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.”
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.
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.