Swastikas on a gate at the Raj Ghat memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi, India. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

The Good Swastika

(RNS) — I just returned from my first trip to India and Nepal, a soul-stretching pilgrimage that was as much mentally as physically demanding.

Along the way, I made my peace with the swastika. Not that swastika, that unrepentant symbol of hate seen most recently on the streets of Charlottesville. No, I’m talking about the original swastika, the ancient Asian swastika, the one you get when you peel away that nasty layer of red and black paint.

I made peace with the "Good Swastika." There is no better time to explain how than on the days surrounding International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27).

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Blame it on the incessant, smoky fog of Delhi or Agra’s dizzying smell of incense and dung. Perhaps it’s because I simply fell in love with a people who steadfastly have refused to abandon their sacred symbol to those who defiled it, people who, through their deep faith, have put the hate of the haters to shame. Perhaps it’s a product of enhanced #MeToo sensitivities that I came to appreciate how even a symbol can be abused.

I don’t know, but I did a complete U-turn on this issue, and my making peace with the Good Swastika has helped me on the path to viewing the Holocaust in a more life-enhancing way.

A swastika decorates an entryway in India. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

India overwhelms the senses and reminds of the fragility of life. Every billow of smoke from the funeral pyres on the Ganges reinforces the message that life is transitory, a message also driven home by any rickshaw joyride through the marketplace.

Symbols are transitory too, and their transformations can be disorienting.

Stars of David are plastered all over Muslim mausoleums such as Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi — except that they have nothing to do with Judaism. The Mughals adopted the hexagram as an architectural motif five centuries ago. So did Buddhists, particularly in meditative mandalas. Some versions of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” even feature hexagrams with swastikas inside. Take that, Adolf!

In India, swastikas are as ubiquitous as samosas. I first saw them at, of all places, Gandhi’s grave in Delhi, in a simple decorative pattern lining a security fence. From that point on, I became acutely sensitive to their presence, which initially caused me to seethe over why the Indian people were being so acutely insensitive to the millions throughout the world whose nightmares have been stoked by that symbol.

Had the Himalayas so shielded them from the impact of the Nazi scourge that they weren’t even aware of it? Gandhi was killed a few years after the Holocaust — so how could this dreaded symbol have been incorporated into a sanctuary for a murdered man of peace?

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But then I recalled a time several years back when a bar mitzvah student came to my office with a Pokemon trading card containing a swastika. He asked if it was “kosher” for a Jew to own it. His grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, had been pained considerably at the sight of this card in the hand of his grandchild.

I pulled a book from the shelf and held up the Pokemon card to a photo of a uniformed Hitler “sieg heiling” the troops. My student looked at the two similar symbols and remarked, "the tentacles face the other way."

It wasn’t a swastika at all next to the Pokeman figures, I told him. It was a "manji," a Japanese sign of harmony, a symbol whose meaning evokes for the Japanese exactly the opposite of what a swastika connotes to those of us in the West. Doing some quick research on the Internet, I was intrigued by the claim that the Nazis deliberately corrupted this 3,000-year-old emblem, transforming an ancient Asian symbol of life into a European monogram of death.

A swastika decorates a temple in India. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I suggested to my student that as we become more crowded on this shrinking Earth, there still must be a place to respect the beliefs of the other. But at that time, I wasn’t willing to give the swastika a pass, noting that while we need to recognize the serenity it brings to the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain, so do our Eastern neighbors need to see the pain on the face of my student’s grandfather.

But my recent trip has helped me to accept the Good Swastika on its own terms.

I saw how, in India, this symbol brings a sense of warmth and protection to tiny village huts, similar to the role played by the mezuzah in Jewish homes. I also saw how it conveys a feeling of grace and order in public art, grand squares and vast temples. In Sanskrit, the word connotes well-being; the four arms symbolize sun, wind, water and soil, the basic elements of existence.

I also noted how the symbol appears in assorted colors and variations, but never in the spider-black of the Nazi flag. One could say, with some justification, that it really is not the same symbol that continues to terrify the other half of the planet. For Indians this symbol hasn’t been reclaimed, because they never let it go.

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My last stop was the southern port city of Kochi (formerly Cochin), a place noted for the spirit of coexistence that has prevailed for centuries, and the site of an ancient, tiny, Jewish community. One of the synagogues I visited is situated on a hill that also houses a church, a mosque and a Hindu temple. But the most vivid demonstration of coexistence was reserved not for worship spaces, but for two interconnected apartments, side by side in the neighborhood that is called, without a hint of condescension or irony, “Jew Town.”

