By Swami Harshananda
Garuda literally means ‘one who flies with the help of wings’.
Significance of Garuda
One of the most common and well-known figures referred in the purāṇas is that of Garuda or Garutmān. He is pictured in a human form with two powerful wings and a sharp beak resembling to an eagle. He is the vāhana of God Viṣṇu. He is also shown as the insignia on the banner (dhvaja) of the flagpost of Viṣṇu temples.
Garuda in Ṛgveda
The story of Suparṇa, the golden winged eagle, who brought the soma juice from heaven, appears in the Ṛgveda. It is the basis for the later accounts of Garuda in the epics and the purāṇas.
Garuda in Rāmāyana
In the Rāmāyana of Vālmīki, he appears once on the battlefield, when Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa and others had become unconscious due to the nāgapāśa or sarpāstra (snake-missile) discharged by Indrajit. The serpents immediately fled off when garuda came there. 
Garuda in Mahābhārata
According to the Ādiparva, Garuda was the son of the sage Kaśyapa and Vinatā. Since Vinatā had become the slave of Kadril due to a curse, Garuda liberated her from that curse by bringing the amṛta or nectar from heaven, as per the desire and condition set by Kadru. His many heroic exploits pleased Lord Viṣṇu very much hence he made Garuda his mount.
In the iconographical works, he is usually depicted as a human figure with powerful and outstretched wings at the back of the two arms. This is the pose of añjali or obeisance. Sometimes he is shown as flying and carrying Viṣṇu on his back. His two hands support Viṣṇu’s dangling feet. The color of his body may be that of an emerald or pure white. He is also decked with several ornaments.
- Vāhana means a mount or vehicle.
- Ṛgveda 4.26 and 27
- Yuddhakānda chapter 50
- Ādiparva chapters 31-34
- Kaśyapa is believed to be the progenitor of all living beings.
- Kadril was another wife of Kaśyapa.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore