Two birds perch in a branch. One consumes the hanging fruit, both bitter and sweet, while the other simply observes. Eventually the first bird tires from eating. Having gotten its fill of pleasure and suffering, the creature turns to its joyful counterpart. The second bird has no need for the fruit. It has another source for nourishment: Wisdom.
The story of two birds, one of the earliest and most well-known in Hindu scriptures, appears in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. But what are we to make exactly of this parable? Well, the tree and its fruit supposedly are metaphors for the body and sensations, respectively. Feeding on the fruit is the bird, which represents a person’s soul, referred to Hinduism as the jiva or atman. The other bird, the content one watching nearby, is the world soul, known as the paramatman. Once the jiva is finally ready, the paramatman is available to guide the individual soul from its ignorance and suffering (1, 2).
Paring the Many to a Pair
Interestingly, several avian-related themes from the above parable reappear throughout Hindu religion, literature, and art. Like the bird indulging in the hanging fruit, feathered creatures frequently represent the sensual realm, especially the world of youthful beauty and lust. And similar to the wise and joyful companion on the tree, birds are also associated with spiritual bliss, freedom, insight, and wholesomeness. While one must be careful to refrain from egregious generalizations, Hindu culture provides ample instances of such avian symbolism. Plentiful are representations related to either the soul or the divine (3)—or either bodily yearnings or spiritual liberation.
In a culture of such rich, voluminous variety as that of India, birds undeniably emerge and operate on many levels. They, for instance, appear in the Panchatantra, a book of ancient fables (4). Several, such as the crane, heron, and pigeon, among others, are emulated in popular yoga poses (5). The peacock, a cultural and religious icon connected to numerous deities (6, 7), is India’s national bird (8). Crows, considered by some Indians as ancestors, are offered feed as part of a spiritual rite known as shraddah (9). These corvids also hold an honored place during Tihar, Nepal’s Festival of Lights (10). Yet, despite countless beliefs and portrayals, Hindu art, literature, and religion often render feathered creatures from the perspectives of hedonistic indulgence and spiritual awakening. For the purposes of an overview, comparing such depictions to one or the other of the two birds perched in the tree thus seems reasonable.
Wings of Carnal Desire
Birds have long been associated in Hinduism with sensuous longing and attachment. Hood College scholar Purnima Mehta Bhatt discusses some of these aspects. Though her assessment focuses on ancient Indian stepwell sculptures, she cites examples from other art forms. “In classical Sanskrit literature,” she explains, “especially the drama and poetry of Kalidasa and Bilhana, there exists the accepted tradition for lovelorn heroines to beseech the birds for news of their beloved.”(11) The same holds true, too, for heroes and male figures. A desperate King Pururavas in Kalidasa’s play Vikramorvasiyam, for example, implores several birds, including a cuckoo, duck, and goose, for the whereabouts of his lost love (12). Overall, accounts like these are commonly featured in Hindu literary works.
Some writers even liken lovers to avian forms. Bilhana’s eleventh-century lyrical poem Caurapancasika employs metaphors in this regard. The pining speaker, forced from his mistress, elegantly compares her several times to a wild goose (13). Below is just a small taste of Bilhana’s sensual verse, as translated by Barnard College scholar Barbara Stoler Miller:
Her seductive eyes’ lashes playing
like a pair of mating birds
caressing each others’ bills. (14)
In the wake of this passionate affair lie beautiful memories and evocative language. Both, though, reinforce the speaker’s intense heartache.
The Ramayana, Kamasutra, and Other Texts
A precursor and influence upon both Bilhana and Kalidasa is the ancient masterpiece Ramayana. According to legend, a tragic event involving birds inspired its author. The sage Valmiki, witnessing a curlew in distress after a hunter killed its mate, then supposedly became motivated to first compose poetry (15, 16). Not surprisingly, birds frequently appear in his Ramayana, from major characters (e.g., vulture siblings Jatayu and Sampaati) to sightings of fowl. Regarding the latter, for instance, Lake Pampa is presented as an idyllic location populated with songbirds, waterfowl, and peacocks. However, at this point, the hero Rama can only relate to them with woe. When commenting on the creatures around him, he is overtaken with bittersweet passion. His wife has been recently abducted by the demon king Ravana, and the sight of mating birds serves only to magnify Rama’s sense of loss (17). A paradise for the senses cannot overcome his deepest despair.
Other dynamics of love and lust, too, are explored in Hindu literature. The most scandalous of these may be Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, which refers to birds in several bewildering ways. For instance, as noted by University of Chicago Divinity School scholar Wendy Doniger, the text encourages women to amorously gibber, mimicking the calls of parrots, doves, partridges, cuckoos, geese, and a few other birds. She also remarks that the ancient book advises, among its many arts of seduction, learning how to train either a parrot or a mynah to speak. In particular, for a man, Doniger explains, such pets could provide a predatory means “to lure a woman to his home …” (18). In contrast to these odd, creepy tactics in the Kamasutra, there’s the Sukasaptati: A talking parrot’s role in maintaining marital fidelity between a wife and her traveling husband is central to the framework of these stories (19).
