The Garuda

Garuda’s origins in Indonesia go back to the time, around the first century A.D., when sailors and traders from Southern India first came to the shores of the fertile islands looking for rice and riches. Not only did they bring goods and techniques, they brought also their literature.

In this literature, there were the stories of the origins, or Puranas, with the story of Garuda among them. The locals soon made these stories their own in a Sanskrit derived language called Kawi. It is in the earliest text of this literature, the Adiparwa (10th century A.D.), that the story of the mighty Garuda bird is found.

The time was in the beginning, when Siwa and Parwati had just created the world, and when the gods had fought with the giants for the control of the holy water of life, amerta. It was at this time that Garuda came into existence.

The gods and giant demons were discussing how to get the water of life when the god Wisnu spoke in these words: “Hey you, gods and giants, if want the water of life, try to churning the sea of milk, above the amerta. This, they decided to do.

First, they had the dragon Anantabhoga uproot the mountain Mandara and put it in the middle of the sea of milk, on the back of a tortoise. The mountain became the churning instrument. Next, they asked the dragon Basuki to be the churning rope. Then they called in gods on one side and the demons on the other. The gods were to pull on one extremity, the demons on the other. Indra, the king of the gods, sat on the top of the mountain to stabilise it.

They began pulling. From the churning waters sprouted the goddess Sri, the goddess Laksmi, the horse Ucaisrawa and the cosmic jewel Kastubamani. They all fell on the side of the gods.

When the water of life, amerta, came out, it fell on the side of the giants. Wisnu devised a trick. He turned himself into a beautiful girl. The girl goaded the demons into entrusting her with carrying the water. She had barely gotten the amerta of life when she ran away, turning back into Wisnu. The Gods and the demons have been at war ever since.

At the time of the churning of the sea of milk, Garuda was still an egg, an unborn son to the godly seer Kasiapa, begotten of the latter’s wife Winata.

As such, he was also the unborn younger brother of Arjuna, the charioteer of the sun, and the unborn half-brother of the cosmic snakes (nagas) begotten by Kadru, one of Kasiapa’s 29 wives. Garuda was later to kill the nagas and become Wisnu’s vehicle.

It all started with an argument between Kasiapa’s wives Kadru and Winata on the colour of the tail of the horse Ucaistrawa which had come out of the churning milky waters at the same time as the water of life. Kadru claimed that the horse was white and black-tailed, while Winata insisted it was completely white.

Fed up with quarreling, they eventually settled on a bet. Whoever was proven wrong would become the other’s slave. Kadru was indeed wrong. The horse had no black tail, but before her rival knew it, she concocted a deception. She had her children the snakes, spray the tail of the horse with their white poison. Thus the tail turned black. Winata then became Kadru’s slave. The moment of enslavement for the mother was the moment of birth for the son. The egg was hatching.

Garuda eventually came to life shining like fire, his glaring light filling the firmament in all directions. The amazed gods thought that doomsday was coming and that at last, the time had come for the burning of the three worlds. But Agni, the god of fire, knew the truth, and he harangued the other gods with these words: “O you gods, don’t you be frightened. The time has not come for my burning of the world. Doomsday is still far away. What light is it you see? It is Garuda’s light. Powerful among the birds, he is none other than Kasiapa’s son, begotten of Winata. His brilliance equals my own.”

The appeased gods then addressed homage to Garuda : ” Garuda, you are the seer, you are the priest, you are the god, you are the master of all that flies, you are the king. Your brightness is equal to the sun light … Protect us, most powerful among the birds.” Soothed by the praise, Garuda turned off his brilliance and his light was gone.
Having found his enslaved mother, Garuda was assigned to guarding his half brothers, the snakes. But he was naughty. Whenever he could, he would surreptitiously kill one of them and eat it. At length he got tired of his duty and addressed his half brothers in these words:

“Hey! You nagas the snakes, tell me how can I buy back my mother’s freedom?”

“You really intend to buy your mother’s freedom back?” came the reply, “you want to break her bonds of slavery? Listen. Did you ever hear about the water of immortality, the holy amerta, which the gods obtained in the churning of the sea of milk? Go there and get it for us.”

Knowing at last what to do, Garuda went to his mother to ask for her advice and her blessing.

