When I visited India the summer I turned 9, my grandmother took my siblings and me to a jeweler to select pendants to bring back to the US. My brother and sister chose the gold-tipped tiger claws, still available easily and guilt-free in India in the 1970s. But I found the tiger claws too “gee whiz”; I wanted something that was meaningfully Indian. So the jeweler trotted out his line of large, bright silver pendants shaped either as Om or swastika. I was drawn to the pleasing aesthetics of the swastika designs, with their symmetry and regularity of line; the Om was alright, but it didn’t do much for me. Still, I had a difficult time deciding to bring home the swastika, waffling on the matter until it grew late and even the jeweler was losing patience with me. In the end, I came away with the Om, which languished never-worn in my dresser drawer for years until I simply lost track of it. Something about the entire episode never sat quite right with me, but as a child I couldn’t puzzle out why.
I was probably in high school before it first dawned on me just what it was that kept me from the swastika that day: Growing up in an observant Brahmin household in the US (from which I’ve long since recovered), I felt an emotional dissonance around the symbol, which I associated with something like serenity, nurturance, and cosmic benevolence, and at the same time with “evil,” hatred, and genocide.
The word swastika can be translated as wellbeing (from the Sanskrit su, meaning good, and asti, meaning to be, plus the diminutive suffix, ka) and in most of the world the identical symbol (by whatever name) has long been associated with wellbeing and good luck. In South Asia, the swastika is found on artifacts dating back 4,500 years to the time of the Harappan Civilization, where it frequently occurs as a character in their symbol system. Even as Harappan culture faded into obscurity, the swastika was carried forward, becoming strongly associated with Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religious traditions, an association that persists to this day throughout Asia. Especially in India, the swastika is the most ubiquitous of religious symbols.
The swastika appeared in ancient Europe, Africa, and the Americas, too, whether by diffusion from Asia or having arisen on its own as a symbol of good luck. It is found on excavated artifacts from ancient Troy in Greece and those preserved for hundreds of years in the peat bogs of Denmark. It appears as a design on gold coin originating from Ghana, now disseminated throughout Africa. In the Americas, the Aztecs and the Hopi used the swastika as a motif in indigenous designs; today, the national flag of the Cuna (Kuna) Indians of Panama is a large black swastika in a yellow field.
In Europe and North America, the swastika enjoyed rediscovery as a good luck symbol during the early 1900s. Greeting cards, prints, and cookie tins from this time commonly sported the symbol, including a key fob designed with the Coca-Cola logo on its face. Residents of a town in Ontario, Canada, founded in 1908, chose Swastika for their town’s name (decades later they would successfully resist government pressure to change the name). US and Finnish Air Force pilots wore swastikas for good luck from the early days of flight into the 1930s, and the Order of the White Rose of Finland, a chivalric order founded in 1919, headed by the President of Finland, used a swastika as its insignia until 1963. The swastika had purely auspicious connotations in all of these contexts.
In Germany the swastika had been variously employed as a symbol for different populist movements until the 1920s when, for a certain Adolf Hitler, the popular symbol took on another layer of meaning: According to his simplified and distorted theories of human migrations, progress, and “racial” descent, he believed the swastika was a symbol of the Aryan people and that modern Germans were directly descended from those ancient Aryans. Thus, to him, the swastika was the ideal centerpiece for the symbol of his racialist political party, the National Socialists, aka the Nazis. Hitler painstakingly designed the precise colors and proportions of the black swastika in a white circle on a red field, all by himself, stating, “As National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red we see the social idea of the movement, in 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.”
After the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the horrifying crimes of its reign, the idea of the swastika as a good luck symbol was quickly and thoroughly swept out of the cultural consciousness of Europe, North America, and Australia. But not so for much of the world, for whom this foreign war, with its mad villains and their attendant ideology were short-lived, far away, and culturally distant, unrelated to local systems of meaning. Even today there are people worldwide who are hardly aware of the whole episode, especially the detail about the use of the swastika. Thus, in much of the world, the ancient and dear connotations of the swastika have not been undermined by the Nazi party’s brief hijacking of the symbol.
A few years ago, angered by the tasteless humor of Britain’s young Prince Harry who dressed up as a Nazi to attend a theme party, the EU moved to ban the swastika from Europe. So far the movement has failed, instead generating something of a backlash of Europeans and North Americans who took it upon themselves to educate (remind) their fellow citizens about the history and original meaning of the swastika, attempting to reclaim it from its degradation in the service of Nazi ideology. Notably, those hoping to reclaim the swastika do not appear to be only of non-Western heritage. Particularly in North America, the drive is spearheaded by Pagans, New Age spiritualists, and the like. Some hope to reclaim it by insisting “good” swastikas can only face in the direction opposite to Hitler’s swastika; but in the wider world and through history, the direction of the swastika is irrelevant.
Traveling in India recently with a dear friend from the US, I found that she was deeply unnerved by the swastikas she saw everywhere. Once, riding a country bus in Madhya Pradesh filled with sundry Indian rustics, she gasped upon finding the symbol scratched roughly into the paint near her seat, part of a mosaic of mundane graffiti. Her reaction was visceral, and my explanations about its meaning and history only went so far toward reassuring her. While I wasn’t entirely surprised by her reaction and I certainly appreciate her struggle with the matter, especially since she identifies as a Jewish American, I was also saddened by this tragically deep cross-cultural misunderstanding: How unfortunate that what to many is a powerfully, mystically, and even beautifully positive symbol has for others the most vile, despicable, and horrifying connotations. And for quite unrelated reasons. With all the Israeli and German tourists in India, too, I wonder what tends to be their take on the matter.
The world gets closer and India is increasingly involved in commercial and cultural exchanges with the West. Given the ubiquity of the swastika in India and on Indian goods—from Ganesh statuettes to boxes of sweetmeats—I wonder if the Eastern reverence for the swastika will come to clash even more loudly with the Western hatred of it. Can the symbol ever be redeemed in the eyes of the West? What might be lost and what could be gained in the possibility of doing so?
Images (top to bottom):
Along the left: Pakistan (Harappan c 2,000 BCE), USA (c 1920s), Iran, Korea (temple)
Along the right: India, Panama, Germany (Alamanni c 100 CE?), India (stupa, c 100 CE)