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Asians Want To Reclaim The Swastika. Should They?

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Will we allow awful people to take whatever they like and ruin it? Or is it too soon?

Buddha statue with a swastika on his chest, with a larger Buddhist plain swastika next to it
Public domain photo

Some Asians think it's time to reclaim their holy symbol, the swastika.

Or, more to the point, the 'svastika', which is the Sanskrit spelling of the word, since the ancient language has no 'w'.

It dates back several thousand years, a universal sacred symbol that appears to have developed in disparate parts of the world. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains lay claim to it. Swastikas were found in the 4,000-year-old city of Troy unearthed by archaeologist Hermann Schliemann in the 19th century. North American Indigenous tribes and bands displayed them, as did the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic German medieval military order. A mosaic swastika was discovered in a Byzantine Church excavated in Israel.

Its many meanings include a solar symbol, good luck, good fortune, and in ancient Sanskrit it meant “It is!” “Life is good!” “There is value!” “There is meaning!”

The earliest examples of a sort of vaguely swastika shape come from a 12,000-year-old bracelet carved from mammoth bone, found in a Ukrainian cave. Another Ukrainian find dated to 15,000 years ago is a bird figure with very elongated, stylized swastikas that I myself can't see, and which might arguably be nothing more than an artistic interpretation of feathers, with no assigned special or sacred meaning. We can never know what artifacts from preliterate epochs truly meant, or didn't, and archaeologists are mad for assigning religious meaning to all of them, as though our cave ancestors were as obsessed with religion as their descendants are with the Netflix craze du saison.

Those who would reclaim the symbol for their ancient cultures might well reclaim the original spelling of svastika, to differentiate it from what some asshole ninety years ago culturally misappropriated it for.

Spot the swastika!

When I visited Toronto before I moved here, I stayed with my fellow Pagan friend Diana. We visited the Royal Ontario Museum and found ourselves playing a game of Spot The Swastika!

It began with a large Buddha statue near the entrance. "Hey, look!" I pointed out. "The Buddha's got a swastika on his chest!"

Diana had visited the ROM many times over the years and she'd never noticed it before.

We began playing Spot The Swastika. We found them in Asian, Greek, and Roman exhibits, snickering like mischievous children pointing out naughty bits in a National Geographic. They were on pottery and weapons. They were on statues and bowls.

2,800-year-old Greek pottery with swastikas
8th century BC Greek pottery. Original image by Zde on Wikimedia Commons, CC0 4.0

When I moved to Toronto I landed in nearby Mississauga, home to many Indian immigrants. I began to see 'live' swastikas, rather than those collecting dust in a museum.

I found them on silver Buddhist bowls in Toronto's Chinatown. I saw swastika necklaces and jewelry on Indians and Asians working in the mall, and I'm pretty sure they weren't white supremacists.

Last year a friend and I found an Indian-looking shirt covered with swastikas at a thrift store. It looked like it was probably used for some celebratory event.

Too soon?

Probably fifteen years ago I floated the idea to my fellow Pagans that maybe the swastika should be rehabilitated, since it doesn't deserve its ugly reputation, and Hitler had engaged in pagan religion abuse. The suggestion was met with acknowledgement that the swastika didn't deserve its reputation but no one wanted to hurt Jews, especially Jewish Pagans.

Pagans lean toward supporting minority, marginalized religions, but no one wanted any part of this, even though everyone knew Hitler's regime was an opportunistic toxic salad of Christianity, Norse Paganism and appropriated occult beliefs. Whatever worked! He created a personality cult to serve himself and his ugly obsession with Jews.

He misappropriated the swastika, along with several other Norse pagan symbols, which annoys the crap out of many modern Norse Pagans.

Hitler's thousand-year Reich disintegrated in twelve years when Germany was forced to surrender to the Allies in 1945. As the unthinkable evidence of the Final Solution unfolded in the years after the war, the swastika became cemented as the ultimate symbol of evil.

It didn't deserve it.

Poor Pepe

Pepe the Frog is a more modern, if less universal example of how the right misappropriated a non-political creation for evil. Pepe was a harmless cartoon frog begun in a 2005 comic by cartoonist Matt Furie. Pepe turned into a meme with mood variations and 'You will never...'

Depressed-looking green cartoon frog with the caption You will never have a good wallpaper
Public domain

Ten years later, the alt-right appropriated the symbol to Furie's intense dismay, as Pepe was never intended to be a political character, and certainly not the poster cartoon for hate. Furie has sued organizations for misusing it in this manner, but it persists. Once it's on the Internet, it's forever.

It's not fair to Pepe, and it's certainly not fair to his creator.

The most obvious critics of the swastika reclamation project are Jews, especially those who remember or are descended from Holocaust survivors who they argue will be re-traumatized by seeing the swastika again. The camps were liberated in 1945 so there can't be many survivors left. But still. It was less than a century ago.

In the grand scheme of history, Hitler's swastika regime is a blip of a very, very bad reputation hit on an otherwise entirely noble timeline.

Most Pagans I know wouldn't adopt the swastika if it became acceptable even though there's precedence in ancient Celtic and Druidic history, from which many modern Pagans draw inspiration, re-enacting the practices and resurrecting the symbols of their ancestors. I've never seen one utilize it.

