Ancient peace symbol now tied to racism draws debate over proposed federal ban on hate emblems
The ancient swastika and Nazi hooked cross are often mistaken for one another
Some religious leaders and scholars in Ontario are worried the federal government's proposed ban on hate symbols will impact being able to display an ancient symbol that they say represents peace and prosperity, but has come to be equated with hate.
The swastika recently drew intense criticism during the pandemic mandate protests in Ottawa in February after it was displayed on a sign behind a politician during a live televised interview. It was condemned by political leaders.
Ottawa is now moving to ban hate symbols after completing its first reading of Bill C-229. Cities like Hamilton have already voted in favour of the ban, with London and Collingwood, also in Ontario, wanting to follow suit.
"If it's declared as a hate symbol, it'll hurt our religious beliefs and stop us from using the peaceful symbol. It's not acceptable and it's not right," said Hindu Priest Durgeshwar Tiwari in London.
He believes more education is needed so people can make a distinction between the swastika and the original swastik. The two symbols resemble each other, but have vastly different meanings.
"It represents swasti, which means prosperity and auspiciousness — it's a symbol of Lord Ganesha. It's a flow of energy that brings peace and prosperity to everyone in the wheel of life," Tiwari said.
Richard Marceau of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said his community supports the push to educate the public on the different uses of the symbol, and believes it can be done if the legislation around the bill is further clarified.
"We need to make sure it's worded in a way that will explicitly say that when it's used as a religious symbol it's absolutely not criminal — this should definitely be supported as freedom of religion. That's a central Canadian value," he said.
The swastik, as it's known in Sanskrit, has a long history signifying the good side of life in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions for many centuries. It's often found on doorsteps and entrances to people's homes, temples or on any object representing new beginnings.
Tiwari said many people in his community don't openly display the swastika outside their homes due to fear of backlash from others.
"If someone sees it and associates them with Nazis, they get marked out as 'bad people,' but that's not what it represents for us. It's one of the most peaceful symbols that has been hijacked by the Nazis and misunderstood by many people in the West."
"If you fly it on a Nazi flag on Parliament Hill, it's very different than it being in a temple or outside people's homes. We're blessed in this country to have a variety of people from different origins and faith, so lets take advantage of that," Marceau said.
The German word for the symbol is Hakenkreuz, a black crooked cross displayed on the Nazi flag. The ancient swastik is often red or yellow in colour, which Tiwari describes as a plus sign with arms on its sides and dots on each corner, representing the four ancient Vedas, or scriptures.
The NDP's Peter Julian, who introduced the federal bill, said legislation will refer to the word as "Nazi hooked cross" instead of "swastika," as it's commonly known.
"We have an educational job to do to make sure we get the appropriate wording in the bill but also fight against emblems of hate," he said.
"It's virtually impossible to see it without having that [Nazi] history come to mind," said Arun Chaudhuri, a York University anthropology professor.
"Symbols sometimes come to mean certain things and there's always questions around political authority. But symbols are never just symbols — they're what people in society make of them."
So how did this symbol of prosperity become associated with the Nazis?
'A historical accident'
Jonathan Geen, professor of religious studies at King's College in London, Ont., said it started with an interest in language. When British scholar Sir William Jones studied Sanskrit in 19th-century India, he found it overlapped with Persian, Greek and Latin languages.
"It sparked a huge amount of interest from German scholars because they thought they can trace their language and culture much further back in history, which seemed impossible at the time," he said.
After studying the Vedas, Germans found similarities between their culture and the Aryans, or "noble ones," the ancient group who wrote the scriptures. It eventually caught the attention of Hitler and the Nazis in the 1920s.
"There was always antisemitism in Europe and the Bible traced itself through Judaism, so there were some people who were interested in tying themselves back to a non-Jewish ancient race," Geen said.
"When they found this, they thought, 'We must be the natural heirs of this Aryan group since our language is derived from Sanskrit.' It's an unfortunate historical accident that it turned into this symbol of evil."
Separating political ideologies from history
Key ideas promoted by the German nationalists picked up on the false idea that the Aryans were a pure race of people, said Chaudhuri.
"In the 19th century, the term Aryan got explicitly racialized. It tapped into underground political groups promoting ideas of the German people descending from the pure race," he said.
Geen said the swastika, as a sign of the Aryan race, was an invention of the German people, not the Aryans themselves. But the scriptures did have concerns of racial purity, creating a social class system putting "non-Aryans" at the bottom of the hierarchy, a concept the Nazis adopted.
"The only available ancient texts were religious at the time, so it was convenient to pair up with the Aryan race theory for propaganda. It was just another excuse for going after the Jews because they weren't the 'true German people,'" he added.
Geen believes it's difficult to separate political ideologies and the history the symbol is often associated with, but Tiwari hopes people can do more research and learn to differentiate between the symbols and the contexts they're both used in.
"Education is the most powerful thing that we have to inform people. If everyone understands what this means, then they will know it's not a sign of hate for us."
Marceau added: "The fact that Jews and Hindus are willing to talk about this issue is how we can see that Hindus understand what the Nazis' symbol means to the world, and for us Jews to also know that this symbol is holy and sacred for them. Together with good faith, I believe we can arrive at a position we all want."