hamsa (2)

Julia Leslie jl6 at SOAS.AC.UK
Wed Feb 13 13:12:46 UTC 2002

Dear Georg,

You're right too! I shall have to be more careful in how I express
myself. As I hope I make clear in my kraunca article, it is indeed
very often the case that early Indian writers are completely
uninterested in the ornithological details that are of such interest to
me. Most of the time, we'll never know what bird they intend us to
envisage. (You can imagine my distress, I'm sure, when I track
down yet another commentary on a particular passage only to find
the unhelpful gloss: 'a bird'!) There is also the issue of mythological
creatures, created to meet a poetic need rather than to reflect the
real world.

No, my concern is far less ambitious than reconstructing the real
birds of a distant (and, I agree, often uninterested) past culture in
every bird reference. But *some* of these references may indeed
indicate a real bird, as in the case of Valmiki's kraunca. And then, I
believe, we need to figure out both its identity and its symbolic
significance. It's a sad thought, but perfectly possible, that I may not
find the kind of ornithological detail that I am looking for with regard
to the word hamsa. Wish me luck...


On 13 Feb 02, at 13:01, Georg von Simson wrote:

> 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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