Hamsa (bird)

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Hamsa can refer to a goose (left) or, in modern transcreational usage, a swan.[1]

The hamsa (Sanskrit: हंस, haṃsa or hansa) is the Sanskrit name for the aquatic bird of passage called Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus). In modern times it has been misidentified with the swan, a bird that is not native to India.[2] Its icon is used in Indian and Southeast Asian culture as a spiritual symbol and a decorative element.[3]


Monier Williams translates the term from Sanskrit as "goose, gander, swan, flamingo, or other aquatic bird of passage".[1] The word is also used for a mythical or poetical bird with knowledge. In Rig veda, it is the bird which is able to separate Soma from water, when mixed; in later Indian literature, the bird separates milk from water when mixed.[1] In Indian philosophical literature, hamsa represents the individual soul or spirit (typified by the pure sunlight-white like color of a goose or swan), or the "Universal Soul or Supreme Spirit".[1] Jean Philippe Vogel, who wrote a lengthy study of the hamsa in Indian literature,[4] points out that swans do not naturally occur in India while the Indian Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus) does. Due to British cultural influence, modern Indian scholars misidentified the hamsa with the exotic Mute swan rather than with the indigenous Indian goose. The likely reason for this is that in British culture the goose is regarded as plumb whereas the swan is regarded as graceful.[5] The modern usage of 'swan' for hamsa is therefore to be regarded as a transcreation arising out of colonial British cultural influence rather than a translation.

Indian Bar-headed Goose

The Indian Goose stays in India from October to April and breeds in Central Asia and the lakes of Tibet. It is winters in northern India from the Indus Valley to Assam, most commonly in the West than in the east and centre.[2] The word hamsa is cognate with Latin "(h)anser", Greek "χήν", German "Gans", English "goose", Spanish "ganso" and Russian "гусь".[2] In 1840 Henry Milman stated that earlier translators were misled by the closeness of the word Hamsa to Gans, but this likely is an incorrect refutation.[6]

In Hinduism[edit]

The hamsa is often identified with the Supreme Spirit, Ultimate Reality or Brahman in Hinduism.[7] The flight of the hamsa symbolizes moksha, the release from the cycle of samsara.[8][9] The hamsa is also the vahana of Saraswati – the goddess of knowledge and creative arts, and her husband Brahma – the god with powers of creation, in Hindu trinity.[3][8] Lake Manasarovar in Hindu mythology, is seen as the summer abode of the hamsa. Poetical images are derived from the flight of the swans to that lake in the Himalayas.[10][full citation needed]

The Hansa is the symbol for Brahman-Atman in Hindu iconography.[3][7]


During pranayama, which is a yogic exercise of breath control, hamsa came to epitomize the prana, the breath of life.[citation needed]


Hamsa, or Hansa, are part of Indian mythology. Arayanna, or heavenly hamsa, are said to live in Manasasaras in the Himalayas.[11] They are mentioned in the Hindu Epic, the Ramayana.[11] Hamsa, the swan, is part of the mythical love story of Nala and Damayanti, where it carries the stories, historical information and messages between the two strangers.[11]

In Indian mythology, it is said to eat pearls and separate milk from water from a mixture of both.[12]

A large volume of corpus of folklore and mythology has grown around the hamsa. During Vedic times it was considered to relationship with Surya.[citation needed] Then, it signified strength and virility. With the emergence and consolidation of the Hindu scriptures of Upanishads, hamsa acquired more attributes, including being treated as a symbol of purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana) and highest spiritual accomplishment. Such a high level of symbolism was attached to hamsa as it transcends the limitations of the creation around it: it can walk on the earth (prithvi), fly in the sky, and swim in the water.[4]

Bar-headed geese landing on lake in India


A bird probably a goose reliquary, found in Taxila, Gandhara (1st century CE). This was found inside a granite bowl, with a gold sheet inscription (now lost). Scholars state the lost inscription read "a relic of the Buddha was placed in the goose reliquary for the benefit of Sira's parents in a future existence". Now at the British Museum.[13]

The hamsa was also used extensively in the art of Gandhara, in conjunction with images of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

In the popular Pali Buddhist text called Dhammmapada the enlightened sage without attachments is compared to the hamsa leaving a lake.


In view of the association of a hamsa with several attributes as indicated above, saints and other holy persons are given the title of paramhamsa, that is, the supreme hamsa. This title is affixed before the name and symbolizes that the particular person has reached a high level of spirituality and grace, though it may also be affixed as a postposition, for example, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.[citation needed]

Contemporary usage[edit]

The name in other languages in which it is culturally important are Hindi: hans, Burmese: ဟင်္သာ, IPA: [hɪ́ɴθà], and commonly spelt hintha or hinthar; Mon: ဟံသာ, [hɔŋsa] or hongsa; Shan: ႁင်းသႃႇ, [haŋ˦ sʰaː˨] or hong; Thai: หงส์,  [hǒŋ]. The hintha (hamsa) is widely depicted in Burmese art, considered to be "goose" in its mythology, and has been adopted as the symbol of the Mon people.[14][15] It is also depicted on the subdivision flags of Bago Division and Mon State, both of which have been historic Mon strongholds.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "see Hamsa, in Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary". University of Koeln, Germany. 
  2. ^ a b c The Goose in Indian Literature and Art (Leiden, 1962) by J. Ph. Vogel, p. 2. Available on https://ia601508.us.archive.org/28/items/TheGooseInIndianLiteratureAndArt/The-Goose-In-Indian-Literature-And-Art_text.pdf
  3. ^ a b c Denise Cush (2007), Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415556231, page 697
  4. ^ a b The Goose in Indian Literature and Art (Leiden, 1962) by J. Ph. Vogel. Available on https://ia601508.us.archive.org/28/items/TheGooseInIndianLiteratureAndArt/The-Goose-In-Indian-Literature-And-Art_text.pdf
  5. ^ The Goose in Indian Literature and Art (Leiden, 1962) by J. Ph. Vogel, pp. 1–2. Available on https://ia601508.us.archive.org/28/items/TheGooseInIndianLiteratureAndArt/The-Goose-In-Indian-Literature-And-Art_text.pdf
  6. ^ Henry Milman, Nala and Damayanti, p. PA304, at Google Books, The Poetical Works, John Murray, London, page 304
  7. ^ a b Lindsay Jones (2005), Encyclopedia of religion, Volume 13, Macmillan Reference, ISBN 978-0028657332, page 8894, Quote: "In Hindu iconography the swan personifies Brahman-Atman, the transcendent yet immanent ground of being, the Self."
  8. ^ a b John Bowker (1998), Picturing God, Series Editor: Jean Holm, Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN 978-1855671010, pp 99-101
  9. ^ Richard Leviton (2011), Hierophantic Landscapes, ISBN 978-1462054145, pp 543
  10. ^ Kalidasa's maha-kavya Raghuvaṃśa
  11. ^ a b c George Williams (2001), Handbook of Hindu Mythology, ISBN 978-1576071069, pages 58-59
  12. ^ Helen Myers (1999), Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the India Diaspora, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226554532, page 4
  13. ^ British Museum Collection Bird, probably a goose, carved in rock crystal.
  14. ^ Sylvia Fraser-Lu (1994), Burmese Crafts: Past and Present, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195886085, page 116
  15. ^ Robert Reid and Michael Grosberg (2005), Myanma (Burma), ISBN 978-1740596954, page 140