RELIGION

The Swastika, An Ancient Symbol Of Prosperity, Struggles To Overcome Nazi Connections

02/04/2015 01:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2015
Michael Marquand via Getty Images

For many around the world, the swastika is a sign of genocide and hatred, reviled for its association to the Nazi party. But for centuries before the Holocaust, and to this day, the swastika represented something very different for millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains across the globe.

An 'auspicious' symbol

The symbol bears special significance for one 18-year-old born and raised in India. She is a poet, student and interfaith activist, and her name is Swastika Jajoo. The name is not uncommon in India, where the swastika is a revered symbol in many of its faith traditions. Though the symbol has always played a central role in Jajoo's life, the meaning of the swastika to her has begun to shift as she mulls the prospect of studying abroad.

Jajoo, who was featured in a Huffington Post article in November after winning a teen writers’ award from online magazine KidSpirit, is considering using a shortened nickname when she pursues academic studies in Europe or the United States -- a bittersweet reality for a teenager born and raised in a Hindu family in India, where the swastika is revered.

“The swastika is emblematic of prosperity that extends beyond the individual to all four directions of the world,” Jajoo told The Huffington Post by email. “My parents wanted a daughter with infectious goodness, enthusiasm and love for life [...] and so they decided to give me the name Swastika.”

The word “swastika” translates to “well-being” from its original Sanskrit, and it has long been considered an auspicious symbol by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, as well as in Mesopotamian, Mayan and other indigenous civilizations around the globe.

“[The swastika is] 3,000 years old and maybe more,” Devdutt Pattanaik, an Indian mythology researcher and author, told HuffPost by email.

In India, the swastika is “as common as the cross is in Europe and America,” he said. It's often featured in Hindu homes, on temples and in artwork. Many draw the swastika on accounting books and in their offices to affirm prosperity, as Manav Lalwani, a Hindu American young professional, does and his father and grandfather did before him. Lalwani is the director of product development at a manufacturing company in New Jersey, which his father owns with three Jewish business partners.

The hooked cross occupies four corners of a square, Lalwani said, which can indicate that “God pervades all directions.”

Pattanaik said he doubted many in India were aware of the swastika’s association to Nazi Germany, though some, like Jajoo, may understand the negative connotations but still appreciate it as a religious symbol.

“It somehow makes me feel like a carrier of benevolence, of harmony, of peace,” Jajoo told HuffPost.

But many in the U.S., where Jajoo intends to study, will not share her feelings about the name.

“Some names just don't fly -- at least in some social, geographic or cultural contexts,” Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told HuffPost in an email. “They are not inherently evil or morally wrong ... but they may be contextually wrong.”

This context, Hirschfield continued, is one in which Holocaust survivors still bear tattoos from concentration camps. For them, the swastika likely communicates all the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.

“The swastika is a symbol of more than oppression,” the rabbi said. “It is a symbol of genocidal hatred, and hopefully not only for Jews, but for all decent people.”

‘A legacy of misappropriation’

Although some groups in Europe and the Americas have undertaken campaigns to “reclaim” the swastika as a symbol of peace, Hindu Americans have largely opted out of these efforts.

“It’s not at the top of the list right now,” said Khyati Joshi, a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who specializes in immigrant religious communities and multicultural education.

The main concern for Hindu Americans, Joshi continued, is securing a place for Hinduism in American public life and “transmitting the culture to the next generation.” That said, Joshi and Lalwani both said they have images of the swastika displayed throughout their homes. The symbol can also be found in Lalwani’s office, which has long featured the swastika on its safe and balance sheets.

When he was a child, Lalwani said, his father placed the swastika out of sight behind a TV monitor in deference to his Jewish business partners.

“It was an interesting way for him to negotiate tradition and sensitivity in an inherently diverse environment,” Lalwani said. He said his father has been in business with some of his partners for decades, and so over time, the swastikas in his office have become less of an issue, and he takes care to explain its significance in Hinduism to any new employees.

For Joshi it’s less a question of negotiating tradition and more about picking her battles.

“Sometimes we have to fight these ideological fights, and sometimes practicality must reign,” she said.

When her grandfather gave her a piece of jewelry decorated with swastikas in high school, she had to explain to him why he would never find her wearing it in the U.S.

“There's so much pain it causes people, that ... do I need to wear it and inadvertently hurt someone?" Joshi said. "No.”

