Why Are There Swastikas All Over Asia?

No, There are Not Proto-Nazi Movements in South and East Asia

Swastika Korea
••• A Swastika on a Buddhist temple in Korea. Svdmolen via Wikimedia Commons

If you travel in Asia, and particularly the South Asian countries of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, you'll feel overwhelmed enough by the sensory overload that not everything about your surroundings will be immediately apparent to you. When you come to, however, you might notice a symbol you assumed had been left in the 1940s to die: The Swastika. Try not to be alarmed, as swastikas are anything but hateful in this part of the world.

In fact, they're considered sacred!

Swastikas in Eastern Religion

While it might seem strange, as a Westerner, to see swastikas displayed in a religious context, it 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."

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

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.

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, specifically 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." It's hard to believe that this name would stand in the woke modern era, particularly since this part of the world has no ties to the positive past of the Swastika you've just had a chance to learn about.