Hamsa (bird)

Hamsa (bird)

The Hamsa (हंस, in Sanskrit and often written "hansa") is a swan or goose, often considered to be the Mute Swan ("Cygnus olor"), but is really the Bar-headed Goose ("Anser indicus").Fact|date=September 2008 It is used in Indian culture as a symbol and a decorative element.

Identification with the swan

The word is cognate with Latin "anser", German "Gans" and English "goose" (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 [ [http://www.birding.in/orders/anseriformes.htm ANSERIFORMES - Birds of India - Ducks, Geese, Swans] ] clearly state that swans are a vagrant species in India, ie, 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. it is also the vehicle of goddess Saraswati.

Identification with Brahman

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.

Mythology

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 considerd 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 Buddha. It is also deemed sacred in Buddhism.

Philosophy

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.

Paramhamsa

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 emancipation.

Further reading

*"The Goose in Indian Literature and Art" (Leiden, 1962) by J. Ph. Vogel

References

*"Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend" (ISBN 0-500-51088-1) by Anna Dallapiccola

ee also

* Greco-Buddhist art
* History of Buddhism
* History of Hinduism


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