The Swastika

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CBC Television, Mon. Dec. 30, 2002:  Rick Maden of Toronto was dismayed to find a toy bear wearing a hat with a swastika on it inside a Christmas cracker.  Like most Western people, his only association with the "hooked cross" is to the horror perpetrated by the Nazi regime and its supporters.  

The Canadian distributor confirmed that the holiday item was made in China, and that the samples from which he had made his selection did not include the offending little hat.  

A Good Sign

The word swastika is Sanskrit and means "well-being."   It is (or perhaps, was) the auspicious sign and a symbol also, of self-realization.  It is undoubtedly related to the wheel or dharmachakra, but the fact that it is not wholly enclosed by a rim indicates a potential for openness and movement.

  • Pundit Ravi derives the word from su (well), asti (is) and ka (noun ending,) -- "it is well."   He says that the right-turning mark is male and the opposite is female, associated with Hindu goddess Kali and considered inauspicious.  

The swastika has, for most of its history, been an ancient and noble symbol of cosmic order and stability.  It is usually drawn with its arms pointing in a clockwise direction, so it is considered a solar symbol.  It is a protective device used as a blessing or "auspicious sign," and is one of the many symbols used in India as a Hindu forehead mark, bindu or tilaka.   It is one of the marks that a Buddha can have on the sole of the foot when he or she is born.

The swastika is notably associated with Ganesha, -- it marks his palm.  A deity who overcomes obstacles and opens the way to good fortune, Ganesh is frequently propitiated by Buddhists, as well as Hindus.  In Indian festivals and other happy occasions, a swastika design is drawn on the floor of the house. 

In Nepal, voters mark a swastika (Np: chhap) to indicate their preference on a ballot.

In China, it is called wan.  Its shape appears twice in Ji, the character for 10,000.  Hence, it is also a symbol of prosperity.  In Chinese depictions of Buddha Amitabha, it frequently appears on his chest.

To Japanese, the manji symbolizes the magic and mystery of the night. 

Tibetans of any religion will use it, or one of its many variations, on the doors of their homes as protection against evil.  It is also frequently found as a corner embellishment on the brocade panels that drape the "desk" of a lama.  For Tibetans, the yung-drung or swastika is not only a symbol of endless time, but one of the most auspiciously powerful of all marks. 

It delineates a formation on the north face of Mount Kailash (Tib. Kang Rinpoche, or Tisei,) the pyramidal peak in Western Tibet not far from the Nepalese border that is viewed as the center of the earth by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bonpos.  Pilgrims recognize in it the universal symbol of prosperity, auspiciousness, and renewal. 

The four arms of the cross also stand for the four rivers that flow from Lake Mansarovar, the holy lake at the base of Kailash: the Indus, the Sutlej, the Brahmaputra and the Karnali.  Their waters fertilize the land in several countries of the region, so though the sublime mountain is in one of the most desolate places on earth, it can be seen as the source of all-good.  Hence the swastika is a life-giving mark which also stands for the union of opposites.  

In fact, those entrusted with the sacred duty of disposing of the remains of the dead, in a place like Tibet where burial is not possible and fire is too holy, will begin the removal of flesh by making sacred cuts in the form of the swastika.  

When one swastika is joined to another to form a chain it can be used as a border or protective boundary on clothing, carpets and other household items. 

~ Border of meandering swastikas (Philadelphia Museum of Art) < link no longer available

It is also an element in the complex design known as the "auspicious knot," an infinite loop that, in India is associated with sacred space and is also evocative of Indra's net, the web of space-time that only from our subjective viewpoint appears finite. 

In Celtic art, as in illuminated manuscripts and stained glass windows, there is a version of the swastika called the fylfot (flying foot.)  It is also known as une croix cramponne or more usually in French,  la croix gammée.  The gamma cross or gammadion was a Byzantine form of the more familiar Christian symbol. 

The Core found a reference to German medieval brasses ( MS Landsdowne, no. 874, circa 1480) where a monogram of initials "F. F." is described as a fylfot.  

  • The Romans identified a group of Celts as Brigantes after their goddess, Bridey, or Bridget, and there is an Irish mark that to this day is known as "Brigid's cross."

The Norse saw, in the whirling cross, the path of Thor's hammer.

The swastika is a motif frequently found on textiles from all around the world.  It is used in the famous cut-out applique panels of molas, the shirts and blouses of Central America.  Healers of many traditional cultures mark or scratch the sign on the patient and or his belongings.  For example, Navajo medicine men (used to?) mark swastikas on the floor with colored sand.

In Navajo myth, the swastika represents the Whirling Log, vehicle of the Culture Hero.

In the Whirling Logs narrative, or Tsil-ol-ne story, the hero of the story sets out on a long journey [down the San Juan River]. At first, the gods try to persuade him against going, but seeing his determination, help him hollow out a log in which he will travel down the river.

Along the way, he has many misadventures which ultimately result in his gaining important ceremonial knowledge. In one such instance, he and his craft are captured by the Water People, who carry him down beneath the waters to the home of Water Monster. Black God threatens to set fire to Water Monster's home and the hero is released, but not before being taught by Frog how to cure the illnesses caused by the Water People.

