De-mystifying Myths

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Analysis of the Myth of Garuda and the Nagas

The Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Puranas contain a lot of myths or unbelievable stories. Different people who have analyzed these myths has tried to explain these myths and unbelievable stories in different ways. Let us take an example. There is a passage in Mahabharata (Mbh 1.16) where it describes the birth of the snakes (Nagas) and the bird Garuda. There it says, Kadru and Vinata were two wives of the sage Kasyapa and that they were sisters. Considering the fact that in those days a man took many women for his wives, there are no unbelievable elements in this piece of information. Subsequently it is said that Kadru and Vinata laid eggs and from those eggs were born the snakes as well as the bird named Garuda. This information has an element of unbelievability in it.

For interesting readers the passage in Mahabharata is given below:-

Mahabharata, Book 1: Adi Parva, Upa-parva: Astika Parva, Chapter: 16

In the golden age, Prajapati had two daughters. The sisters were endowed with wonderful beauty. Named Kadru and Vinata, they became the wives of Kasyapa. Kasyapa derived great pleasure from his two wedded wives and being gratified he, resembling Prajapati himself, offered to give each of them a boon. Hearing that their lord was willing to confer on them their choice blessings, those excellent ladies felt transports of joy. Kadru wished to have for sons a thousand snakes all of equal splendour. And Vinata wished to bring forth two sons surpassing the thousand offsprings of Kadru in strength, energy, size of body, and prowess. Unto Kadru her lord gave that boon about a multitude of offspring. And unto Vinata also, Kasyapa said, ‘Be it so!’ Then Vinata, having; obtained her prayer, rejoiced greatly. Obtaining two sons of superior prowess, she regarded her boon fulfilled. Kadru also obtained her thousand sons of equal splendour. ‘Bear the embryos carefully,’ said Kasyapa, and then he went into the forest, leaving his two wives pleased with his blessings.’

“Sauti continued, ‘O best of regenerate ones, after a long time, Kadru brought forth a thousand eggs, and Vinata two. Their maid-servants deposited the eggs separately in warm vessels. Five hundred years passed away, and the thousand eggs produced by Kadru burst and out came the progeny. But the twins of Vinata did not appear. Vinata was jealous, and therefore she broke one of the eggs and found in it an embryo with the upper part developed but the lower one undeveloped. At this, the child in the egg became angry and cursed his mother, saying. ‘Since thou hast prematurely broken this egg, thou shall serve as a slave. Shouldst thou wait five hundred years and not destroy, or render the other egg half-developed, by breaking it through impatience, then the illustrious child within it will deliver thee from slavery! And if thou wouldst have the child strong, thou must take tender care of the egg for all this time!’ Thus cursing his mother, the child rose to the sky. O Brahmana, even he is the charioteer of Surya, always seen in the hour of morning!

“Then at the expiration of the five hundred years, bursting open the other egg, out came Garuda, the serpent-eater.

Extraction of truth from the myth

There are several ways to explain this myth. One way is to believe that all the information expressed in this narration as true. This require us to believe that all of the following information listed below are true.

