Religious Groups Aim to Redefine Symbol Linked to War, Hatred

30 November 2022

When Dr. Sheetal Deo celebrated the Hindu festival of lights called Diwali recently, she did not think it would be considered offensive. But she got a letter from officials at her building in New York City telling her to remove her Diwali decorations because it "had a swastika on it."

The swastika is a cross with right angles at the ends. It is believed to have long been used as a symbol of peace and good luck in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist religions and several cultures.

In the West and Russia, however, the swastika, also called hakenkreuz, is linked to Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. The symbol is also linked to the Holocaust in which millions of Jews and other people were killed during World War II. Groups tied to acts of hate have continued to use the swastika.

Sheetal Deo and her husband, Sanmeet Deo, hold a Hindu swastika symbol in their home in Syosset, N.Y., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Sheetal Deo and her husband, Sanmeet Deo, hold a Hindu swastika symbol in their home in Syosset, N.Y., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

However, the Associated Press (AP) reports that there has been a movement to reclaim the earlier meaning of the swastika in the past 10 years among Asian immigrants and Native Americans.

Deo said she believes these communities should not apologize for using their symbol because of its misuse in the past.

"To me, that's intolerable," Deo said.

But to many others, especially in the Jewish communities, giving the swastika a second chance is not possible.

Shelley Rood Wernick is a director of the Jewish Federations of North America's Center on Holocaust Survivor Care. Wernick said Holocaust survivors could feel the horrors again when they see the symbol. She went on to say, "I recognize the swastika as a symbol of hate."

Steven Heller wrote a book called Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? He said the swastika is an emotional symbol for so many whose loved ones were murdered. Heller's great-grandfather died during the Holocaust.

"A rose by any other name is a rose. In the end, it's how a symbol affects you visually and emotionally," Heller said.

The swastika's meaning in other cultures

The swastika has been used since prehistoric times. The word itself has roots in Sanskrit, an ancient language, and means "the mark of well being."

In the religion of Jainism found in India, the swastika represents four kinds of births. In Buddhism, it is called "manji." It is often used to mark the place of Buddhist temples. And in China, it is called "Wàn."

The symbol is common in India. It is seen in doorways, on cars, and in other places. It is usually drawn with red and yellow colors.

Vikas Jain is a doctor in the city of Cleveland, Ohio. He and his wife have had to hide images in their home with the symbol because when their children's friends visit "they wouldn't know the difference."

The swastika was also an important symbol to many indigenous communities around the world. They can be found on objects dating back more than 10,000 years which now can be seen in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine.

In the early 1900s, Native American artists used it in their crafts, including silver work, clothes, and pottery. But after the Nazis used it, leaders of the Hopi, Navajo, Apache, and other tribes approved an agreement in 1940 to ban the symbol from use.

Patricia Anne Davis is a member of the Choctaw and Dineh nations. She said it was a symbol of peace, healing, and goodness until the Nazis changed its meaning. She added that it is time to bring back the first meaning of the symbol.

Difference between swastika and hakenkreuz

The Coalition of Hindus of North America is one of the groups aiming to separate the swastika from the Nazi's "cross" called hakenkreuz.

The group supports a new law in the state of California that makes it illegal to show the hakenkreuz in public. The law does not criminalize the swastika as a sacred symbol. However, it says both symbols are "swastikas."

Jeff Kelman is a Holocaust historian based in the state of New Hampshire. He believes the hakenkreuz and swastika can be separated. Kelman is presenting this idea to Jewish communities.

He is hopeful that the symbol can be redefined as a good thing because he sees his message being understood by so many people, including Holocaust survivors.

"When they learn an Indian girl could be named Swastika and she could be harassed in school, they understand how they should see these as two separate symbols," Kelman said.

Greta Elbogen is an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. Members of her family were killed at - Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. She said that she was surprised to learn of the swastika's history.

Elbogen said this new information about the symbol means she does not fear the symbol that was used to frighten her.

"Hearing that the swastika is beautiful and sacred to so many people is a blessing. It's time to let go of the past and look to the future," Elbogen said.

I'm Faith Pirlo.

And I'm Andrew Smith.

Deepa Bharath wrote this article for The Associated Press. Faith Pirlo adapted it for Learning English.


Words in This Story

decoration – n. something that decorates or beautifies

symbol – n. a place, action, object, or event, that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality

faith n. strong religious belief or strong belief in someone or something

intolerable adj. too bad, harsh, or severe to be accepted

horror n. an experience or thing that causes great fear or dread

indigenous – n. native to a place

harassed – v. to annoy or bother (someone) in a constant or repeated way

legacy – n. something that comes from someone in the past that affects the present

sacred — adj. greatly honored by a religion