The Hamsa (Sanskrit हंस haṃsa; Burmese: ဟင်္သာ, IPA: [híɴθà], and commonly spelt hintha or hinthar; Mon: ဟံသာ, [hɔŋsa] or hongsa; Shan: ႁင်းသႃႇ [haŋ4 sʰaa2]) is a swan or goose, often considered to be the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), but is really the Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus). It is used in Indian culture as a symbol and a decorative element.
Identification with the swan
The word is cognate with Latin "(h)anser", Greek "χήν", German "Gans", English "goose" and Russian "гусь" (all meaning a goose). Hamsa also refers to a flamingo or other water birds.
In India swans are never found in feral populations, domesticated flocks and hardly ever in zoos. But ornithological checklists about India clearly state that swans are a vagrant species in India, i.e., wintering in India very rarely (as of now). The hamsa, or bar-headed goose, is said to reside on Lake Manasarovar in Tibet and would migrate to the Indian lakes in the winter. It is said to eat pearls and separate milk from water from a mixture of both. In many texts it is extolled as the king of birds. In one of the Upanishads, a hamsa is also said to possess the sacred knowledge of the Brahman. The hamsa is also the 'vehicle' (Skt: vahana) of goddess Saraswati.
Identification with Brahman
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The Hamsa represent perfect union, balance and life. A constant repetition of the word "hamso" changes it to "Soaham", which means "That I am". Hence the hamsa is often identified with the Supreme Spirit or Brahman. The flight of the Hamsa also symbolizes the escape from the cycle of samsara. The bird also has special connotations in the monistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta - just as the swan lives on water but its feathers are not wetted by water, similarly an Advaitin tries to live in this material world full of Maya, but is unsoiled by its illusionary nature.
A large volume of corpus of folklore and literature has grown around it, and a distinct mythology has evolved 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 symbol of purity, detachment, divine knowledge, cosmic breath (prana) and highest spiritual accomplishment. Such a high level of symbolism was attached to hamsh 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. The Hamsa was also used extensively in the art of Gandhara, in conjunction with images of the Shakyamuni Buddha. It is also deemed sacred in the Buddhadharma.
A school of philosophy has endeavored to penetrate its name. Ham-sa when inverted reads as sa-ham, which in Sanskrit means the oneness of human and the divine. During pranayama, which is a yogic exercise of breath control, the inhalation is believed sound like ham, while the exhalation is believed to sound like sa. Thus, a hamsa came to epitomize the prana, the breath of life.
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 (such as Paramahamsa Nithyananda) 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 hintha (hamsa) is widely depicted in Burmese art, 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. In modern yoga, Hamsa is considered an aspect of Kundalini energy as it is raised to the higher Chakras. As in Hamsa Yoga
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
- The Goose in Indian Literature and Art (Leiden, 1962) by J. Ph. Vogel
- Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend (ISBN 0-500-51088-1) by Anna Dallapiccola