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The Sanskrit word Vihana means ‘vehicle’ or ‘carrier’, denoting an animal or creature that serves as a vehicle or mount for a deity. The vahana accompanies, pulls the chariot of, or serves as the seat or mount of the transcendental personality he serves. A vahana is sometimes depicted on banners and emblems to identify the cult or affiliation of the devotee.
In some instances, the vahana assists an exalted personality to manifest on planes or in spheres or worlds hierarchically inferior to their own. In one of Vishnu’s pastimes, for example, he is described as riding upon Garuda, “since the Lord is not accustomed to stand on earthly ground”.
In this segment we will explore the vahanas of the Lord and several of the demigods, beginning today with Garuda, the transcendental carrier of Visnu.
There are different types of incarnations of the Supreme personality of Godhead. In the sastras it is said that Garuda (the carrier of Lord Visnu) and Lord Siva and Ananta are all very powerful incarnations of the Brahman feature of the Lord.
Vinata [Suparna] and her husband Kasyapa gave birth to Garuda, the carrier of Lord Visnu, and to Anuru, or Aruna, the chariot driver of the sun-god. Kasyapa is the son of Marici, is one of the prajapatis, and is one of the sons-in-law of Prajapati Daksa.
On Salmalidvipa Island there is a salmali tree, from which the island takes its name. That tree is as broad and tall as the plaksa tree–in other words 100 yojanas [800 miles] broad and 1,100 yojanas [8,800 miles] tall. This tree is the residence of Garuda. Garuda was given elephants and tortoises as eatables, and is a favored devotee of the Lord.
Garuda is also said to be an inhabitant of the planet known as Kinnaraloka. The inhabitants of the Kinnara planet have the same features as Garuda. Their bodily features are like those of a human being, but they have wings
Once upon a time, Garuda, the carrier of the Lord, snatched away a nectar pot from the hands of the demigods in heaven in order to liberate his mother, Vinata, from the clutches of his stepmother, Kadru, the mother of the serpents. On learning of this, Indra, the King of heaven, hurled his thunderbolt against Garuda. With a view to respect the infallibility of Indra’s weapon, Garuda, though otherwise invincible, being the Lord’s own mount, dropped one of his wings, which was shattered to pieces by the thunderbolt. The inhabitants of higher planets are so sensible that even in the process of fighting they observe the preliminary rules and regulations of gentleness. In this case, Garuda wanted to show respect for Indra; since he knew that Indra’s weapon must destroy something, he offered his wing.
A sparrow laid her eggs on the shore of the ocean, but the big ocean carried away the eggs on its waves. The sparrow became very upset and asked the ocean to return her eggs. The ocean did not even consider her appeal. So the sparrow decided to dry up the ocean. She began to pick out the water in her small beak, and everyone laughed at her for her impossible determination. The news of her activity spread, and at last Garuda, the gigantic bird carrier of Lord Visnu, heard it. He became compassionate toward his small sister bird, and so he came to see the sparrow. Garuda was very pleased by the determination of the small sparrow, and he promised to help. Thus Garuda at once asked the ocean to return her eggs lest he himself take up the work of the sparrow. The ocean was frightened at this, and returned the eggs. Thus the sparrow became happy by the grace of Garuda.
The hymns forming the basis of the Sama Veda were vibrated by the flapping wings of the Lord’s carrier, Garuda. In the Vedic literature it is stated that the two wings of the transcendental bird Garuda, who carries the Lord everywhere, are two divisions of the Sama Veda known as brhat and rathantara. Garuda works as the carrier of the Lord; therefore he is considered the transcendental prince of all carriers. With his two wings Garuda began to vibrate the Sama Veda, which is chanted by great sages to pacify the Lord. The Lord is worshiped by Brahma, by Lord Siva, by Garuda and other demigods with selected poems, and great sages worship Him with the hymns of Vedic literatures, such as the Upanisads and Sama Veda. These Sama Veda utterances are automatically heard by the devotee when another great devotee of the Lord, Garuda, flaps his wings.
The Lord descends from His abode, Vaikuntha, in the spiritual sky, and is carried by Garuda. Kardama Muni, who was a liberated soul, saw the Supreme Lord in person, face to face. He could also see Garuda carrying the Lord on the way to Vaikuntha and hear the flapping of his wings vibrating the sound of Hare Krsna, the essence of the Sama Veda.
The snakes who live in the planetary system known as Mahatala are very powerful and have many hoods. They live with their wives and children and consider themselves very happy, although they are always full of anxiety because of Garuda, who comes there to destroy them. This is the way of material life. Even if one lives in the most abominable condition, he still thinks himself happy with his wife, children, friends and relatives.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Narayana, seated on Garuda, personally appeared before Gajendra, the King of the elephants. Gajendra, by lifting his trunk, offered obeisances to the Lord, and the Lord immediately pulled him from the water along with the crocodile who had captured his leg. Then the Lord killed the crocodile and thus rescued Gajendra.
