetation and animals. In the early days of creation. Kashyapa was a good husband but he was essentially a spiritual person. He used to retire occasionally from this excess of connubial bliss and domestic felicity to recoup his powers with meditation and tapasya. Such absences left the field open for his wives to engage in bitter conflicts with each other.
Of all the malicious strife, none was as bad as the one between Kadru, the serpent mother and Vinata, mother of our hero. Kadru was the senior wife, a socially and culturally advantageous position, and she spitefully exploited it to vex Vinata. When their oblivious husband asked them to choose a boon as to the types of children they wanted, Kadru asked for a hundred mighty serpents to be born to her. Vinata saw her chance and asked for only two sons, but they were each to be superior to the sons of Kadru. Naturally, matters only deteriorated after thisIn time, Kadru brought forth a hundred eggs from which would hatch a race of Nagas, Man-serpents. Vinata had only two eggs to console her and they seemed to be endlessly incubating. Thoughtlessly she broke open the shell of one of them and a furious divine being emerged, who had been formed only up to his waist.
He cursed his mother into slavery for so deforming him, but modified the curse so that his younger brother would redeem her. He then rose up into the sky to become Arun, the charioteer of the Sun God. So bright was the blaze coming off him that the gods were afraid that Agni, god of fire, had decided to burn up the universe. He had the head, wings, beak and talons of an eagle, but the body of a man. His face was white, with red wings and a golden body. Since he was the son of the great sage, his wings had a peculiar quality in that every time they moved, verses from the Holy Vedas would be heard. The very presence of Garuda was thus a blessing and benediction. His immense powers were also a gift conferred upon Kashyapa by the Valkhilya rishis, supernatural beings of miniscule size but immense spiritual accomplishments.
Indra, King of the Gods, had made the mistake of laughing at them, and they set about using their powers to create a being greater than Indra, capable of going anywhere at will, mustering any measure of strength and assuming any form at will.