What the Swastika Means to Me, Guest Post: Jamie Vilasini Otelsberg

Photo via www.rotarytattoomachine.co

Photo via www.rotarytattoomachine.co
Photo via www.rotarytattoomachine.co

Today’s Guest Post is from a good friend of mine Jamie Vilasini Otelsberg, of the blog Piece of Mind.  Vilasini and I have gone through a lot together – traveled the world in service together- and her opinion is one that I respect and am grateful for, so I am very happy to be sharing this post with you all today.


What the Swastika Means to Me

When I visited India for the first time I was very surprised to see the symbol of the swastika in many places: on manhole covers, painted on the sides of auto-rickshaws, drawn with rice powder on the floor of temple entrance ways. I even saw little swastika stickers affixed to front doors of people’s homes. As a Jew, it is a very scary thing to see, since it has an extremely negative and deadly connotation in regards to our heritage and history. After seeing it displayed so prominently in India, I realized that there had to be a deeper meaning to the swastika than covered in my education in the United States. Doing some reading, I learned the swastika is an ancient symbol used to invoke auspiciousness. The word swastika itself is not German, but Sanskrit. It is derived from the Sanskrit prefix su (indicating “well,” “good” or “auspicious”), and asti (the third-person singular of the verb “to be”) plus the suffix ka (denoting a causing agent). The word swastika thus means “that which brings auspiciousness.”

In India, for thousands of years, the Swastika is revered as one of the most positive and auspicious symbols. See it here as it is typically depicted, in red. (photo credit: Ajay Tallam)
In India, for thousands of years, the Swastika is revered as one of the most positive and auspicious symbols. See it here as it is typically depicted, in red. (photo credit: Ajay Tallam)

The concept of auspiciousness and its invocation is important in Indian culture. In essence, its importance centers on the acknowledgement of how the factor of divine grace is essential for any action to bring about its intended result—an acknowledgment of how self-effort, though essential, is not enough by itself. Thus, Indian culture is filled with prayers for auspiciousness and grace. The swastika is the visual form of this prayer—a prayer in the form of an image.

After learning all of this, I felt much more comfortable with the symbol, but I was still curious as to why Hitler would choose it as the insignia for the Nazi Party. After reading a few books, it became clear to me: In the 18th and 19th century , in order to explain connections between Sanskrit and European languages, some European scholars theorized that there was once an advanced Indo-European master race called “the Aryans,” and that this race had invaded India’s northern region, introducing the Sanskrit language and culture. This theory has long since been debunked by both anthropologists and linguists, and science has now proven that people all over India have common genetic traits and share the same DNA structure, without any introduction of foreign genes. The idea that Vedic culture was brought to India by an invading tribe  had never been considered by Indians. It was not part of their written or oral histories. Regardless, for various reasons, the idea took root and many people within India and without began to consider it as accurate. Today scholars primarily reject the Aryan Invasion Theory, and Indians are once again able to take pride in the knowledge that the Vedic culture, which is respected throughout the world for its expansive vision and philosophical insights, has been theirs from time immemorial.

In fact, the Sanskrit word aryan, which appears in the Vedas, did not refer to a separate race of people but simply meant “noble.” However, Hitler claimed that it was the Aryan bloodline that was beating in the hearts of the citizens of Austria and Germany and used the theory to stir nationalistic feelings—to horrendous ends. So, it was in seizing upon the idea that Germans were the true decedents of the theorized lost Aryan master race, that Hitler decided the swastika would be the ideal symbol for the Nazi Party. He thus co-opted the auspicious symbol and perverted it to fit his own agenda.

Due to the acts of terror committed under the Nazi flag—including the systemized genocide of six million Jews between 1933-1945 the swastika soon became synonymous with hate, anti-Semitism, violence and genocide. Today, the swastika is so entrenched in the collective consciousness as a symbol of hate that this has totally eclipsed its original meaning—a symbol of beneficence.

Hitler’s Swastika (left) had thick black lines, which you won’t see in the Sanskrit Swastika (right) since black represents darkness and death. The Sanskrit Swastika is depicted in red or yellow. Hitler’s swastika is also rotated at a 45 degree angle.
Hitler’s Swastika (left) had thick black lines, which you won’t see in the Sanskrit Swastika (right) since black represents darkness and death. The Sanskrit Swastika is depicted in red or yellow. Hitler’s swastika is also rotated at a 45 degree angle.