In one of his pastimes, the Lord very easily lifted Mandara Mountain with one hand and placed it on the back of Garuda. Then, He too got on the back of Garuda and went to the ocean of milk, surrounded by the demigods and demons. The Lord sat on the mountain and was carried to the spot of the churning by Garuda, who placed the mountain in the middle of the sea. Then the Lord asked Garuda to leave that place because as long as Garuda was present, the snake Vasuki, who was to be used as the rope for churning, could not go there in the presence of Garuda. Garuda, the carrier of Lord Visnu, is not a vegetarian. He eats big snakes. Vasuki, being a great snake, would be natural food for Garuda, the chief of birds. Lord Visnu therefore asked Garuda to leave so that Vasuki could be brought to churn the ocean with Mandara Mountain, which was to be used as the churning rod.
When Caitanya Mahaprabhu appeared in the house of Srivasa Thakura in His Caturbhuja murti, Murari Gupta became His carrier in the form of Garuda, and in these pastimes of ecstasy the Lord then got up on his back.
Once the heavenly king, Indra, was sending torrents of rain over Vrndavana. Garuda was observing the incident from above the clouds, and because of his anger, he began perspiring. When Krsna was fighting with the Kaliya snake by dancing on his heads, Kaliya bit Krsna on the leg. At that time Garuda became infuriated and began to murmur, “Krsna is so powerful that simply by His thundering voice the wives of Kaliya have had miscarriages. Because my Lord has been insulted by this snake, I wish to devour him immediately, but I cannot do so in the presence of my Lord, because He may become angry with me.” This is an instance of eagerness to act in ecstatic love as a result of dishonor to Krsna.
The Lord also assured Kaliya: “You came here out of fear of Garuda, who wanted to eat you in the beautiful land by the ocean. Now, after seeing the marks where I have touched your head with My lotus feet, Garuda will not disturb you.”
The Lord was fighting on the back of Garuda, and Garuda was also helping the Lord by striking the horses and the elephants with his wings and scratching their heads with his nails and sharp beak. The elephants were feeling much pain by Garuda’s attack on them, all were all dispersing from the battlefield. Bhaumasura alone remained on the battlefield, and he engaged himself in fighting with Krsna. He saw that Krsna’s carrier, Garuda, was causing great disturbance to his soldiers and elephants, and in great anger he struck Garuda with all his strength, which defied the strength of the thunderbolt. Fortunately, Garuda was not an ordinary bird, and he felt the strokes given by Bhaumasura just as a great elephant feels the impact of a garland of flowers.
Brahma’s Carrier, Hamsa
Lord Brahma’s vehicle is Hamsa, the Swan. He is also shown riding a chariot drawn by seven swans, representing the seven worlds. Hamsa means ‘pure’. Lord Brahma uses Hamsa not only as his vehicle, but also to chant the Vedas. Lord Brahma himself is sometimes called Hamsa. Hamsa-yana, the airplane by which Brahma travels all over outer space, resembles a swan. Brahma is also known as Hamsa because he can grasp the essence of everything. Some references indicate that Brahma’s swan carrier is akin to the vimanas (celestial spacecraft) run by mantric hymns, i.e., that Hamsa is a subtle mechanism of this kind, and not a sentient living entity.
Shiva’s Carrier, Nandi
Nandi is the bull vahana of Shiva. In many Shiva temples, Nandi is placed directly opposite the entrance to the shrine containing the central image of Shiva, the shiva linga. In this position, Nandi is acting not only as Shiva’s guardian, but also as a constant devotee. As Nandi mimics the position of every devotee who comes to stand before the deity, he is often revered as a model devotee.
In the Panchanadha Shetram, Nandhi is described as a very staunch Shiva devotee who will never tolerate any unbecoming word about Lord Shia. Once during Daksha Yagna , Daksha spoke rudely of Lord Shiva and Nandi closed his two ears, chanting “Siva , Siva”.
As an independent deity, the bull was known in ancient India as Nandikeshvara, the Lord of Joy, often represented as a man with a bull’s head. Nandikeshvara was a rishi who offered service to Shiva by guarding his door.
Lord Shiva has various names describing his association with Nandi. Vrishavahanamurti, the form of Shiva resting against Nandi, is the form he assumes when blessing devotees with freedom from the cycle of existence.
Mahanandishwara is the presiding deity of Lord Shiva that resides in Mahanandishwara temple in Mahanandi. Within a 15 kilometer radius from the temple lie nine Nandis known as “Navanandis”. Mahanandi temple is one of the Nava Nandis, and the other eight temples Prathama Nandi, Naga Nandi, Vinayaka Nandi, Garuda Nandi, Shiva Nandi, Vishnu Nandi, Surya Nandi, and Soma Nandi.
Ganapati’s Carrier, Mooshika
The mount of Ganesh is a mouse called Mooshika, the “Little Hoarder”. Mooshika Vahana is also called Mooshikam, Minjur or Akhu. A hyperactive creature, the mouse is symbolic of our indriyas (ten senses). Therefore Ganesh sitting on such a vehicle represents a deity of control over the indriyas.
