Unpacking the conflicting legacy of an ancient symbol


Sheetal Deo was shocked when she received a letter from her Queens condo constructing’s co-op board calling her Diwali ornament “offensive” and demanding she take it down.

“My ornament mentioned `Happy Diwali’ and had a swastika on it,” mentioned Deo, a doctor, who was celebrating the Hindu competition of lights.

The equilateral cross with its legs bent at proper angles is a millennia-old sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that represents peace and success, and was additionally used extensively by Indigenous individuals worldwide in the same vein.

But in the West, this symbol is commonly equated to Adolf Hitler’s hakenkreuz or the hooked cross — a symbol of hate that evokes the trauma of the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazi Germany. White supremacists, neo-Nazi teams and vandals have continued to make use of Hitler’s symbol to stoke worry and hate.

Over the previous decade, as the Asian diaspora has grown in North America, the name to reclaim the swastika as a sacred symbol has develop into louder. These minority religion communities are being joined by Native American elders whose ancestors have lengthy used the symbol as half of therapeutic rituals.

Deo believes she and other people of different faiths mustn’t should sacrifice or apologize for a sacred symbol just because it’s usually conflated with its tainted model.

“To me, that is insupportable,” she mentioned.

Yet to others, the concept that the swastika may very well be redeemed is unthinkable.

Holocaust survivors specifically may very well be re-traumatized once they see the symbol, mentioned Shelley Rood Wernick, managing director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center on Holocaust Survivor Care.

“One of the hallmarks of trauma is that it shatters an individual’s sense of security,” mentioned Wernick, whose grandparents met at a displaced individuals’ camp in Austria after World War II. “The swastika was a illustration of the idea that stood for the annihilation of an total individuals.”

For her grandparents and the aged survivors she serves, Wernick mentioned, the symbol is the bodily illustration of the horrors they skilled.

“I acknowledge the swastika as a symbol of hate.”

New York-based Steven Heller, a design historian and creator of “Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?”, mentioned the swastika is “a charged symbol for therefore many whose family members have been criminally and brutally murdered.” Heller’s great-grandfather perished throughout the Holocaust.

“A rose by some other identify is a rose,” he mentioned. “In the finish it is how a symbol impacts you visually and emotionally. For many, it creates a visceral impression and that is a truth.”

The symbol itself dates again to prehistoric occasions. The phrase “swastika” has Sanskrit roots and means “the mark of properly being.” It has been utilized in prayers of the Rig Veda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures. In Buddhism, the symbol is named “manji” and signifies the Buddha’s footsteps. It is used to mark the location of Buddhist temples. In China it is referred to as Wan, and denotes the universe or the manifestation and creativity of God. The swastika is carved into the Jains’ emblem representing the 4 varieties of start an embodied soul may attain till it’s ultimately liberated from the cycle of start and demise. In the Zoroastrian religion, it represents the 4 components — water, fireplace, air and earth.

In India, the ubiquitous symbol could be seen on thresholds, drawn with vermillion and turmeric, and displayed on store doorways, automobiles, meals packaging and at festivals or particular events. Elsewhere, it has been present in the Roman catacombs, ruins in Greece and Iran, and in Ethiopian and Spanish church buildings.

The swastika additionally was a Native American symbol utilized by many southwestern tribes, significantly the Navajo and Hopi. To the Navajo, it represented a whirling log, a sacred picture utilized in therapeutic rituals and sand work. Swastika motifs could be present in gadgets carbon-dated to fifteen,000 years in the past on show at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in addition to on artifacts recovered from the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations that flourished between 2600 and 1900 BC.

The symbol was revived throughout the nineteenth century excavations in the ancient metropolis of Troy by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who related it to a shared Aryan tradition throughout Europe and Asia. Historians imagine it’s this notion that made the symbol interesting to nationalist teams in Germany together with the Nazi Party, which adopted it in 1920.

In North America, in the early twentieth century, swastikas made their method into ceramic tiles, architectural options, navy insignia, group logos, authorities buildings and advertising and marketing campaigns. Coca-Cola issued a swastika pendant. Carlsberg beer bottles got here etched with swastikas. The Boy Scouts handed out badges with the symbol till 1940.

The Rev. T.Okay. Nakagaki mentioned he was shocked when he first heard the swastika known as a “common symbol of evil” at an interfaith convention. The New York-based Buddhist priest, who was ordained in the 750-year-old Jodoshinshu custom of Japanese Buddhism, says when he hears the phrase “swastika” or “manji,” he thinks of a Buddhist temple as a result of that’s what it represents in Japan the place he grew up.

“You can not name it a symbol of evil or (deny) different information which have existed for a whole bunch of years, simply because of Hitler,” he mentioned.

In his 2018 e book titled “The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace from the Forces of Hate,” Nakagaki posits that Hitler referred to the symbol as the hooked cross or hakenkreuz. Nakagaki’s analysis additionally reveals the symbol was referred to as the hakenkreuz in U.S. newspapers till the early Nineteen Thirties, when the phrase swastika changed it.

Nakagaki believes extra dialogue is required despite the fact that will probably be uncomfortable.

“This is peace work, too,” he mentioned.

 The Coalition of Hindus of North America is one of a number of religion teams main the effort to distinguish the swastika from the hakenkreuz. They supported a brand new California regulation that criminalizes the public show of the hakenkreuz — making an exception for the sacred swastika.

