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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is the Swastika a "Universal" Symbol of Hate?

The swastika now shows up so often as a generic symbol of hatred that the Anti-Defamation League, in its annual tally of hate crimes against Jews, will no longer automatically count its appearance as an act of anti-Semitism. “The swastika has morphed into a universal symbol of hate,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization. “Today it’s used as an epithet against African-Americans, Hispanics and gays, as well as Jews, because it is a symbol which frightens.”

James: There is no doubt that in the western hemisphere the swastika is seen as a symbol of hate and intolerance but what most westerners don't know is that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis stole it from the Hindu and Buddhist religions and perverted its meaning. Ironically svastika is Sanskrit for "all is well" and is seen throughout Asia today--including emblazoned upon Buddha statues around the world. Thus, it was intended to be a message of harmony and well-being to all those who gazed upon its satisfyingly balanced shape. In Buddhism it is almost always seen pointing left, whereas the Nazis used it facing right.

I understand the aversion toward the swastika in the West but to say it is universally a symbol of hate could create more intolerance, not less. That's because it is a statement based in ignorance, and ignorance always breeds suffering. Their statement branding the swastika as universal symbol of hate excludes an entire half of the world where it is seen positively. In doing so this organization could possibly cause misunderstanding between Westerners and Easterners. What are less informed Western tourists going to think when they see a swastika painted upon a Buddhist or Hindu statue? What kind of conspiracy theories or misinformed opinions will they hatch out of ignorance propagated by a well-meaning organization? And just imagine the suffering that could be stirred up because of an ignorant tourist clinging to the Anti-Defamation League's wrong perception that the swastika is a universal symbol of hate. Of course you can't control how anyone is going to interpret something; nor should we seek to control it but I think the ADL owes it to the seriousness of this subject to educate to help prevent fear based ignorance from causing unintended consequences.

They were fine to remind everyone of the swastika's hateful past and that people are still using it to terrorize others. However, their mistake was in stopping with that statement, which is clinging to the hateful side of it. This could have been handled as a "teaching moment" as we say in America today. They could have gone on to educate the public that the symbol also means harmony and well-being. Then they could have advised us to stay vigilant toward intolerance and hatred but to not forget the original meaning, which we should embody instead of hatred and intolerance. This reminds us that all symbols have many meanings that can be interpreted one way or another based on our perceptions.

It is a great reminder of how much suffering our perceptions are to our lives. In the end though we have to let go of all perceptions. Even the perception that we are justified in hating those who hate us. As distasteful as this sounds we have to come to the realization that even those who flash the swastika in hate are doing so because of fear, ignorance and delusion. Thus, they too are suffering immensely and if possible having some compassion for them might help us overcome our hatred for them, which is only causing us additional pain. Hanging onto that hatred is like reminding ourselves of how painful that razor blade cut was a few weeks back by slashing your arm with it again. Or as Buddha said, "Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; its you who gets burned."

I'm not anywhere near at a place where I have been able to let go of all my perceptions, fear and ignorance (delusions) but I know the path to freeing ourselves from their suffering resides in letting go of their power. It doesn't mean that we ignore hatred, justify hatred, or stop educating people of their reality but it does mean that we should remember that our perceptions aren't usually completely accurate; and they can be damaging despite a well-meaning motivation. When we realize how interconnected we are there is often a natural widening of our mind and a greater awareness of the world around us, which enriches our lives and brings a deeper understanding of how we all work together.

~Peace to all beings~

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7 comments:

Mike said...

I've had this conversation with my 10 yr. old son. He's very interested in anything WWII, and has read through quite a few books already. I've talked to him about the history of the swastika and differences between a symbol and how it's used by humanity. He understands well, and I hope he'll educate others if the opportunity comes up.

阿牛 said...

I think the preference for the left-facing swastika is recent and is meant to prevent confusion with the Nazi flag; in the old days, I don't think there was too much of a preference about its direction. I could be wrong though!

Bonsai Doug said...

Here is a web site which may be of some value on this: http://www.reclaimtheswastika.com/

Jayarava said...

The swastika is not a particularly Buddhist symbol, it is a pan-Indian lucky charm. Swastika: su + asti = "it is good", with -ka a suffix used in many ways but here probably a possessive?

Note that this kind of thing happens in language all the time. If a word gains a negative connotation that will tend to override the positive connotations. Gay used to mean 'happy'; intercourse used to mean 'interaction, talking'; and an ejaculation was a verbal outburst. In Victorian English one could make a gay ejaculation during intercourse with no sexual connotation whatsoever. Now however few people now would not take that sentence as being sexual. The language moves on by natural selection.

The Nazi's wrecked the swastika which just goes to show the nature of lucky charms... it didn't bring them much luck in the end, did it? Do Buddhists really need lucky charms? Doesn't it show a lack of faith?

Linda-Sama said...

In India you see the "swastika" all over, but it is in the opposite direction from the Nazi one, Hitler turned it around. It means good luck, good fortune, basically. One puts it over a doorway, for example.

I believe the Hopi tribe also uses it if I am not mistaken.

Arhat Ariya Shakya said...

Put the name of Hitler under your Symbol of Hate post.

Stefan Zweig said...

The swastika symbol is used in many old and ancient cultures. It has become the nazi symbol, but then it points to the right. The extreme right, one might add. The symbol as used in other cultures, and as can be seen on the image of the statue of the Buddha, points to the left.
So, I have adopted this images on my blog, with the message: Be like the Buddha, turn the swastika around! This way, I believe,, the swastika can become an image of tolerance, solidarity, and compassion.

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