Is the Swastika a symbol of evil or of good?

Hindu Swastika

A Jew and a Hindu had very different views when debating the meaning of the Swastika on BBC’s Sunday Morning Live (3rd Nov 2013).  As part of Diwali week (a Hindu festival) the BBC asked David Schneider and Kiran Bali to debate the question: “Can the Swastika be reclaimed as a symbol of peace?”

The BBC followed this up with a half-hour programme: The Story of the Swastika.  The two programmes illustrate some of the fundamental differences between how people think differently in the West and East, and how problems of conflict can be overcome from the perspective of analytical psychology.

Two Religions, Two Meanings

Hitler did not invent the Swastika.  It is an ancient symbol that is still recognised by several religions as denoting something good.  For Hindus, it can represent good fortune, divinity, life, power, peace, etc.  They sometimes use the Swastika in Hindu temples in a similar way that Christian churches display a Cross. The symbol is also used in other religions, e.g. in Buddhism it represents eternity.  Hitler and the Nazis adopted the Swastika because it can represent purity, and therefore provided historical justification for their (fabricated) mythology of the purity of the Aryan people.

For Jews, the Swastika represents the worst extreme of evil in living memory.  It evokes images of the genocide and persecution perpetrated by Hitler and his Nazi Party against not only the Jews but also several other minority groups.  And it continues to be used by extreme right wing parties, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece.  These associations (between the Swastika and evil) are ubiquitous in a wide range of Western religions and worldviews, from Christians to atheists.  In some countries it is illegal to display the Swastika (though there are usually exemptions, e.g. for Hindu use).

Two BBC Programmes

The first BBC programme asked a closed question – “Can the Swastika can be reclaimed as a symbol of peace?” – which invited a yes-or-no answer.  Understandably, David Schneider could not envisage the Swastika losing its representation of evil.  Another guest (Ian Blair) suggested it would take centuries before the Swastika would lose its strong negative and emotional associations.  He made a comparison with the Viking invasion of Britain which can be reflected on dispassionately only because of the passage of time.

The second (pre-recorded) programme also sought to engage a Jew and Hindu in discussion, but it took a slightly different approach.  They first looked at the history of the Swastika and how it had been misappropriated by the Nazis.  Then, a Hindu (Avni Chag) introduced a Jew (Josh Duvell) to the good meaning of the Swastika at Neasden Temple.  Josh was clearly shocked by the reverence afforded to an anti-Jewish symbol, but he acknowledged the importance of the dialogue.

When reflecting about the experience, Avni’s (Hindu) view was that the Swastika “doesn’t have to mean one thing – it can mean different things to different people”.  From Josh’s Jewish perspective, although the experience still felt alien and strange, he expressed the hope that “we can really start to educate ourselves that the symbol can be used for something positive”.

Single or Multiple Associations?

In analytical psychology, there are four stages in the advancement of culture.  C.G. Jung argued that, although every individual is different, there tend to be different ways of thinking in the West and in the East.  The Western (e.g. Christian or Jewish) mind tends to get stuck in the second stage, which is the differentiation of good from evil.  It then tends to adopt a standpoint that imposes a single meaning on the interpretation of any image.  The Eastern (e.g. Hindu or Buddhist) mind tends to focus more on the third stage, which acknowledges multiple meanings and the value in oppositional viewpoints.

These two stages were evident in the two BBC programmes.  For David Schneider, although he acknowledged that the meaning of symbols can change, and that Hindus may have a different contemporary interpretation, for him the Swastika “remains the symbol of ultimate evil”.  He expressed the concern that, if the Swastika were to be reclaimed as a symbol of good, the evil associations would be forgotten.  This is based on Western premises, i.e. that a symbol has a singular meaning at any one point in time.  Therefore, if a symbol takes on a good meaning, it must lose its negative meaning.  It is difficult to consciously hold both positive and negative feelings about the same image simultaneously.

The Hindus, however, tended to be much more open to the symbol having multiple meanings.  “Reclaiming” the symbol for good did not necessarily mean replacing evil with good in the associations with the Swastika.  Rather, it meant acknowledging that a symbol can have multiple meanings.

Practical Implications

In Jung’s second stage of development, we develop a sense of what is good, true, or meaningful, and then condemn what is evil, false, or facetious.  However, in ‘other’ cultures or contexts, what we condemn can sometimes have great value, and we can develop as individuals and as a society when we begin to recognise the value in the ‘other’.  In doing so, we move to the third stage of individual and/or cultural development.

What this means in practical terms was summarised towards the end of the live BBC debate by a Jewish Chaplain (Alex Goldberg).  Speaking via Skype, he said that what is needed is for Jews and Hindus to understand each other’s interpretation of the meaning of the Swastika.

For a Christian or Jew, therefore, the challenge is to come to terms with, and respect, other religions’ views of the Swastika as a sacred symbol.  It is not a competition to see whether the Swastika will eventually emerge with a positive or negative meaning. Rather, it involves finding a way to maintain both perspectives simultaneously and integrate the opposing associations into the same symbol.

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