Panel Explores Conflicting Meanings of Swastika

By Kyle Boots, Columbia Spectator, April 10, 2008

New York, USA -- It is hard for many to see the swastika as a symbol of well-being. And yet, more than 75 undergraduates, graduate students, Morningside Heights residents, and religious leaders gathered Wednesday night at the Kraft Center to discuss two very different perspectives of a powerful symbol that was blackened by its connection with Nazi Germany.

<< The Swastika as Asians know it 

The Swastika: A Dual Perspective, a collaboration between the Intercultural Committee and the Hindu Students Organization, was meant to shed light on Nazi Germany’s perversion of a holy symbol that pervades Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

“It’s known as a symbol of hate to most people in this part of the world. But this event was supposed to expose a different perspective and show that the symbol can be respected,” said Intercultural Committee founder Josh Weiss, CC ’10 and vice president of initiatives for Hillel.

Weiss spearheaded the project with Hindu Students Organization board member Anusha Sriram, CC ’10. Each gave a 10-minute presentation about the Eastern and Western interpretations of the swastika, which culminated in small, round-table discussions, composed entirely of audience members.

In his part of the presentation, Weiss explained that Adolf Hitler chose the swastika as a symbol that he thought would motivate the masses. Its effect was ultimately hypnotic, but Hitler’s appropriation of the holy symbol created an identity crisis for Hindus raised in the West and for Western Jews who travel to the East. How does one reconcile the different emotions that the symbol evokes in the West and in the East?

Nisha Garg, BC ’10, struggled with this issue when she was younger. As a Hindu, she grew up with the symbol displayed in her house. But she distinctly remembers sitting down with her father and explaining to him that an inverted swastika, drawn in the shape of a diamond, had a completely different meaning.

“The way I see the symbol is very contextual for me,” said Weiss, who encountered the swastika as a symbol of purity during a trip to Thailand. “It’s a horrible symbol in the context of hatred and the Holocaust, but it’s important to recognize that there’s another place for the symbol. I almost see the two as different symbols defined by their meaning.”

Sriram was faced with the same problem growing up. Sriram is South Indian by descent, but lived in Singapore and Mumbai before moving to the United States. “As an international student, I was educated about the Holocaust and the Nazi symbol like any other Westerner. That said, when I saw the swastika in the house or at festivals, I never questioned it in the way that they were different symbols,” Sriram said. “That I was Hindu and Indian never got lost wherever I lived.”

Both Weiss and Sriram stressed that the purpose of the event was not to remove the Nazi stigma of the swastika, but rather to present a dual perspective. “I try to think of how I would feel if the Star of David became a symbol of hatred,” Weiss said. “I think what Hitler did is unfair to people who used the swastika in a positive way.”

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