  1. A man (sage Kasyapa) can have two or many woman as his wives (Kadru, Vinata)
  2. Kasyapa was fully satisfied with his two wives and wanted to fulfill their wishes, as he was so pleased with them
  3. A competent person (like sage Kasyapa) can give boons
  4. Boons will realize, however impossible it may seem to be
  5. A woman would like to have snakes as her sons
  6. A woman would like to have birds as her sons
  7. A woman would like to have thousand sons
  8. A woman would like to have two great sons, stronger than numerous sons of another women
  9. A woman can lay eggs
  10. Eggs needs warmth to develop the embryos within them: this is even so for the eggs of snakes and birds
  11. Maid servants of Kadru and Vinata kept eggs, from which snakes and birds are supposed to be hatched, separately in warm vessels
  12. An egg may take 500 to 1000 years to fully develop
  13. Kadru and Vinata lived for more than 1000 years
  14. If an undeveloped egg (of a bird) is broken we may see an undeveloped embryo (of a bird) in it
  15. After half the development, half part of the embryo will be developed
  16. The body develops from head to toe, so that after half the development upper half of the body will be fully developed
  17. A bird (Aruna) as it broke from egg, half developed, can speak and rise in the air
  18. What a bird(Aruna) spoke was intelligible to Vinata
  19. A competent person (like Aruna) can curse
  20. Curses will realize, how ever possible or impossible it may seem to be
  21. Vinata will serve / served as a slave
  22. Garuda, the son of Vinata, ended the slavery of Vinata
  23. Surya is traveling in a chariot
  24. Aruna became the charioteer of Surya
  25. Aruna, the charioteer of Surya was the son of Vinata
  26. Surya, who travels in a chariot, is the sun
  27. Surya, the sun is travelling in a chariot
  28. Aruna, the charioteer of Surya was a bird
  29. Garuda was the son of Vinata
  30. Garunda eats / ate snakes (serpents)
  31. There are birds that took 1000 years to develop in an egg
  32. There are birds that eat snakes
  33. Garuda is a bird
  34. Garuda, the son of Vinata, who ended her slavery, was a bird
  35. Garuda, a bird, took 1000 years to develop in an egg

Another way of explanation will be based on filtering the information that seems to be rational from the information that seems to be irrational or impossible

Let us see if we can filter these individual pieces of information as rational or irrational, possible or impossible, true or false:-

  1. A man (sage Kasyapa) can have two or many woman as his wives (Kadru, Vinata) - POSSIBLE, POLYGAMY WAS VERY COMMON THEN
  2. Kasyapa was fully satisfied with his two wives and wanted to fulfill their wishes, as he was so pleased with them - POSSIBLE
  3. A competent person (like sage Kasyapa) can give boons - POSSIBLE
  4. A woman would like to have snakes as her sons - POSSIBLE FOR A WOMAN TO DREAM LIKE THAT; A WOMAN CAN ALSO RAISE SNAKES AS PETS AND CONSIDER THEM AS HER CHILDREN
  5. A woman would like to have birds as her sons - POSSIBLE FOR A WOMAN TO DREAM LIKE THAT; A WOMAN CAN ALSO RAISE BIRDS AS PETS AND CONSIDER THEM AS HER CHILDREN
  6. A woman would like to have thousand sons - POSSIBLE FOR A WOMAN TO WISH FOR 1000 SONS
  7. A woman would like to have two great sons, stronger than numerous sons of another women - POSSIBLE FOR A WOMEN TO WISH LIKE THAT
  8. Eggs needs warmth to develop the embryos within them: this is even so for the eggs of snakes and birds - TRUE
  9. Maid servants of Kadru and Vinata kept eggs, from which snakes and birds are supposed to be hatched, separately in warm vessels - POSSIBLE
  10. If an undeveloped egg (of a bird) is broken we may see an undeveloped embryo (of a bird) in it - TRUE
  11. After half the development, half part of the embryo will be developed - MORE OR LESS TRUE
  12. A competent person (like Aruna) can curse - POSSIBLE
  13. Vinata will serve / served as a slave - POSSIBLE
  14. Garuda, the son of Vinata, ended the slavery of Vinata - POSSIBLE
  15. Surya is traveling in a chariot - POSSIBLE, IF WE TAKE SURYA TO BE A MAN
  16. Aruna became the charioteer of Surya - POSSIBLE, IF SURYA AND ARUNA ARE TWO MEN
  17. Aruna, the charioteer of Surya was the son of Vinata - POSSIBLE
  18. Garuda was the son of Vinata - POSSIBLE
  19. Garunda eats /ate snakes (serpents) - POSSIBLE, EVEN NOW FOR SOME CULTURES (EG:-CHINESE), SNAKE IS A FAVORITE FOOD
  20. There are birds that eat snakes- TRUE
  21. Garuda is a bird - POSSIBLE TO HAVE A BIRD TO BE NAMED GARUDA
  1. A woman can lay eggs - IMPOSSIBLE (WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT THE EGG-CELLS FORMED IN THE OVARY)
  2. Boons will realize, however impossible it may seem to be - IMPOSSIBLE
  3. Curses will realize, how ever possible or impossible it may seem to be - IMPOSSIBLE
  4. An egg may take 500 to 1000 years to fully develop - IMPOSSIBLE, ANCIENT PEOPLE COULD HAVE BELIEVED SO
  5. Kadru and Vinata lived for more than 1000 years - IMPOSSIBLE
  6. The body develops from head to toe, so that after half the development upper half of the body will be fully developed - FALSE
  7. A bird (Aruna) as it broke from egg, half developed, can speak and rise in the air - IMPOSSIBLE
  8. What a bird(Aruna) spoke was intelligible to Vinata - IMPOSSIBLE
  9. Surya, who travels in a chariot, is the sun - IMPOSSIBLE
  10. Surya, the sun is travelling in a chariot - FALSE, THIS WAS THE ANCIENT BELIEF
  11. Aruna, the charioteer of Surya was a bird - IMPOSSIBLE
  12. There are birds that took 1000 years to develop in an egg - IMPOSSIBLE, ANCIENT PEOPLE COULD HAVE BELIEVED SO
  13. Garuda, the son of Vinata, who ended her slavery, was a bird - IMPOSSIBLE
  14. Garuda, a bird, took 1000 years to develop in an egg - IMPOSSIBLE