Right down the street from one of the oldest synagogues in all of Asia, the Hindu swastika and the Jewish Star of David coexist side by side, like the proverbial lion and lamb.

Swastikas cover windows alongside Stars of David in Kochi, India. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Joshua Hammerman


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Making peace with the swastika does not mean making peace with Nazis past and present, nor with their hateful ideology — nor with their corrupted version of that symbol. Rather, it is a statement of defiance to those who so grotesquely distorted an emblem held sacred by half the world. We should treat it much like we treat the other cultural artifacts smeared and pilfered by the purveyors of the black spider — the priceless stolen artwork, the desecrated Torah scrolls, and the countless academic books the Nazis incinerated.

By reclaiming the Good Swastika, we can render this Nazi perversion as vaporous as those pyres of textbooks in Berlin or the corpses along the Ganges. Yes, everything is ephemeral, and the Nazi incarnation of evil must never be reincarnated. Perhaps our ability to make peace with the Asian swastika – the Good Swastika – can be our way of showing that there is one true way to escape the endless cycles of hatred and death: with coexistence and love. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, no message could be more appropriate.

(Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and the author of “thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

Comments

  1. An interfaith discussion was held in 2000. Swami Dayananda Saraswati represented the Indian traditions. The Rabbinate of Israel represented the Jewish side. The Rabbinate of Israel agreed to keep the Indian tradtions’ use of the Swastika separate from the Nazi use of the Swastika [Ref 1, p6]. Ditto for the word “Aryan.”

    Ref 1

    http://disq.us/url?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.millenniumpeacesummit.org%2FHindu-Jewish_Summit_Information.pdf%3ADN1Qyv7yeq8MFPQQwAVSzstHAI8&cuid=4022104

  2. I was under the impression that the other swastika is presented in the opposite direction thereby not be identical.

  3. ” I don’t know, but I did a complete U-turn on this issue,….”
    Are there a few other deeply held and promulgated views held by various religious as inviolable dogma – from which they might also do a U-turn ?
    Moral Relativism anyone ?

  4. “The good swastika”, my anti-historicism foot!

    Indians’ mixed feelings toward the swastika are only consistent with their mixed feelings toward Nazi Germany, which Wikipedia summarizes in 3 ways. Pay attention now.

    (1) “During the Second World War (1939–1945), … Indians fought … in the European theatre against Germany, in North Africa against Germany and Italy … The 4th, 5th and 10th Indian Divisions took part in the North African theatre against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. In addition, the 18th Brigade of the 8th Indian Division fought at Alamein. … In the Battle of Bir Hacheim, Indian gunners played an important role by using guns in the anti tank role and destroying tanks of Rommel’s panzer divisions.” SO THAT’S GOOD, INDIA.

    (2) “The Indian National Congress, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Azad, denounced Nazi Germany but would not fight it or anyone else until India was independent [from the British]”. SO THAT’S STUPID, INDIA. (Yeah, and you, too, Gandhi-san I mean Gandhi-ji!)

    (3) “Subhas Chandra Bose … a top Congress leader … broke with Congress and tried to form a military alliance with Germany … to gain independence … [He] set up the Indian National Army (INA)”. SO THAT’S UGLY, INDIA.

    ERGO: India’s posturing toward the swastika is at once good, stupid & ugly!

  5. Atheists are worse. Check out these atheists’ FATAL “U-turn[s]” on atheism:

    (1) Sikivu Hutchinson (cf. Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Infidel Books, 2011)

    (2) Stephen LeDrew (cf. The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement, Oxford University Press, 2016; also “Atheists are Believers”, Nonreligion and Secularity, March 21, 2014; also “Stephen LeDrew on his ‘The Evolution of Atheism’: An Interview” with Olaf Simons, Positivism: Secular, Social, Scientific, December 10, 2015; and interview by Staks Rosch, “Sociologist Stephen LeDrew on the Rift in the Atheism Movement”, Publishers Weekly, October 26, 2015)

    (3) CJ Werleman (cf. The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, Dangerous Little Books, 2016)

    (4) Daniel Fincke (cf. “Why I Criticize My Fellow Atheists”, Camels with Hammers, June 17, 2013)

    (5) Jurgen Habermas (cf. “A Conversation About God and the World”, in Time of Transitions, Polity, 2006)

  6. Didn’t you get the point that in India the swastika was a potent positive symbol long before the Third Reich? Sure the 1940’s distorted the meaning, but could it not be reclaimed again?

