My first trip to India was almost seven years ago, and while many specific details are fuzzy, important moments remain clear in my mind.
To be sure, although I don't remember exactly which city I was in when I walked into the temple, I remember exactly what I saw looking down at me like some sort of pictorial deity: A huge swastika symbol, the first I'd ever seen outside the context of World War II history.
Since then, I've taken dozens of trips to South and East Asia, which have reinforced two truths: Swastikas are everywhere in Asia—and they have absolutely nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazis.
Swastikas in Eastern Religion
While it might seem strange, as a Westerner, to see swastikas displayed in a religious context, this makes perfect sense when you learn about the swastika's origin. Broadly speaking, it is seen as a symbol of luck in the major Eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, to name a few. Its name, in fact, derives from the Sanskrit word "svastika," which literally means "auspicious object."
If you dig even deeper, however, you'll realize that while civilizations in the Indus Valley displayed the first society-wide usages of the swastika, it is originally European in origin. Archaeologists have dated its first appearance to prehistoric Ukraine, where they found a bird made from elephant tusk and bearing swastika symbols that appears to be at least 10,000 years old.
As far as the meaning of the swastika, there's no clear record, but many historians believe it is a cognate of the more widespread cross symbol and more specifically, the one Pagan religions in the bronze age used. Today, of course, the swastika is far removed from both paganism and Christianity, and is found primarily in the Hindu and Buddhist temples of India, Southeast Asia and the Far East.
Swastikas in the Pre-Nazi West
Hitler and the Nazis, to be sure, were not the first people in the West to re-appropriate the swastika symbol in modern times. Most notably, the swastika had an important in the folklore of Finland, a fact that led the country's air force to adopt it as their symbol in 1918—its use obviously ceased after the end of the Second World War. The swastika also featured prominently in the ancient cultures of Latvia, Denmark and even Germany, albeit the ancient Germanic peoples of the Iron Age.
Swastikas in Native American Culture
The most fascinating use of swastikas, however, is among native North Americans, a fact that underscores how old it must've been among humanity in general, since natives didn't come into contact with Europeans until at least the 13th or 14th century. Archaeologists have also founds swastikas in native cultures as far south as Panamá, where the Kuna people used it to symbolize the octopus creator figure in their folklore.
As a result of its use by native cultures, the swastika also seeped into the modern North American zeitgeist, pre-WWII, anyway. Like the Finnish Air Force, the US Army used the swastika as its symbol as late as the 1930s.
Perhaps most shockingly, there is a small mining town in the Canadian province of Ontario whose name is "Swastika."