She instructed him: “Go first to that island by the other shore of the sea. It is peopled with villains and killers. Kill them and eat them, one by one. They are to be your food during your quest for the amerta. But, beware! Don’t kill the Brahmins … isn’t your father the godly seer Kasiapa also a Brahmin?”
Garuda left and so She carried on with some
encouragement: “The god Bayu (energy) will look after your wings, the goddess Candra (moon) will look after your back, and the gods Agni (fire) and Angin (wind) will look after your head. All the gods will protect you.”
on began a rampage, killing and eating villains, turtles and elephants. He eventually reached “the peak of Somaka, source of the amerta, in the land of Sangka” where he was confronted by the godly troops of Indra: the 12 Sandhya of the East, the sons of Dharma, the eight Basu of the South, the eleven Rudra of the West and the 12 Aditya of the North, headed by Indra, the king of the Gods.

Clawing and pecking at them all, he eventually triumphed. “He would hit the eyes of the frightened gods and, blood flowing, they would go dark, unable to see the world any more.” Having won his fight, he carried on.

He took some water from the ocean and put out the fire guarding the entrance to the cave in which the amerta was kept. He then fought his way in against the two guardian dragons, killing and eating them. At last the amerta was his.

As he was flying back, Wisnu caught sight of him leaving and asked him to grant a favour. The law in these times demanded that a favour asked, had to be granted.

Wisnu’s demand was simple. “Oh great Garuda bird, serve me as my vehicle.” So it has been ever since.

Garuda is Wisnu’s vehicle. The amerta in his hands, Garuda took it to the snakes and his mother was freed. Before giving it he advised the snakes to cleanse first by bathing. They complied. While they were away, the God Indra came and stole back the amerta of life.

Thus is the myth. It portrays how Garuda becoming Wisnu’s vehicle after he had found the elixir of immortality, the key to his mother’s release from slavery.

Garuda: Wisnuite Tradition

The Garuda story is a teaching. It tells us that moksa, the ultimate release, symbolised by the water of life, can be reached only by our overcoming the earthly bonds symbolised by the snakes (nagas).

The resilience of the story and character of Garuda points out the strong Wisnuite influences in Indonesia. In Hindu mythology, Wisnu symbolises continuity and order, essentially complementing each other. Two gods of the Trimurti (Trinity) are Brahma the creator and Siwa the destroyer. The preserver, Wisnu is the master of the water. His colour is black or bluish-green; his wife, is the goddess of rice, Sri. A savior, he incarnates in heroes such as Rama (Ramayana epic) and Krisna and Arjuna (Mahabharata epic). All the functions and symbols converge on protecting or governing. Wisnu symbolises power. The vehicle of Wisnu, Garuda, is also the vehicle of power. Wisnuism emphasizes the cult of Wisnu and of the Wisnu related characters. It also includes Wisnu’s avatars (incarnations), Wisnu’s wives and Wisnu’s vehicle, Garuda.

The advantages of using Wisnuite paraphernalia did not escape the kings of old days. Claiming Wisnu’s powers or protection was a fair tool of political survival. Hence the references to Wisnu and his attributes. A depiction of Wisnu mounting Garuda was found as early as the 8th century in the temple complex on the Dieng Plateau. The Candi Banon has a statue of Wisnu and a human-shaped, bird-beaked Garuda, that seems to be in flight.

But Wisnuite elements, never exclusive, came up still stronger in the East-Javanese period, after the 10th century. Mighty kings were all presented as incarnations of Wisnu. In the poem Arjuna Wiwaha, Erlangga (1019-1042) the first great king of East Java, was connected to Arjuna, a Wisnu incarnate. There is a statue showing him with the attributes of Wisnu. More significant to our purpose, a sculpture of Wisnu mounting Garuda was found in his sanctuary, the Candi Belahan. Now exhibited in the museum of Mojokorto, it shows a ferocious Garuda, trampling the snakes and ready to fight.

Another famous king of East Java, the king Jayabaya, the ruler of Kediri, was said to be Wisnuatmaka, or Wisnu incarnate. But the most famous king associated with Wisnu was Ken Arok, the adventurer made king who founded the kingdom of Singasari (1222-1292), from which originated the empire of Majapahit (13th -15th Century).

In the Pararaton chronicle, Wisnu said to one of the characters: “Stop worshipping the statue, I am not there any more. I have incarnated in Java under the name of Ken Arok.” Ken Arok was eventually killed by his son-in-law, Anusapati (1227-1248), but the Wisnuite tradition was carried on. The reliefs on the walls of his sanctuary, Candi Kidal, tell the episodes of the Garuda story. On the Western side, Garuda is shown visiting his mother while on the Eastern relief he runs away with the vessel of water of immortality. The tradition associating the king and Wisnu persisted during later reigns. Names such as Janardhana and Madhusudana are other names of Wisnu. But Wisnuite influences were not exclusive.

