Over the past couple of months, a controversy has raged at my undergraduate alma mater, George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The controversy involves the use of the swastika, a symbol revered by many Asian religions including Hinduism and Buddhism and reviled in the West due to its misuse by the Nazis.
The controversy arose when a Jewish student went to India and “brought back a Hindu swastika and put it on the bulletin board in a college dormitory used by members of his predominantly Jewish fraternity (Zeta Beta Tau)” on March 16. Judging by the student’s background and the context of his recent trip to India, it is highly unlikely that the posting of the swastika was malicious. As Forbes Magazine points out, it is most likely that the “Jewish student was showing his classmates how the swastika has a relatively innocent and even quasi-spiritual purpose in other cultures—although he may have not made that explicit.”
Yet, George Washington University took none of this into context or account when coming down hard on the student: another student reported his actions because he thought the use of swastika was a threat. A subsequent police investigation was quickly closed. However, university president Steven Knapp said that the intentions behind the use of the symbol would not affect his determination to call it a hate crime and referred the incident to the university’s Hate Crimes Unit, arguing in a statement that the swastika had acquired an “intrinsically anti-Semitic meaning.” The student was reportedly suspended on April 28 despite calls from Hindu groups and the student’s lawyers to dismiss the case.
Intentions do matter, especially as it is clear that the symbol’s use in this case was not anti-Semitic and meant in a religious context. This is why the university’s decision is baffling to a variety of legal scholars who claim that this decision could have a chilling effect on free speech. Some prominent professors from the university, including John Banzhaf and Jonathan Turley expressed concerns about the university’s actions. “As Banzhaf notes, banning the Hindu svastika (the Hindu spelling) is one step away from banning the Star of David (or the Christian cross). It is interesting that this banning received widespread attention in India, where some viewed it as an anti-Indian and anti-Hindu act.”
Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the Ottoman Empire respectively used the cross and crescent and star symbols when they committed despicable acts against African-Americans and Armenians. Yet these symbols are not banned and it is unthinkable that they would be, given the outcry that would arise from Christian and Muslim groups. It is possible that the lack of Hindu or Buddhist prominence in the West compared to Abrahamic religions makes the swastika an easy target, though attempts to do so stem from a misplaced desire to take political correctness to an extreme. The sentiment behind wanting to ban the swastika derives from a logical fallacy—reductio ad Hitlerum—that holds that any view or interest shared with Hitler is evil, whether it be liking dogs, enjoying classical music, constructing good roads, or being a vegetarian. Likewise, the use of the swastika by the Nazis cannot crowd out the millennia-long unrelated use of the swastika by various cultures and religions. It was for this reason that the European Union did not impose a union-wide ban on the swastika in 2007 at the behest of Hindu groups.
The history of the swastika is long and complex. Its continued use in Asia, where it is ubiquitous in Buddhist and Hindu countries, sometimes baffles Western travelers who are raised to see it as the ultimate symbol of evil due to its unfortunate misappropriation by the Nazis. It is also used in Jainism and Zoroastrianism and can be seen in stores in India, temples in Japan, and art in China. The long and sacred use of the swastika proves that it cannot be intrinsically anti-Semitic, as the majority of the world’s users of the symbol live in countries that had nothing to do with Nazism and where the sacred usage of the symbol continued unabated; it is even possible that most users of the swastika do not even know about its anti-Semitic connotations.
The swastika—of which there are many variants, few of which resemble the Nazi one—is one of the most universal symbols in human cultures, along with cross-like symbols, suns, moons, stars, and some common animals and plants. In addition to being found in Asian cultures, the swastika was (is) also used in Native American cultures, multiple European cultures—Roman, Greek, Celtic, Slavic, Germanic, Finnish—the Middle East, Africa, and even in Jewish art. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) describes the sacred, symbolic meaning of the swastika as the following: “The four limbs of the Hindu swastika have diverse symbolic meanings: the four Vedas (Hindu holy texts); the four stages of life; the four goals of life; the four Yugas (eras); the four seasons; and the four directions.”
While the use of the swastika as a symbol of hate and anti-Semitism should be condemned, Western societies, academics, and individuals should understand and support the continued religious usage of the Hindu-Buddhist swastika as a symbol of peace and multiculturalism. It is deeply unfair that well-meaning individuals are stigmatized for the use of an eastern sacred symbol that was misused by a movement that had nothing to do with them. At the same time, Asians should be sensitive in addressing the valid concerns of Westerners and take the time to adequately explain why they might be displaying a swastika. I hope the recent controversy at George Washington University leads to more dialogue and understanding on the uses and misuses of the swastika, the importance of combating hate, and the dangers of overreaction and excessive political correctness. Meanwhile, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and others should be proud of using the swastika in a sacred fashion in accordance with their religious beliefs.