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).