Monday, December 19, 2022

Garuda and the Metaphysics of Death and Rebirth

Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda

(12th century sculpture)

A major difference between Hinduism and the Semitic religions is in the area of the metaphysics of death and rebirth. In Semitic religions death is permanent—when an individual dies, his soul goes to heaven or hell, depending on his deeds, and there it resides till eternity. In Hinduism, death is not permanent. After serving in the world of afterlife, a dead man’s soul returns to the land of the living. The process of birth and rebirth is eternal, and all beings, even the supreme sages and Gods, are subject to it. 

Every year, Hindus observe Pitru Paksha for a fortnight—the word “pitru” means ancestors and “paksha” means fortnight. The sixteen days of Pitru Paksha fall on the 2nd fortnight of the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada (September). In this period, Hindus perform rituals to venerate and feed the souls of their dead ancestors. It is the metaphysics of death and rebirth that drives these rituals—the living believe that by performing these rituals they will facilitate a quick return (rebirth) of their dead ancestors from the land of the dead. 

The metaphysics of death and rebirth, and the custom of observing Pitru Paksha is one of the oldest features of Hinduism—these religious and philosophical ideas were developed in the Vedic Age, about 4000 years ago, and are explicated in the Garuda Purana, which is one of the major Puranas of Hinduism. Most historians believe that the Garuda Purana was systematized between the seventh and ninth centuries CE, but the religious and philosophical knowledge contained in this text is to a large extent of Vedic origin. 

Garuda is the divine eagle who is more powerful than Indra and all the Devas. He is the vanquisher of nagas, and the mount of Lord Vishnu. He is capable of flying anywhere in the universe. He is full of wisdom and dharma. When he receives Amrita (the elixir of eternal life) after defeating Indra and the Devas, he does not drink it. He faithfully transports the Amrita to the right place, and ensures its eventual return to the Devas. He does not crave for power, wealth, and glory—he wants wisdom and knowledge. His desire for wisdom and knowledge is fulfilled by Vishnu. 

From Vishnu, Garuda learns about the metaphysics of death and rebirth, and what the living must do to ensure the happy rebirth of their dead ancestors. Garuda transmits this knowledge to his father Kashyapa Prajapati. Kashyapa taught this knowledge to Bhrigu, who taught it to Vasishtha. From Vasishtha this knowledge went to Parashara, who told it to Veda Vyasa. For the benefit of mankind, Vyasa compiled this knowledge in the text called Garuda Purana. During the observation of Pitru Paksha, it is a tradition to recite the verses from Garuda Purana.

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