Speaking as one who could adopt it myself, since my own Pagan practice is based on Greek and Roman paganism and mythology, I wouldn't, mostly because I have no emotional attachment to the symbol. Nazi association aside, I have neutral feelings about it.

But several traditions have a pretty airtight historical argument for utilizing the swastika again freely, regardless of Hitler.

Ancient swastika carved in rock in Pakistan
Ancient rock carving of Sindh, Pakistan, Believed to be Neolithic or prehistoric. Original image by Aziz Kandrani on Wikimedia Commons, CC0 4.0

As for the Jewish people struggling with a too-recent memory of genocidal hell, now is a good time to simply open a discussion as to when it should be released from its more recent association, and let others reclaim their honorable symbol.

Because the Nazis never had any right to it, and no group has the right to dictate how others may practice their religion. It would be one thing if the Nazis invented the symbol; it's quite another that many others did thousands of years before Hitler's birth.

Nazi claims to the symbol require as much mental gymnastics as the once-fashionable Christian justification for enslaving Africans. Slavery-sympathetic theologians hundreds of years ago couldn't find a damn thing in the Bible to support what they wanted, which was God's blessing for enslaving darker-skinned people, so they created a ludicrous link out of a randomly-chosen story about the sin of Ham, seeing his father naked and telling his two brothers, resulting in a 'curse'.

What this has to do with black people is a mystery, but it's just as stupid as the Nazi justification for appropriating the swastika. German nationalist scholars, smash 'n' grabbing anything that seemed to or could be made to support a German nationalist myth, chose the Sanskrit word 'arya', meaning 'pure' or 'noble', and turned an adjective into Aryans, a new race identity, and it wasn't long before it then turned into a 'master race' of Europeans, with guess who at the summit. German nationalists cadged the swastika from Herman Schliemann's Trojan swastika-fest, with Schliemann too dead to protest.

Whose sacred symbol is next?

What bothers me about allowing the swastika's Nazi association to persist is it sends a subtle message giving hate and evil purveyors carte blanche to take what they like from the rest of us, like shoplifters in a supermarket.

The 'okay' symbol we all know has been modified slightly and added to the Anti-Defamation League's ever-expanding database of 'hate' symbols.

Supposedly, it's now a 'white power' gesture when flashed upside down, since the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mass shooter flashed it during a court appearance. Its origin as a 'white power' gesture is actually a hoax started by the trolling website 4chan, and was adopted by some white supremacists.

The haters have won when your friend mouths to you across a noisy, crowded room, "How are you?" and you respond with a gesture others think means, "Thank God I'm white! Power to the pale! Down with Israelites!"

Anything can be appropriated now. Like the way the Christian cross is misused by the KKK.

What if the alt-right or other hate groups appropriate the trans flag, the peace symbol, or the Black Lives Matter raised fist? What if the Jewish Star of David was turned into a hate symbol? Oh wait, it already was, by Twitter, at least under the Old Regime.

Know your swastika

Ten years ago, 120 tattoo parlors around the world sponsored a one-day 'Learn To Love The Swastika' event. Artists offered free swastika tattoos but made people sign a waiver stating they weren't getting it as a neo-Nazi symbol, relying, one supposes, on the neo-Nazis' honesty to not lie on the waiver.

I wondered if it wouldn't have been better to stipulate the tattoo must include the words "Love" or "Peace For All" or "Good fortune to all."

Or maybe with a flower in the center. What neo-Nazi wants to go around with a girly-looking swastika?

Perhaps the swastika could be reclaimed, slowly, over a few generations, with a few 'best practices'.

Like, cocked at a 45-degree angle, on a white circle, with a red background, is right out.

Traditional Hindu swastikas fit neatly into a square, with the arms pointing to the right, clockwise (or as modern Pagans would say, 'Deosil').

Buddhist swastikas face the other way ('Widdershins' in Wiccaspeak) .

Four different cultural swastikas
Original work by MennasDosbin on Wikipedia. Creative Commons CC0 4.0. For some reason, the upper right one sort of reminds me of both Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow taking a knee at a football game.

Avoiding the characteristic 'Nazi' angle would be a good practice. Perhaps a swastika on a neutral background, along with some words you would never find on a Nazi flag. Like भवतः सौभाग्यम्, which is Sanskrit for 'Good fortune to you!' Or better yet, in English, so no one thinks it's secret Sanskrit for 'Springtime for Hitler and Germany'.

Associating the swastika with positive imagery and original sentiments might help in reducing its Nazi-induced poison, and make it clear this isn't a bad swastika, it's a good svastika. Yes, Dorothy, there is a difference.

With input from members of cultures and religions where svastikas belong, and of course Jewish voices, perhaps there could be svastikas incorporated with peace signs, doves, olive branches, hands clasped in peace, or hearts.

These are suggestions for discussion, because the Pagan in me never wants to tell anyone else how to practice or present their religion. But, it wasn't my people who were subjected to hellish torture and genocide under the swastika either.

I'm not the one living with the legacy of the Nazi symbol.

But, neither do I hail from a culture for whom the svastika has had a long and honorable tradition, which was hideously misappropriated without permission.

These are a few thoughts.

Did you like this post? Would you like to see more? I lean left of center, but not so far over my brains fall out. Subscribe to my Substack newsletter Grow Some Labia so you never miss a post!

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