Swastika and Hakenkreuz: How Europe’s Guilt Affects Sacred Hindu Symbol

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It is ironic that Hindus and other dharmic faiths living in the western world are having to deal with a problem that originated from the Jewish community’s trauma, which in turn was a consequence of the racist and supremacist ideologies born and bred in Europe. What is even more ironic is that the Hindu society is the only society that has treated its Jewish minority with dignity and respect throughout the known history!

The Swastika is a sacred symbol that has been around for centuries and is used by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and many other communities. This symbol is very popular in Asian countries and is respected and honored. Similar-looking symbols under different names have appeared in the world almost 10,000 years ago. These symbols are all non-violent, and always represent well-being and good luck.

This article aims to provide the reader with background on the history and use of the Swastika symbol to understand better the current criticism of this symbol in the western world. Many critics of the Swastika are well-intentioned, and it is reasonable to assume that once they understand the larger context of the Swastika, they may understand our concerns. Therefore, it is imperative that we become knowledgeable ourselves and share this information widely.

The Swastika is a Sanskrit word derived from the adjective “su” meaning “good,” the verb “asti” meaning “being” with the affix “ka,” which collectively means “one who possesses well-being or prosperity.” The evidence for this is found in history and religions across the globe. For over a millennium, the Swastika was peacefully passed from generation to generation, tribe to tribe, people to people, and nation to nation. Then, in the 1930s – 40s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party radically altered its meaning for many in the West. Hitler had distinctly crafted his Nazi symbol, which he named “Hakenkreuz” (hooked cross) in his book, “Mein Kompf”. Hakenkreuz was by no means the sacred Swastika in much the same way as the burning cross used by Ku Klux Klan is not the Christian cross. However, despite its clear distinction from the Nazi symbol, the Swastika continues to be associated with the Nazi violence in the West.

As a result of this association, nations,  tribes, religions, and people worldwide face uninformed criticism for their use of the Swastika. Restoring the sanctity of the Swastika is very important for millions of people worldwide. We must educate ourselves, actively support the safety of Jewish people, and regain the position of the sacred symbol of the Swastika for Hindus and all the people across the globe.

Swastika around the world

The Swastika form is a geometric design with four arms of equal length, bent at the end to the right or left side. It lays flat. Sometimes red dots are added between the arms. Swastikas appear across the globe on artifacts found throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The earliest form of the Swastika dated back to 10,000 BCE and was found on mammoth ivory in Mezine, Ukraine. Another 7,000-year-old artifact was found in Iran.

The Swastika has had many names. In various European languages, it is known as the fylfot, gammadion, tetraskelion, or cross cramponnée; German Hakenkreuz; French: Croix gammée; Italian: Croce uncinata; Latvian: Ugunskrusts. In Mongolian, it is called Хас (khas) and is mainly used in seals. In Chinese, it is called 卍字 (wànzì), meaning “all things symbol,” pronounced manji in Japanese. Manja (만자)  marks the Buddhist temples in Korean and vạn tự / chữ vạn in Vietnamese.

The Swastika has had a considerable range of forms and meanings. This symbol is found in all the major religions of the world (and the ancient world), including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Jainism. Hinduism has, perhaps, the broadest use of the sacred Swastika. It is found on the walls of temples, homes, businesses, and vehicles. People often print the symbol on greeting and wedding cards and use it in rituals. It symbolizes auspiciousness, good luck, prosperity, and peace. It also denotes the movement of the Sun in the oldest Hindu sacred scripture, Rigveda. The horizontal line represents consciousness and the mind, and the vertical line represents energy. The four angled “end lines” signify the movement of the Swastika.

In Buddhism, the Swastika represents the Buddha and his auspicious footprints. It also represents dharma, long life, and the wheel of life or samsara. The symbol is found at the beginning of written Buddhist texts. Tibetan monks use it on their clothes as decoration.

Much less known is that Christianity used the symbol as a “hooked cross,” which represented Christ’s ability to overcome death on the cross through resurrection.

In Jainism, the four arms of the Swastika signify the four states of existence, which are heavenly beings, humans, those who dwell in hell, and plants and animals. Based on karma, one will be classified into one of these four states and strive to achieve a heightened state of enrichment and enlightenment. For the Zoroastrians of Persia, the Swastika represents the symbol of the Sun.

The symbol has long been used worldwide, from the Akan people in Ghana to the Navajo tribe in the Americas. In Ethiopia, the Swastika was carved in the window of the famous 12th-century rock-hewn church Lalibela. In Ghana, the Swastika is among the adinkra symbols of the Akan people. Called noontime, swastikas could be found on Ashanti gold weights and clothing. Native Americans of different parts of the Americas named their symbol differently for their tribes. For Hopi Indians swastika represents the wandering Hopi clan; to the Navajo, it is a symbol for the whirling log (tsin náálwołí), meaning good luck. In Scandinavia, the left-hand Swastika was the sign for the god Thor’s hammer. It was a common feature on coins in ancient Mesopotamia. In more recent times, Denmark’s Carlsberg Group used the symbol in its logo in the 19th century. Many American companies used Swastika in their businesses, including the American Sears catalog that sold Swastika design items for sale.

