Changing Symbols and the Swastika


* This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation blog.

by Steven Ramey

Symbols serve as a significant way to express identity within society. Crosses generally identify someone as a Christian, a hammer and sickle as a communist, and black and white houndstooth as a University of Alabama fan. Of course, that simple equation provides an arena for significant competition about exactly which symbol represents which ideas. The apparent incongruency of Native Americans wearing swastikas on their basketball uniforms (Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma, 1908) derives from the assumption that symbols have a defined meaning. As with identity labels generally, the meanings of symbols like the swastika shift over time, and seldom does a symbol have only one meaning.

The swastika is one symbol whose meaning is particularly contested today. In Europe and the United States, the swastika has become intimately tied to Nazi ideology since the Nazi party adopted it in 1920. Its use predates that adoption by millennia, found in artifacts from North America, the Iranian plateau, South Asia, and various other locations. The meanings and explanations for these various appearances of the symbol are uncertain, but are generally assumed to be auspicious. (A 1933 pamphlet provides an interesting account of its presumed prehistorical meanings.) In regions such as South and East Asia (and among those who identify with those areas), the symbol is frequently used today not to convey a Nazi identity but as an auspicious symbol. While the Nazi swastika typically is right-facing, people in various parts of Asia display swastikas turned in either direction, often depending on the aesthetics of its creator and the context of its application.

With globalization, the swastika has become a point of contention. People in Europe and the Americas who use the symbol feel compelled to explain their use of the swastika to distance themselves from Nazi ideology. The standard line is that the swastika is an ancient, auspicious symbol that Hitler misused. When some in the EU proposed banning the swastika, groups of immigrants primarily from India campaigned against the ban. Ramesh Kallidia of the Hindu Forum of Britain reportedly asserted, “The swastika has been around for 5,000 years as a symbol of peace. This is exactly the opposite of how it was used by Hitler.”

While the swastika has apparently been used for millennia, though not always labeled with that Sanskrit-derived name, the narrative of pure origins and corruption homogenizes a complex symbol, assuming a singular, true meaning. Having no intrinsic content, the meanings of symbols, like identity labels, are constructed socially. Reading a meaning back into history or across communities misses that lack of inherent content. Therefore, both those who assume that any use of the swastika reflects Nazi ideology and those who assert that Hitler corrupted a positive ancient symbol construct a consistent meaning for the symbol that ignores the malleability of symbols.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, where he also directs the Asian Studies program. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where his work focused on contemporary religions and identity in India. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave 2008) analyzes issues of identity within Sindhi Hindu communities. 
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