10 Things You Need to Know About the Swastika

boy with a swastika painted on his shaved head

1) In Sanskrit, the word swastika is a combination of ‘su’ (meaning ‘good’) and ‘asti’ (meaning ‘to exist’)

Popularly, this gets translated as ‘all is well.’ The swastika is thus understood to be a symbol of auspiciousness and good fortune, and is regularly donned on Hindu homes, businesses, printed materials, cars, temples, and ashrams.

swastika drawn on the floor

2) Many Hindus adorn the threshold of the front entrance to their homes with the swastika

Especially during Diwali, this year on October 30, they may wash away old swastikas and reapply them, or include them as part of their rangoli (a traditional art form using dyed powders, rice and grains, or flowers to decorate the ground of courtyards). Often, the swastika is created by artfully arranging diyas (clay lamps).

pratik symbol

3) There are a variety of symbolic meanings associated with the limbs of the swastika in Hinduism

They can be interpreted as the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva), the core Hindu scriptures. They can be thought of as the four goals of life: Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha (right action, worldly prosperity, worldly enjoyment, and spiritual liberation). The limbs are also interpreted as representing the four seasons, the four directions, and the four yugas, or epochs (Satya, Treta, Dvapara, Kali).

swastika on buddhist and jain statues

4) Other faith traditions originating in India also regularly use the swastika, with similar auspicious meaning

For Buddhists, the swastika signifies the Buddha’s footprints and heart. For Jains, the swastika is the symbol of the seventh tirthankara (literally “ford-maker,” one of the liberated souls showing the way for others in the Jain tradition), with the arms symbolizing one of the four places a soul can be reborn in the cycle of birth and death.

swastikas on indus valley culture seals

5) The swastika is one of humanity’s most enduring, ancient symbols

In fact, the oldest known use of the swastika dates back to the end of the last Ice Age. A figurine carved with a recognizable swastika dating to 10,000-13,000 BCE was found in Ukraine. How these ancient people interpreted the swastika is unknown. In the Balkans, the swastika has been used for at least the past 8,000 years. The Indus-Saraswati civilization used the swastika extensively, with archeological evidence dating back to at least 4,000 BCE showing its usage.

ancient swastika images from greece, rome, africa

6) Peoples throughout the world used the swastika

People in what’s now Greece and Turkey used it. The Celts and Nordic peoples used it. As did the Germanic peoples. The Phoenicians used it as a symbol of the sun. And petroglyphs in Armenia have been found using swastikas. In Africa, pottery found in the region of Kush (modern Sudan) show clear swastikas. West African cultures have also used the symbol. Neolithic cultures in China used the swastika too, well predating the spread of Buddhism. In North America, native peoples have long used swastika-like symbols. To the Hopi people, it represents wandering clans. To the Navajo, it’s a whirling log used during healing ceremonies.

19th century European swastikas

7) The swastika had a major resurgence of usage in Europe and North America in the 19th century as a good luck symbol

Prior to its appropriation by the Nazis, swastikas appeared on Coca-cola and beer bottles. The Boy Scouts in the US and other scouting groups in Europe used swastikas on badges. To this day, there is a town of Swastika, Ontario, Canada, founded in 1908. The US Army’s 45th infantry division used it as a sleeve insignia during the 1920s up until the rise of the Nazis (pictured above, lower right). The UK’s Royal Air Force had it on planes up until 1939.

Nazi swastika

8) The Nazis appropriated the swastika to represent their notion of Aryan identity. Where they miserably failed is in their understanding of the meaning of the Sanskrit term ‘aryan’

Rooted in the now disproven Aryan Invasion Theory, the Nazi usage imagines that there was a “master race” or group of people known as the Aryans, some of whom physically invaded the Indian subcontinent. In reality, the word aryan means ‘noble’ and refers to the conduct of people. Recent genetic evidence shows that any mass migrations of peoples into India occurred well before the time period proposed by the Aryan Invasion or Aryan Migration theories. Furthermore, there is no traditional understanding or evidence of any invasion of outside people during this time period supported by India’s sacred or historic texts.

swastika painted on a car hood

9) After the horrors committed by the Nazis, there has been a justifiable revulsion to Nazi symbolism, including the Nazi presentation of the swastika

Recently, the European Union attempted to ban all use of the swastika, regardless of the renditions. Fortunately, Hindus have risen in defense of their sacred symbol. Speaking out against the proposed EU ban a representative of the Hindu Forum of Britain said, “The swastika has been around for 5,000 years as a symbol of peace,” noting that banning all use of the swastika would be akin to banning the Christian cross because the Ku Klux Klan used burning crosses to terrorize African Americans. In the US, the Hindu American Foundation assisted a college student in avoiding expulsion for displaying a Hindu swastika in his fraternity house. And in recent years, numerous efforts through interfaith dialogue have been undertaken to dispel the misunderstandings surrounding the ancient symbol.

swastika pendant

10) In 2008, at the second Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit a resolution formally recognized the long positive history of the swastika

It reads, “Swastika is an ancient and greatly auspicious symbol of the Hindu tradition. It is inscribed on Hindu temples, ritual altars, entrances, and even account books. A distorted version of this sacred symbol was misappropriated by the Third Reich in Germany, and abused as an emblem under which heinous crimes were perpetrated against humanity, particularly the Jewish people. The participants recognize that this symbol is, and has been sacred to Hindus for millennia, long before its misappropriation.”

One Comment
  1. Dr Jerry Elkind
    November 7, 2016 |