The recent controversy around Germany’s proposal to seek an EU ban on swastikas (and later its abandonment: see here and here) prompted me to dig up and refresh this article which I wrote for my newsletter almost two years ago. (Mar ’05):
Swastika and its Religious Significance:
As some of you may be aware, there has been a great deal of controversy in the UK regarding the wearing of an armband by Prince Harry that had a “swastika” badge on it.
This created a predictable uproar in the local media with many people being reminded of the grim horrors of the Holocaust (the Prince was wearing a replica Nazi uniform).
Along with the reaction, there were calls for the symbol to be banned (on the grounds of being racially offensive).
Thankfully, the Hindu Forum of Great Britain got into the act (see, “HFB launches national campaign to reclaim swastika“) and decided to start a campaign to create awareness amongst the general public about how an ancient Hindu symbol had been misappropriated by the Nazis.
As I watched this controversy unfold, I realised that I was myself not fully aware of the significance of “swastika” and how it had come to be associated with the Nazis.
Below is a summary from my research on the subject.
The word “swastika” originates in Sanskrit. It is composed of “su”, meaning good/well and “asti” meaning “to be”; svasti thus means “well-being”; -ka forms a diminutive, and svastika/swastika might thus be translated literally as “little thing associated with well-being”. In ancient Indo-European cultures, it was put on objects to symbolise good luck. In geometric terms, the swastika is an irregular icosagon or a 20-sided polygon.
The right-handed clockwise swastika is considered an auspicious symbol of the sun or of Lord Vishnu, the sustaining aspect of God (in the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar). It also represents the world-wheel around a fixed and unchanging centre, God. I am not sure about the first appearance of the word or the symbol in ancient Indian texts but it has been in use since antiquity.
As a symbol, it has been used for several millennia – not just in India but also in other ancient civilisations (e.g. it has been found in the ruins of the city of Troy). Other than Hinduism, it has also been used in Buddhism, Jainism, and other cultures including in the Native American cultures (one of my friends even found the “symbol” on an art piece in a museum in Turkey).
In earlier times, the swastika was used freely by Sumerians, Hittites, Celts and Greeks, among others. Even the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, England, contains gold cups and shields bearing swastikas. The swastika has also appeared in South and Central America, and has been widely used in Mayan art during that time period.
In both Hinduism and Jainism, the swastika is used to mark the opening pages or their account books, thresholds, doors, and offerings.
The major difference between the Nazi swastika and the ancient symbol of many different cultures, is that the Nazi swastika is at a slant, while the ancient swastika is rested flat.
Here is a fascinating titbit from a BBC article on the subject:
“The British author Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made this inappropriate. It was also a symbol used by the scouts in Britain, although it was taken off Robert Baden-Powell’s 1922 Medal of Merit after complaints in the 1930s.
The Finnish Air Force also used it as its official symbol in World War II, and it still appears on medals, but it had no connection with the Nazi use.It is rarely seen on its own in Western architecture, but a design of interlocking swastikas is part of the design of the floor of the cathedral of Amiens, France.”
Association with Nazism and anti-Semitism
The almost universally positive meanings of the swastika were subverted in the early twentieth century when it was adopted as the emblem of the National Socialist German Workers Party. Since World War II, most Westerners see it as solely a fascist symbol, leading to incorrect assumptions about its pre-Nazi use and its current use in other cultures.
Below is an abbreviated chronology of how the symbol became associated with Hitler in the early part of 20th century.
The symbol’s first use as an anti-Semitic symbol was in 1870 when it was used by the Austrian, pan-German followers of Schoenerer, an Austrian anti-Semitic politician.
In 1910, a poet and nationalist Guido von List suggested that the swastika as a symbol for all anti-Semitic organizations. When the National Socialist Party was formed in 1919, it adopted this ancient symbol, thus setting the stage for destroying the positive symbolism with which the swastika had been associated for thousands of years.
The Nazi party formally adopted the “swastika” (called Hakenkreuz meaning the hooked cross) in 1920. This was used on the party’s flag, badge and armband. In 1935, the black swastika on a white circle with a crimson background became the national symbol of Germany.
While it is important to make every effort to reclaim the swastika, we should, at the same time, make strenuous efforts to ensure that it is clearly differentiated from the design and symbolism used by the Nazis and everything associated with it.Next, some excerpts (paraphrased slightly for readability) from an interesting thesis regarding how (and why) the symbol was hijacked by the Nazis.
This is one of the more credible explanations that I have come across so far (see full article here). I have paraphrased it slightly for purposes of summary.
A (likely) explanation of how this ancient symbol became associated with Nazi ideology: In the later part of 18th century, as British interest in India grew, there began efforts to do more research on the art, culture and languages of ancient India. One of the earliest researchers was Sir William Jones (1746-94) who established the Royal Asiatic Society. A gifted linguist who studied Sanskrit, Jones is widely regarded as the father of “Indology”.
Knowledge of this ancient and sacred Hindu language made many scholars realise not only its great antiquity, but also its affinity to most of the languages spoken in the West – an interest that was taken up most stridently by the Germans.
A weak and divided people at the time and suffering the threat of domination by both France & Austria, the Germans were split into various states and dukedoms, the largest of which was Prussia. This period of alienation, accentuated by events such as the fall of the Holy Roman Empire due to Napoleon’s conquest, led many German thinkers of the early nineteenth century to look for inspiration to India.
These included Frederick von Schlegel, his brother Augustus Wilhelm, Wilhelm von Humbolt, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Hegel. There was also the rise of romanticism in Germany, a reaction to the industrialisation of European society that was fast gathering pace. While “romanticism”, i.e. an idealisation of the past before industrialisation, manifested itself in the poetry of Wordsworth in Britain, in continental Europe, it meant something else.
As well as idealising the pre-industrial “purity” of humans living in harmony with nature, the German romanticists also talked of the pagan heroes before the time of Christianity, in their view, brave warriors who held off the Romans in the almost impenetrable forests of central Europe.
This however, had a more sinister side. Some romanticists wanted to free themselves of the “alien” Jewish contamination brought into German society by Christianity, as well as by the Jews themselves.
As Prussia emerged as a military power and German unification was achieved in 1871, the British looked on with alarm. Indeed Sir Henry Maine, former Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University said: “..a nation has been borne out of Sanskrit.”
In the meantime, in their efforts to create a intermediating class (“white Brahmins”) between themselves and the “dark subjects”, the British began a programme of “re-discovering”(and researching) ancient Indian culture in earnest. The intention may have been to undermine the belief system of at least the “progressive” Indians with the hope that they would become dis-enchanted with the literary and cultural heritage of India, once the “truth” (via such research) became evident.
In this effort, the person they turned to for help was a devout Protestant and gifted Vedic scholar, German Sanskritologist, Friedrich Max Muller. For a princely sum (in those days) of �10,000 Max Muller was persuaded to work for the British East India Company by Macaulay, to translate the Rig Veda. His intentions were, however, less than noble.
In 1866, in a letter to his wife about his work, he wrote, “..this edition of mine and the translation of the Veda, will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion and to show them what the root it, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years.”
Though one cannot cast doubt on his intelligence and talent, Muller’s scholarship is nevertheless marred by this ulterior motive.
What he wrote in the letter above was only the beginning.
It was Max Muller himself who gave “Aryan” a racial meaning, knowing full well as a scholar well versed in that ancient language, that Sanskrit “Arya” does not mean race.
From this point onwards, the idea of Aryan race could not be contained; In parallel, the idea of an “Aryan” invasion by Indo-European (and obviously fair-skinned) tribes from Central Asia, who authored the Vedas and established the basis of Hinduism, came to be widely accepted, even though it had absolutely no basis in any indigenous tradition of India. In reality, this was an “invention” of Muller who employed it as an ideological mechanism for colonial domination by the British.
The idea was adopted and further enhanced by romanticist intellectuals who wanted to free themselves of all Judaic influence brought upon them by Christianity, and saw this Aryan racial theory as another string to their bow. (Read this essay to see how the idea has been discredited)
Like the artificial dating of the Vedas to 1400BCE (so as to be more recent than the books of the Bible), it had absolutely nothing to do with India itself, and the people of India neither had any role nor any influence in this discourse.
The swastika, symbol of ancient cultures par excellence, was an ideal mechanism with which to manufacture a mythical past, which never existed. And it served as a counter-point of stability in a turbulent environment that was dominated by power politics, the formation of nation states, anti-Semitism and influenced by ideas of Social Darwinism and eugenics.
Runic symbols, Norse gods such as Odin, and even the ancient Greek myth of Atlantis, all were exploited along with the swastika and idea of the Aryan race to bolster Nazi theory and ideology.
Sadly the misunderstanding caused by this and widespread ignorance about the original meaning and significance of the symbol still persists – even amongst otherwise widely read and well educated people, including Indians.
Please share this with friends and colleagues so that we can counter mis-information and ill-informed debate with facts and truth.
Here is some more information on how the symbol was hijacked by the Nazis and completely deprived of it original meaning (from an article by Chirag Badlani, “Nazi Swastika or Ancient Symbol? Time to Learn the Difference”, Jun ’97)
Here is a somewhat dated (’99) article about how a misunderstanding about the symbol caused an Indian employee to loose his job in the US
Finally, a link to an excellent and scholarly introduction to various Hindu symbols