It is critical to understand that until the early 20th century, the Swastika was used worldwide and was regarded as a symbol of good luck. Its use was ubiquitous, appearing on various things from food to medals to sports jerseys. At one point, Coca-Cola even used it on one of their secondary products, and the American Sears catalog sold items with the Swastika design. The widespread use of the Swastika was well documented in an 1894 publication by the Smithsonian.

Hitler’s Nazi symbol – Hakenkreuz

In the 1920s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis designed their symbol by incorporating the colors from the German Imperial flag (1871–1918), which were red, black, and white, and using the shape of the Swastika tilted 45 degrees from the horizontal and oriented in the “S” letter direction to represent their “socialism.” It is reasonably certain that the symbol used by the Nazis was not the Swastika and was instead the Christian hooked cross (Hakenkreuz). Hitler’s Mein Kampf contained no usage of the word “swastika .”The English translation of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle,” an autobiography of Hitler”),  by Rev.James Murphy, an English Christian Priest, uses the term Swastika for the first time.

Before Hitler’s use of the “Hakenkreuz,” there had been a great deal of interest in connecting the history of the Europeans to the hypothesized ancient “Aryans” (also called Indo-Iranians or the Proto-Indo-Europeans). Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and archaeologist, discovered close to 2,000 ancient artifacts bearing the Swastika symbol on a trip to the Aegean coast (ancient Troy). He connected it with similar shapes found on antique pots in Germany. He theorized that the Swastika square was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors,” linking Germanic, Greek, and Indo-Iranian cultures. Schliemann was one of the first scholars to connect European history to the Swastika symbol in his 1871 publications. He consulted two leading European Sanskrit scholars of the day, Emile Burnouf and Max Müller, who contradicted his findings. Regardless, by the beginning of the 20th century, there was a growing view that the Germans were somehow connected to the ancestors of Troy. Radical and racist groups coined the term “master race” or “pure race,” which they believed were the inheritors of the ancient Aryan culture. The Nazi Party and other racist organizations such as the Thule Society incorporated the scholarly works of archaeologists and historians on the Swastika symbol that corroborated their version of history.

However, the well-known German Indologist, Max Muller, is on record for objecting to the use of Swastika in a non-Indian context: “I do not like using the word svastika outside of India. It is a word of Indian origin and has a history and definite meaning in India. …The occurrence of such crosses in different parts of the world may or may not point to a common origin, but if they are once called Svastika, the vulgus profanum (common people) will at once jump to the conclusion that they all come from India, and it will take some time to weed out such prejudice.” (Schliemann 1881: 346).  

Impact of the Alleged Nazi Connection on Swastika Use

Allied Forces outlawed the Nazi swastika and Nazi organizations after the Nazis surrendered in 1945. With the exclusion of using the Nazi symbol for educational purposes, reproducing the Nazi Hakenkreuz was criminalized in Germany and several European countries. The current political climate still shudders at Nazi history. However, over time the images of the Swastika have become associated with the violence of the Nazis. Listed below are a few incidents where individuals and organizations are under pressure not to use this sacred symbol.

  • The discovery of a swastika in the mosaic floor of a German museum has led to the museum covering the symbol with a carpet, and an investigation into the mosaic donor’s intentions.
  • The Navajo Native Americans were asked by the US government not to use their swastika symbol. Metalsmiths, weavers, and other artists stopped incorporating the symbol into their work.
  • A Brooklyn, NY, jewelry store selling swastika earrings made news when politicians accused them of selling the Nazi symbol. The store argued that it was the ancient symbol of goodwill. However, they had to withdraw their stock.
  • The US Navy is modifying swastika-shaped barracks built in the late 1960′s and located at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, just south of San Diego.
  • For the first 15 years of its existence, members of the Army’s 45th Infantry Division proudly wore on their left shoulder a Swastika symbol that came from the ancient native American symbol of good luck. However, they had to replace this symbol.
  • In America, ancient sites, designs, and many buildings with swastika designs are included in the National Registry of historic places. Many are erasing them due to false association with the Nazi symbol.
  • In 2016, Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority proposed replacing the Swastika (Manji in Japanese) with a three-story pagoda to indicate Buddhist temple locations on non-Japanese and foreign-language maps.
Swastika Rehabilitation Efforts

Despite the efforts to suppress the Swastika, steps are underway to restore the original Swastika to its rightful place.

