In Sri Lanka, one would occasionally come across the swastika symbol in various places. This had nothing to do with Nazis. The swastika predates the rise of the Nazis by millennia and is a religious symbol for many people around the world and even in the US. It only became a hate symbol with Hitler.
The equilateral cross with its legs bent at right angles is a millennia-old sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that represents peace and good fortune, and was also used widely by Indigenous people worldwide in a similar vein.
The symbol itself dates back to prehistoric times. The word “swastika” has Sanskrit roots and means “the mark of well being.” It has been used in prayers of the Rig Veda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures. In Buddhism, the symbol is known as “manji” and signifies the Buddha’s footsteps. It is used to mark the location of Buddhist temples. In China it’s called Wàn, and denotes the universe or the manifestation and creativity of God. The swastika is carved into the Jains’ emblem representing the four types of birth an embodied soul might attain until it is eventually liberated from the cycle of birth and death. In the Zoroastrian faith, it represents the four elements – water, fire, air and earth.
In India, the ubiquitous symbol can be seen on thresholds, drawn with vermillion and turmeric, and displayed on shop doors, vehicles, food packaging and at festivals or special occasions. Elsewhere, it has been found in the Roman catacombs, ruins in Greece and Iran, and in Ethiopian and Spanish churches.
The swastika also was a Native American symbol used by many southwestern tribes, particularly the Navajo and Hopi. To the Navajo, it represented a whirling log, a sacred image used in healing rituals and sand paintings. Swastika motifs can be found in items carbon-dated to 15,000 years ago on display at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine as well as on artifacts recovered from the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations that flourished between 2600 and 1900 BC.
In North America, in the early 20th century, swastikas made their way into ceramic tiles, architectural features, military insignia, team logos, government buildings and marketing campaigns. Coca-Cola issued a swastika pendant. Carlsberg beer bottles came etched with swastikas. The Boy Scouts handed out badges with the symbol until 1940.
For the Navajo people, the symbol, shaped like a swirl, represents the universe and life, said Patricia Anne Davis, an elder of the Choctaw and Dineh nations.
“It was a spiritual, esoteric symbol that was woven into the Navajo rugs, until Hitler took something good and beautiful and made it twisted,” she said.
So how did it come to be that the Nazis choose it to represent them?
The symbol was revived during the 19th century excavations in the ancient city of Troy by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who connected it to a shared Aryan culture across Europe and Asia. Historians believe it is this notion that made the symbol appealing to nationalist groups in Germany including the Nazi Party, which adopted it in 1920.
Hitler called the symbol a ‘hakenkreuz’ (‘hooked cross’) and it was called thus in the US too and did not start to be called a swastika until the early 1930s.
People for whom the swastika represents their religious faith and traditions are trying to divest it of its recent hate-filled symbolism and reclaim it so that they can use it openly.
The Rev. T.K. Nakagaki said he was shocked when he first heard the swastika referred to as a “universal symbol of evil” at an interfaith conference. The New York-based Buddhist priest, who was ordained in the 750-year-old Jodoshinshu tradition of Japanese Buddhism, says when he hears the word “swastika” or “manji,” he thinks of a Buddhist temple because that is what it represents in Japan where he grew up.
“You cannot call it a symbol of evil or (deny) other facts that have existed for hundreds of years, just because of Hitler,” he said.
This effort has produced mixed reactions in the Jewish community. There are those for whom the symbol evokes a visceral reaction and feel that the stain of Nazism can never be erased from it and thus the symbol should always be seen as hateful and thus suppressed. But others find that discovering that the symbol has an ancient and benign meaning serves to eliminate the anger and fear that it once provoked in them by stripping it of its power.
Like Nakagaki, Jeff Kelman, a New Hampshire-based Holocaust historian, believes the hakenkreuz and swastika were distinct. Kelman who takes this message to Jewish communities, is optimistic about the symbol’s redemption because he sees his message resonating with many in his community, including Holocaust survivors.
“When they learn an Indian girl could be named Swastika and she could be harassed in school, they understand how they should see these as two separate symbols,” he said. “No one in the Jewish community wants to see Hitler’s legacy continue to harm people.”
Greta Elbogen, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor whose grandmother and cousins were killed at Auschwitz, says she was surprised to learn about the symbol’s sacred past. Elbogen was born in 1938 when the Nazis forcibly annexed Austria. She went into hiding with relatives in Hungary, immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and became a social worker.
This new knowledge about the swastika, Elbogen said, feels liberating; she no longer fears a symbol that was used to terrorize.
“Hearing that the swastika is beautiful and sacred to so many people is a blessing,” she said. “It’s time to let go of the past and look to the future.”
Reclaiming words and symbols that have acquired new and hateful meanings is never easy. This issue reminded me of the 2018 German film How About Adolf that I reviewed here about what happens at a dinner party when a guest says that he intends to name his yet-to-be-born son Adolf.
An uproar ensues in which the others try to argue him out of an idea that they think is utterly outrageous. The father-to-be defends the choice and counters by arguing that a name should not be banished just because one bad person happened to have it and that it is time to reclaim the name. He says that it is not as if his first name caused Hitler’s behavior after all. If one took the banishment argument seriously, he says, why stop with just Adolf? Why not make a list of all the first names that are associated with mass murderers, serial killers, and other undesirables and forbid people from using them? And what if Hitler’s first name had happened to be something very common and bland such as Hans? Or a name that belonged to some of the most illustrious figures in history such as Wolfgang? Or a variant such as Adolph? Would the same banishment rule apply?
It is hard to predict how this will go.