Thus we have seen that around 5/7th part of information contained in this myth about Garuda is rational / possible / true while around 2/7th of it is irrational / impossible or false. We have seen one way of explaining the myth is accepting all of these as facts. Yet another way of explaining the myth is to reject the entire myth as false or as pure imagination, because there are impossibilities / irrationality / falsehood. For some analysts, the presence of a single impossibility / irrationality / falsehood is enough to reject the entire myth as false or pure fiction.

These (accepting the entire myth as completely true, rejecting the entire myth as completely false) are two extreme cases of myth-analysis. There are other ways of analysis that falls between these two extreme cases of analysis. An example of such an analysis is, constructing an explanation for the myth after rejecting the negative (impossible, irrational, false) statements, but using the positive (possible, rational, true) statements as a basis of explanation. Some analysts will explain the myth by bridging the gap between positive statements using other statements that are contextually in agreement with the available positive statements. Some others will try to convert negative statements into positive by basing their explanations on theories that are beyond the myth itself (for example, the theory of ancient-alien-presence, the theory of ancient scientific excellence, the theory of divine intervention or divinity, the theory of infallibility of scriptures etc)

Myth Analysis: Different Approaches

Let us see roughly, how the myth will be explained using these various ways of myth-analysis:-

  1. Blind Acceptance: The entire myth is absolutely true(Thousand snakes are born from a women, two birds are born from another, hatched from eggs laid by these women, who lived for 1000s of years)
  2. Complete Rejection: The entire myth is false and an imagination (Snakes and birds are never born of women, women never lay eggs from which snakes and birds are hatched, there is no existence to Kadru, Vinata, Kashyapa, Garuda or Aruna as they are part of an imaginative story)
  3. Filtered Acceptance: There is some truth in the myth but there is some falsehood (Women never lay eggs to give rise to snakes and birds; nobody lives for 1000s of years; but Kasyapa, Kardu, Vinata, Aruna, Garuda and Surya existed; Aruna and Garuda could be sons of Vinata; Aruna later could have become charioteer of Surya; Aruna might had some bodily disability below abdomen; Garuda could have ended slavery of Vinata, who for some time lived as a slave (of Kadru); Garuda could have eaten snakes for food, like many people we know today)
  4. Filtered Acceptance with Additions: There is some truth in the myth, but there are some gaps to be bridged and some falsehood to be discarded (Women never lay eggs to give rise to snakes and birds; nobody lives for 1000s of years; but Kasyapa, Kardu, Vinata, Aruna, Garuda and Surya existed; Kadru and Vinata were wives of Kashyapa; Kadru was fond of snakes, who used to raise snakes as pets; Vinata was jealous of Kadru, disliked snakes and liked birds who predate on snakes; Kasyapa, pleased with Kadru, gave here 1000 snake eggs; Kasyapa, pleased with Vinata, gave her 2 eggs of a bird (possibly hawk) that predate on snakes; Kasyapa mentioned wives to preserve the embryos inside the eggs very well and left. Maid-servants kept the eggs each in warm vessels to preserve the embryos; Kadru's eggs hatched first and she raised the 1000 snakes as her own sons; Bird eggs of Vinata took long time to hatch. An impatient Vinata broke open one of the eggs. She was shocked to find that the embryo was only half developed, horrifyingly mixed with fresh red (Aruna = red) blood!. The half developed bird embryo struggled to breath and died. Vinata felt guilty of what she did. She felt like the soul of the dead bird going up and merging