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What does the swastika mean?

Bhagavad-gita courseImagine a new family is moving in next door to you, and as a friendly gesture you put a poster on their door with the word “Welcome” and a drawing of a smiley face. When the neighbors arrive and see your sign, however, the woman faints, the man looks around suspiciously and the son stomps around, shouting curses into the air.

You quickly run outside to see what is the matter. The family’s young but sensible-looking daughter then explains that in their home country, a picture of a disembodied head with a smile means “May you soon rest peacefully in your grave!” and is a universally hated symbol, reserved for only the most detested of enemies.

How might you feel? Disturbed? Angry? Embarrassed? Whatever your reaction, it is no doubt similar to what someone from pre-World War II India would feel upon seeing most modern people’s reactions to another symbol: the infamous swastika.

Bhagavad-gita courseThe Sanskrit word svasti means “blessings” or “fortune” or “auspiciousness.” It represents the utmost in good wishes upon another. The svastika is a sacred diagram that is supposed to embody and attract this positive energy. One of the 108 symbols associated with Lord Visnu, it is a depiction of the sun and its life-giving rays. Modern Hindus put svastika s everywhere -- on buildings, gifts, vehicles, stationery -- but versions are also found among other cultures, including the ancient Celts, the Navajos and Hopis of Native America, modern Mongolians, and even the ancient Jews!

The svastika’s innocent reputation began to be tarnished at the turn of the last century when German elitists co-opted it as a sort of family heraldry symbol for the Aryan super-race, and when Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich adopted it as the Nazi party emblem, the process was complete: the benign svastika of good fortune had become the nefarious swastika of racial atrocity.

If not for this brief historical blip, however, it would have remained the Vedic equivalent of a smiley face. That’s why the Chief Rabbinate of Israel issued a declaration in 2008 affirming the sacred nature of the svastika , despite its uses in World War II Germany. After all, it’s not the svastika’s fault if it was kidnapped, is it?

—Navina-Shyama Dasa (Navin Jani) grew up going to ISKCON temples, first in Cleveland, Ohio and later in Laguna Beach, California. He is an honors graduate of Stanford University who went on to earn a Master's Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Florida and a Bhakti Shastri Degree from the Mayapur Institute of Higher Education. He's currently pursuing a degree in Law from Temple University. He has a passion for the Vedic arts and sciences, particularly Vastu Veda, for which he offers consulting services through his website VastuShyam.Com.

(pictured is a Buddhist swastika in a bronze piece at the Sensō-ji in Asakusa, Tōkyō, Japan)