  7. Many countries made neutrality declarations during World War II. Most became occupied, and in the end only the states of Andorra, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland (with Liechtenstein), and Vatican (the Holy See) remained neutral of the European countries closest to the war. What do you want to do with their symbols?

  8. LOL! Where did you copy and paste those chestnuts from?

  9. Nope. That’s historicism in action. Swastika is what it is – good, stupid & ugly! Nothing to salvage except its goodness, stupidity and ugliness at one go!

  10. 1st off, what’s their ties to swastika? India’s ties have been established; not these countries and city-state yet.

  11. Sadly, I was right. Swastika meant goodness, stupidity & ugliness – all that and then some (including Christian cowardice) – even in ancient times!

    (1) According to Wilk Vatroslawski, “History and meaning of Slavic Swastika – Kolovrat”, Slavorum:

    “Symbol of Swastika and Kolovrat have been used in early Indo-European astronomy, the interaction of the Spirit and Matter, Life and Death, Darkness or Light and even Truth or Lies.”

    (2) According to Omar Cherif, “The Origin of the Swastika Symbol”, Conscious Life News, January 29, 2013:

    “In ancient times, the direction of the emblem was interchangeable as can be seen on an ancient Chinese silk drawing. Some past cultures had differentiated between the clockwise swastika and the counter-clockwise sauvastika. For these cultures, the swastika symbolized health and life, while the sauvastika took on a mystical meaning of bad-luck or misfortune.”

    (3) According to Myth Encyclopedia, “Cross”:

    “Historically, the swastika was widely used as a religious symbol. … Early Christians used it as a disguised cross on tombs during the time when it was dangerous to display a Christian cross.”

  12. This train of thought doesn’t ring right. It sets up a competitive victimhood: namely, the demographic group that has lost the most, has the greatest “bragging right.” The Jewish people lost 6 million in concentration camps, they are the group that has lost the most, they are the group that has the greatest bragging right. Indians are deficient because they do not acknowledge the bragging right of the Jewish people. This is how the train of thought comes across.

    Let’s look at another way. There was a famine in British India in 1943. Some 3 million people died in the famine. (Aside: 3 million = half the Jewish holocaust.) There is considerable discussion that the British were culpable in the sense of mismanaging things.

    The same British, however, helped the Jewish people set up the modern Israeli state. The Jewish people are probably grateful to the British. Should Indians and Bangladeshis feel offended that the Jewish people are grateful to the British? Should Indians and Bangladeshis judge the Jewish people as being disrespectful to the 3 million who died in the 1943 famine?

    All things considered, this train of thought doesn’t right right.

  13. Well, all the points you listed above have nothing to do with swastika. They were all (political) decisions made by certain individuals or bodies. Swastika originated from India, but it is not their national symbol or identity, and its use has spread far outside of India for centuries, if not millenia. You see the swastika everywhere in Buddhist temples across Japan, and in Hindu temples in Indonesia, for example, and these two countries have nothing to do with Indian political movements.

    The only thing that’s stupid & ugly about swastika is how Eastern religions followers were made to feel bad by the West for using a symbol they’ve been using for many, many centuries just because some crooks in West Europe decided it was a good idea to do horrible acts while waving a corrupted version of the aforementioned symbol.

  14. This is your view HpO. A reflection of your mind, goodness, stupidity and ugliness. Just keep it to you and don’t spread!

  15. Holy See was the first one to have a treaty with Hitler, and looked the other way while the Holocaust happened. Some might say they even egged it on. Let’s ban Christian cross or at least smear it as goodly as the Hindu/Buddhist svastika. Agreed?

    And let’s find out where you stand on a subjugated nation’s people being asked to fight and die by the hundreds of thousands on foreign soil, for wars of their European, white-skinned, masters…especially those masters who had zero scruples in the face of 4 million Indians dying of famine while food was kept away from them and sent to African and Middle Eastern war fronts. You would have Indians look the other way while 4 million of them died because Churchill was “your” goon, while Hitler was “your” enemy?