The parrot’s prominence in erotic-themed Indian literature may seem odd, but the bird’s presence is not without warrant. In Hinduism, deities are sometimes associated with certain creatures. An owl attends Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and wealth (20); while Yama, the god of the dead, dispatches a dove (21). For Kama, whose realm consists of love, romance, and sexual desire, his animal attendant is the parrot (22). The god is occasionally affiliated with other birds, as demonstrated in Mahendravikramavarman’s short comedic play Bhagavadajjukam, which links the deity to the cuckoo’s call (23). Again, though, the parrot, once a popular pet of courtesans (24), remains Kama’s primary bird.
Feathers of Purity and Wisdom
If the parrot and other fowl in the Kamasutra are reminiscent of the sensual, fruit-eating bird in the Rig Veda and Upanishads, what of an appropriate spiritual counterpart? Several possibilities exist in Hindu literature. There’s the eagle, revered in the Vedas and associated in multiple aspects with the divine. The raptor, for instance, is credited with bringing the bliss-inducing soma plant to the ancient Hindu priests (25). Also, Garuda, the fierce “king of birds” (26) and vehicle for several major deities (27), is described as possessing characteristics of this bird-of-prey.
While the eagle is a noble example, better candidates for this honor may be the birds referred to as paramahamsa (28) or arayanna (29)—either geese or swans. Like the eagle, they have links to the gods and heaven; however, these mythical waterfowl are also renowned for something more: They are believed to embody purity and wisdom (30). In his book The Essentials of Hinduism, Swami Bhaskarananda describes this bird as the “symbol of a spiritually illumined soul who has experienced the Divine Essence of everything by rejecting the worldly lures of the senses.” He adds that this creature “… remains in water and yet the water never clings to its feathers. Similarly, a spiritually illumined soul lives in the world, yet is never contaminated by it” (31). Such characteristics easily explain why hamsa and paramahamsa came to be used as laudatory titles for Hindu ascetics (32) and even for the god-avatar Krishna (33). Overall, the paramahamsa and arayanna seem almost ideal representatives of the second bird in the tree—excepting, of course, that neither swans nor geese possess the ability to perch on limbs!
As noted earlier, interpreting the variety of avian life depicted in Hindu art and literature with this dualistic approach (carnal desire vs. spiritual liberation) is inadequate for fully comprehending and appreciating the rich vitality of Indian culture. While stressing the dichotomy between the two birds of the Vedic parable provides an interesting starting point, we should not forget that this ancient religion has spawned numerous traditions, practices, and philosophies. From Indian culture, itself, have also come other religions. One of these was quite influential, spreading throughout the Asian continent. We’ll take a look next at the depiction of birds in Buddhism.
- Doniger, W. Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988. pp. 34–35.
- Knapp, S. The Heart of Hinduism: The Eastern Path to Freedom, Empowerment and Illumination. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005. pp. 13–14, 260.
- Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, DC: Earthscan LLC, 2011. pp. 145–146.
- Olivelle, P. (editor, translator). The Pancatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. pp. 27–29, 51, 60–61, 64–65, 105–111, 118–121.
- “List of Yoga Poses: A-Z Asana Guide,” Yoga Journal: http://www.yogajournal.com/pose-finder/.
- Knapp, S. pp. 172, 185–186.
- Bhatt, P.M. p. 145.
- “National Symbols,” National Portal of India: http://india.gov.in/india-glance/national-symbols.
- Chaturvedi, B.K. Narada Purana. New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books Ltd. p. 50.
- “Festivals in Nepal,” VisitNepal.com: http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/nepal_festivals.php.
- Bhatt, P.M. p. 146.
- Sharma, T.R.S. (chief editor). Ancient Indian Literature: An Anthology. Volume Two. Delhi: Wellwish Printers, 2004. pp. 294–297.
- Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. pp. 17, 23, 29.
- Miller, B.S. p. 19.
- Williams, G.M. Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. p. 291.
- Chinmayananda, S. “The Essence of Ramayana.” Nityanand, S. (compiler). Symbolism in Hinduism. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 2008. p. 193.
- Sharma, T.R.S. pp. 93–100.
- Doniger, W. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 435.
- Satyendra, K. Dictionary of Hindu Literature. Delhi: Ivy Publishing House, 2000. p. 177.
- “Uluka – The Owl.” Nityanand, S. (compiler). Symbolism in Hinduism. Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, 2008. p. 317.
- Parmeshwaranand, S. Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Upanisads, Volume 1. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2000. p. 160.
- Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975. p. 212.
- Sharma, T.R.S. p. 352.
- Bhatt, P.M. p. 146.
- Williams, G.M. p. 271.
- Cush, D., Robinson, C., York, M. (editors). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge, 2008. p. 263.
- Bhatt, P.M. pp. 147–148.
- Bhaskarananda, S. The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World’s Oldest Religion (Second Edition). Seattle, WA: Viveka Press, 2002. p. V.
- Williams, G.M. pp. 58–59.
- Bhatt, P.M. pp. 145, 148–149.
- Bhaskarananda, S.
- Zimmer, H.R. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Campbell, J. (editor). Bollingen Foundation Series VI. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Mythos edition, 1992. p. 48.
- Williams, G.M. pp. 58–59.