The attached document had a few options for font and style. But they all had one thing in common. The header was made up of a line-drawing of Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, along with a shloka (Sanskrit verse) invoking Ganesh and something that would likely shock non-Hindu Westerners: two swastikas.
When I saw the swastikas, I started to wonder. Should I also draw swastikas on the separate invitations to the reception, which I was making by hand? Would this add to the beauty of the card or would the symbol’s Nazi connotations mar the auspiciousness of the invitation? It was an ironic quandary, considering that Ganesh, whom I'd also draw on the card, is also the destroyer of evil and the shloka asks Him to remove all obstacles.
Of course, the swastika has a long history in Hinduism, entirely separate from its modern perversion by Nazi Germany. The etymology of the word swastika connects the Sanskrit su (good) and asti (to be), resulting in "well-being." The symbol is drawn to denote good luck. The swastika is as sacred as the symbol for Om, which is Hinduism’s supreme and most sacred syllable.
The swastika is said to symbolize the Hindu concept of samsara--the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. The four arms pointing to the cardinal directions--north, east, south, and west--signify stability and groundedness. The swastika has also been used to symbolize Surya, the sun god, and Ganesh is often depicted sitting atop lotus flower on a bed of swastikas. Because of its auspiciousness, the symbol is also used in yantras (symbolic representations of divinity). Besides Hinduism, the swastika can be found in Buddhism and Jainism.
I have always thought of the swastika as a beautiful symbol. It’s never been my favorite design to draw, as I preferred other traditional designs, such as the amiya (raw mango), shankh (conch shell), or other swirly, floral patterns. But there was something about the swastika’s symmetry that I always liked.
There are actually two types of swastikas--the right-facing and the left-facing swastikas, which are mirror-images of each other. These two forms are said to represent the two forms of Lord Brahma, the creator: The right-facing swastika indicates the evolution of the universe (Pravritti) and the left-facing swastika symbolizes involution of the universe (Nivritti, the process that allows creation to happen).
When I attended high school in New Delhi, some of my friends drew swastikas on the first page of their notebooks, hoping to have a good year and get good grades in the annual examinations. During many religious celebrations, I’ve seen priests draw swastikas with a paste made from vermilion powder and water. In this context, I considered the swastika as a religious signifier, blessing the ceremony with its auspiciousness. It’s also common to see the swastika in many decorative designs, such as floor and wall paintings, as well as in the architectural details of temples.
As a child in India, I was aware, like many of my peers, of the swastika’s use by the Nazis and how it had become a representation of the horrific atrocities committed against Jews. But like most Indians, I completely separated in my mind the two uses of the swastika. It was only when I moved to Toronto that I got a sense of just how potent the symbol remains in the West.
I was drawing a floor painting outside the small downtown Toronto studio where I learn Kathak (Hindu dance). I filled the alpana (painting) with a peacock design and drew other traditional motifs, such as amiyas, shankhs, and floral patterns. When I ran out of ideas, I decided to draw small swastikas in the circle.
“Is that a swastika?” she asked.
“Yes, I replied.”
“I’m not sure if you want to draw that,” she smiled.
“But it’s not that swastika,” I replied. “In Hinduism, it’s considered lucky.”
“Even so, some people might not know. It’s better not to use it.”
After some reflection, I erased the swastikas from the alpana. I felt sad that the symbol had become so synonymous with the Nazis that it had lost its original meaning. But it was better to err on the side of caution, just in case it resulted in any misunderstanding.
I decided to research this symbol that I took for granted. A Google search resulted in thousands of hits. According to Answers.com, the swastika was used by the Hittites, the Greeks and the Celts, and it occurs in Asian, European, African, and Native American cultures. It’s thought that the swastika’s symmetry and simplicity led to its independent development across the world.
An article on the BBC website told me this symbol that has been around for thousands of years was used by Rudyard Kipling in the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made it inappropriate. It was also used by the scouts in Britain and the Finnish Air Force in World War II. Although rarely seen in Western architecture, interlocking swastikas make up the floor design of the cathedral of Amiens, France.
There’s even a small mining town in Ontario called Swastika, about 580 kilometers north of where I live. Attempts by the government of Ontario to change the town’s name during World War II were rejected by the residents, the BBC reports.
The Nazis used the swastika because of their belief in the purity of the Aryan race. They believed in the Aryan invasion theory, wherein a master Aryan race from South Russia and Eastern Ukraine invaded Iran, India, Central Asia, and Europe. The Indian Aryans, then, were prototypical white invaders and the swastika came from their Vedic tradition. And so, the swastika became the symbol of “the fight for the victory of Aryan man,” as Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf."
The swastika-based Hakenkreus (hooked cross) adopted by the Nazis in the 1920s is now taboo in the West. It’s unfortunate that the swastika’s original meaning has been lost in the West, perverted by Nazism. I certainly understand the revulsion people feel at the sight of a swastika. The symbol wasn't retired with the demise of Nazi Germany, but remains a sign of hate for neo-Nazis and skinheads today. However, I still hold out the hope that someday the swastika will reclaim its ancient significance and become a symbol of auspiciousness for everyone--not just Hindus. Popularizing the real meaning of the swastika in the West would, after all, be a sign that we've repudiated the Nazis and refuse to let them continue to hijack tradition.
In the end, I didn’t draw swastikas on my handmade reception cards. There are swastikas on the wedding invitation, however. It’s appropriate for this traditional symbol to be on the card that heralds my traditional wedding ceremony; the swastika will not be misinterpreted by the primarily South Asian guests at my morning wedding. The evening reception, however, is just a party celebrating my marriage. There’s no religious import to those festivities. And although all my invited guests are enlightened people who know I have no patience for any racist ideology, there’s no point in even a momentary affront to someone’s sensibilities.
Besides, I am sure Ganesh will bless the event and remove all obstacles.