    I wonder whether you would also attack those black slaves in the South who refused to fight on their masters’ behalf during the American Civil War. Or, for that matter, abuse the memory of those black slaves who thought they should take up arms and free themselves and their families. Let’s hear you rail against them.

    If you had any doubt, let me say it clearly: Subhash Chandra Bose is held in highest of esteems by Indians, even by those who thought less of him compared to Gandhi. Why? Because he fought for India’s freedom.

    Lastly, a correction. Israel = Jewish State. India =/= Hindu State. Your “beef” is with Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Native Americans, and others who hold Svastika as holy symbol, and not with India– an increasing part of which is getting Islamized and Christianized and Mao/Communized…if you think you have a problem with Hindu symbol, I wish you luck dealing with the nasty ways the future India–a ChristoIslamic India, is going to deal with Jewish interaction… you already know those interactions of Jews haven’t been pretty. You have friends in Hindus. One would think you would learn to respect the ones who sheltered Jews for centuries and not allowed any enmity upon them.

  16. This is a good start. And I applaud the rabbi for this article and for his personal journey, real and metaphorical, of making his personal peace with the Svastika.

    I offer a simple suggestion for future co-existence and shared peace: When referring to the Nazi hate symbol, use the German word that Nazis used for it.

    — Nazis had contempt for Hindus and killed about a million of us too (The Roma– “gypsy” is a pejorative term, are Hindus who migrated to Europe about 1000 years ago). Foisting a Hindu symbol and Sanskrit word upon the memory of Nazis does nobody any good– but it especially makes a mockery of the memory of a Roma, while mistakenly twisting Hindu symbol with Nazis.

    — Nazis called their symbol the Hakenkreuz. Their symbol is referenced several times in the Nazi anthem too, the Horst-Wessel-Lied. The original German lyrics reference Hakenkreuz, not “swastika”.

    — Hakenkreuz literally translates into English to mean “Hooked Cross”. If it has any religious symbolism, it is to the Christian cross. And NOT to a Hindu/Buddhist/Jain symobol of peace and goodwill.

    — The Japanese call the same symbol “manji” in their language. The Hindus and Buddhists and Jains call this same symbol “svastika” in their holy language, Sanskrit. The Native Americans too likely have their own name for this symbol, in their own languages. So why the insistence on calling the Nazi hate symbol by its Sanskrit name only??

    For these reasons, future generations of Western students should be taught the differentiation– the symbol may resemble one, but is very different, and is called by different names. Therefore, the Nazi symbol should henceforth be referred to as Hakenkreuz. And the Hindu/Buddhist/Zen/Jain/Native American symbols should be referred to by their names.

  17. The Bengal famine likely killed upwards of 4 million Indians, not 3 million.

    And since Bangladesh has become an Islamic state, they likely already hold a very dim view of Israel and Jewish people; Hindus, the original Bengalis, themselves aren’t safe in Bangladesh anymore, what to make of Bangladeshi views of Jews!

    But it seems talking sense to HpO is a bit of a lost cause.

  18. I didn’t realize the Torah or other Jewish holy works hold forth on a Hindu symbol and not only that, but also term it a non-kosher and that it is an inviolable dogma to respect that symbol… perhaps even, to the same degree to Jews as not accepting divinity of Jesus. Am I mistaking what you’re trying to say here? By “Moral Relativism”, are you claiming that the Hindu/Buddhist/Jain symbol and the Sanskrit word associated with it, are somehow immoral, while the billion practitioners of these faiths hold the exact opposite view? If so, then you’re imbuing a holy symbol with meanings that its upholders simply do not hold. If you didn’t get that out of reading this article, then I’m trying to understand what in fact did you get out of it?

    The good rabbi has finally seen through the historic errors of the past 80+ years worth of negative views in the West on a hijacked, malafide symbol of the East, and at least for himself, is reconciled to seeing things differently..especially when that symbol is seen in the Eastern context. Nevermind that even in America, there are many pre-War places that adorned themselves with the Svastika symbol in its original meaning of peace and goodwill. I see this acceptance of the true meaning, differentiated from its Nazi fakery, as much more spiritual, and much more grounded, and much more “personal growth”, rather than “moral relativism”. The opposite of his stance would be keeping oneself in perpetual childhood, in a mental clasp, unable to grow.

  19. Gershwin addressed “moral relativism” in “Porgy and Bess” .

    ” It Ain’t Necessarily So ”

    Hammerman saw the light, and came to the same conclusion, when he did his 180.

