The Meaning and Spelling of the Title “Paramahansa”

Smriti Mandir_Fotor

(SUMMARY) Paramahansa Yogananda’s Bengali spelling of his title, without the middle ‘a’, was later changed to the standard transliteration of the Sanskrit (the title Paramahansa is a Sanskrit title).  This article explains the meaning of Paramahansa, why it was first spelled in Bengali, and the reasons for the change to  Sanskrit. Included is also a detailed explanation from Paramahansaji himself about the importance of determining correct roots in Sanskrit in order to avoid ‘terrible mistakes’ in interpretations of meanings.  (Paramahansaji’s teachings are based in Sanskrit, not Bengali.)  Also included is a quote from Mrinalini Mata about the importance of Sanskrit to Paramahansaji’s spiritual stature among the great Vedic sages and the stature of his teachings  among the great Vedic/Sanskrit scriptures of India.   [See also this article concerning the Shankaracharya, the head of the ancient Swami Order of India to which Paramahansaji and the SRF Monastic Order belong, who was a world-renowned  Sanskrit scholar said to have been influential  in the Sanskrit spelling change~~SRF and Shankaracharya Bharati Krishna Tirtha, head of the Swami Order of India



 swan paramahansaLit,. parama, HIGHEST; hansa, SWAN. The white swan is mythologically represented as the vehicle or mount of Brahma the Creator. The sacred hansa, said to have the power of extracting only milk from a mixture of milk and water, is thus a symbol of spiritual discrimination.

Ahan-sa or ‘hansa (pronounced hong-sau) is literally “I am He.” These potent SANSKRIT syllables possess a vibratory connection with the incoming and the outgoing breath. Thus with his every breath man unconsciously asserts the truth of his being:

Autobiography of a Yogi , ‘Last Days With My Guru’ Chapter 42, Footnote



 The correct spelling of his Sanskrit title in English is Paramahansa, not Paramhansa. Although the common practice for Bengalis is to drop silent or near-silent ‘a’s in such spellings, the omission of the ‘a’ in Paramahansa is misleading, giving an entirely different meaning from the title actually bestowed upon our Guru. To retain the ‘Paramhansa’ spelling would be to permit sentiment to rule rather than a true reverence and regard for our Guru and his rightful place among the great ones. A correction was therefore made in the spelling of his title, so that there would be no doubt about its intended meaning.

SRF Mother Center 1995 letter to members 



 The title “Paramahansa” signifies one who has attained the highest spiritual realization, and may be bestowed only by one’s guru, who himself must be spiritually qualified to do so. It is a distinctive title and rarely awarded. It was given to Paramahansa Yogananda in 1935 by his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. A devotee who served as witness gave written testimony of the occasion. Being a Bengali, whose common practice it is to drop silent or near-silent ‘a’s in spelling, he omitted the middle ‘a’ in the title. Yoganandaji, being also born a Bengali, continued thereafter to use that spelling.

The title, however, is Sanskrit, not Bengali. It derives from ‘parama,’ meaning “highest or supreme”; and ‘hamsa’ or ‘hansa’ meaning “swan.” In scriptural texts, ‘hansa’ or ‘hamsa’ also refers to the true Self, or Spirit. Thus the literal meaning of the title Paramahansa is “supreme swan,” a symbol of divine discrimination, and refers to one who has attained realization of his true Self, and of the oneness of that Self with Spirit. According to this meaning, the correct rendering of the Sanskrit Devanagari characters into English is “Paramahansa.”

In the various phonetic transliterations given to some Sanskrit words—Sri, Shree, Shri; hansa or hamsa, etc.—the meaning remains unchanged. But omission of the ‘a’ in Paramahansa is misleading. ‘PARAM’ DOES NOT MEAN “SUPREME.” IT IS A GRAMMATICAL DERIVATIVE OF ‘PARA’ (NOT ‘PARAMA’), AND HAS SUCH MEANINGS AS “AFTER,” “OPPOSITE,” “BEYOND.” IN ANY CASE, IT CANNOT BE CORRECTLY COMBINED WITH ‘HANSA’ ANYMORE THAN ONE WOULD SAY IN ENGLISH, FOR EXAMPLE, “A BEYOND SWAN.”

Since the Veda-based title was given by Sri Yukteswar to certify his worthy disciple Yogananda as belonging to the highest category of divine realized souls-–a Paramahansa—there should be no scope for question because of an incorrect rendering of the Sanskrit. Self-Realization Fellowship, the organization founded by Paramahansa Yogananda to carry out his divine mission and preserve the purity of his teaching, would be extremely remiss in its responsibility if it were to allow this inaccurate usage to be perpetuated. To retain the early spelling would be to permit sentiment to rule rather than a true reverence and regard for our Guru and his rightful place among the great ones. A correction was therefore made in the spelling of his title, so that there would be no doubt concerning its intended meaning.  Whereas the Paramhansa spelling was used for a relatively few years, his name and title will live for aeons, and should stand without question as designating one who is a true Paramahansa.





Paramahansa Yogananda ~~ In explaining the inner meaning of words and names, the primary key is to hunt for it in the ORIGINAL SANSKRIT ROOT. Terrible mistakes are made in definitions of Sanskrit terms if there is no intuitive ability to arrive at correct root, and then to decipher the correct meaning from that root according to its usage at the time of the origin of the word.  When the basis is correctly established, one may then also draw meaning from the various sources relative to the common meaning of words and the specific way they were used to form a cogent connective thought.  It is remarkable how the author of this great Bhagavad Gita has clothed every psychological tendency or faculty, as well as many metaphysical principles, with a suitable name. Each word, how beautiful! Each word growing from a Sanskrit root!  A proliferation of pages would be required to delve fully into the Sanskrit underlying the metaphors…India has preserved in her literature her highly evolved civilization dating back to a glorious golden age. From the undated antiquity in which the Vedas first emerged, through a grand unfoldment of subsequent exalted verse and prose, the Hindus have left their civilization not in stone monoliths or crumbling edifices,but in architecture of ornamental writing sculpted in the euphonious language of Sanskrit. The very composition of the Bhagavad Gita—its rhetoric, alliteration, diction, style, and harmony—shows that India had long since passed through states of material and intellectual growth and had arrived at a lofty peak of spirituality.

from God Talks With Arjunda: The Bhagavad Gita



Sri Mrinalini Mata on the importance of Sanskrit to the spiritual stature of Paramahansaji and his teachings

Autobiography of a Yogi  is regarded as AN UPANISHAD OF THE NEW AGE.’**

SRI MRINALINI MATA ~~…How fitting that it should now be published in SANSKRIT, the ancient tongue called ‘the language of the gods,’ in which eternal truth — Sanatana Dharma — was first expressed in India’s Golden Age of civilization. This new translation symbolically completes a circle that links past and present, East and West, and Gurudeva’s teachings with their source in the wisdom and God-realization of the rishis of old. It honors him as one who shared their divine consciousness, who lived their ideals, and was chosen by Mahavatar Babaji — an immortal rishi of this age–to spread around the world the special dispensation for our times: the science of Kriya Yoga.

May the universal truths expressed in Autobiography of a Yogi, now also clothed in the pure, noble language in which India’s spiritual heritage has been conveyed from age to age, continue to reach receptive souls everywhere.

     (**Dr. Ashutosh Das, professor of philosophy at Kolkata University)


See also ~

SRF and Shankaracharya Bharati Krishna Tirtha, head of the Swami Order of India