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Old October 14th, 2011, 11:31 AM   #1

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Garuda in Chinese literature and how he got there


Note - I know Garuda is Indian in origin. When I speak of the "Garuda motif," I am referring to an artistic motif which portrays him hovering above the heads of Buddhist figures.

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Garuda is a bird deity that appears in both the Hindu and Buddhist Pantheon. In the Mahabharata, he is the offspring of the creator-rishi Kashyapa and Vinata, one of the 13 daughters of the Prajapati Daksha. When he hatches from his egg, his powerful body resembles the fire that destroys the universe at the end of each cosmic cycle. He only reduces his size to a manageable level when the gods beg him to do so. Garuda later sets out on a quest to steal amrit (immortal elixir) from the gods to exchange for his mother when she is enslaved by his aunt Kadru, mother of the Naga-serpents. The gods intervene and promise to help him free his mother. In the end, he saves her, becomes immortal, and acts as the mount of the god Vishnu. In Buddhism, Garuda is portrayed as either a singular protector deity or as an entire race of such birds.

Garuda is connected with the famous Song Dynasty general Yue Fei (1103-1142) in his Qing era folkore biography The Story of Yue Fei (1684). In the story, Garuda, called “Great Peng, the Golden-winged Illumination King,” perches on the top of the Buddha’s throne. But after killing a celestial bat for farting during the Buddha’s sermon, he is exiled from heaven and later reborn as Yue Fei. Prior to this, Garuda made an appearance in chapters 74-77 of the noted Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592). In the story, he is called the “Peng of a thousand miles of clouds,” who is portrayed as a demon king ruling over a foreign country west of China, as being as old as the cosmos itself, and a spiritual uncle of the Buddha. Because of this, he is so powerful that the Monkey King must enlist the help of the Enlightened One to subdue him. The Buddha casts the illusion that his halo is a raw piece of meat, and when Garuda latches on to it, Tathagata takes away the use of his wings, trapping him forever above his lotus throne. This serves as a folklore origin for why Garuda is sometimes portrayed as hovering above the heads of various Buddhist deities in Buddhist art.

I first stumbled upon this artistic motif while trying to find other mentions of Garuda in Chinese literature. I found numerous examples of it ranging from the 12th century to the present. Here is a Tibetan Thanka from the 15th century showing the motif (look above the deity's head):

Click the image to open in full size.

I couldn’t find any other examples of it in China or India that weren’t influenced by Tibet, so I came to the conclusion that the motif was exclusive to Tibetan Buddhism. A passage in a research paper by Prof. Heather Stoddard, an expert in Asian Art, later confirmed this theory. The paper read: “This garuda mandorla is in fact present in all the main Tibetan styles, and is indeed unique to Tibetan art…The author has searched all over Asia, in Hindu or Buddhist cultures, without success, looking for the garuda in this pro-eminent position” (“Early Tibetan Paintings: Sources and Styles (Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries A.D,” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 49 (1992), p. 41). The earliest example that I could find of the motif was the 12th century, so I figured it had to have made its way to China sometime after this to influence the novels. In fact, the Mongols were patrons of Tibetan Buddhism during the Yuan period (1271-1368). Some may be surprised to learn that Garuda appears on the “cloud platform” of the Great Wall’s Juyong pass (built in 1345):

(credit goes to snuffy on flickr)

Click the image to open in full size.

A believe an early Qing emperor was a patron of Tibetan Buddhism as well. This would explain the presence of the motif in Beijing’s Yonghegong Lama Temple (built in 1694):

Click the image to open in full size.

However, my theory about the motif coming from Tibet was later challenged. I took a class on the Buddhist art of China and Japan earlier this year. The teacher was going through slides of Chinese cave temples when she flipped to an interior picture of Yungang cave #12. It was of a relief sculpture of a building full of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Above the heads of three Bodhisattvas on the second floor was a bird that bore a striking resemblance to Garuda:

Click the image to open in full size.

Detail

Click the image to open in full size.

It didn’t appear to be a phoenix because two of those where on either side of the bird in question:

Click the image to open in full size.

What puzzled me was the fact that the Yungang caves dated from the late 5th century. Buddhism wasn’t introduced into Tibet until the middle of the 7th century, so why was the motif in China? The only answer I could think of was that the motif had actually evolved in China and later traveled to Tibet after the introduction of Buddhism.

...

Last edited by ghostexorcist; October 14th, 2011 at 12:21 PM.
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Old October 14th, 2011, 11:40 AM   #2

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...

I am now taking a class on Indian and Southeast Asian art. Seeing all of the beautiful pictures of Indian architecture inspired me to look up pictures on the archive ARTSTOR. It was while doing this that I ran across several pictures of architectural structures with similar motifs of protector deities being in a superior position above doorways, arches, and lintels. I then looked up pictures of Garuda and was surprised to find that several ancient Buddhist and Hindu structures include him in the same manner. For instance, the doorway to an Indian Buddhist Chaitya Hall (#40) in Maharashtra dating from the 2nd-3rd century BCE has him standing at the top (on the left) with the Naga King:

Click the image to open in full size.

A Vishnu temple in Karnataka dating to 578 has a carving of him on an interior lintel:

Click the image to open in full size.

A Durga temple in Karnataka dating to 700 has a very Romanesque version of him on a lintel:

Click the image to open in full size.

A (Buddhist?) temple in Cambodia dating between 875 and 925 has a very husky version of him on a lintel:

Click the image to open in full size.

These are just a few examples that I found on ARTSTOR. Therefore, it appears that the Garuda motif is actually Indian in origin and was first used in stone architecture. The motif later made its way to China (as evidenced in Yungang cave #12) and even later into Tibet, where it was visualized in paint and textile. Then it traveled to China in a second wave when the Mongols patronized Tibetan Buddhism. Finally, Chinese authors saw this motif and later added it into their famous novels.

Garuda's position above the doorways, arches, and lintels as a protector deity explains why he was painted above the heads of prominent Buddhist figures.

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Old October 14th, 2011, 11:47 AM   #3

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Well the Garuda appears in the Mahabharata, which, in its earliest forms, is a pre-Christian text.

It begs the question though - why was Professor Stoddard unable to find prominent Garuda motifs when you were able to find the above with a quick online search?
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Old October 14th, 2011, 11:50 AM   #4

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I know, I mentioned the Mahabharata in the first paragraph. This picture essay just traces how he came to appear in Chinese literature via Tibetan Buddhist art.
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Old October 14th, 2011, 12:14 PM   #5

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Naomasa298 View Post
It begs the question though - why was Professor Stoddard unable to find prominent Garuda motifs when you were able to find the above with a quick online search?
It should be pointed out that Prof. Stoddard's paper was from 1992. Her research interests may have changed since then. I've got some of her most current works, and she doesn't mention the motif at all. The motif is only a minor portion of some Tibetan art. At the time she made the statement, she may have only been looking for it in paintings and textiles like I originally was. I only just realized the connection to Indian stone architecture. I sent her an email about it yesterday. I'm hoping she writes me back.

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Old October 14th, 2011, 07:54 PM   #6
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It should be noted that, the great bird is meantioned in Chinese text before buddism arrived .

For example, the first definitive use of "Great Peng" was this

Quote:
北冥有魚,其名為。鯤之大,不知其幾千里也。化而為鳥,其名為。鵬之背,不知其幾千里也;怒而飛,其翼若垂天之雲。是鳥也,海運則將徙於南冥。南冥者,天池 也。」
Which was in 逍遙遊 by Zhuang Zhou, a famed daoist in early Warring States period. (he roughly lived in about 369-286 bc ) now this was after Buddha's time of course, but there's little evidence to believe there's much contact between India and China at this point, most sources would indicate that only startd by the Han dynasty a few hundred years later.

Other older books make references to giant birds as well, though using different names.
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Old October 14th, 2011, 09:18 PM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by RollingWave View Post
It should be noted that, the great bird is meantioned in Chinese text before buddism arrived .

For example, the first definitive use of "Great Peng" was this



Which was in 逍遙遊 by Zhuang Zhou, a famed daoist in early Warring States period. (he roughly lived in about 369-286 bc ) now this was after Buddha's time of course, but there's little evidence to believe there's much contact between India and China at this point, most sources would indicate that only startd by the Han dynasty a few hundred years later.

Other older books make references to giant birds as well, though using different names.
The nomenclature used to describe Garuda in Journey to the West actually comes from the Zhuangzi. The "thousand miles of clouds" refers to the vast distances that the Peng bird can travel with a single flap of its wings.

The author of The Story of Yue Fei connected the general with the bird because of a similarity in their names. Yue Fei's historical style name was Pengju (鵬舉). Garuda's Chinese name is 大鵬金翅明王.
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Old October 16th, 2011, 11:37 AM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Naomasa298 View Post
It begs the question though - why was Professor Stoddard unable to find prominent Garuda motifs when you were able to find the above with a quick online search?
ARTSTOR wasn't around in 1992 when she wrote the paper either. It's a scholarly archive like JSTOR. I would say it would normally take a person years to learn about and actually locate examples of all of the pictures of Garuda I found. I just have an advantage that she didn't have at the time.
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Old October 29th, 2011, 12:14 PM   #9

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This is an example of Garuda in a superior position from Indian Buddhist art. ARTSTOR dates it to the late 10th cen., but the housing institution dates it to the late 12th or 13th century. I stumbled upon it while looking for pictures of Vajrapani.

Click the image to open in full size.

Detail

Click the image to open in full size.


I found one 19th century portrayal of Vajrapani that has Garuda as apart of the deity's crown. It was interesting.

Regarding Garuda's portrayal above arches, I think this is some type of religious symbolism connecting the people who walk through the archways featuring him to the Buddhist figures who he hovers over. Take the first example I gave in my initial post (15th cen. Thanka).

Click the image to open in full size.

Does the halo not look like an archway? The archway is symbolic of the halo that comes from Nirvana.

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Old October 29th, 2011, 04:06 PM   #10

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Quote:
Originally Posted by ghostexorcist View Post
The nomenclature used to describe Garuda in Journey to the West actually comes from the Zhuangzi. The "thousand miles of clouds" refers to the vast distances that the Peng bird can travel with a single flap of its wings.

The author of The Story of Yue Fei connected the general with the bird because of a similarity in their names. Yue Fei's historical style name was Pengju (鵬舉). Garuda's Chinese name is 大鵬金翅明王.
When I was a child, I read a folk story about Yuei Fei and his nemesis 金兀朮 http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%85%80%E6%9C%AF. In his previous life, Yuei Fei was the great eagle that perched on Buddha's shoulder. The eagle was banished to our world for some infraction that I can't remember. On its way, the eagle encountered a great dragon playing in the Yellow River. Eagle pecked an eye out of the dragon, and the dragon coiled in pain. The dragon reincarnated to be 金兀朮, and the eagle, of course, reincarnated to be Yuei Fei. Their rivalry will continue on Song's battle fields.

In Hinduism, Garuda and the Dragon are arch-enemies, no?
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