Kalahaṃsa: the Soft-spoken Goose

By David Reigle on April 30, 2019 at 10:58 pm

            The kalahaṃsa, written more phonetically as kalahansa, is a particular kind of haṃsa (or hansa). A haṃsa is a goose, although it has often been translated as a swan, because this is more poetic for Western readers.1 The term is not kālahaṃsa, where the first word would be kāla, meaning both “time” and “black.” Thus, the term does not mean the goose/swan of time, or the black goose/swan. The term is kalahaṃsa, where the first word is kala, meaning soft or low (as a tone). Thus, the term means the goose whose call is soft or low in relation to the sound made by other geese. Specifically, it is the name of the gray lag goose, a more soft-spoken goose, in contradistinction to the louder bar-headed goose.

A HAṂSA IS A GOOSE, NOT A SWAN

This was shown in a 1962 monograph by Jean Philippe Vogel that has become the standard work on the subject, The Goose in Indian Literature and Art. He writes in his Introduction, pp. 1-2:

            “In Sanskrit and Pali literature we frequently meet an aquatic bird called haṃsa and this word according to European dictionaries of those languages means not only a goose but also a swan and flamingo. In translations by western scholars haṃsa is usually not rendered by ‘goose’, but either by ‘swan’ or ‘flamingo’. This preference we can well understand. In this part of the world the goose, known chiefly in its degrading domesticated state, is looked upon as a homely animal unfit to enter the exalted realm of poetry. . . .

            “If we turn to ancient India we find the goose associated with conceptions and sentiments entirely different from those of the West. For the Indians the haṃsa is the noble bird par excellence worthy of being sung by poets like Kālidāsa and figured on religious monuments. The goose is the vehicle of Brahmā the Creator. In ancient fables he is the embodiment of the highest virtues and in Buddhist jātakas we meet him reborn as the Bodhisattva, the exalted being predestined to become the Buddha Śākyamuni.

            “But are we justified in identifying the haṃsa of Indian literature with the goose? Should we not follow our predecessors, including great scholars like Böhtlingk and Kern, and rather choose the swan or the flamingo, more graceful to the western eye than a plump goose? The question is: are we really allowed to make a choice? Or does Sanskrit haṃsa mean a goose and nothing else?”

Vogel concludes his book, p. 74:

            “The conclusion of our enquiry is perfectly clear. The goose is a favourite decorative device in Indian art from the time of Aśoka to the Mogul period. From Kashmir to Ceylon it is employed to adorn religious buildings both Buddhist and Brahmanical. The swan and the flamingo, on the contrary, do not occur. The evidence of Indian art is in perfect agreement with the observations of naturalists. We may therefore be certain that the Sanskrit word haṃsa always designates the goose and nothing else.”

WAS A HAṂSA EVER A SWAN?

            According to naturalists, swans are not now found in India, except occasionally as visitors at the northern fringes of the country. The two common species of geese found in India, the very numerous bar-headed goose and the much less numerous gray lag goose, are both largely gray in color. But based on a number of references in classical Sanskrit texts to the haṃsa as being white (śveta) in color, K. N. Dave in his detailed 1985 study, Birds in Sanskrit Literature (pp. 422-447), concluded that the haṃsa was originally a swan, which must have once been found in India. This is of course plausible, going back in time farther than all the sculptures surveyed by Vogel. This would take us close to Vedic times.

            The word haṃsa is found in the most ancient Vedic text, the Ṛg-veda, several times. None of these references describe it as being white in color. On the contrary, it is described there as “dark in colour on the back (nīla-pṛṣṭha)” (Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, vol. 2, p. 497). The verse is 7.59.7.2 So this would not be a swan, which is all white. In fact, this would well describe the gray lag goose, which is darker gray in color on the back than is the bar-headed goose. The gray lag goose, we recall, is the kalahaṃsa, whose call is more mellow than that of the bar-headed goose.

NOTES

1. The practice of translating hasa as “swan” rather than “goose” started as early as 1813, and has been widely followed ever since. See, for example:

The Megha Duta; or, Cloud Messenger: A Poem, in the Sanscrit Language, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, 1813, annotation on verse 71: “The Rájahansa, is described as a white Gander with red legs and bill, and together with the common Goose is a favorite bird in Hindu poetry: not to shock European prejudice, I have in all cases substituted for these birds, one to which we are rather more accustomed in verse, the Swan; . . .”

Nala and Damayanti, and Other Poems, translated by Henry Hart Milman 1835, p. 121: “There the swans he saw disporting.] In the original this is a far less poetic bird, and the author must crave forgiveness for having turned his geese into swans.”

2. Ṛg-veda 7.59.7, in various translations:

May the Maruts yet unrevealed, decorating their persons, descend like black-backed swans: . . . (H. H. Wilson, 1866)

Decking the beauty of their forms in secret the swans with purple backs have flown down hither. (Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1891)

Secretly adorning their bodies, the blue-backed swans have flown hereward. (H. D. Velankar, 1963)

Surely even in secret they [the Maruts] keep preening their bodies. The dark-backed geese have flown here. (Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, 2014)

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