Syncretism was the fashion. The founder of the Majapahit empire, King Kertarajasa Jayawardhana (1293-1309) is represented as Harihara, a blending of Siwa and Wisnu. And the Buddha of the godly compound Siwa Buddha was seen as one of Wisnu’s incarnations. Wisnuite influences persisted until the arrival of Islam and beyond. The later Hindu monument Candi Sukuh (15th Century) has two statues of Garuda, one of which shows Garuda killing elephants and tortoises and Garuda following Kadru’s orders as a slave’s son.

In the Hindu-Javanese period, Garuda seemed to have been as popular as his rider Wisnu. The theme of Garuda was everywhere. Garuda battle array, Garuda beak-shaped arrows, Garuda banners, Garuda motifs of sculpture and Garuda-shaped elements of costumes and puppets.

Garuda: the Balinese Tradition

After Islam subjugated Java in the 15th Century, Wisnuite influences were best preserved in Bali, which had inherited many elements of the Javanese tradition after the conquest of 1342.

What can Bali add to our knowledge of Garuda?

Under the nominal dominance of Siwa-Buddha, there are still many signs of Wisnuism in Bali. Some are similar, others different from Java. There is a Wisnuite kinship group, the Bujangga Wesnawa, which has its own high priest, the Sengguhu, propitiator of the underworld, complement to the Siwa and Buddha-bearers of Siwa and Buddha traditions, priests who address respectively the upper and the middle world. There are also strong Wisnuite influences at the level of the symbols and folklore. The Balinese satria (warrior) caste dresses in Wisnu’s colour black, and its cremations are held in a black bull.

And Garuda? The most interesting representations of Garuda are those associated with the story of the churning of the sea of milk. The commonest is the Garuda figure that decorates the back of the main shrine of any Balinese temple, the Padmasana or lotus seat. The structure of the Padmasana is a reminder of the cosmic tale. It is mountain-shaped, after the model of Mount Mandara, on its base there is a tortoise entwined with one or several dragons and there is Wisnu riding on Garuda’s back.

The empty seat is God’s seat under the name of the unknowable Siwa Raditya, the Sun God. But the theme of the cosmic mountain, with Garuda showing the way to the water of life has many other illustrations. The most fantastic, is non-durable art. It is the one found in Balinese ritual cakes called sarat (the world) or pulo gembal (“carved” island). Both represent the cosmic mountain, as well as the way to God and ultimate release. They are part of the offerings of the more important Balinese temple festivals. Other manifestations of the Garuda theme are the Garuda of the cremation tower (the structure is the same as the Padmasana), Garuda wings on Balinese gates (the gates symbolise the cosmic mountain, the Garuda figure of the cosmic meat offering called sate pajeg (the shape of the mountain is made out of pork fat), the Garuda-drawn amulets, Garuda banners and many others .

Garuda: In Islamised Java

What happened to the Garuda symbol in Islamised Java?

The Javanese rulers became Sultans, indeed, heirs to the prophet and commanders of the faith. Thus they appropriated the symbols of Islam for political benefit as they had earlier appropriated the symbols of Hinduism, notably Garuda. But they did not renounce the old stories nor the old symbols. They enrobed Islam in an Hindu garb. Resilient Wisnuite influences are numerous. The biggest ceremony of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta involves a Gunungan (mountain) of rice, the Gunungan is the cosmic mountain and the goddess of rice is Wisnu’s wife. Direct Garuda-related symbols are also involved. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, implicitly a Wisnu incarnate, still rides in parades in a Garuda-winged vehicle, the Garuda Kencono. The Sultan is also protected by Garuda, as shown in the Garuda banners used in his paraphernalia. The signs of Garuda’s presence in Java are too numerous for all of them to be included here.

Foremost is the Garuda of theatre, which persists alongside the myths of Indo-Javanese epics. There is a related Garuda iconography, the Garuda Mungkur motif of headdresses, the Garuda wings motif on batik, etc.

Garuda: In Modern Indonesia

What about the modern Garuda? It is the official emblem of the Indonesian state. As such it is embedded in the coat of arms containing the principles of the state, the Pancasila, and its motto (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika).

