hamsa (2)

Julia Leslie jl6 at SOAS.AC.UK
Wed Feb 13 09:25:06 UTC 2002

As promised:

My concern is to ascertain the denotation of some specific uses of the
term hamsa. There seem to be two, mutually conflicting but equally
prevailing, views on the matter. Another option, a minority opinion, trails
in third place.
        The first view is usually held by Indian scholars who have perhaps
been influenced by the vernacular uses of the term: according to this
view, hamsa always denotes a swan. What might be called the old school
of Western scholars agrees. The second view is held by more recent
Western scholars, most of whom will have been persuaded by the work
of Jean Philippe Vogel (1953, 1962). Vogel concludes his famous 1953
article with the words: ‘We may be certain that the Sanskrit word hamsa
always designated the goose and nothing else (p.24).’ So certain is Vogel
of this identification that his much longer, posthumous 1962 publication
barely reconsiders the issue, repeatedly translating the term hamsa as
‘goose’ without further qualification. There is clearly a problem here:
either the term hamsa always denotes the swan or it always denotes the
goose, depending on your school of thought. But there is the third option
too. According to some of the earliest Western scholars, the hamsa is,
or at least can be, a flamingo.
        I begin with a brief consideration of some of the problems with
Vogel’s work. First, his assumption that a given bird name must always
denote the same species is false. As I discovered while researching the
term kraunca, this is simply not the case. One must judge each
occurrence of the term within its textual context. There can be no one
denotation of the term hamsa that would fit equally well all the contexts
in which it appears. Second, Vogel was an art historian and therefore
much of his work derives from the visual representation of the hamsa in
Buddhist sculptures. Since, to his mind, these figures suggest the goose,
Vogel takes this identification as the key and applies it wholesale. I
would argue to the contrary: many of the so-called hamsa sculptures
resemble no bird in the real world, neither goose nor swan. Those that do
look more like geese than anything else prove only that the sculptors
were familiar with the goose. It remains perfectly possible (but I have yet
to check) that the much earlier texts—for example, the Buddhist
Jatakas containing the stories for which these sculptures are mere
illustrations—provide less obviously ‘goose-like’ evidence. Third, Vogel
finds support for his identification in personal communications from
ornithologists to the effect that, while the goose is a common bird in
India, the swan is not. On the basis of this contemporary evidence, he
maintains not only that swans are not to be found in India today but, more
important, that they have never been found there. Ergo, as Vogel explains,
the term hamsa can never denote the swan. Having reached this
conclusion, Vogel is forced to explain away ‘swan-like’ qualities
attributed to the hamsa; for example, the adult swan’s radiant white
plumage is said to belong to ‘the white goose’ (1962: 10), but there is no
Indian white goose.
        Vogel’s work has evidently been instrumental in changing the
understanding of hamsa in Western scholarship. For a large number of
scholars, the problem has been solved. In my view, however, this is not
the case. Following Dave’s lead and that of my own work on Valmiki’s
kraunca, I intend to revisit the issue of the identification and
significance of the hamsa. I shall base my argument neither on
contemporary evidence nor on art-historical data but on ornithological
readings of early Sanskrit texts.
        I shall argue that the situation in Sanskrit literature is far more
complex than Vogel has allowed. The term hamsa and related variants  are
found in texts across the whole range of Sanskrit material: from the
celebrated hamsavati mantra in the Rgveda to the works of Kalidasa;
from both great epics to the fables of the Hitopadesa and the birth-
stories of the Buddha in the Jatakamala. As I hope to demonstrate, the
term is used in Sanskrit to denote, collectively or individually, a range of
large aquatic birds, including swans, geese, flamingos and some ducks.
... I conclude that, while the term hamsa may sometimes denote a
species of goose (perhaps even a flamingo?), on some specific occasions
it must denote a species of swan.

I hope all this is of some interest to the list. More important, I would be
delighted to receive any comments, criticisms, advice that might help me
on my way. Sparked by your enquiries, I am now eager to get back to this
corner of my research.

Dr I J Leslie
Department of the Study of Religions

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