If you travel in Asia, and particularly the South Asian countries of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, you may feel overwhelmed enough by the sensory overload that not everything about your surroundings will be immediately apparent to you. However, one thing might pop out at you—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!
While in the west, the swastika is still presently used by hate groups and seen as an aggressive and extremely offensive symbol, it's a symbol of good luck in Asia and is commonly displayed prominently on temples. If you see a swastika in Asia in this context, it should not be immediately interpreted as a sign of hate or anti-semitism.
Symbols are ultimately subjective shapes that accumulate cultural meaning and historical contexts. Before Hitler claimed the swastika for his hate-fueled atrocities, it was a commonly used shape, like an infinity sign or a star, that represented different things to different cultures around the globe. In many cases, these symbols predate the Nazi regime by many centuries or even millennia.
Appearances in Eastern Religions
Broadly speaking, for centuries the swastika 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 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 South, East, and Southeast Asia.
The Pre-Nazi West
While civilizations in the Indus Valley displayed the first society-wide usages of the swastika, a prehistoric instance of the symbol was discovered in Ukraine, where scientists found a bird made from elephant tusk and bearing swastika symbols that appear to be at least 10,000 years old.
The swastika had an important role in the folklore of Finland, a fact that led the country's air force to adopt it as their symbol in 1918. This use 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.
On the African Continent
Although not widely used throughout the continent, swastikas have been used in both West and East African cultures. One example is in Ethiopia, where a swastika is carved into a 12th-century church in the city of Lalibela. The symbol is more commonly used in Ghanaian culture and known as the "nkontim" among the Akan people. This symbol, however, is more curvaceous and although it follows the same pattern, it does not use right angles.
In Native American Cultures
Archaeologists have also found swastikas in Indigenous American cultures as far south as Panama, where the Kuna people used it to symbolize their creator figure.
Because of its use in Native American cultures, the swatiska appeared in North America before the beginning of WWII. Like the Finnish Air Force, the U.S. 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."