Why Saints are called Paramahamsa?
Research paper written by London Swaminathan
Post No.1153; Dated 6th July 2014.
From the days of the Rig Veda and Chandogya Upanishad, swan is always associated with the bright sun and saints.
All the water birds close to swan are grouped under the Anatidae family. Hindu mythology understood the unity pervading the family. Their approach was very scientific when they dealt with swans, geese and ducks.
Om Hamsaaya Vidmahe
Tanno Hamsha Pracodayaat
“May we realise Hamsa that is our own Self as Swan. Let us meditate on that Paramahamsa, the Supreme Self. May Hamsa illumine us.”
This one of the several popular Gayatri mantras.
Great saints are called Parama hamsa. It means Supreme Swan. We have great saints like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1856) and Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893-1952) within the last two hundred years. Sadasiva Brahmendra composed short and sweet kritis in Sanskrit and had the ‘mudra’/signature “paramahmasa” in all his compositions.
When it used in the context of great Yogis (ascetics) it does not mean the bird Swan (Hamsa in Sanskrit). It is the combination of two words Aham + Sa= Hamsa. I am He. It is the essence of Advaita philosophy. God and Man are one at the highest level. All the famous Upanishads have this philosophy: Aham Brahmasmi/ I am Brahman, Tat Tvam Asi/ You are That etc.
When saints who are well versed in the Yogic techniques breathe in and out it sounds ‘Ham…… Sa…… ‘Ham…… Sa….’ leading to Soham+ He is I.
Chandogya Upanishad (4-7) included an instruction (advice) from a swan. Dattatreya learnt something good from everything in nature including a bird. Hindus used everything in nature for the spiritual advancement of man.
Is it true that swans can separate milk from water and drink only milk?
Another meaning at a different level:-
Hamsa is the vehicle of God Brahma and his consort Sarasvati. All are white in colour symbolising purity and knowledge. Hamsa is associated with Holy Ganges and holy lake Manasa Sarovar. It is one of the purest birds. Hamsa Gayatri confers the power of discretion on the person who recites it. Like that Hamsa separates the good things from the bad things, Water birds separate good water from the bad water. It has got a sieve like structure (lamellae) in its mouth which separates water from mud. Probably this is what lead to the belief that Swans can separate milk from water and drink only milk. In Sanskrit Ksheera means milk and pure water.
Hamsa in the Vedas
Hamsa in the RIg Veda (1-65-5; 1-163-10;2-34-5;3-8-9;;AV 6-12-1 etc) and later literature denotes the bird gander. These birds are described as dark in colour on the back( RV 7-59-7), they fly in troops ((RV 3-8-9), swim in the water (RV 1-65-5), make loud noises (3-53-10), and are wakeful at night (AV 6-12-1) according to Vedic Index.
The Hamsa is credited with the power of separating Soma from water (as later milk from water) in the Yajur Veda (Kataka, Maitrayani, Vajasneyi Samhitas and Taitriya Brahmana).
The soma plant when crushed exudes the juice with a hissing sound. This is compared to the hissing of a swan when disturbed on the water (RV 1-65-5)
The Asvins are invited to the soma sacrifice like a pair of swans hastening to the water (RV 5-78-1).
It is also sacrificed in the Asvamedha Yajna along with two hundred other animals, birds, plants and other grains.
Sun and Paramahmsa
The sun and the spiritually elevated man are compared with the wise swan in the Shivapurana (2-15-10).
The Mute Swans are known to go about in pairs and they are greatly devoted to each other. Even Buddhacharita of Asvagosha mentioned this in the context of appealing to Gautam Siddhartha to come back to his wife.
Ramayana described swan as god Varuna’s bird (7-18-28)
Nala Damayanti and Swan
The golden coloured swan (whooper) caught by Nala was mentioned in the Mahabharata (3-54-19). The bird promised to plead Nala’s cause with Damayanti and was thereupon released. He flew with his party to her place and allowed himself to be caught by her and then performed his mission.
One of the incarnations/Avatars of Lord Vishnu is Hamsavatar in the form of a swan. Apart from Dasavatar (ten incarnations) we have 11 more Avatars.
Kalidasa & Sangam Tamil Literature
I have already written about the Bird Migration in Kalidasa and Sangam Literature.
Kalidasa referred to the strange habit of swan ‘separating milk from water’ in Sakuntalam drama (Act 6-33). A Gatha Sapta Sati poet copied it. Naladiyar in Tamil also copied Kalidasa.
Paranar, a Brahmin poet of Sangam period used lot of similes from Kalidasa along with his colleague Kabilar. Paranar in his poem– Natrinai 356 — sang about a swan flying to the golden peaked Himalayas after feeding itself with fishes in the Southern Seas. Pisiranthaiyar said the same thing in Purananuru verse 67. All these are just echo Kalidasa’s poems.
Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa and Meghaduta have got too many references to water birds such as swan and cranes, geese and ducks.
Pillows were stuffed with the feathers of swan in ancient India.
A woman’s gait is compared to the gait of a swan in Tamil (Aka.279) and Sanskrit literature.
The swans are remarkable for their stately flight very high in the sky and they seem to approach the sun, says Mankudi Kizar of Madurai Kanchi (385-38).
Different types of swans such as Raja Hamsa, Kala Hamsa, Maththa Hamsa, Maha Hamsa, Kshuta Hamsa and Kadamba Hamsa are found in Sanskrit literature.
Ramayana and Mahabharata have interesting stories about swans. One of them is about the white colour of the swan (7-18-29/31). Varuna avoided Ravana by transforming himself to a swan and later gave a boon to the bird for his help and made him permanently white! Since Brahma has it as his Vahana the bird is also called Surapriya (Friend of the Devas). Swan is always associated with glory, purity, affection, love, majesty and divinity!!