The arayanna were described as having a heavenly abode on Mânasasaras, one of the Himâlayas. Ara denoted royalty. The swans did not like rain, so they came to earth when it rained in their heavenly abode and returned as soon as rain began on earth.
Their parentage was traced to Kas´yâpa by his wife Tâmrâ through her daughter Dhritarâshthrî. Vâlmîki’s Râmâyana stated that this lineage alone gave the swan its divinity (devatva). Swans were at first black and white, according to a myth in the Uttara Râmâyana, but pure white was given as a blessing from the god Varuna, who took their form to hide from the great demon Râvana. (The gods had assembled for a sacrificial meal and had to change into the shape of various birds when Ravâna came to attack them.)
The swan was blessed by Varuna to be as white as milk. There are many stories about the arayanna. A swan was once stuck in a water tank, and Prince Nala found and captured it, but then took pity on the trembling bird and released it. The arayanna was so happy that it flew to the next kingdom and helped in gaining Princess Damayantî as Nala’s wife. The swan could be used in a more obvious moral lesson.
A story was told to Bhîshma: why this sage is so unreliable. An old arayanna lived by the sea and preached righteous actions to the birds of that region. Then because of a famine the birds needed to look farther away for their prey, so they entrusted their eggs to the swan, and he grew fat eating the very eggs he had promised to watch.
Finally one of the birds noticed the declining number of eggs and told the others, and they killed the deceitful arayanna. This theme of reversal in the myths—of a king or priest or even a god failing to be righteous—illustrated the importance of following dharma (ethical duty) just as clearly as if the story had given a positive example.
Swans (hamsa or arayanna) were considered to be celestial birds having the capability of separating water and milk. They were often used in Vedantic literature metaphysically as a metaphor for one who had the ability to distinguish between the material and the spiritual. Even Krishna would be called a hamsa, as was Shrî Râmakrishna in the modern period.