Buddhism and the Swastika
In January of this year a jewellery store in Brooklyn USA was forced to stop selling Buddhist swastika earrings. Politicians claimed that the earrings were the latest example of anti-Semitism in New York and New Jersey and demanded the store immediately stop selling them. This, despite the fact that the symbol faced in a different direction to the Nazi swastika as most Buddhist, and even neo-Pagan swastikas do.
In the Western mind the swastika is indelibly associated with the horrors of Nazism. However, although the symbol was adopted by the Nazis in the mistaken belief that it was Aryan in origin, the history of the swastika is rooted in antiquity. Like flood legends, the swastika is one of many spontaneously occurring symbols, found throughout many of the worlds ancient civilisations that had no possible contact with each other. The earliest archaeological evidence of a swastika motif dates from a carving on a mammoth tusk from the Ukraine in the late Paleolithic Age 10,0000 BC. It can also be seen on early Native American pottery and appears on Indus valley seals from around 4000 BC. In these early civilizations it is thought to have represented the Sun and its movement across the Northern Sky.
The name Swastika derives from ancient Sanskrit. It comes from the Sanscrit “Svastika” - “su” meaning “good”, “asti” meaning “to be” and “ka” as a suffix. Thus literally it means “that which is associated with well-being,” corresponding to “lucky charm” or “thing that is auspicious.”
In Hinduism, the right-hand (clockwise) swastika is a symbol of the sun and the god Vishnu, while the left-hand (counter-clockwise) swastika represents Kali and magic. It is commonly used on temples and in some religious ceremonies. In Jainism the swastka is given even more prominence. It is a symbol of the seventh Tirthankara (founding guru), Suparshvanath. It is also one of the astamangala auspicious symbols. Holy books must contain the swastika, and ceremonies typically begin and end with creating a swastika mark several times with rice around the altar.
Whilst in Buddhism, the swastika is almost always used clockwise, the Bon tradition uses it counter-clockwise. The swastika is an extremely important symbol in Yungdrung Bön, all the more so because the Tibetan name for swastika - yungdrung - forms part of its name. Thus Yungdrung Bön could be translated as the Religion of the Swastika. In Yungdrung Bön, the swastika is rich in symbolism. Primarily, it represents the unchangeable, indestructible state, Buddha-nature, the Nature of Mind, the fundamental ground of existence, light. The Bon belief in the left-turning primordial spiral of the universe means they circumambulate holy mountains, shrines and turn prayer wheels counter-clockwise. Hence they also use the swastika counter-clockwise. Within the swastika are the five directions of the universe. The four arms represent four directions, with the fifth in the centre, and also the five elements.
In Buddhism, the swastika signifies auspiciousness and good fortune as well as resignation, and the Wheel of Law. It is also the first of the 65 auspicious symbols associated with the footprint of the Buddha. The symbol, often imprinted on the Buddha footprint (Buddhapada) was in use in Buddhism centuries before the anthropomorphic images of the Buddha began to appear in the 2nd Century B.C. It also represents the Buddhas heart seal, and monks often have the symbol placed on their chest when they die. The swastika is said to contain the whole mind of the Buddha and can often be found imprinted on the chest, feet or palms of Buddha images. The symbol has also often been used to mark the beginning of Buddhist texts. In China and Japan, the Buddhist swastika was seen as a symbol of plurality, eternity, abundance, prosperity and long life. In East Asian countries, the left-facing character is often used as symbol for Buddhism and marks the site of a Buddhist temple on maps. The swastika holds great importance in the Buddhist religion and this religious mark can be found on almost all the Buddhist sites including the temples.
As the incident in Brooklyn illustrates, symbols can evoke powerful emotions. They can be shorthand for complex beliefs and ideas. Perhaps it is time we in the west reclaimed the swastika as a symbol of peace and good luck.