The swan has captured the imagination of Indian sages and poets for centuries. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa. Inspired by the hamsa’s serene comportment, the Vedic seers described the radiant and solitary swan as the sun, moving gently across the blue sky. Many centuries later, the mystery and grace of the hamsa also spoke to the enlightened teachers of the Upanishads, who identified the swan with the individual soul. They based this connection on the natural congruity of the swan’s movements: just as the hamsa perennially migrates, gracefully taking flight from one abode and alighting in another, so the individual soul moves from body to body in the course of its various lifetimes.
Hamsa is also a symbol of the breath, and this connection is beautifully elaborated in many sacred scriptures of India. The Vijnana Bhairava, one of the scriptures of the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, describes Hamsa as the mantra that constantly repeats itself in the form of each breath—ham on the in-breath and sa on the out-breath. Hamsa is one of the mantras of the Siddha Yoga path, and Gurumayi teaches that Hamsa is identical with So‘ham. Its meaning is “I am That.” Therefore, union with the divine Self—the awareness of “I am That”—naturally arises in one who becomes absorbed in the Hamsa mantra as the flow of the breath.
The swan also holds great significance for its legendary ability to separate milk from water, which is likely connected to an ancient depiction in the Yajur Veda of a radiant swan extracting soma, “the nectar of the gods,” from water. This skill makes the hamsa the paradigmatic symbol of viveka, “discernment,” which is a hallmark of a great being. By cultivating this spiritual discernment, we can come to experience the nectar of the Self in each moment of our lives.
Paramahamsa, which means “supreme swan,” is another name for an enlightened being who can discern the all-pervasive and eternal Self amidst the ephemeral flow of worldly existence. Gurumayi, the Siddha Yoga Guru, is a paramahamsa who is dedicated to teaching the liberating awareness of viveka to seekers of the Truth.