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The Auspicious Swastika

January 2007
The Auspicious Swastika

The swastika is as holy to the Hindus, Jains and Buddhists as it is evil to people from the West. When a symbol represents diametrically opposite concepts to different groups, a natural conflict arises. Asians who immigrate to the West encounter obstacles when trying to incorporate the swastika into their lives. In America, like in the rest of the Western world, this most cherished and holy symbol of the East is viewed only as a legacy of the atrocities and murders committed under the black swastika of the Nazis.

Many Americans do not know the history or the importance of the symbol to Hindus. The results of this ignorance are real. Hindu temples have been vandalized, religious ceremonies displaying swastikas interrupted and devotees accused of neo-Nazism. The swastika is such a ubiquitous symbol of goodness throughout the East that many less-educated Asians are themselves unaware that it could signify any evil.

My great-grandparents were murdered by the Nazis. As a Jewish person raised in Europe, I had associated the swastika with the Nazi heritage — extermination of millions of people, destruction of countries and a racist ideology. Its sight alone arouses such strong feelings in me that I naturally want to look away. The pain I feel when looking at it is as strong as if I had lived through the war myself.

When I first saw a swastika on an Indian card, I was taken aback: "Why is this offensive Nazi symbol displayed on a wedding invitation?" I knew that the Nazis stole the symbol from the ancient cultures, particularly India. However, I had assumed that, after World War II, the evil associated with the symbol prevented the original cultures from using it.

As I am learning more about the Indian culture and religion, I am becoming more curious about the symbolism of the swastika and the present-day conflict surrounding it.

For Hindus, the swastika is a symbol of auspiciousness, prosperity and good fortune. In Loving Ganesha, Satguru Sivaya Subramaniyaswami, founder of Hinduism Today, explains its significance: "The swastika's right-angled arms reflect the fact that the path toward our objectives is often not straight, but takes unexpected turns. They denote also the indirect way in which Divinity is reached — through intuition and not by intellect. Symbolically, the swastika's cross is said to represent God and creation. The four bent arms stand for the four human aims, called purushartha: righteousness, dharma; wealth, artha; love, kama; and liberation, moksha. This is a potent emblem of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal truth. Hindus use the swastika to mark the opening pages of account books, thresholds, doors and offerings. No ceremony or sacrifice is considered complete without it, for it is believed to have the power to ward off misfortune and negative forces."

Before the Nazis stole the insignia from the ancient world, various cultures throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas had used it as a favorable and positive symbol. In the decades before World War II, the swastika was used as a design motif and symbol of good fortune in the United States, appearing on such items as greeting cards, magazine covers, book jackets, posters, playing cards, poker chips, jewelry, fruit wrappers and business logos. Even the Boy Scouts issued a "Swastika Thanks Badge," to be given to anyone who had done a kindness to a scout.

Before the Nazis, the swastika had never been used to represent an evil concept or a racist ideology. However, after World War II, Western cultures no longer used the symbol as they had prior to the Third Reich. Most Europeans and Americans still perceive any swastika as a Nazi or neo-Nazi symbol, despite differences in its color and the direction in which it points.

The Jews are understandably sensitive to the swastika. Anti-Semitism was central to the Nazi movement. In "Mein Kampf," Hitler described the symbolic meaning of the Nazi flag: "In red, we see the social idea of the movement, in the white, the nationalistic idea, in the swastika, the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic."

It is hard, therefore, for a Jewish person to see the swastika as an auspicious sign. Indeed, so persistent is the feeling of horror surrounding this symbol that many believe it to be beyond redemption. "Certain symbols might easily exist ambiguously or with multiple meanings, but ultimately not the swastika. For what once exemplified good fortune now manifests malevolence. What was once innocent is forever guilty, and as long as it embodies even an iota of evil, it will never again be redeemed," declared graphic design guru Steven Heller in his book "The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?"

However, to redeem something means to "make up for defects". But there was nothing wrong with the swastika that needed correction or cure. It was just usurped and abused by those who were responsible for the worst atrocities against humanity. Sadly, thanks to the propaganda machine of the Nazis, the insignia took on a life of its own as an ominous, morbid and fearsome symbol.