Joshi’s reluctance to make a public demonstration of adoration for the swastika and Hirschfield’s caution against doing so are indicative of what Lalwani called a “legacy of misappropriation.” Adolf Hitler and his ilk managed to turn an ancient auspicious symbol into one of vile racism and oppression -- perhaps irrevocably.

“Nazis used it for but 20 years yet they seem have to appropriated [the] swastika totally, like cultural colonizers,” Pattanaik argued. “The global village seems to have legitimized their appropriation.”

Nazis use of the symbol

The swastika was well-known in Europe and the U.S. prior to the Holocaust. Over a century ago archaeologists encountered it in the cultural remains of the Ancient Greeks, Celts and Anglo-Saxons, as well as across Eastern Europe. The symbol also found a place in modern Western architecture and design before the Nazi party made it taboo.

In his book, “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” Steven Heller writes of the swastika’s use in Masonic imagery, the Theosophical movement, on several countries’ flags and even as the chosen symbol of peace for the League of Nations’ Vilna Commission in the 1920s.

Things changed when shoddy scholarship and archaeological analysis led the Nazis to mistakenly conclude they were direct descendants of an ancient Indian tribe -- the so-called “Aryans” -- who lived circa the second millennium B.C.

BBC writes:

The Nazi use of the swastika stems from the work of 19th Century German scholars translating old Indian texts, who noticed similarities between their own language and Sanskrit. They concluded that Indians and Germans must have had a shared ancestry and imagined a race of white god-like warriors they called Aryans.

This idea was seized upon by anti-Semitic nationalist groups who appropriated the swastika as an Aryan symbol to boost a sense of ancient lineage for the Germanic people.

Poet and Austrian-German nationalist Guido von List first suggested the swastika’s use as a symbol for anti-Semitic organizations in 1910, and the National Socialist Party adopted it roughly a decade later. It wasn’t until Hitler placed the black swastika on a white circle with a red background in 1935 that it became the national flag of Germany and the official icon of anti-Semitism.

Even this narrative may be flawed, however, said Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, who serves as the president of the Buddhist Council of New York and wrote his dissertation on the swastika’s complex connotations. A Buddhist priest and researcher, Nakagaki has studied the history of Hitler’s appropriation of the symbol and argues that there is a linguistic error at play.

“‘Swastika’ shouldn’t been the word to describe the Nazi symbol,” Nakagaki told HuffPost over the phone. “It should be ‘hakenkreuz.’”

Using his own translations of Mein Kampf, the priest argued that Hitler in fact never used the term “swastika” but instead referred to the symbol as “hakenkreuz” -- the German word for a hooked cross.

“It was a cross for Hitler,” Nakagaki said. “By saying ‘swastika’ people don’t see the cross anymore.”

What this suggests, he continued, is that people who view the swastika as forever-tarnished by the Holocaust may actually be thinking of an entirely different symbol than the one beloved by Hindus, Buddhists and many others.

“People think of it as a universal symbol of evil, but it’s not really universal at all,” Nakagaki said.

Bridging the divide

For those eager to shift the narrative, dialogue can go a long way to begin bridging the divide. Today these conversations are more feasible than they may have been several decades ago, said Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

“There has been education,” Dubensky told HuffPost over the phone, “[and] I think we can move on beyond a monolithic perspective of what the symbol means -- and a Western-centric one.”

Pattanaik argued it is “for the West to accept” the swastika’s older significance, but Lalwani would disagree.

“It has beautiful meaning," he said, "and I think it’s up to those who use it ​to talk about it ​and​​ explain why, in a way that ​broadens its perception en masse.”

The goal should be education, not conversion to a particular belief system, he added.

Lalwani argued that it isn’t “up to the Hindus or necessarily in their interest to change what the swastika means to the Jews.”

“They should be allowed to be repulsed by it just like Hindus should be allowed to be bolstered by its auspiciousness,” he said.

The symbol may never find a place in the hearts of those who came to know it as a symbol of oppression. But through dialogue, Dubensky suggested, people across the spectrum can come to better understand the swastika’s manifestations and the symbol may even become “a bridge for respect.”

“I don’t know if [the swastika] will ever be one that’s comfortable for some of those who identify as among the people who were victimized by Hitler,” Dubensky said. “[But] I think this conversation can be one of the doorways to our living with one another with greater respect and understanding.”

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