Interestingly, the swastika as depicted by the Nazi Party uses a color-scheme that is inappropriate—and therefore inauspicious—for depicting the swastika. The traditional Indian swastika is comprised of predominantly red or white lines on a yellow or white background. Hitler used thick black lines. In Indian culture, black represents darkness, negativity and death, and thus is never used in Indian symbols.

Personally, I feel we shouldn’t allow this beautiful, ancient Sanskrit symbol—so rich in meaning and tradition—to retain the perverted significance it has held in the world’s collective consciousness since World War II. With effort, I feel we could return the swastika’s meaning to its original auspicious intention worldwide. In order to help bring this transformation about, I would humbly suggest that those who depict the swastika as a symbol of auspiciousness should consider providing a written explanation about its meaning. I am not suggesting that we forget the horror inflicted upon humanity under the Nazi flag, but if we can educate people regarding the swastika’s original meaning perhaps we can free it from Hitler’s grasp.  After reading these books and learning the original meaning of the Swastika, I can now view the Sanskrit Swastika and the Nazi Swastika as two totally separate representations. In this way, it can stand both as a symbol of auspiciousness as well as a reminder of the ability of man’s ego to twist the divine into the demonic.



IMG_0052Jamie Vilasini Otelsberg lives in Amritapuri Ashram and dabbles in design work for a good cause. She is an appreciator of good stories, art and all things history.

17 thoughts on “What the Swastika Means to Me, Guest Post: Jamie Vilasini Otelsberg

  1. Jamie,
    Thank you so much for sharing what you took the time and invested the energy to learn about, facing your internal/instinctive responses and using them to fuel your curiosity instead of reject another culture’s heritage. This was very educational and interesting to read.


    1. Thanks Kina.. it was definitely an interesting journey of discovery. One thing that i had learned was that Jews have been welcomed and embraced, and have lived in peace in India for centuries, so i couldn’t reconcile that with the fact that i was seeing Swastikas everywhere – i knew there had to be more than meets the eye. I hope that others can also learn to see it that way when they visit here. thanks again for your comment..


  2. This is so beautifully written. Thank you for this.

    I recently learned a well kept secret in my family, my great grandparents were Jews from Libya. As adults, they moved to Sicily and eventually gave birth to my paternal grandparents and then in 1929, my paternal grandparents had my dad.

    At some point in time,( and my dad isn’t entirely sure when), Judaism fell to the wayside and my paternal grandparents were raised as Catholics — no one ever spoke of the original ‘religion’.

    Now, when I share my story, I take pride in telling people that a long time ago, on my father’s side of the family, there were Jews and that on some level, Jewish blood runs in my veins, no matter how minute.


    1. Wow thats really interesting.. from what i’ve read, the Jews of Libya, like the Jews in Europe, suffered a lot during World War II, at the hands of the Fascist Italian regime and were also subjected to German deportations. Your grandparents must have endured some heavy duty stuff around that time.. Thanks for sharing 🙂

          1. I live outside of Boston, MA. I moved to a sleepy little bedroom town after my divorce that is located south of the city. The town has a very tight Jewish community headed by a wonderfully young Chabad Rabbi & wife. Every Hanukkah they have a menorah lighting ceremony in the center of town (to which I attend even though I was not raised Jewish) and the day after the ceremony the menorah was vandalized with swastikas. It would seem, hate knows no limits.

  3. Wow Vilasini!!First of all, you should become a writer…so well written. and thank you for sharing this after you did some research. proud of you…

  4. Beautifully written article Vilasani.

    When I first started going to India, seeing the swastika bothered me a lot. I learned a little about its background at that point but you have said much more than I knew. Thank you.

  5. Thanks Karuna.. i always feel its better to be “in the know” about stuff like this. I do hope that people who haven’t seen it from this perspective can have a fresh outlook on the meaning, so as to eliminate dangerous misunderstandings – but at the same time, it would be asking a lot for people who survived and lost their families in its shadow, to completely come out of feeling fear and hurt when they see it. I have 5 holocaust survivors in my family, and i would imagine that it would be a difficult conversation to try to explain to them about the symbols auspiciousness, in which case i probably won’t do that.. But i’m glad that i was able to share this information with my parents before they visited India. Since they were prepared, it didn’t affect or bother them at all, so that was the ultimate purpose of me writing this article..

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