Meaning of the Swastika in Different Cultures

Before it was turned into a symbol of terror, the swastika was an auspicious figure, believed to bring good luck and prosperity. However, it later came to be associated with the Nazis and their violent reign, changing it from a lucky charm to something that was feared and disliked. This Buzzle article explains what the swastika means in different cultures, and how it is actually different from the corrupted version of the Nazis.
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Meaning of Swastika in Buddhist culture
Good Luck Charm!
In the Hindu culture, the swastika is drawn on the front doors of homes to welcome prosperity and well-being. It is also present on financial books as a sign of good fortune.

The swastika is a figure that has been present for many millennia, and has been used in various cultures over the world. The name has its origins in the Sanskrit language, specifically from the word svastika. The word su means 'good' or 'well', and the word asti means 'to be'; the word ka is used as a suffix, which gives the word a noun form. Thus, it means something which is associated with well-being, or which is considered to be good.

The swastika is over 10,000 years old. The Indus Valley was one of the first civilizations where it was discovered. It was observed that this symbol was very similar to the weaving pattern of a basket, which is one of the theories of how it originated.

History

The swastika has been in use as a religious, auspicious, or decorative symbol for ages. Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann chanced upon it in the ancient city of Troy. He soon discovered it on other artifacts in other cultures. The oldest known swastika is believed to be from around 10,000 BC. It was discovered in Mezine, Ukraine, carved on an ivory figure. This symbol has also been found on carvings dating back to the Iron Age and Bronze Age, in the Celtic, Slavic, and Greek cultures, and also in artwork found in Africa and Egypt. Although the exact origin is not known, it is believed to have been in use since the time of the Neolithic culture of Vinča.

Different Names

This symbol has different names in different cultures. It is known as wan in China, tetraskelion or the cross gammadian in Greek (because it resembles the Greek letter gamma), fylfot in England, hakaristi in Finnish, hakenkreuz in German, and hekekors in Norwegian, all meaning hooked cross. It is also known as Thor's hammer after the Norse God Thor, wherein a painting shows a small swastika present on his belt.

Meaning in Different Cultures

Hindu Culture
After the Aum (or Om), the swastika is the second most religious and sacred symbol for the Hindus. It is found on many items of daily use, and also in places of worship and on religious books. It signifies many things in the Hindu religion. One of its symbolism is that of the Sun, and it is closely related to Surya, the Hindu god of the Sun. It is also associated with Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god of good luck. It represents the four directions―North, South, East, and West, the four faces of Lord Brahma (the Hindu god of creation), and the Purushārtha, which represents the four purposes of human existence. These are wealth (Artha), liberation (moksha), natural order (dharma), and desire (kama). A right-facing swastika symbolizes prosperity and good luck, whereas a left-facing swastika, known as the sauvastika, is associated with magic, night, and the goddess Kali (no evil connotation).

Swastika on roof of temple in Mandawa Rajasthan
Swastika on a temple roof in Mandawa, Rajasthan

Jain Culture
The swastika is the main religious symbol of Jainism. It represents their seventh saint, Tirthankara Suparśvanātha. All religious books and places of worship must have this symbol inscribed upon them. In Jain culture, ceremonies begin and conclude with making the swastika symbol using rice around the altar. Sometimes, people also create it in rice in front of an idol, and then place their offerings on it. These offerings can be a fruit, a sweet (mithai), or currency. The four arms of the swastika represent the four places where a soul can be reborn after death. These are heaven (swarga), hell (narka), the human world (manushya), and the animal or plant world (tiryancha).

Buddhist Culture
The swastika was made a part of the Chinese language at the time of the Liao Dynasty. It was called wán in Mandarin and man in Japanese, and it meant 'eternal' or 'all'. It was also used to depict the Sun during the reign of Empress Wu of the Tang Dynasty in China. The swastika is left-facing in the Buddhist culture, and is used to show the location of temples on maps. It is also present on many scriptures, and is drawn on the very first page. It is seen on the chest and feet of some Gautama Buddha statues. The inclusion of the swastika in Buddhist art is known as manji in Japanese. The left-facing swastika is a symbol of mercy and love, and is known as the omote manji. The right-facing swastika is a symbol of intelligence and strength and is known as the ura manji. These two are often drawn together to depict balance.

Swastika on the statue of Gautama Buddha
Swastika on statue of Gautama Buddha

European Culture
The swastika is also known as fylfot in many places in Europe. It is one of the sacred symbols of a pre-Christian religion known as Odinism. Odinism worships Norse gods like Odin and Thor. It has been used to depict Thor's hammer. Thor is associated with lightening and thunder. Athena, a Greek goddess, was shown wearing robes with swastikas drawn on them. The Shield of Battersea, which was a shield discovered in the Thames river, has 27 swastikas on it. The fylfot can be both left and right-facing.

Uses in Different Countries

Britain
The 273 squadron of the Royal Air Force used the fylfot as its official badge. This swastika was also used as the symbol of the British National War Savings Committee and of the Boy Scouts (1911 to 1922). The famous author Rudyard Kipling, who held India quite close to his heart, included the drawing of left and right-facing swastikas on the covers of quite a few of his books.

Australia
In Sydney, there are two buildings that have the swastika as a part of their original design. The Dymocks Building has floors tiles in the left-facing swastika design. The Customs House also has swastika designs at the entrance. Both the buildings have specified these symbols to be fylfots, using signboards, to avoid any misunderstandings.

Denmark
Carlsberg Group, the company that is famous world over for its brews, had adopted the swastika as the company logo until the 1930s. The logo was changed after the swastika was also adopted by the Nazis.

Canada
A town called Swastika is located in Ontario, which came into being in 1906. There were two Canadian ice hockey teams by the name of Windsor Swastikas Ice Hockey Team (1905 - 1916) and the Edmonton Swastikas Ice Hockey Team (1916). The latter also had swastikas on their uniforms.

United States
Up to the 1930s, the United States army's 45th Infantry Division used the swastika as the symbol of the unit. It wore this patch when it fought Germany during the WWI. The swastika was yellow in color, and was drawn on a red-colored patch. The Arizona Department of Transportation added swastikas drawn on arrows on its boards because it was a symbol of the Najavo tribe. This sign was removed during the World War II.

A Symbol of Terror
Hitler believed that the Germans were successors of the Aryans. The Aryans were a group of people who had settled in northern India and Iran. The Sanskrit translation of Aryan is 'noble'. They believed themselves to be racially superior to others. The swastika, being their symbol, was adopted by Hitler.

However, the things that were carried on under the name of 'racial superiority' are indescribable. This, unfortunately, led to a lot of negativity for the symbol that was once considered prosperous, auspicious, and lucky. People forgot that it had once meant good things, and it was universally associated with fear and negativity, having been corrupted by the Nazis.

Tilted swastika on Nazi flag
Tilted swastika on the Nazi flag

It was adopted as the official flag of Germany; a red flag with a white circle on it, inside which was a black swastika. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote, "I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika."

Even though the swastika was tainted by the Nazis and struck fear in people's hearts, it originally symbolized something entirely different. Nothing can change its real meaning and what it truly stands for. The swastika was, is, and will always remain a harbinger of all that is good.
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Published: August 2, 2014
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