When he finally reaches the big river [the Colorado River] that is his destination, the gods take his log out of a whirlpool where the rivers meet, and help him to shore.

~ Dave, Arizona Perspective . . .  . ><

Ancient  Sign

The Indus Valley civilization that flourished in northwestern India  2, 500 BCE (4, 500 years ago) is probably the most extensive of the world's ancient cultures.  

In the Vedas, India's most ancient scriptures, the swastika is called "the sun's wheel" and is associated with astrological ritual and flourishing cosmic periods. The Vayu Purana describes the sign of a swastika on the hoods of mythological serpents.  It is used as a tilaka or bindu [brow spot] and is marked on the shaven heads of those dedicated to Ganesha.  It also features in the worship of Lakshmi, goddess of plenty.   

There is a Yoga asana or pose named for the symbol which, naturally,  is considered to invoke good luck. 

Naropa was a long-suffering student of Mahasiddha Tilopa.  In fact the Tibetan etymology of his name, Nay-ro, derives it from his crying out, "No pain!" as he fell off a cliff.  When having nothing else, he made a mandala offering to his guru Tilopa of his own cut-off head and 4 limbs, they were  arranged in the auspicious mudra of a swastika.  The Karma Kagyu version is that he cut off his fingers and arranged them like offering flowers.  That is, in the traditionally auspicious design.

Modern Times

That the adverse reaction of Dec., 2002 should have come from Ontario is somewhat ironic.  Near Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario is the town of Swastika, where gold was found in 1911.  At the end of WW II, residents successfully resisted the attempt to rename their town, Winston (in honour of British Prime Minister, Churchill.) 

Richard Hollis' Graphic Design: A Concise History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994) has 2 examples of "defeat the Hun" posters from the 1940s.   In both of them, the swastika is used as the metaphor but it is reversed.  Whether this was to spare the emotional impact, or whether it was intended to stand for a reversal of Nazi fortune, it is hard to determine.

There is a traditional significance associated with direction of apparent rotation.  Anti-clockwise emblems are connected with nature as experienced from the earth's perspective, and as we have seen, in India they are inauspicious, signifying endings rather than beginnings.  

The swastika is a mark of the blessing, happiness and plenty that is illumination and enlightenment.  It even appeared in ancient Jewish mosaics such as the one in Ein Gedi (3rd century) and Maoz Haim, Israel.  According to E. R. Goodenough (Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. New York:  Bollingen, 1965) it featured in the 1927 design of a synagogue floor in Hartford, Connecticut until, quite understandably, it was removed later in that century.

The US Army's 45th Infantry Division was another of many pre-WW II  organizations to use the swastika (ca. 1923-1938) as an emblem on its red  identifying badge or patch. This Oklahoman group used the swastika in conjunction with a Thunderbird, another symbol denoting a sacred relationship.  This division, famous for liberating Dachau, naturally no longer uses any swastika.

Fylfots were used in heraldry long before one was co-opted in left-handed form for use by the  NSDAP ("Nazi" party) on its banners, ca. 1920 to 1945.  The most usual was "gules, [on a red ground,] on a roundel argent [silver grey disc] a fylfot reversed in bend sable" [at the crossing made by transverse black bars.]  

Around January 8/05, Britain's Prince Harry's naivete led him to dress up as a WW2 Germany officer, swastikas and all.  The public outrage led his family to insist he participate in some sensitivity training.

In another context on the same weekend, on  CBC Radio a Canadian police officer referred to the swastika more than once as the "universal symbol of hatred" which, as we have seen, is not at all accurate.  Nevertheless, while the swastika has been used as an auspicious symbol all around the world since pre-historic times, its relatively brief existence as the emblem of a modern gang of vicious criminals has probably tainted it for generations, at least in the Western world.   However, when we respond to its presence on artefacts from other times and places in a knee-jerk, negative fashion, ironically we are behaving in the unthinking, stereotypical manner that is characteristic of racists and other bigots.  


cracker:  A cracker is a package that contains a little party gift known as a favour.  It is opened by pulling on the two ends of a stick of cardboard that has a bit of gunpowder on it (like the "caps" used with a toy pistol) so that it makes a load snap. 

made in China:  If you are thinking that we ought to boycott merchandise as a protest against the Tibetan occupation/incorporation, consider this:  Since the occupation which began in the 1950's, we cannot tell by the labeling on an item where merchandise is produced.  A boycott,  especially of handmade items may could do some economic harm to the Tibetans and other members of dispossessed minority groups.

10,000:  This is considered is a monetary unit in South and East Asia.  In India it is called a lakh.  Similarly, 10,000 lakhs = 1 crore.

Thunderbird: The silhouette of a great bird facing right is another ancient sign.  Besides its connection with the North American First Nations people of Oklahoma, notably the Cherokee who, in the 19th century were forcibly settled there, it is similar to the golden eagle emblem of Saladin, the great 12th-century Kurdish ruler, whose emblem was adopted by Iraq. 

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