So how do we reconcile the importance of the swastika for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains? How can we reduce the conflict and promote acceptance? Education is the only thing that might promote a better understanding between the Hindus living in the Western world and their new countrymen. It is important that in the United States there be more written and said about the meaning of the symbol to Asian cultures and religions. Such an education should start in schools where Hindu, Christian and Jewish kids are taught world religions.

The swastika is not the only symbol whose original godly and favorable significance was used for evil purposes. Under the Christian cross, brutal crusades took place, and black Americans were persecuted and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. However, the cross has not become a forever detested and condemned symbol.

As an Eastern European immigrant, I don't believe I can disassociate the swastika from the meaning I grew up with. But after learning about Hindu culture, I have become aware of the importance of the swastika to Hindus and now deeply respect the symbol's significance and holiness. With knowledge and understanding, people from the Western world, while not forgetting their countries' experiences, can embrace the swastika as an auspicious sign of the Asian world. As education and awareness replace prejudice, intolerance and narrow-mindedness, there is hope people will start to see the historical richness as well as the present-day significance of the swastika, and not just its Nazi past.

Jane Srivastava holds a bachelor's degree from Vilnius State University, Lithuania, and a law degree from the Albany Law School, Albany, New York. She lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina. A version of this article originally appeared in Hinduism Today magazine.


Hindu scholar Dr P. V. Rao on:

The Origin of Swastika

By Anu Ghosh Bharucha

According to Wikipedia, there is no reference to the swastika in the Vedas. The term first appearing in the Sanskrit epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The symbol rose to importance in Hinduism and Buddhism in Maurya and Gupta India.

"Who started using the symbol first, we may never know and answer. It is as old as the use of Om in the Hindu religion. In the Hindu tantrik tradition of India, the whole universe is conceived of as a unity, which is symbolically represented as a bindu (point). Out of this point emerges everything else. Now think of the four crossed lines that make up the swastika. They are emanations from this point signifying the manifestation of the universe. Thus, swastika is our way of symbolically writing on a piece of paper how we think the universe evolved. And when I say universe, I just don't mean the physical universe," explains Dr P.V. Rao, physics professor at Emory University and a distinguished Hindu scholar.

For those who may not be versed in Hindu or tantrik tradition, Rao elaborates, "In Hindu tradition everything evolved from Brahma, a primordial entity which has no name, no form, we can't describe what he is like. But we still talk about Brahma. So the tantriks have developed this notion and attached it to the swastika that the point represents the fundamental unity, the arms represent the evolution of the universe."

Rao says, "If you notice closely, the lines or arms don't go the whole way. They stop at a certain point and go either right or left. The direction has no particular significance for us. We can use either one. It has become such a symbol for us that each time you want to see the Universe in front of you, we draw the swastika."

And like Om, the swastika though not a syllable or a letter, "has become part of our decorative motive today," continues Rao, adding, "the swastika which appears to be a decorative character may have originated in a hieroglyphic (pictorial) script. Like we write or say Om before we begin something, swastika became a symbol of our existence, our origin, our relationship with the universe."

And as to what the word literally means, Rao says, "‘swasti' means well-being and is used at the end of prayers. And when you add ‘ka' at the end of the word, the ‘ka' denotes symbol and swastika then stands for symbol of well-being."

Despite what it has come to symbolize in most of the Western world, Rao says, "We Hindus never thought and never think of swastika as a bad thing. It is a symbol of well-being. We use it for all kinds of good occasions — religious ceremonies, wedding invitations, etc."

And where do the differences and/or similarities lie between the Nazi emblem and the ancient symbol? According to research by various Hindu scholars, the major difference between the Nazi swastika and the ancient symbol of many different cultures is that the Nazi swastika is at a slant, while the ancient swastika is rested flat.

However, Rao advices some discretion among Hindus because of the swastika's recent history. "Pay attention. Understand and learn what it means, to other cultures, outside of Nazi ideology. And above all have empathy. If you were living in a dense crowd of Jews, it would not be good manners to openly display the swastika. It wouldn't make us good neighbors. If you go to a party and do or say or carry something the host hates, that would be considered bad, ill-mannered. Hindus don't have to carry the swastika around or display it to be Hindus."


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