First Published in Sunday-Midday, 19 April 2009
In Hindu mythology a swan is called Hamsa. The word Hamsa is believed to have its origin in two other words, hum and so. Hum indicates expiration or exhalation of breath while so indicates inspiration or inhalation of breath. Thus the word, Ham-so which eventually becomes Hamsa, is the embodiment of breadth which gives us life. Hamsa, the bird, is the physical manifestation of that thought; it symbolizes pran or the life-force whose movement into and out of the body generates life.
But is Hamsa a swan or a goose? Scholars are divided.
In principle, the word Hamsa refers to a goose, while the word Raj-hans is specifically used for a swan. Saraswati, the goddess of learning, is associated with the Hamsa. In traditional Kalamkari paintings from Andhra Pradesh, and in temple wall carvings of Tamil Nadu, the Hamsa is shown to be a goose. In Chitrakathi paintings from Maharashtra, the Hamsa appears as a crane or stork. And in modern calendar art, it appears as a goose.Thus there is a confusion whether the Hamsa means a goose, a crane or a swan. Scholars state that since the goose is more native to the Indian subcontinent than a swan, the goose is more likely to be the Hamsa, than a swan but since the swan is any day more elegant than a goose, the swan remains Saraswati’s sacred bird in popular imagination.
The crane’s ability to stand in water on one leg and totally concentrate on a fish and then get the fish in one peck, made it the symbol of concentration, hence a bird worthy of being associated with Saraswati in some parts of India. In folklore, the goose/swan is supposed to have the magical ability to separate milk from water, making it the symbol of intellect’s ability to discriminate truth from falsehood. This naturally associated the goose with all wise men and their patron deity, Saraswati. In mythology, water is associated with the material world; the swan glides over water and never allows the water to cling to it, making it also the symbol of detachment, hence the symbol of yoga,
This spiritual form of the swan changes dramatically as we move West. In Greek mythology, Zeus king of the Olympian gods takes the form of a swan to seduce a beautiful princess Leda. In paintings by famous Western artists like Klimt, this episode has inspired art that borders on the erotic. In Viking mythology, swans were seen to be maidens called Valkyries who swooped down to earth searching for the souls of brave dead warriors. In early mythologies, Valkyries were blood-soaked raven-goddesses who were seen in the battleground pecking on corpses. But later, they were romanticized as swan-maidens, who chose the bravest of warriors and took them to the abode of the gods, Valhalla.
In Irish mythology it was said that swans which flew in the sky by day were actually beautiful women at night. They would remove their swan suits and bathe in forest ponds. If a man managed to get hold of a swan suit, the swan maiden would follow him to his house, and serve him as a wife, cooking and cleaning for him, taking care of his house and even bearing him children. The day she would find the swan-suit however she would try it out, become a swan once again and lose all memory of her human life. This theme and its variants recurs in folklore throughout Europe and has inspired songs and plays and ballets such as the Swan Lake, where a sorcerer’s curse turns a princess into a swan.
The elegance of the swan lends itself to be associated with beautiful women. Swans are known to mate for life; hence it was associated with romance and fidelity, longing and separation. It is said that the Swan is not silent all through its life ; it sings just before it dies, giving us the phrase Swan song, which is the last performance.
While the goose has somewhat been associated with silliness in the West in Roman times, the goose was highly regarded as a bird of vigilance. They were territorial creatures and were very much seen like watchdogs and worshipped as protectors of the frontiers. The Greeks sometimes associated the goose with Hera, the wife of Zeus, hence the symbol of marriage.
Thus the same symbol has different meanings in different parts of the world. One can argue that the romantic separation and longing which is represented in the Western mythology transforms into a Spiritual longing in a Eastern mythology. Be that as it may, it is interesting to see how this beautiful bird transmits such wonderful wisdom through its graceful form.