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 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 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.
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.
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.
A large volume of corpus of folklore and mythology has grown around the hamsa. During Vedic times it was considered to relationship with Surya. 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.
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.
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 "swan" in its mythology, and has been adopted as the symbol of the Mon people. It is also depicted on the subdivision flags of Bago Division and Mon State, both of which have been historic Mon strongholds.
Hamsa border on the Kanishka casket, 2nd century CE
Hamsa birds between the architectural spires on the Bimaran casket, 1st century CE
Flag of Bago Division, Myanmar, which depicts the hamsa
Flag of Mon State, Myanmar, which depicts the hamsa
Hamsa talking to Damayanti in Hindu mythology
- The Goose in Indian Literature and Art (Leiden, 1962) by J. Ph. Vogel
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- "see Hamsa, in Monier Williams Sanskrit Dictionary". University of Koeln, Germany.
- 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
- Henry Milman, Nala and Damayanti, p. PA304, at Google Books, The Poetical Works, John Murray, London, page 304
- John Bowker (1998), Picturing God, Series Editor: Jean Holm, Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN 978-1855671010, pp 99-101
- Richard Leviton (2011), Hierophantic Landscapes, ISBN 978-1462054145, pp 543
- Kalidasa's maha-kavya Raghuvaṃśa
- 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
- Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend (ISBN 0-500-51088-1) by Anna Dallapiccola