Pushpita Prasad, a spokesperson for the Hindu group, referred to as it a victory, however mentioned the laws sadly labels each Hitler’s symbol and the sacred one as swastikas.

This is “not simply an esoteric battle,” Prasad mentioned, however an subject with real-life penalties for immigrant communities, whose members have resorted to self-censoring.

Vikas Jain, a Cleveland doctor, mentioned he and his spouse hid photos containing the symbol when their youngsters’s associates visited as a result of “they would not know the distinction.” Jain says he stands in solidarity with the Jewish neighborhood, however is unhappy that he can not freely apply his Jain religion “as a result of of this lack of understanding.”

He famous that the international Jain emblem has a swastika in it, however the U.S. Jain neighborhood intentionally eliminated it from its seal. Jain needs individuals would differentiate between their symbol of peace and Hitler’s swastika simply as they do with the hateful burning cross symbol and Christianity’s sacred crucifix.

Before World War II, the identify “Swastika” was so in style in North America it was used to mark quite a few places. Swastika Park, a housing subdivision in Miami, was created in 1917, and nonetheless has that identify. In 2020, the hamlet of Swastika, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, determined to maintain its identify after city councilors decided that it predated WWII and referred to the prosperity symbol.

Swastika Acres, the identify of a Denver housing subdivision, could be traced to the Denver Swastika Land Company. It was based in 1908, and adjusted its identify to Old Cherry Hills in 2019 after a unanimous metropolis council vote. In September, the city council in Puslinch, Ontario, voted to vary the identify of the road Swastika Trail to Holly Trail.

Next month, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which supervises the naming of geographic options inside the state, is about to vote to rename Swastika Mountain, a 4,197-foot butte in the Umpqua National Forest. Kerry Tymchuk, government director of the Oregon Historical Society, mentioned though its identify can solely be discovered on a map, it made information in January when two stranded hikers have been rescued from the mountain.

“A Eugene resident noticed that information report and requested why on earth was this mountain referred to as that these days,” mentioned Tymchuk. He mentioned the mountain received its identify in the 1900s from a neighboring ranch whose proprietor branded his cattle with the swastika.

Tymchuk mentioned the names board is about to rename Mount Swastika as Mount Halo after Chief Halito, who led the Yoncalla Kalapuya tribe in the 1800s.

“Most individuals we have heard from affiliate it with Nazism,” Tymchuk mentioned.

For the Navajo individuals, the symbol, formed like a swirl, represents the universe and life, mentioned Patricia Anne Davis, an elder of the Choctaw and Dineh nations.

“It was a religious, esoteric symbol that was woven into the Navajo rugs, till Hitler took one thing good and exquisite and made it twisted,” she mentioned.

In the early twentieth century, merchants inspired Native artists to apply it to their crafts; it appeared usually on silver work, textiles and pottery. But after it grew to become a Nazi symbol, representatives from the Hopi, Navajo, Apache and Tohono O’odham tribes signed a proclamation in 1940 banning its use.

Davis views the unique symbol that was utilized by many Indigenous individuals as one of peace, therapeutic and goodness.

“I perceive the wounds and trauma that Jewish individuals expertise once they see that symbol,” she mentioned. “All I can do is affirm its true that means — the one which by no means modified throughout cultures, languages and historical past. It’s time to revive the genuine that means of that symbol.”

Like Nakagaki, Jeff Kelman, a New Hampshire-based Holocaust historian, believes the hakenkreuz and swastika have been distinct. Kelman who takes this message to Jewish communities, is optimistic about the symbol’s redemption as a result of he sees his message resonating with many in his neighborhood, together with Holocaust survivors.

“When they study an Indian lady may very well be named Swastika and he or she may very well be harassed at school, they perceive how they need to see these as two separate symbols,” he mentioned. “No one in the Jewish neighborhood needs to see Hitler’s legacy proceed to hurt individuals.”

Greta Elbogen, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor whose grandmother and cousins have been killed at Auschwitz, says she was shocked to study the symbol’s sacred previous. Elbogen was born in 1938 when the Nazis forcibly annexed Austria. She went into hiding with kin in Hungary, immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and have become a social employee.

This new information about the swastika, Elbogen mentioned, feels liberating; she now not fears a symbol that was used to terrorize.

“Hearing that the swastika is gorgeous and sacred to so many individuals is a blessing,” she mentioned. “It’s time to let go of the previous and look to the future.”

For many, the swastika evokes a visceral response in contrast to some other, mentioned Mark Pitcavage, senior analysis fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism who for the previous 22 years has maintained the group’s hate symbols database.

“The solely symbol that might even come near the swastika is the symbol of a hooded Klansman,” he mentioned.

The ADL explains the sanctity of the swastika in many religions and cultures, and there are different lesser-known spiritual symbols that should be equally contextualized, Pitcavage mentioned. One is the Celtic cross — a conventional Christian symbol used for spiritual functions and to represent Irish pleasure — which is utilized by a quantity of white supremacist and neo-Nazi teams.

Similarly, Thor’s hammer is an essential symbol for individuals who observe neo-Norse religions comparable to Asatru. But white supremacists have adopted it as properly, usually creating racist variations of the hammer by incorporating hate symbols comparable to Hitler’s hakenkreuz.

“In the case of the swastika, Hitler polluted a symbol that was used innocuously in a range of contexts,” Pitcavage mentioned. “Because that that means has develop into so entrenched in the West, whereas I imagine it’s potential to create some consciousness, I do not assume that its affiliation with the Nazis could be fully eradicated.”


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