Before it was corrupted by Hitler, the swastika was a sacred symbol of good fortune.
Odds are, seeing a swastika invokes only the most unsavory images of hatred, fascism and flagrant racism—both of Nazis and death camps from WWII, and, sadly, of white supremacy groups of today. There's good reason that many note it as a physical manifestation of evil.
However, even if it isn’t widely talked about, it’s no secret that this symbol once had a far more sacred and benevolent meaning among the cultures that actually created it a millennia ago. And as the diaspora of minority faiths continues to diversify the West, these cultures are speaking out in an effort to reclaim the swastika’s original intent. It’s a conversation worth having.
The word “swastika”—or “svastika,” more accurately—comes from Sanskrit, meaning “good fortune” or “wellbeing,” and has been a benevolent staple of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions since ancient times. In Hindu religions, it is associated with Lord Ganesh, the deity who removes all obstacles, and is prominently seen throughout India and Indonesia as families gather to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights.
It’s also not uncommon to see it marked on a Buddhist temple under the name “manji” or throughout China under the name “wan”—both having auspicious connotations. In Jain faith, a swastika represents the four types of birth that an embodied soul might attain until liberation: heavenly, human, animal, or hellish.
Though Asia has the most long-lasting relationship with the swastika, its influence has appeared throughout Eastern Europe, Rome, northern Africa, South, Central and early North America under different names. For example, Indigenous tribes like the Navajo, Hopi and Passamaquoddy call the symbol ‘whirling logs’, again denoting luck and protection.
So positive was the swastika that up until the rise of Nazi Germany, the West wholeheartedly adopted the motif for advertising—it could be found on Coca-Cola memorabilia, beer cans, even on Boy and Girl scout badges. It was always a symbol for peace. That is, until it was stolen, reversed and appropriated to enact unspeakable cruelty.
For many who practice these minority faiths in America, using a swastika in religious practice is met with protests demanding removal, or even defaced property after people assume they are seeing neo-Nazi propaganda. It’s understandable that those whose religions actually created the symbol would find these assumptions unfair, along with the notion that this well intentioned practice should be compromised due to it being associated with heinous acts in only a very recent chapter in the symbols enduring legacy. After all, wouldn’t that be another unjust casualty in a needless war?
On the other hand, there’s no denying that for many, the swastika remains to be a painful symbol of trauma, with no hope of rehabilitation. As New York-based Steven Heller, a design historian and author whose grandfather perished during the Holocaust, said in his book, “Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?”: “A rose by any other name is a rose. In the end it’s how a symbol affects you visually and emotionally. For many, it creates a visceral impact and that’s a fact.” And with the rise of white nationalists and Holocaust denial, it feels particularly important to remain sensitive and validate the history of those affected by Hitler’s horrors.
One potential solution might be using intentional semantics. Hitler only called the symbol a hakenkreuz, or “hooked cross,” and that was the word used in US newspapers up until the early 1930s—ten years after the symbol was introduced as a Nazi emblem. Differentiating Hitler’s red, white and black hakenkreuz from the colorful, sacred swastika’s of faith groups could help shift the language and understanding around it.
Even more to the heart of the matter, perhaps this allowance for distinction—and therefore, nuance—invites a deeper understanding between both sides heavily affected by the symbol. For example, Greta Elbogen, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor who lost family members at Auschwitz, found great healing after learning abut the swastika’s original meaning. She told AP News that “hearing that the swastika is beautiful and sacred to so many people is a blessing. It’s time to let go of the past and look to the future.”
Obviously, there’s no easy fix here. Each perspective has a compelling reason to feel the way they do, and a lot of it comes from a valid desire to not see their history erased. The real obstacle is being able to have these types of conversations which honor both concerns without demonizing. As the perverted use of the swastika has shown us, extreme bias breeds hate, and hate is dangerous. The key to moving forward, it feels pretty safe to say, will be compassion.