Thus Garuda arrives at the end of the road, further away from the Hindu origins. He started as a god and a religious tool of power, and still is in Bali. When Islamisation came, he gradually lost his godly quality while retaining his function of guardian of a still sacred power. After Independence (1945) he has become both the emblem and the instrument of cohesion and power of a modern nation.
To suit its new functions, the modern Garuda symbol, together with its coat of arms and motto must be in continuity with the past and at the same time fulfill the social and political needs of a modern society. Keeping in mind these two requirements, we shall analyse:

* The message carried by the emblematic image of Garuda eagle in the coat of arms.
* The message carried by the motto held in Garuda’s claws.
* The way the emblem fulfills its function as a tool of nation building.
Let us first analyse the Garuda emblem itself. The modern emblem strongly differs from the traditional Garuda. It is obviously an eagle, and not the anthropomorphic figure of the mythological character. Its face is stern-looking and harsh, like the German eagle. It looks side-ways, instead of straight-ahead.

The graphic definition is less Indonesian than Western. The coat of arms is also a Western image. Why these anomalies?

As a national symbol, Garuda must be indeed strong and unyielding. There is no way Garuda could be defeated like his incarnation Jatayu, who was given a death wound by Rawana in the Ramayana epic. The elixir of immortality that the modern Garuda steals away is the unending energy of the nation. It knows no definitive defeat nor failure. It will kill the snakes. Thus the sternness of Garuda expresses the strength of the nation.

A further reason could be that the national Garuda could not be too closely related with any local culture. The conceivers of the national ideology, Pancasila, now embedded on Garuda’s body wanted a symbol more trans-ethnic than the semi-god of the Javanese. The eagle, even called Garuda, is more neutral than the god-hero.

Now, what about the coat of arms embedded in the bird’s body? It consists of five related emblems: a central star, a chain, a banyan tree, a bull’s head and two twigs representing rice and cotton. They symbolise the five principles of the Indonesian nation, the Pancasila:

* The star represents the principle of the Oneness of God.
* The chain represents the principle of Humanitarianism.
* The banyan tree represents the principle of National Unity.
* The bull’s head represents the principle of the People’s representation and consensus.
* The twigs of rice and cotton represent the principle of social justice.

These five Pancasila principles are the foundation of the nation and, as such, must guide the decisions and actions of the government and of the citizenry. The acceptance of Pancasila as the unique philosophy of the state (asas tunggal) is a social duty for all groups and layers of Indonesian society. Implementation of Pancasila is a national goal.

The Pancasila is seen as one and is inseparable from its component principles. Both conceptually and symbolically, Pancasila has a long historical and cultural legitimacy.

Pancasila is a term that did indeed exist in Javanese tradition. It refers to the five rules of conduct of the Buddhist. There does not seem to be any direct continuity, however. The modern Pancasila is a compound of two Sanskrit words: panca (five) and sila (principle). Many such Sanskrit words are used in modern Indonesian society.

Five as a magic number is not alien to Javanese tradition. Four is turned into five and resumed in one. The four Caturdewate (the four gods, lords of the directions of the compass) turn into the five Pancadewata (the four gods + the centre) resumed in the Oneness of Siwa. There are also the inseparable five Pancapandawa heroes of the Mahabharata, the five Pancadhatu elements, etc.

As a continuation of the tradition of turning four into five to reach Oneness, it can be assumed that the four secondary principles, starting from the second down to the fifth, merge actually into the first, which is the principle of the Oneness of God, which occupies the central part of the coat of arms.

About The Individual Emblems

The star unmistakably evokes the Islamic star, symbol of the Oneness of God. It has five tips. It also calls to mind the principle of the Oneness of God such as recognised in the five official religions of Indonesia: Islam, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Buddhist. As such the star could also be interpreted as issuing from the integrative Javanese tradition, eager to negate the differences, and thus to make four into five, and five into one, as seen above.

The symbolism of the chain is not as clear. One could think it was the unity of the islands of the archipelago. It actually symbolises the principle of humanism. In the Javanese pre-Islamic tradition, the chain is the ganitri symbolising the passing of time.

The banyan tree (ficus indicus) represents national unity. It is a sacred tree, the image of which goes to the oldest and deepest layers of Indonesian identity. Here are several Javanese and Balinese illustrations of its role.

In Java, banyan trees used to be planted on the main square of the kingdoms, facing the palace. They still ornate the squares of the modern towns. There are sometimes two types of banyan, the kyai (male) and nyai (female). Up to now, local Javanese peasants continue paying visits to the banyans to make ritual vows and ask for special favours. The banyan is thought to be inhabited by a hyang (spirit). this tradition shows the resilient influence of ancestors cults (the foundation) and of animism. The symbol of the unity of opposites, the male and female banyans, is found throughout Indonesia.

