The swastika is not offensive, and it is offensive

Hindu swastika causes a storm in Irvine:

The swastika – also a feared and hated symbol from Germany’s Nazi Party – has ancient meanings across the globe that pre-date World War II. Derived from the Sanskrit word “svastika,” it can mean “good fortune,” “luck” or “well-being.”

In Hinduism, it symbolizes harmony and can represent different gods, including Brahma, Vishnu, Surya or Kali.

But in Irvine, at least three women objected to the presence of a left-facing swastika in a colorful Indian tapestry hanging in a “Featured Family” house, situated among other Pretend City buildings. (Nazi swastikas face right.)

It’s not just Hinduism. It has been used in many societies across the world, and is still very prominent in cultures where Hinduism and Buddhism are the dominant religions. It is the holy symbol of the pacific Jain religion. The swastika is to Jainism what the cross is to Christianity and the Star of David to Judaism. In other words, a non-offensive interpretation of the swastika is not perverse, esoteric, or obscure. Rather, it is the interpretation of billions.

But those billions do not live in the United States, where our association with the swastika is with the Nazi regime, and where our second largest organized religion, Judaism, has viscerally negative associations with the symbol. A true multicultural society where all values are respected and all emotions are left intact is an illusion, because by the nature of variation in cultural forms values and emotions will conflict. This is where reason must pay its respect to tradition and cultural consensus. I have read multiple accounts of American Jews shocked when confronting swastika banners in India, Korea or Japan. Their feelings were grounded in a genuine emotional response to concrete abominations which they associated with the swastika. But, that did not mean that the societies where they were guests necessarily had to change their folkways. They understood that they were visitors, and that the values and norms of the societies which they were visiting made the connotation of the swastika far different, just as the word “Aryan” means something very different in India (where it can be a given name).

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17 Responses to The swastika is not offensive, and it is offensive

  1. gneek says:

    “The swastika is to Jainism what the cross is to Christianity and the Star of David to Buddhism.”

    I think you meant to say “…and the Star of David to Judaism.

  2. David Hume says:

    tx!

  3. Susan says:

    It’s interesting that the fasces escaped any kind of negative connotation, even though Mussolini and later the Briitish fascists adopted it. It too had a long, long history of use prior to Mussolini. I doubt most people would recognize it if they saw it anyway.

  4. David Hume says:

    It’s interesting that the fasces escaped any kind of negative connotation, even though Mussolini and later the Briitish fascists adopted it.

    nazis overshadowed all other fascist movements in europe.

  5. Susan says:

    That was my main point, really. Mussolini didn’t exterminate Jews, although I think he did suggest sending them all to an island somewhere. He exiled his political enemies rather than execute them. If he HAD committed butchery on a Hitlerian scale, perhaps the fasces would be equally loathed.

  6. John says:

    Interesting point. Suppose a lot of Jainists started immigrating to the US. Then, there would be a legitimate conflict. I’m generally believe that immigrants should assimilate, but even I don’t think people should have to give up their religious allegiance. If Jews said, “that really offends us.”, and Jainists said, “You can’t expect us to give this up.”, I’m not sure who I’d side with. I’m trying to think of a historical example where something like this happened, but am having trouble (an example where the two groups have to coexist, rather than one group being driven out.)

    Of course, the swastika was also worn by the Master of the Flying Guillotine.

  7. David Hume says:

    john, i think most jains in the USA understand that the swastika would not be understood well in this country. there are a fair number among the affluent gujaratis who are disproportionately represented in the american indian community. it is after all just a symbol. it is not jainism as such. or it shouldn’t be πŸ™‚

  8. CONSVLTVS says:

    “Just a symbol”

    Sometimes, I think symbols carry more freight than expositive language. I’m thinking of the recent problem about the picture of Kemal Ataturk in a top hat following pictures of what I took to be Australopithecus and Homo Erectus. The article on lice was fascinating (I had read something similar in Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, http://www.nicholas-wade.com/before-the-dawn/), and one or two did get the point that you were trying to show the change from fur to skin to clothes. But the image of Turkey’s modern founder juxtaposed with the primitive hominids somehow struck many as an insulting symbol–even though nothing in the article supported such a reading.

    This can be true of words as well as pictures. When I used to make arguments to juries, I found out pretty fast that some words just overwhelm the senses and make it impossible for many folks to pay attention to the nuances of argument. It was an egghead law student mistake, but it left me with an appreciation for the power of “symbols” over exposition.

    Think of Mel Brooks’ use of the “n-word” in Blazing Saddles. His movie showed up racial prejudice as another form of ignorance, but many miss the satire because they can’t get past the word (and no, I never used that word in court!).

  9. David Hume says:

    Sometimes, I think symbols carry more freight than expositive language.

    for sure. but, i think there’s a distinction between being exposed to a symbol which offends, and withholding expression/utilization of a symbol which offends.

  10. Wm Jas says:

    Here in Taiwan, the swastika is used on food packaging and restaurant signs to indicate that the food is vegetarian and contains no garlic.

  11. przxqgl says:

    it’s time for the west to re-think their perceptions of the swastika. it has been used by every people, and every culture on the face of the planet, for 10,000 years, as a symbol of good luck, peace, love, prosperity and auspiciousness, and it has only been a symbol of anything else for less than 100 years.

    these websites have no connections to any racist propaganda. they are here to give a balanced response to the negative and ignorant opinions of a few who don’t understand that the swastika is an innocent victim:Save The Swastika卐 – SWASTIKA – 卍Western use of the Swastika in the early 20th centuryThe Swastika Symbol in Hinduism

  12. CONSVLTVS says:

    “for sure. but, i think there’s a distinction between being exposed to a symbol which offends, and withholding expression/utilization of a symbol which offends.”

    Yes, that’s true. Here’s my foolish fantasy: Maybe people can just grow up and employ a little courtesy? Those who wish to use a symbol that is offensive will refrain from doing so where it could give offense. At the same time, those who are legitimately offended by a given symbol will assume those who are employing it do so in ignorance of its meaning. There. Problem solved.

    As if…

  13. panglos says:

    The real issue is that Commie icons (such as Che t’s, the hammer and sicle, etc) are not loathed in the west as is the swastika.

    This despite the fact that they killed 100 million in the last century.

    The KGB bar is the darling of the NYTimes – would the Tremblinka Grill elicit such treatment?

  14. David Hume says:

    The KGB bar is the darling of the NYTimes – would the Tremblinka Grill elicit such treatment?

    interesting. didn’t know of such a place.

  15. Narr says:

    Native Americans used the swastika or fylfot symbol too, and the last time I visited the Cloisters in NYC (about 1986) there was a swastika design in the tiles of the subway station. I haven’t heard that it has become an issue.

    And as a wise person once said, ‘symbols are for the symbol-minded.’

  16. D says:

    FWIW one theory of the swastika as a symbol of peace is that comets, if they spin clockwise relative to the the earth, throw of a tail that looks like a swastika. Seeing such a thing in the sky thousands of years ago would have been awe-inspiring.\

    More at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika_origin_theories#Comets

  17. icr says:

    Is Jack London Square in Oakland somehow symbolic? Is Oakland a centre of the literary arts, for nostalgia for 19th Century socialism, for cynophilia? Maybe a hotbed of white nationalism? No, JLS represents nothing more than that Jack London was a guy from Oakland who became a worldwide literary figure.

    Amazingly, a statue of Roger Taney is still prominently displayed on the grounds of the Maryland legislature and a street is still named for him in Baltimore City.

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