The hamsa (Sanskrit: हंस, haṃsa or hansa) is an aquatic bird of passage, such as a goose or a swan. Its icon is used in Indian and Southeast Asian culture as a spiritual symbol and a decorative element.
Monier Williams translates the term from Sanskrit as "goose, gander, swan, flamingo, or other aquatic bird of passage". The word is also used for a mythical or poetical bird with knowledge. In the 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. 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".
The word Hamsa is cognate with Latin "(h)anser", Greek "χήν", German "Gans", English "goose", Spanish "ganso" and Russian "гусь". However, Henry Milman and others state that some early translators were misled by the closeness of the word Hamsa to Gans, and this is likely an incorrect link.
Swan or goose controversy
Jean Vogel, in 1952, questioned if hamsa is indeed swan, because according to Dutch ornithologists GC Junge and ED van Oort he consulted, swans were rare in modern India while the Indian Goose (Anser indicus) were common. According to Vogel, Western and Indian scholars may have preferred translating hamsa in Sanskrit text as swan because the indigenous goose appears plump while the swan (and, Vogel adds, the flamingo) appears more graceful.
Paul Johnsgard, in 2010, has stated that mute swan (Cygnus Olor) do migrate to northwestern Himalayan region of India every winter, migrating some 1000 miles each way. Similarly, the British ornithologist Peter Scott, in his Key to the Wildfowl of the World, states that northwestern India is one of the winter migration homes for mute swan, the others being Korea and Black Sea. Grewal, Harvey and Pfister, in 2003, identified large swaths of northwestern India and northeastern Pakistan particularly Kashmir and parts of south Pakistan as winter habitats of mute swans.
Dave states that the hymns of Rigveda, and verses in Hindu Epics and Puranas mention a variety of birds with the root of hamsa (हंस), such as Maha-hamsa, Raj-hamsa, Kal-hamsa and others, most of which relate to various species of swans particularly mute swan, while some refer to geese. Dave's identification is based on the details provided in the Sanskrit texts about the changes in plumage over the bird's life, described voice, migratory habits, courtship rituals and flying patterns. Some Sanskrit texts, states Dave, distinguish between Hamsa and Kadamb, the former being swan and latter as bar-headed goose.
However, the earliest art in India, up until the early colonial period, does not depict swans, but rather birds that resemble the Anser indicus. Hence, the birds painted at the Ajanta Caves in the depiction of the Hamsa Jataka resemble the Anser indicus, which are famous for their yearly migration into the Himalayas.
The hamsa, or the swan, is often identified with the Supreme Spirit, Ultimate Reality or Brahman in Hinduism. The flight of the hamsa symbolizes moksha, the release from the cycle of samsara.
In view of the association of a hamsa with several attributes as indicated above, Hindu rishi and sadhu have been given the title of paramhamsa, that is, the supreme hamsa. It connotes a particular person who has reached a high level of spirituality.
For example, Paramahamsa Upanishad calls that Yogi a Paramhamsa who is neither opinionated nor affected by defamation, nor jealous, not a show off, is humble, and is oblivious to all the human frailties. He is immune to the existence of his body, which he treats as a corpse. He is beyond false pretensions and lives realizing the Brahman. In chapter 3, the Paramhamsa Upanished states that the one who understands the difference between "staff of knowledge" and "staff of wood", is a Paramahamsa.
He does not fear pain, nor longs for pleasure.
He forsakes love. He is not attached to the pleasant, nor to the unpleasant.
He does not hate. He does not rejoice.
Firmly fixed in knowledge, his Self is content, well-established within.
He is called the true Yogin. He is a knower.
His consciousness is permeated with that, the perfect bliss.
That Brahman I am, he knows it. He has that goal achieved.
Hamsa, or Hansa, are part of Indian mythology. Arayanna, or heavenly hamsa (swans), are said to live in Manasasaras in the Himalayas. They are mentioned in the Hindu Epic, the Ramayana. 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.
In Indian mythology, it is said to eat pearls and separate milk from water from a mixture of both.
The name in other languages in which it is culturally important are Hindi: hans, Tamil: அன்னப்பறவை Burmese: ဟင်္သာ, IPA: [hɪ́ɴθà], and commonly spelt hintha or hinthar; Mon: ဟံသာ, [hɔŋsa] or hongsa; Shan: ႁင်းသႃႇ, [haŋ˦ sʰaː˨] or hong; Thai: หงส์, [hǒŋ].
Hamsa border on the Kanishka casket, 2nd century CE
Hamsa birds between the architectural spires on the Bimaran casket, 1st century CE
Hamsa talking to Damayanti in Hindu mythology
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- Monier Monier-Williams, Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, हंस, Hamsa, University of Koeln, Germany, ISBN 978-8120615090, page 1286
- 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."
- Denise Cush (2007), Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415556231, page 697
- J. Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. *ĝhan-s-
- Henry Milman, Nala and Damayanti, p. PA304, at Google Books, The Poetical Works, John Murray, London, page 304
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- Ducks, Geese, and Swans of the World Paul Johnsgard (2010), University of Nebraska-Lincoln, page 29-31
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- Maung Tin, Pali English Dictionary, British Burma Press, Cornell University Archives
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- Richard Leviton (2011), Hierophantic Landscapes, ISBN 978-1462054145, pp 543
- Kalidasa's maha-kavya Raghuvaṃśa
- Deussen 1997, pp. 717-720.
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- "परमहंसोपनिषत्". sanskritdocuments.org. p. ॥ ४॥, verse 4. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
- George Williams (2001), Handbook of Hindu Mythology, ISBN 978-1576071069, pages 58-59
- Helen Myers (1999), Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the India Diaspora, University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226554532, page 4
- British Museum Collection Bird, probably a goose, carved in rock crystal.
- Sylvia Fraser-Lu (1994), Burmese Crafts: Past and Present, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195886085, page 116
- Robert Reid and Michael Grosberg (2005), Myanma (Burma), ISBN 978-1740596954, page 140