04 February 2010
The symbol rose to importance in Buddhism during the Mauryan Empire and in Hinduism with the decline of Buddhism in India during the Gupta Empire. With the spread of Buddhism, the Buddhist swastika reached Tibet and China. The use of the swastika by the indigenous Bön faith of Tibet, as well as syncretic religions, such as Cao Dai of Vietnam and Falun Gong of China, is thought to be borrowed from Buddhism as well.
In Hinduism, the two symbols represent the two forms of the creator god Brahma: facing right it represents the evolution of the universe (Devanagari: प्रवृत्ति, Pravritti), facing left it represents the involution of the universe (Devanagari: निवृत्ति, Nivritti). It is also seen as pointing in all four directions (north, east, south and west) and thus signifies grounded stability. Its use as a Sun symbol can first be seen in its representation of the god Surya (Devanagari: सूर्य, Sun). The swastika is considered extremely holy and auspicious by all Hindus, and is regularly used to decorate items related to Hindu culture. It is used in all Hindu yantras (Devanagari: यंत्र) and religious designs. Throughout the subcontinent of India, it can be seen on the sides of temples, religious scriptures, gift items, and letterheads. The Hindu deity Ganesh (Devanagari: गणेश) is often shown sitting on a lotus flower on a bed of swastikas.
The swastika is found all over Hindu temples, signs, altars, pictures and iconography where it is sacred. It is used in Hindu weddings, festivals, ceremonies, houses and doorways, clothing and jewelry, motor transport and even decorations on food items such as cakes and pastries. Among the Hindus of Bengal, it is common to see the name "swastika" (Bengali: স্বস্তিক sbastik) applied to a slightly different symbol, which has the same significance as the common swastika, and both symbols are used as auspicious signs. This symbol looks something like a stick figure of a human being. In the Bhavishyapuran (a book describing future events and history), it is a weapon of a snake king (dragon), Takshak.
The Aum symbol is also sacred in Hinduism. While Aum is representative of a single primordial tone of creation, the Swastika is a pure geometrical mark and has no syllabic tone associated with it. The Swastika is one of the 108 symbols of Hindu deity Vishnu and represents the sun's rays, upon which life depends.
Buddhism originated in India in the 5th century BC and inherited the manji or swastika. Also known as a "yung drung" in ancient Tibet, it was a graphical representation of eternity. Today the symbol is used in Buddhist art and scripture and represents dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. One can see swastika on the Pillars of Ashoka where the swastika is a symbol of the cosmic dance around a fixed center and guards against evil.
The paired swastika symbols are included, at least since the Liao Dynasty, as part of the Chinese language, the symbolic sign for the character 萬 or 万 (wàn in Mandarin, man in Korean, Cantonese and Japanese, vạn in Vietnamese) meaning "all" or "eternality" (lit. myriad) and as 卐, which is seldom used. Swastika marks the beginning of many Buddhist scriptures. The swastika (in either orientation) appears on the chest of some statues of Gautama Buddha and is often incised on the soles of the feet of the Buddha in statuary. Because of the association of the right-facing swastika with Nazism, Buddhist swastika (outside India only) after the mid-20th century are almost universally left-facing: 卍. This form of the swastika is often found on Chinese food packaging to signify that the product is vegetarian and can be consumed by strict Buddhists. It is often sewn into the collars of Chinese children's clothing to protect them from evil spirits.
In 1922, the Chinese Syncretist movement Daoyuan founded the philanthropic association Red Swastika Society in imitation of the Red Cross. The association was very active in China during the 1920s and the 1930s.
Jainism gives even more prominence to the swastika than does Hinduism. It is a symbol of the seventh Jina (Saint), the Tirthankara Suparsva. In the Svetambar (Devanagari: श्वेताम्बर) Jain tradition, it is also one of the symbols of the ashta-mangalas (Devanagari: अष्ट मंगल). It is considered to be one of the 24 auspicious marks and the emblem of the seventh arhat of the present age. All Jain temples and holy books must contain the swastika and ceremonies typically begin and end with creating a swastika mark several times with rice around the altar.
Jains use rice to make a swastika (also known as "Sathiyo" in the state of Gujarat, India) in front of idols in a temple. Jains then put an offering on this swastika, usually a ripe or dried fruit, a sweet (Hindi: मिठाई, Mithai), or a coin or currency note. In 2001, India issued a 100-rupee coin to commemorate the 2600th anniversary of the birth of Mahavir (Devanagari: महावीर), the 24th and last Jainist Tirthankara - the design includes a swastika.
A swastika crossed by two arrows, within a shield and surmounted by a royal crown on an orange background was used as the coat of arms of the samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga in the early 17th century.
Some sources indicate that the Chinese Empress Wu (武則天) (684–704) of the Tang Dynasty decreed that the swastika would be used as an alternative symbol of the sun. As part of the Chinese script, the swastika has Unicode encodings U+534D 卍 (pronunciation following the Chinese character "萬": pinyin:wàn); (left-facing) and U+5350 卐 (right-facing).
