How the Word is Derived
In Sanskrit, the proper spelling of the word swastika is svastika. Sanskrit has no ‘w’. Literally, the word svastika is a statement of affirmation, “It is!” “Life is good!” “There is value” “There is meaning!” Svastika is a term that affirms the positive values of life. The word is made of su + as. “As” is the root of the verb “to be” of which the third person singular is, “asti,” “it is.” Su is a prefix used in Sanskrit to intensify meaning in a positive way, thus su+asti means literally, “it really is!” When combined, the ‘u’ changes into a ‘v’ thus giving the form svasti. The ending ka makes this verbal form into a noun. This is the linguistic morphology of the word, svastika.
A Negative Symbol
Today, the Swastika is primarily known as a symbol of racism, persecution and anti semitism, which arises from the ideology of the German Nazi party in the 1930s and 40s and World War II. I remember performing a wedding between a Hindu girl and a Jewish boy when at the beginning of the ceremony, where it is traditional to hold a decorative cloth between the boy and girl, the Hindu mother proudly presented a special cloth with a huge red Swastika that she wanted me to hold between the couple. Half the audience was Jewish! On another occasion, I performed a ground-breaking ceremony for a Hindu family, who was going to build a new home in an exclusive gated community. The man had me draw a large red Swastika on the ground where the house was to be built. Later, as we were walking around the perimeter of the property, someone came walking a dog and saw the red Swastika. In terror, this person called the police thinking that a neo-Nazi cult was moving into his neighborhood. On many occasions, I have had to explain to confused fire and building inspectors why there are Swastikas in our Hindu temples. As a priest, I regularly bless people using the expression, svasti svasti svasti! and even inscribe swastikas on the heads of newly shaved children for their health and prosperity!
In fact, the Swastika is an ancient solar symbol that has been used by many cultures going back at least 3000 years. It has been found used by the Celts in northern Europe and by the Greeks as early has 1000 BCE. In India the symbol has been used since Vedic times. It is most commonly seen as an ancient Aryan symbol. Nazi Germany did not invent the symbol, but only borrowed it in order to show the “aryan” roots of their new German state. Today, unfortunately, the Swastika is most commonly known for the destruction of life rather then its affirmation.
Its Use in India
In India, the Swastika is used in two forms, one with the arms moving to the right, the right-handed Swastika, and the other with the arms moving to the left, the so-called “left-handed” occult Swastika. It is commonly thought that the Nazis used the left-handed Swastika and that this is the difference between the Hindu’s use of the Swastika and the Nazi’s use of it. But this is not the case. In fact, the Nazis used the same right-handed Swastika that is used in modern Hinduism, but in many uses they gave it a 45 degree turn. This gives it the appearance of being left-handed, even though it is not. Regardless, in India many groups have used the left-handed Swastika. One common example amongst Hindu groups is the Theosophical Society, which used it on their logo. The left-handed Swastika is also associated with esoteric tantric practices. Jains and Buddhists often use the left handed Swastika as well. Today the right-handed Swastika is mainly used in Hindu temples, homes and sacred ceremonies as a symbol or affirmation of good luck, health and prosperity. A “yes” to life!