with the morning son that shone red (Aruna = red) in the eastern horizon at that time; She felt that the bird's soul is cursing her, for what she had done to it; In the later stages of her life when she had to live like a slave (of Kadru), she felt it was due to her sin of breaking the half developed egg; the other egg hatched properly and a bird was born; She named the bird Garuda; that bird started eating snakes as its food; Vinata was very happy to see it devouring snakes and secretly wished to feed all of Kadru's pet snake to him. Later, Kadru and Vinata got many sons born of Kasyapa. Vinata named her first son in memory of the dead bird and named him Aruna (the red one). Aruna might also had some (minor?) bodily disability below abdomen (like a weak leg?), by birth or post birth; This son Aruna, in his later life became the charioteer of king Surya; She named her second son as Garuda in the fond memory of the other bird; Garuda in his later life ended slavery of Vinata; Garuda was fond of eating snakes as food, which became part of his non-vegetarian diet, probably encouraged by his mother Vinata, who hated Kadru and her snakes; Kadru's sons and grandsons themselves were font of snakes, like Kadru; They later developed into a race called the Nagas who worshiped the snakes as part of their culture, religion and ritual; They raised snakes as pets in their dwellings; Vinata's sons including Garuda, and her grandsons hated snakes and they worshiped birds (like hawks) that predated on snakes, and raised these birds as pets in their dwellings; they later developed into a race called the Suparnas / Garudas / Vainateyas. They ate snakes as part of their food-habits and became arch rivals of the Nagas;)
  5. Acceptance invoking aliens: There is some truth in the myth and what seems to be falsehood can be explained scientifically (Vinata and Kadru were two alien ladies, who laid eggs for reproduction; After uniting with the human Kashyapa, they laid eggs; Kadru laid 1000 eggs from which were born 1000 snakes and Vinata laid 2 eggs from which were born the two birds Aruna and Garuda; the snakes and the birds Aruna and Garuda had the human genes of sage Kasyapa, so they can speak in human language; Since they were alien, they lived for thousands of years and it took 500 to 1000 years to hatch the eggs; the snake sons of Kadru later developed into the Naga race; since they had human genes in them they could transform into a human form if needed and at other times appear as snakes; similarly Vinata's bird like son Garuda, since he too possessed human genes had the traits of humans and birds; Vinata's first son Aruna, who had some bodily disability below the abdomen, probably due to improper human-alien genetic combination, aggravated by the fact that the egg was broken prematurely, became an associate of Surya who was an alien astronaut who was in control of the sun (probably in charge of controlling solar winds that affect the weather on Earth))
  6. Acceptance invoking divinity: The myth is true and what seems to be falsehood has a divine explanation (Vinata and Kadru were not humans; they were divine beings created by god Brahma (through Prajapati) and so is sage Kasyapa; For divine beings, everything is possible, including giving birth by laying eggs. So there is no wonder if Kadru gave birth through 1000 snakes by laying thousand eggs and if Vinata gave birth to Aruna and Garuda by laying two divine eggs. Snakes were also divine; Some like Ananta and Vasuki were gods; Some like Takshaka and most other snakes became devious and dangerous; Garuda is a powerful god; Aruna was indeed born exactly as explained in the myth, as he too is a god and is capable of doing what he did and went to sun-god Surya to became his charioteer. Contrary to what astronomers think today, the sun-god is indeed driven by Aruna in a chariot across our skies and it is of no use questioning this divine principle.)