The Mandarin "Wan" is a homophone for "10,000" and is commonly used to represent the whole of creation, e.g. 'the myriad things' in the Dao De Jing.
In Japan, the swastika is called manji. Since the Middle Ages, it has been used as a family coat of arms. On Japanese maps, a swastika (left-facing and horizontal) is used to mark the location of a Buddhist temple. The right-facing manji is often referred as the gyaku manji (逆卍, lit. "reverse manji"), and can also be called kagi jūji, literally "hook cross".
In Chinese and Japanese art, the swastika is often found as part of a repeating pattern. One common pattern, called sayagata in Japanese, comprises left and right facing swastikas joined by lines. As the negative space between the lines has a distinctive shape, the sayagata pattern is sometimes called the "key fret" motif in English.
The swastika shape was also present in pre-Christian Slavic mythology. It was dedicated to the sun god Svarog (Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian Сварог) and called kolovrat, (Slovenian kolovrat, Croatian kolovrat, Polish kołowrót, Belarusian колаўрат, Russian and Ukrainian коловрат or коловорот, Serbian коловрат/kolovrat) or swarzyca.
In Christianity, the swastika is used as a hooked version of the Christian Cross, the symbol of Christ's victory over death. Some Christian churches built in the Romanesque and Gothic eras are decorated with swastikas, carrying over earlier Roman designs. Swastikas are prominently displayed in a mosaic in the St. Sophia church of Kiev, Ukraine dating from the 12th century. They also appear as a repeating ornamental motif on a tomb in the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan. A proposed direct link between it and a swastika floor mosaic in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens, which was built on top of a pagan site at Amiens, France in the 1200s, is considered unlikely. The stole worn by a priest in the 1445 painting of the Seven Sacraments by Roger van der Weyden presents the swastika form simply as one way of depicting the cross. Swastikas also appear on the vestments on the effigy of Bishop William Edington (d. 1366) in Winchester Cathedral.
An unusual swastika, composed of the Hebrew letters Aleph and Resh, appears in the 18th century Kabbalistic work "Parashat Eliezer" by Rabbi Eliezer Fischl of Strizhov, a commentary on the obscure ancient eschatological book "Karnayim", ascribed to Rabbi Aharon of Kardina. The symbol is enclosed by a circle and surrounded by a cyclic hymn in Aramaic. The hymn, which refers explicitly to the power of the Sun, as well as the shape of the symbol, shows strong solar symbolism. According to the book, this mandala-like symbol is meant to help a mystic to contemplate on the cyclic nature and structure of the Universe. The letters are the initial and final characters of the Hebrew word, אוֹר, or "light".
The swastika shape was used by some Native Americans. It has been found in excavations of Mississippian-era sites in the Ohio valley. It was widely used by many southwestern tribes, most notably the Navajo. Among various tribes, the swastika carried different meanings. To the Hopi it represented the wandering Hopi clan; to the Navajo it was one symbol for a whirling log (tsil no'oli'), a sacred image representing a legend that was used in healing rituals. A brightly colored First Nations saddle featuring swastika designs is on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada.
A swastika shape is a symbol in the culture of the Kuna people of Kuna Yala, Panama. In Kuna tradition, it symbolizes the octopus that created the world; its tentacles, pointing to the four cardinal points.
The swastika has been and still is an important symbol in Mongolian culture, meaning eternity. It may be found in many places including monasteries.
The Theosophical Society uses a swastika as part of its seal, along with an Aum, a hexagram, a star of David, an Ankh and an Ouroboros. Unlike the much more recent Raëlian movement, the Theosophical Society symbol has been free from controversy, and the seal is still used. The current seal also includes the text "There is no religion higher than truth."
The Raëlian Movement, who believe that Extra-Terrestrials originally created all life on earth, use a symbol that is often the source of considerable controversy: an interlaced star of David and a swastika. The Raelians state that the Star of David represents infinity in space whereas the swastika represents infinity in time i.e. there being no beginning and no end in time, and everything being cyclic.
The Tantra-based new religious movement Ananda Marga (Devanagari: आनन्द मार्ग, meaning Path of Bliss) uses a motif similar to the Raëlians, but in their case the apparent star of David is defined as intersecting triangles with no specific reference to Jewish culture.
According to Ananda Marga: "External or physical service acted out through the motor organs is symbolised by the triangle pointing upwards. Internal or spiritual service done through channelizing of mental energy to the mantra is symbolized by the triangle pointing downwards... Attaining that state of oneness with the Generator, Operator and Destroyer of this universe is symbolised by the swastika which means victory."
The Falun Gong qigong movement uses a symbol that features a large swastika surrounded by four smaller (and rounded) ones, interspersed with yin-and-yang symbols. The usage is taken from traditional Chinese symbolism, and here alludes to a chakra-like portion of the esoteric human anatomy, located in the stomach.
The Odinic Rite of Neo-Paganism claims the "fylfot" as a "holy symbol of Odinism," citing the pre-Christian Germanic use of the symbol.