hamsa (2)

Georg von Simson g.v.simson at EAST.UIO.NO
Wed Feb 13 12:01:35 UTC 2002

Dear Julia Leslie,

thank you for sharing your ideas about the hamsa problem with us!
Your introduction looks promising. As you invite us to give our
comments, here come some suggestions:
I doubt that it is in all contexts meaningful to ask for the
ornithological identity of hamsa because this could result in
introducing distinctions that did not exist in the mind of an author
or an artist. An example from our culture would be the distinction
between crow and raven which simply does not exist in the mind of
many people. Thus "Rabe" in German often may denote both species.
This indifference does not only concern birds, but also rather
spectacular animals. In Hindi, zer may denote both tiger and lion -
people either do not know the distinction or they do not care because
they regard it irrelevant. And in the Ramayana, we may suspect that
the author(s) did not really know what bears looks like and that they
considered them to be a subspecies of ape/monkey.
So we should always ask ourselves what kind of knowledge an author is
likely to have had and how relevant an ornithological distinction is
in a given context. If you notice about Buddhist sculpture that
>                                   many of the so-called hamsa sculptures
>resemble no bird in the real world, neither goose nor swan
then the reason may be either that the artists were unable to
represent the birds in a more realistic way or that they did not care
to make distinctions that were irrelevant to them. There are quite a
lot of people who cannot even distinguish goose and duck.
And do not forget that animals in Indian culture develop a
folkloristic or literary or religious or philosophical identity of
their own. It would not surprise me if you would find instances where
the bird combines features that do not exist with any known
ornithological species.
So I am a bit sceptical about your conviction (or do I misunderstand
you?) that hamsa necessarily denotes something that exists in the
real world (as seen with our modern eyes). If we are fortunate, words
denote something that exists in our minds, and if we are less
fortunate, they do not do even this.
All this is just meant to stress the complexity of the question, and
the idea is in no way to discourage you. It is after all a legitimate
project to try to find out what species of bird we have to do with in
those cases where it seems to matter. And whether the swan, from the
viewpoint of natural history, is an option at all. (But even if it
were not, it could in a poetical context be more appropriate to
translate hamsa by "swan" than by "goose" - see Lance Cousin's
message about the translators of the 19th century).

Best regards,
Georg v.Simson

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