By Swami Harshananda
paramahamsa (‘the great swan’)
Some of the purāṇas as also the dharmaśāstras categorise the samnyāsins (Hindu monks) into four groups: the kuṭicakas, the bahudakas, the hamsas and the paramahamsas.
A kuṭīcaka (‘one who lives in a hut’) is one who lives in an āśrama (monastery), eats only eight morsels of food per day and performs yogic practices.
A bahudaka (‘one who drinks water from many sources’) wears the ochre-coloured cloth (an insignia of a Hindu monk) and carries a kamaṇḍalu (water-pot prepared out of the bitter gourd) as also a tridaṇḍa (staff made of three bamboo sticks tied together). He lives by begging from not more than seven houses.
The harnsa (‘the swan’) is an ekadaṇḍi (has one staff only, signifying the control of the mind), lives under trees or in mountain caves and such other solitary places, going into the village once a day for begging his food.
The paramahamsa (‘the great swan’) is the best of these four samnyāsins. He is said to live in deserted places, cremation grounds or dilapidated structures. He is completely indifferent to physical comforts and is perfectly equanimous under all circumstances of life.
The word ‘paramahamsa’ itself perhaps means a person possessing supreme discrimination (like a hamsa or a swan which can leave off water and drink only milk from the diluted mixture of the two) which ultimately results in the knowledge of Brahman. Or, it may also mean a person of the highest spiritual experience, who is constantly aware that he is one with Brahman (ham = aham = I; sah = he, God or Brahman).
Works like the Vaikhānasa Sutras (8.9), Laghuvisnupurāna (4.14.23), Bhiksu-kopanisad and Sutasamhitā (Mānayoga-khanda 6) give a description of these four types of samnyāsins.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore