When Hitler began using the swastika as the symbol for his Nazi party in the 1920s, he brought about the death not only of millions of innocent people, but also of an innocent symbol. His use of the beloved Hindu religious sign instilled so much hate for it in the Western world that I wonder if its true meaning will ever be reclaimed.
It certainly doesn’t seem like something that will happen any time soon. When Israeli-American researcher Avrahaum Segol was playing around with Google Earth’s online satellite imaging tools in March 2008, he noticed that the Wesley Acres Methodist retirement home in Alabama looked like a swastika from the air and immediately went up in arms. Although the old-folks’ home had already spent $1 million on a design modification after complaints from a US senator, that obviously wasn’t enough – now it’ll be forced to fork up more cash and make a second attempt to disguise its shape.
|It seems Mr. Segol spends a lot of time on Google Earth, because he’s the same guy who back in 2007 pointed out that a US Naval Base in San Diego, California also looks like a swastika from the air. He called the Alabama retirement home its “sister swastika,” and said that they were both part of a tangled, government-funded conspiracy to honor Nazis.
John Mock, the architect who designed the buildings back in the 1960s, called the allegations ridiculous. “There was no malicious intent,” he told CNN in 2007. “It’s four L-shaped buildings – and whether you look from the ground or the air, it still is.”
Wow. Okay, while that’s harsh, maybe it’s to be expected that the government wouldn’t want such public buildings to have any chance of being associated with the Nazis. But surely everyone knows that the swastika is a sacred symbol in India, and that a Hindu’s use of it is religious and perfectly innocent, right?
In November 1998 Devinder Paul Kaushal, a devout Hindu from New Delhi, found his employment of over twelve years at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency hotel terminated after he used window cleaner to spray a swastika on a mirror he was cleaning. The image was immediately wiped away, but Kaushal's co-workers were taken aback, and complained. Kaushal made efforts to explain to his seniors that in his religion the swastika is a prevalent image associated with auspiciousness. But they were not convinced. He was asked to resign, and when he didn’t, was fired days later.
Speaking to Hinduism today, Kaushal said he had no knowledge of how deep the revulsion for the swastika runs in the West: “I did not mean to offend anybody. Now that I have learned more about it, I do feel sorry for the holocaust victims. But people should also be aware that this is our religious symbol. We Hindus have been using it long before anybody else. It is very hard for me to get this through to the public.”
Kaushal attempted to sue the hotel giant for religious discrimination, seeking reinstatement, back pay and damages. But amazingly, he failed. An Illinois federal court found that he did not have a right to display a swastika as an accommodation for his religious practices, stating, “The swastika is so offensive to so many people that its public display”¦with the sanction of management is unthinkable.”
The swastika may be offensive to many people, but it’s probably sacred to far more. And with one billion Hindus, Buddhists and Jains holding it as auspicious, it could hardly be considered “one of the most hated symbols in human history.”
In Hinduism, swastikas are used in conjuction with the elephant God Ganesh and the sacred om to remove obstacles and bring auspiciousness – at religious rites, as well as house and business openings. In Buddhism, they appear on the chest of some statues of Gautama Buddha, and mark the beginning of many scriptures. And amongst Jains, the swastika is the emblem of the seventh Arhat, or saint – the first of whom was Lord Rishabhadeva, whom the Srimad-Bhagavatam acknowledges as an incarnation of Krishna.
And the swastika doesn’t just predate its Nazi usurpation by a few years – Vaishnava priest Krishna Svarupa tells me that most scholars agree it goes back at least five thousand years, since it is mentioned in the ancient epic Mahabharata.
But the swastika could even be as eternal as God himself. In Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura’s Rupa Cintamani, the Vaishnava scholar writes, “I worship Lord Hari, whose feet are endowed with the nineteen great opulences of, ”¦on the right foot, the eight-pointed star, svastika, wheel, parasol, barleycorn, elephant-goad, flag, thunderbolt, jambu fruit, urdhva-rekha, and lotus.”
|It’s not exactly clear what the swastika’s shape signifies. But according to the British archeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham, it is an interlacing of ancient Brahmi characters for the words su, meaning “well,” and asti, meaning “to exist.” Combinined, these create the word swasti, meaning “auspicious.” Both right-facing and left-facing swastikas are used in Hinduism – it’s only the swastika slanted at a forty-five degree angle that is a true Nazi symbol.|
| Yet it’s when you look further than India that you realize how ridiculous it is that a few years of improper use caused the swastika to be so reviled. Believe it or not, it also has an ancient history in Europe, appearing on artifacts from Indo-European cultures such as the Indo-Aryans, Persians, Hittites, Slavs, Celts and Greeks, among others. Excavations revealed that it was even used by many Native American tribes, especially the Navajo.
In the Western world, the swastika really experienced a resurgence following the archaeological work of Heinrich Schliemann, who in the 19th century discovered it in the site of ancient Troy. Schliemann connected it with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and in his 1875 book Troy and its Remains he theorized that the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors,” linking Germanic, Greek and Indo-Iranian cultures.
Amazingly, the swastika is even used in the major western religions. Some Christian churches built in the Romanesque and Gothic eras are decorated with swastikas, where they are used as a hooked version of the cross. Swastikas are also displayed in a mosaic in the St. Sophia church of Kiev, Ukraine, as well as on a tomb in the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan. And it may not be a coincidence that the Benedictine choir school at Lambach Abbey, Austria, which Hitler attended for several months as a boy, had a swastika chiseled into the monastery portal.
Only a few years before before Hitler, the swastika was often displayed alongside other major religious symbols. On a stained glass window in a 1929 chapel at the University of Michigan, it appears alongside a Christian cross, Hebrew star and others. And the Yerkes Observatory in Geneva Lake Wisconsin, established in 1897 by the University of Chicago, features ornate decoration including a swastika symbol adjacent to a Star of David.
I know that the effect Hitler’s crimes had against humanity cannot be underestimated. And bigots use the Swastika to promote his agenda even to this day. But with so much history as a symbol of religiosity, goodness and auspiciousness, I would expect people to exercise their better judgement and have some tolerance when they see the swastika being used innocently.
Some steps are being taken – many Hindu groups have fought the good fight to reclaim the swastika from Hitler. In January 2007, for instance, Hindus in the UK, Belgium, Holland and Italy joined forces against a German proposal to ban the display of the swastika across the European Union. During its six-month EU presidency, Germany wanted to make Holocaust denial and the display of Nazi symbols a crime. Yet Hindu leader Ramesh Kallidai of the Hindu Forum of Britain said that while the Nazi implications of the symbol should be condemned, people should respect the Hindu use of the swastika.
“Just because Hitler misused the symbol, abused it and used it to propagate a reign of terror and racism and discrimination, it does not mean that its peaceful use should be banned. That would be equivalent to banning the cross simply because the Klu Klux Klan has used burning crosses.”
The stand worked. At the end of January 2007, Germany issued a statement saying its new anti-racism laws would not include prohibiting “specific symbols such as swastikas.”
It will still be a very long time before people can look at a swastika and not think “Nazi.” But at least there’s a move in the right direction. We may not be able to completely reclaim the swastika, but at least we can create awareness amongst the general public – our friends, our colleagues, etc – as to its true nature.