  20. Cite first for me sources that reveal uses of the swastika icons by the “Holy See … black slaves in the South” – since that’s the point under discussion here.

  21. Japan’s uses of the swastika can only be ugly in light of their alliance with Nazis. Not, however, Indonesia’s uses of same, as they fought against the Japanese & Nazis. Unless there were traitors among the Indonesians during World War II. If memory serves, they were all patriots fighting against the Dutch, then the Japanese. So Indonesia’s history with the swastika icon is all good.

  22. Do Bangladeshis have a history with both the ancient symbol of the swastika and with Nazis? The latter is moot, since as country their existence is all post-war.

  23. The point under discussion here is Hakenkreuz; that’s the German word Nazis themselves used. Hindu symbol of goodwill and peace, svastika in Sanskrit, has ZERO to do with Germans or with Nazis.

    Hakenkreuz translates to Hooked Cross. Perhaps the Nazi perverted version of Christian cross. Holy See uses crosses everywhere. Burned cross is a symbol of hate, subjugation, slavery, death– for America’s blacks. So let’s ban the cross, yes?

  24. ah no more talk of the swastika icon

    get this – india past and present has history with this icon AND nazis

    you’ve just confirmed bangladesh has no such history

    okay then

  25. I don’t think you even understand my comment. Probably have another read?

  26. Asian symbol, the swastika? Sorry but the “Swastika” or the Fylfot was used in Europe before the Indians have used it.
    The exact same style the Hindus use today was found on a 3500 year old chariot artifact in Siberia
    https://i.redd.it/trefr80q2ony.jpg

    Ukraine has many ancient depictions of this symbol and go as far back as 12,000 years ago.
    https://cogniarchae.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/65501_mezinukraine10000bcbirdhats.jpg

    It was also a sacred symbol among the ancient Europeans from the Slavic to the Germanic and Celtic. It was the proto Indo Europeans who have spread it across Europe and introduced it to India and it never meant death just like how the Christian cross isn’t a racist symbol because the KKK used it. The exact symbol Hitler used was based on this 9th century Danish runestone: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Runestone_from_Snoldelev%2C_East_Zealand%2C_Denmark.jpg
    The lie told that Hitler flipped the Buddhist symbol and meant it as negative is spread too often. The way we view the Nazis today is the same way they have viewed the Jews, Slavs and communists so to say it was in any way negative is ridiculous, it was an ancestral symbol he wanted to represent the 3rd reich.

  27. Shalom!
    The nazis never, never, never called their symbol swastika. They called it hakenkreuz, i.e. hooked cross. Its a cross, a christian cross. The swastika of hindu, buddhist, jains has nothing to do with that. Please dont refer to the nazi symbol as swasyika. This confusion is not due to nazis, but due to evangelists. Please see
    https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/swarajyamag.com/amp/story/ideas%252Fswastika-is-hindu-and-the-hooked-cross-is-nazi-the-rest-is-conspiracy
    Hitler did not syeal the symbol from hindus. He used to ee it at a benedectine monastry as an altarboy in 1897-98. He used a near exact design and same name as he found it there. Hakenkreuz. Please see
    http://tkparadosis.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-swastikas-of-lambach-abbey.html?m=1
    Hitler and all nazis always called their symbol hakenkreuz, i.e. hooked cross only. Hitler did not even know the word “swastika” in his whole life. Please do not confound tje sacred swastika of east with the ultimate evil symbol hakenkreuz, i.e. hooked cross. These two symbols have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Please refer to the nazi symbol as hakenkreuz, i.e. hooked cross only, and without using the word “swastika”. This is a sacred hindu, buddhist, jain word, and not meant to be hijacked for world’s most notorious symbol of evil. Use some other word. Dont demonize our sacred symbol globally by misusing its sacred name. Thanks and regards.

  28. Where in europe did anyone ever find the word “swastika”? Kidnapping of this word which is sacred to billions, and then totally demonizing it globally by conflating it with yhe world’s most notorious symbol of ultimate evil is the problem here. This word-kidnapping and global demonization was done by other westerners, not nazis.

  29. I just came across this article when exploring the relationship between the Hindu hexagon and the “good swastika”. While on a bus between Agra and Varanasi (I think) several years ago, I spotted these two symbols next to each other on a building and took a photo – rather startling! I’m so glad I found Rabbi Hammerman’s article!

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