British Columbia·Photos

Swastika flags at Vancouver home spark cultural dialogue

A couple of bright yellow flags adorned with swastikas flying outside a South Vancouver home has triggered a cross-cultural discussion.

The homeowner says the swastika is a traditional Hindu religious symbol that has nothing to do with Nazis

Two large yellow flags with swastikas fly in front of a Vancouver home. The homeowner says they have nothing to do with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The symbol has been used by various religions for centuries. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Sital Dhillon was driving through her neighbourhood in South Vancouver when she noticed a house with two prominent yellow flags adorned with swastikas flying at the front gate.

"When I saw the symbol, I stopped and took a second look and it started to provide questions in my mind," said Dhillon. "I didn't want to draw conclusions."

Dhillon quickly noticed the flags weren't the only thing decorating the front of the house — there were several posters, banners, and other religious symbols, hinting that there may be something more to the use of the swastikas.

Sital Dhillon was initially taken aback when she noticed two flags with swastikas flying in front of a home in her neighbourhood in South Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

But the symbol, so associated with Nazi terrors, still touched a nerve.

"The Western world does not have a very good perception of the swastika," she said, "It's evil. It's hate."

Religious symbol

Homeowner Ravinder Gaba doesn't see anything wrong with his use of the swastika.

Ravinder Gaba put two swastika flags in front of his house to honour a spiritual guru who is staying at his house. He says the swastika is a symbol meaning peace, love, and purity in Hinduism and other religions. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"This symbol, if you go to India, in every temple that symbol is there," he said.

Gaba, who is Hindu, is playing host to a spiritual leader — a man believed by his followers to be an immortal living saint, Brahmrishi Shri Gurudev. The flags are flying outside his home for a few days to celebrate the occasion.

The swastika flags and other decorations adorn Ravinder Gaba's Vancouver home because he's being visited by a spiritual leader, Brahmrishi Shri Gurudev. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Gaba points out that the swastika goes back thousands of years, long before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis began using it.

"It's nothing with Hitler. We don't follow Hitler. We don't follow even extremist people right now, okay? We are a religion against that," he said. "Believe me I don't know that's his symbol. That's a Hitler's symbol? I don't know."

Ravinder Gaba's home was recently built and includes a large custom mantle decorated with Sanskrit swastikas. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Gaba's newly built home even has an elaborate stone mantel in the living room with stylized swastikas decorating the corners.

'A lot of pain'

Carey Brown, a rabbi at Temple Sholom Synagogue in Vancouver, reacts strongly to the flags, even with the knowledge that they aren't a Nazi reference.

"It is very jarring to see it," she said. "Whether it's graffiti on a bus stop or a flag flying in someone's lawn, even if they're placed there for two different reasons, just seeing it ... is very jarring."

"Certainly as a Jew, it's a symbol that has a lot of emotional painful resonance for me. We have many members of our synagogue who themselves are survivors of the holocaust, or have parents or grandparents that survived," said Brown. "It's a lot of pain and a little bit of fear as well."

Carey Brown, a rabbi at Vancouver's Temple Sholom Synagogue, says the swastika is very jarring to see in Canada. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Brown has travelled throughout India, and is fully aware of the ancient use of the swastika in religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. 

"While it's a little bit strange to see swastikas all around you, I know that in its context it means something very peaceful," she said.

But for Brown, that context is removed once the swastika is flown in Canada.

"Symbols have meaning, and the meaning of this symbol — in the Western world certainly — is one that is the absolute opposite of peace, and to see it flying in Vancouver it is difficult to see and it represents something that's very hateful to me."

Cross-cultural dialogue

Gaba says his religion teaches love and peace, and that's all he means to promote with his swastika flags.

He hopes that anyone who has misgivings about the flags will knock on his door and engage in a conversation about the issue.

"They should come to us and ask us first. We are always open. Anybody can come and ask us a question," he said. "We are loving people."

But for Brown, knocking on the door of a house that has swastikas outside doesn't seem like a likely proposition.

"I think many people would want to not knock on the door, because they would be nervous about who they might encounter inside," she said, adding that she would welcome a cross-cultural conversation about what the symbol means to different people.

A guest at Ravinder Gaba's home wears a beaded bracelet with a red swastika, Monday in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"I'm not sure that I would go knock on the door, but I would encourage conversation to be able to better understand each other," she said.

Dhillon was also reluctant to engage directly with the homeowners about the flags, despite her curiosity, until Gaba had been contacted by CBC News.

"When they had an opportunity to explain what it meant, I felt comfortable. I'm glad that they're giving a new understanding to those who are foreign to this symbol," said Dhillon.

"For me, if this symbol brings hope, peace, and prosperity for this community, it's wonderful, but I think it's important — living in a cross-cultural setting — that different symbols mean different things to other people in your fellow communities"

"It may bring friction and that's something that I would have avoided," said Dhillon.