The history of the swastika: how a symbol of peace was corrupted into a symbol of hate


Tanvi Kulkarni

The swastika is widely believed to have originated in India, commonly used in ceremonies and festivals. The word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit words “su” and “asti,” meaning “good” and “to exist.” From here, the symbol spread to East and Southeast Asia and eventually Europe, taking on similar meanings in those countries until Nazi Germany.

Growing up in a Hindu-dominated country, I was surrounded by religious icons and symbols, one of which included the swastika. As a fundamental part of Hinduism, it often adorned temples and homes, including mine. I discovered only after moving to America that the symbol stands for something very different in Western culture. Since then, there have been two versions of it in my mind: the one I grew up with and the one I learned about in history class. However, many Americans lack this cultural context, and only see the one side they grew up with.

This is why when a classmate started sharing a story involving the swastika, I decided to listen in. She said that her neighbors had a string of swastikas decorating their door, and it made her wonder why they were displaying a Nazi symbol so blatantly. 

I decided to step in and explain the meaning of this symbol in my culture and how the neighbor was displaying a sign of peace, not hatred. For much of the Western world, the swastika is a symbol of hate and oppression, respresentative of the supremacism that fueled the Holocaust.

As a result, the swastika has been banned from many schools and tattoo artists often refuse to incorporate it into their artwork. The way the swastika is perceived is a misconception, however, and differs vastly from the Asian interpretation of the symbol. 

No one can deny that there are similarities between the Nazi symbol, the hakenkreuz, and the swastika; however, the belief that the two symbols are alike begs the question: where did this fallacy come from? Hitler had falsely claimed that the Aryan race was a “master race” of the Nordic peoples who had settled in India, stemming from similarities between Germanic languages and Sanskrit.

In an attempt to further associate Germany with the Aryan people he believed to be in India, Hitler translated the hakenkreuz into Sanskrit, and it was mistakenly translated as the word “swastika,” a symbol that already existed and was widely used at the time. The hakenkreuz and swastika are similar in appearance, which resulted in the mistranslation.

The negative connotations that America correlates with the swastika belong, in actuality, with the hakenkreuz. The swastika is — and has been for centuries — a symbol of peace, prosperity and good fortune. The clockwise swastika (卐) represents the sun and success while the counterclockwise swastika (卍), or the suawastika, represents the night and karma. Although the suawastika seems to have a more negative connotation to foreigners, both forms reflect divinity. 

The symbol originated in India, where it is as common and significant as a Christian cross. The swastika was eventually brought to East Asia, greatly influencing Buddhism. Both the swastika and the suawastika became symbols of the Buddha, used in Japan to mark Buddhist temples on maps. The swastika became a solar symbol in Tang China and represented creation in Korea and Japan. 

The symbol has also flourished in Southeastern Asia, especially countries with a Hindu influence such as Cambodia and Indonesia. Until Hitler’s regime, the symbol was highly regarded in Europe as well, representing “eternal light” in Armenia and Christ’s resurrection in Christianity. 

In taking a step back and understanding the history of Germany and the swastika, the large-scale misinterpretation of the symbol is evident. A long-standing symbol of peace and prosperity, the swastika was stolen from Hinduism and corrupted by the Nazi party. 

Hitler’s appropriation of the symbol has made it irredeemable for many people, although the communities trying to ban this symbol are largely unaware of the significance it holds in Asian cultures. Asian communities have continued to raise awareness for the true meaning of the swastika.

The portrayal of the swastika in America and Europe is based on a misunderstanding, which, along with the fear and hatred shown towards this symbol, only succeeds in perpetuating Nazi ideology and taking an important religious symbol away from Asian faiths.