  • The Hindu community, along with the Buddhists, Jains, and others of the dharmic faiths, is working with the Jewish communities and the lawmakers around the globe to raise awareness about the distinction between the Swastika and Hakenkreuz
  • Scandinavians are trying to raise awareness about the Swastika as an ancient Norse mythological symbol to revive interest in their past.
  • A few small towns named Swastika in Canada and New York decided to keep their names despite adversarial coverage n the media.
  • The symbol has been a part of the Theosophical Society’s seal for a long time and continues to be used to this day.
Closing Remarks

Antisemitism is the root of Jewish people’s suffering, and societies must work together to resolve this long-standing issue. Banning an ancient sacred symbol will not resolve antisemitism. It only hurts millions of people who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, Hitler, or even Germany. The International Raelian Movement said flying a swastika banner over Long Island was an attempt to “re-educate” the public about the symbol’s pre-Nazi roots. “Why should the swastika, a symbol of peace for more than 1.5 billion people in the world, offend the people of Manhattan?” In a press release on the Raelian official website, Thomas Kaenzig, Swastika Rehabilitation Day coordinator, said: “The truth about Swastika is, it is in every culture existing peacefully for centuries and must be restored back to its glory.”

Recommended Reading

Defining Swastika

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika
  2. https://cohna.org/swastika-is-not-hakenkreuz/
  3. https://www.greecehighdefinition.com/blog/2019/1/22/ancient-greek-origins-of-the-swastika-in-archaic-greece
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_use_of_the_swastika_in_the_early_20th_century
  5. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/south-asian-americans-complicated-relationship-swastika-rcna18599
  6. https://owlcation.com/academia/TheSwastikaSymbol
  7. https://norse-mythology.org/symbols/swastika-ancient-origins-modern-misuse/
  8. https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2150&context=ocj
  9. https://sva.edu/features/sva-mfa-design-co-chair-steven-heller-examines-the-swastika-in-symbols-of-hate
  10. http://pt.proswastika.org/news.php?extend.23.3
  11. https://afrolegends.com/2014/08/27/adinkra-symbols-and-the-rich-akan-culture/

Anti-Swastika articles and reactions:

  1. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2022/mar/15/the-pro-russian-war-symbol-z-is-the-new-swastika/
  2. https://www.jwire.com.au/banning-of-the-swatsika-in-nsw-a-step-closer/
  3. https://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2022/01/a-swastika-in-jewish-newspaper-100.html
  4. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210816-the-ancient-symbol-that-was-hijacked-by-evil
  5. https://www.algemeiner.com/2022/04/18/swastika-drawn-on-australian-soccer-field-remains-for-weeks-sparks-outcry-from-grandson-of-holocaust-survivor/
  6. https://myvoice.opindia.com/2020/08/curious-case-of-swastika/
  7. https://www.pgurus.com/warning-nazi-narratives-continue-to-threaten-hindus-and-jews/
  8. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-04-27-mn-51039-story.html
  9. https://www.greecehighdefinition.com/blog/2019/1/22/ancient-greek-origins-of-the-swastika-in-archaic-greece
  10. https://browngirlmagazine.com/2020/07/differentiate-between-swastika-and-nazi-hakenkreuz/#:~:text=When%20the%20Nazi%20Party%20was%20formed%20in%20the,adopting%20it%20as%20the%20party%E2%80%99s%20emblem%20in%201920.
  11. https://artdaily.com/news/127279/Museum-s-future-clouded-by-chance-discovery–Swastika-hiding-in-plain-sight#.YmCpx9rMKUk
  12. https://45thdivisionmuseum.com/index.php/history/from-swastika-to-thunderbird/
  13. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/27/us/27swastika.html
  14. https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/finnish-air-force-command-drops-swastika-logo-insignia-71576357
  15. https://canadadocs.org/ontario-court-rules-swastika-trail-will-not-be-renamed/
  16. https://nativeamericanjewelrytips.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/native-american-symbol-whirling-log-swastika/
  17. https://www.ethiopianforeignpolicy.com/why-are-there-swastika-symbols-on-lalibela-churches-in-ethiopia/
  18. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/ny-carlsberg-glyptotek-ghost-swastikas
  19. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/elephant-gate

Peoples struggles:

  1. https://nypost.com/2020/09/23/new-york-town-of-swastika-votes-to-keep-its-name/
  2. https://kreately.in/the-hakenkreuz-swastika-debate/
  3. http://www.canadiansinportugal.com/2011/10/our-good-canadian-swastikas.html
  4. https://www.foxnews.com/us/swastika-earrings-reportedly-no-longer-for-sale-at-brooklyn-jewelry-store
  5. https://www.foxnews.com/travel/japan-axes-use-of-a-swastika-map-symbol-so-it-will-stop-confusing-tourists
  6. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/hindu-group-in-us-rejects-criminalisation-of-swastika-saying-its-auspicious-symbol-was-misappropriated-by-nazis/articleshow/82017831.cms
  7. https://guardianlv.com/2012/06/international-raelian-movement-to-make-swastika-socially-accepted/
  8. https://nhmu.utah.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/Swastika%20Symbolism.pdf
  9. https://www.retaildive.com/news/sears-amazon-remove-swastika-jewelry-from-marketplaces/321329/

Neela Chari is a retired IT professional. She is deeply interested in Hindu Dharma, spirituality, and Indic civilization