Balinese banyans are “living beings”. They each have a shrine address to its “soul”. As living beings, they also have to be dressed. Banyans are planted near all the main village temples with a ceremony to “bring them to life” and to enable the villagers to use them for ritual purposes; banyan leaves are used for the making of an effigy of the dead, in the post-cremation ceremony, as well as in the making of an offering offered to the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati.

Thus the banyan evokes the same old cults as in Java, and almost certainly, in other parts of Indonesia. It incarnates continuity between the land and the ancestors. Considering that it consists of many roots becoming one tree providing shade, no wonder it became the symbol of national unity as well as of protection.

The banteng (bos sundaicus) illustrates the principle of representation. It is also a symbol of strength, the strength of the people. The banteng might have become a common symbol of strength only recently. Another bovine, the kebo (buffalo), has long been a much more common symbol of strength. Many Javanese and Balinese heroes bear the name of Kebo: Kebo Iwa, Kebo Gumarang, etc. There are buffalo offerings throughout Indonesia, the most famous being in Toraja. In Bali, buffaloes are thrown into the sea and into craters as offerings. But the buffalo is also seen as the connection between earthly and heavenly worlds. In the most important temple festivals, the head of a sacrificed buffalo is put at the foot of the gods platform (panggungan), so that the gods can come down from their invisible abode (niskala) without touching the ground. Thus the buffalo head is a bridge (titih), a foundation. Thus, if we assimilate the functions of the two bovines, it appears that to the symbol of strength must be added that of foundation and the instrument of prosperity.

The last emblem, rice and cotton, are obvious symbols of prosperity. The rice refers to Wisnu through his mate Sri, the Goddess of Rice.

Let us now analyse the motto carried in Garuda’s claws. Again, we shall find continuity under a new function.

In the Old-Javanese tradition, Garuda is the carrier of the elixir of immortality. In modern representation, he carries in his claws a sentence which reads: “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, the official translation of which is “Unity in Diversity”. Thus the formula, quoted from the Old-Javanese poem Sutasoma, reads like a motto for national unity. It indeed conveys such a meaning. But a deeper analysis reveals a no less important, and barely hidden, meaning.

The phrase Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is quoted from a larger stanza. The complete stanza goes as follows:

“Rwaneka dhatu winuwus wara Buddha Wiswa, bhineki rakwa ring apan kena parwanosen, mangkang Jinatma kalawan Siwatma tunggal, bhinneka tunggal ika tan ana dharma mangrwa”,

which translates as:

“It is said that Buddha and Siwa are of different substances; they are different indeed, but how can they possibly be separated? The essence of Buddha and of Siwa is the same; they are different while being one, the truth cannot become two.”

This Old-Javanese stance is just another formulation of a concept of tolerance found throughout the history of the archipelago. Truth does exist and cannot be divided, although it is beyond comprehension. It permeates the essence of all godly teachings.

In the quotation above it is Buddha and Siwa, but it could just as easily be any other teaching. On the other hand, the substance (dhatu) of these teachings differs. The teaching derived from this stanza is that all religions participate in the same essence while being of a different substance. They are different, while being the same. Garuda is the bearer of the elixir of immortality, the amerta. Setting aside the traditional concept of amerta, this immortality is twofold. On one hand it is immortality in a religious sense, Indonesia being a non-secular state, on the other hand it is immortality in a political sense, with Indonesia being expected to survive through history.

* Traditional religious tolerance:

The full quote of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika suggests that all religions are equal in their quest for God; they must tolerate each other.

* Modern inter group tolerance:

The Bhinneka Tunggal Ika itself, translated as “Unity in Diversity” out of its classical Old-Javanese context, expresses the hope that Indonesians will be united despite their diversity of language, ethnic groups, religion and class. This is the key to national unity.

National unity indeed combines the concepts behind Garuda, Pancasila and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika.

National strength and stability, symbolised by Garuda being immortal, and by the elixir of life carried by Garuda, depend on tolerance, in particular ethnic and religious tolerance. Tolerance depends on the strength of Garuda as the vehicle of political power, i.e.. the government, Garuda carrying Wisnu. The three elements of religious tolerance, political power and national stability all depend on the strength of the five principles (Pancasila) embedded in Garuda’s body and on the potency of the amerta of national unity engraved in the motto. And ultimately the strength of the government as a vehicle of power, of Pancasila as ideology, of Indonesia as a nation and of tolerance as way of life depends on the strength of Garuda’s heart: the idea of God.