Last week there was a BBC news item about the European Union proposing a ban on the display of the swastika. Hindu groups across the union were against the proposal because such a ban was discriminatory. See article.

They rightly point out that the swastika had been a religious symbol for thousands of years before the Nazis adopted it as a symbol of its fascist regime. And yet for Westerners –especially Europeans– the swastika is understandably associated with an evil that resulted in the suffering and ruination of World War Two and the persecution of all peoples deemed inferior to the Nazis.

The swastika was extensively used by Hindus but was adopted –or developed independently — by many peoples before the Nazis took it as their own. Examples include Buddhists, Celts, some Native American Indian tribes, and the Akan civilisation of south-west Africa. See Wikipedia: swastika.

Here in Japan, the swastika is not only seen at temples as an obviously religious symbol but also on secular maps to indicate the location of a temple. The same can be said in most other countries in Asia, from Korea to Indonesia.

When I lived in Canada, I associated the swastika with the German war machine. As a Westerner living in Japan, I now first see the swastika as a symbol of Buddhism. When the change happened I am not sure, but I was struck by that contrast when I came across the BBC news item. As for Japanese people, it is my impression that most are puzzled by how such a religious symbol was corrupted in the first place.

Perhaps it would be near impossible for Europe to reconcile with the conflicting meanings of the swastika, due to the incredible suffering associated with that symbol. And yet perhaps a visit to a Buddhist or Hindu temple in Asia might contribute towards its renewed understanding as a symbol of peace.


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