Variant Approaches

There can also be several variations to each of these typical explanations. For example yet another scientific explanation may invoke the theory of ancient scientific excellence, which believes that all the modern science as we know it today and much more of it were known to the people of the ancient world. So, based on that one would say that, since science was well advanced in those periods so that it was possible for Kadru and Vinata or somebody on behalf of them, to take their egg-cells in the ovary, fertilize it with sperm of Kasyapa, infuse them into eggs, probably eggs of snakes and birds and probably adding the genes of snakes and birds as well. This is the acceptance based on ancient scientific excellence.

Similarly, akin to the divine explanation one can invoke the theory of infallibility of the scriptures, that everything written in the scriptures, including Mahabharata, cannot be false and so however hard they are to believe, all of it must be true due to reasons unknown to humans and modern science. This is acceptance based on the infallibility of scriptures.

One can also form variants of the explanation detailed in "Filtered Acceptance with Additions" as follows. There were two tribes. There were a tribe called the Nagas who as part of their culture and religion, worshiped the snakes as a ritual, raised them as pets. There were this other tribe called the Suparnas, who in complete contrast, hated the snakes, ate them as part of their diet, worshiped snake-eating birds as part of their culture and religion, raised them as pets and enjoyed the sight of these birds eating snakes. It is natural for these tribes, if co-existed in a common territory to fight each other. There could be several wars between them. There could be wars of words, and wars using fables and stories countering one another. They might have had blood relations in the past. So they might have invented common fables about their ancestral origins. The story of Kadru and Vinata could be such a story of common ancestral origin prevailed in the society of the Nagas and the Suparnas. Perhaps a lady like Kadru, actually existed in the past who loved snakes like her children and so did another lady Vinata, who may or may not be related to her, but who loved the snake eating birds instead. Perhaps the tribes of Nagas and Suparnas believed they derived their ancestry from these ladies. Perhaps their ancestry is actually derived from these ladies.

Belief of eggs taking five hundred or hundreds of years to hatch can also be explained. Like our modern day archeologists, the ancient people also might have encountered fossilized remains of dinosaurs and dinosaur-eggs. Skeletal remains of flying creatures, huge in size, unearthed during the mining for metal ores or during the construction of palaces and buildings, might have resulted in stories about giant birds. Similarly fossil remains of huge reptiles and snakes of the Jurassic age, can give rise to stories about huge serpents (and dragons mentioned in Chinese mythology). Ancient people might have got fossilized dinosaur eggs, and have seen fossilized dinosaur embryos inside such eggs. People who got them might have had the curiosity to see them hatched and see the giant birds and snakes emerging out of them. With such hopes, they might have preserved these eggs for a few generations, lasting for a few centuries, hoping that the eggs will hatch at some point of time. Irrespective of if anybody saw anything hatching out of these fossilized eggs, all of these observations could have resulted in the myth of huge eggs taking five hundred or thousand years to hatch, and when they hatched giant serpents and birds emerged out of them.

Conclusion

Usually a myth is analyzed in relations with other myths. I have here analyzed the myth of the birth of Garuda and the Nagas, in isolation, as an example. Here, one can as well consider analyzing other related myths like the myth of the birth of Kasyapa along with other seven sages, of the birth of Kadru and Vinata along with many other daughters of Prajapati Daksha or the other myths about Garuda, Surya, or the Nagas like Ananta and Vasuki.

Different people, based on their understanding and orientation, would like to believe or follow some or other the explanations of the myth as explained above. There can be many other methods to de-mystify myths, which may or may not fall to one of the categories explained above. Here I have explained the myth of the birth of Garuda and the Nagas and saw some of the typical myth-analysis paradigms. Similarly we can de-mystify any other myth described in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Puranas and other ancient texts. Examples for such myths include the myth of Garuda bringing Amruta from the heaven, the myth of the divine births of the Pandavas, the myth of the birth of the hundred sons of Gandhari from a dead featus, incarnation myths etc. I shall delve into each of these myths some other time. I welcome you also to think about these from different perspectives. Thus we will be able to decipher hidden layers of information inherent in these ancient voices.

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Created by Jijith Nadumuri at 09 Jan 2010 10:30 and updated at 24 Sep 2014 09:04

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