When Shiva and Parvati decided to have their sons, Kartikeya and Ganesh married, they stipulated that he who circumambulated the earth first would be considered the best deity and would be married first. Kartikeya flew off on his vehicle – a peacock. Poor Ganapati’s vehicle was a mouse which was no match for a peacock. Being the choicest devotee of God, Parvatiji consoling him showed Ganeshji a simpler and quicker way. She advised him to cicumambulate the cow since she also symbolically represents another earth and he had reap the same benefit as going round the earth.
Another reference cites him circumambulating his parents.Consoling him, Parvati showed a short cut. She divulged that it was ordained in the scriptures that he who offered puja to his parents and then circumambulated them received the same merit as he who went around the earth. Ganapati hence married first showing that one who obeys the wish of the choicest devotee of God or his parents attains his desired wishes. Hence Ganeshji is invoked first in all auspicious events, rites and rituals such as marriage, opening ceremonies, ground-breaking ceremonies, yagnas and so on.
Durga and Her Lion Slay Mahisha
Vahanas of the Consorts
Shiva’s consort, Durga (and Parvati, Uma, Chandi and Kali), uses a lion as her vehicle. The lion represents her heroic prowess. As she rides on the lion to trample down Mahisasura, she represents the subduer of vices. Durga is often shown placed between Laksmi and Sarasvati, representing mundane opulence and mundane knowledge.
Saraswati rides Hamsa the Swam, or sometimes a peacock. The swan is a symbol of spiritual purity, and those who have transcended the material nature are sometimes called supreme swans, or “paramahamsa”.
Lakshmi rides on an owl named Uluka. Uluka, which means ‘owl’ in Sanskrit, is also one of the names of lndra, the king of the demigods, who personifies wealth, power and glory. Thus, Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, rides on a fitting carrier. The comparison of Indra’s glory to a partially blind bird speaks to the difference between material and spiritual wealth, as Lakshmi is the goddess of spiritual wisdom.
Saraswati on Hamsa and Lakshmi with Uluka
Vahanas of the Demigods
Rider on a Bird Vahana
Agni’s carrier is usually depicted as a ram, and sometimes he is carried on a chariot pulled by goats.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead said, “Of lordly elephants I am Airavata”, thus Airavata is the king of all elephants. Airavata (Airaawat) is the vehicle of Lord Indra, king of the demigods.
The devotee demigods and the demons (asuras) once took a sea journey. On this journey, nectar and poison were produced, and Lord Siva drank the poison. From the nectar were produced many entities, one of which was the elephant Airavata. As a result of the devas and asuras churning, the king of elephants, named Airavata, was generated, being white, with four tusks. Airavata defied the glories of Kailasa Mountain, the glorious abode of Lord Siva.
On the top of the mountain called Udayagiri are large lakes from which water continuously pours in waterfalls. Similarly, Indra’s carrier, Airavata, holds water and wine in reserve and showers it in the direction of Lord Indra. Thus Indra, King of heaven, sitting on the back of Airavata, appeared like the brilliant sun rising above Udayagiri. Instructing Airavata to shower Lord Krsna with heavenly Ganges water, Indra coronated Lord Krsna the descendant of Dasarha, and gave Him the name Govinda.
Seated on his peacock vahana named Indranilaratha, Karttikeya is the symbol of youth, beauty and valour. The peacock, “mayura” in Sanskrit, symbolizes Karttikeya’s effulgent beauty.
Karttikeya is the second son of Siva, the brother of Ganesha. A great Mahadeva worshiped in all parts of India and the world, he is also known as Murugan, Kumara, Skanda, Shanmukhanatha, Subramanya. All these forms are depicted as riding on or being associated with, the peacock.
Vayu, the god of wind, rides an antelope, and is sometimes transported in a shining chariot pulled by two, forty-nine, or a thousand horses.
Lord Yamaraja’s vehicle is a water buffalo. Yama is usually depicted with green skin, two or four arms holding a gada (club) and riding on a black buffalo. Yama’s Buddhist counterpart has the head of a buffalo and rides a blue bull.
Makaras and the Aquatic Carriers
Yamnua devi and Water Horse
The Supreme Personality of Godhead said, “Of all the aquatics, I am the makara”. Numerous demigods and deities who are associated with water have makaras as their carriers. Varuna (Praceta), the predominating deity of the waters, rides a makara, as does Kamadeva, who sometimes rides a parrot. The Triveni devi ride sea creatures, with Yamuna on a turtle or fish, and Saraswati and Ganga Ma on makaras.
Triveni devi, Yamuna on Turtle, with Ganga and Saraswati makaras
Makaras are sometimes depicted in the form of a crocodile or alligator, as in the case of Lord Varuna’s vehicle. Ganga Ma’s makara is sometimes depicted with the head of an elephant and the body of a fish. In eastern astrology, the makara is often translated as a ‘Water Horse’, which corresponds to the western astrological sign of Capricorn, which is depicted as having the head of a goat and the body of a fish.
Ganga Ma on Makara