For Asian communities, the swastika symbolises peace and good fortune, but it is also known as the dark symbol of Hitler's Nazism.

Sheetal Deo and her husband, Sanmeet Deo, hold a Hindu swastika symbol in their home in Syosset, NY, on Nov. 13, 2022.
Sheetal Deo and her husband, Sanmeet Deo, hold a Hindu swastika symbol in their home in Syosset, NY, on Nov. 13, 2022. (Andres Kudacki / AP)

When Sheetal Deo received a letter from her apartment building's community board in New York City, she could not believe that her Diwali decoration was deemed "offensive".

The building co-op board asked her to take down the symbol in the spirit of maintaining neighbourhood harmony amongst different faiths and communities. 

“My decoration said ‘Happy Diwali’ and had a swastika on it,”  Deo, a physician, who was celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, told Associated Press. 

The symbol itself dates back to prehistoric times. The word “swastika” has Sanskrit roots and means “the mark of well being.” It has been used in prayers of the Rig Veda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures.

But the rise of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, which came to power in 2014 with a whopping majority, has politicised the swastika mark. Many Indian scholars and thinkers argue that the founding father of BJP's ideology was inspired by Hitler's Nazi doctrine. 

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a Hindutva stalwart during India's anti-colonial independence movement, saw Hitler's worldview on race as a model to be emulated in India to solve what he described as "the Muslim problem".

In Buddhism, however, the symbol is known as “manji” and signifies the Buddha’s footsteps. It is used to mark the location of Buddhist temples.

In China it’s called Wan, and denotes the universe or the manifestation and creativity of God.

The swastika is carved into the Jains’ emblem representing the four types of birth an embodied soul might attain until it is eventually liberated from the cycle of birth and death.

In the Zoroastrian faith, it represents the four elements – water, fire, air and earth.

But in the West, this symbol is often equated to Adolf Hitler’s hakenkreuz or the hooked cross – a symbol of hate that evokes the trauma of the Holocaust and the horrors of Nazi Germany. White supremacists, neo-Nazi groups and vandals have continued to use Hitler’s symbol to stoke fear and hate.

Over the past decade, as the Asian diaspora has grown in North America, the call to reclaim the swastika as a sacred symbol has become louder. These minority faith communities are being joined by Native American elders whose ancestors have long used the symbol as part of healing rituals.

Deo believes she and people of other faiths should not have to sacrifice or apologize for a sacred symbol simply because it is often conflated with its tainted version.

Yet to others, the idea that the swastika could be redeemed is unthinkable.

Holocaust survivors in particular could be re-traumatized when they see the symbol, said Shelley Rood Wernick, managing director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center on Holocaust Survivor Care.

“One of the hallmarks of trauma is that it shatters a person’s sense of safety,” said Wernick, whose grandparents met at a displaced persons’ camp in Austria after World War II. “The swastika was a representation of the concept that stood for the annihilation of an entire people.”

For her grandparents and the elderly survivors she serves, Wernick said, the symbol is the physical representation of the horrors they experienced.

“I recognize the swastika as a symbol of hate.”

The swastika also was a Native American symbol used by many southwestern tribes, particularly the Navajo and Hopi. To the Navajo, it represented a whirling log, a sacred image used in healing rituals and sand paintings.

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Hitler's cross

Swastika motifs can be found in items carbon-dated to 15,000 years ago on display at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine as well as on artifacts recovered from the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations that flourished between 2600 and 1900 BC.

Elsewhere, it has been found in the Roman catacombs, ruins in Greece and Iran, and Ethiopian and Spanish churches.

The symbol was revived during the 19th-century excavations in the ancient city of Troy by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who connected it to a shared Aryan culture across Europe and Asia. Historians believe it is this notion that made the symbol appealing to nationalist groups in Germany including the Nazi Party, which adopted it in 1920.

In North America, in the early 20th century, swastikas made their way into ceramic tiles, architectural features, military insignia, team logos, government buildings and marketing campaigns. Coca-Cola issued a swastika pendant. Carlsberg beer bottles came etched with swastikas. The Boy Scouts handed out badges with the symbol until 1940.

In his 2018 book titled “The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace from the Forces of Hate,” New York-based Buddhist priest T.K. Nakagaki posits that Hitler referred to the symbol as the hooked cross or hakenkreuz. Nakagaki’s research also shows the symbol was called the hakenkreuz in US newspapers until the early 1930s, when the word swastika replaced it.

Nakagaki believes more dialogue is needed even though it will be uncomfortable.

“This is peace work, too,” he said.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies