Wednesday, 14 May 2008

the power of symbols

now here's a case of cultures colliding. an indian family in auckland have painted a swastika on the roof of their home, thereby causing much angst to their neighbours. one of whom is a WWII veteran.

i have to admit that i was pretty surprised to find swastikas all over the place on my first visit to india at age 12. i'd only ever known it as a nazi symbol, one that represented heinous crimes, oppression and death. i couldn't understand why it was so prevalent, until it was it was explained to me that this is an ancient symbol, well predating the germans' use of it in the twentieth century.

the hindus have been using this symbol for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. it was originally:

a symbol of prosperity and good fortune and is widely dispersed in both the ancient and modern world. It originally represented the revolving sun, fire, or life. The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit swastika which means, "conducive to well- being". The swastika was widely utilized in ancient Mesopotamian coinage as well as appearing in early Christian and Byzantium art, where it was known as the gammadion cross. The swastika also appeared in South and Central America, widely used in Mayan art during that time period.

for hindus, buddhists and jains, the symbol has a spiritual or sacred aspect which can not be erased because another, more sinister group chose to use it. to expect them to stop using is like another form of cultural imperialism, another act of oppression by a vastly oppressive regime.

i can also understand the feelings of the WWII veteran, and many others, for whom this symbol evokes fear, anger, and pain. given that neo-nazis across the world continue to use the symbol, it cannot even be said to be an historic fear. the oppression continues today. i remember when the mosque in hamilton was being built, someone broke in one night and carved swastikas into the gib board. it is continued to be used as a symbol to intimidate and harass racial and religious minorities.

so what then of the swastika on the roof? a search on google shows there are many who wish to reclaim the symbol, to restore it to its original meaning. there are others who say that redemption is not possible. an interesting debate, based on differing cultures and histories.

which view should prevail? the depth of feeling on either side is equal. to my mind, reclaiming the symbol would lessen its impact by those who continue to use it to intimidate. it would also allow people to follow their religion in peace. in order to do this, however, there needs to be a lot of discussion and education around the historical and religious significance of the swastika. it might be a good idea for the gupta family to visit their neighbours, or invite them over, and have a discussion about what it means to them. that would help to break down some of the barriers.

there is still the wider of issue of what the rest of the world will think:

Mr Johnston is worried that it will be visible to traffic when the new motorway is built through the area. "People will be driving along wondering what kind of a country this is," he says.

that's a little more difficult to solve. it requires a wider level of action than just going to meet the neighbours. but it's an effort that must be made, because to do less would be to devalue the suffering caused by reference to the swastika.


Julie said...

I didn't see how the swastika looked before they altered it, but the picture on the news showed a symbol that I would not have thought was the Nazi symbol without the accompanying reportage. I thought the way the family had sympathetically altered it was actually quite beautiful, and a good compromise.

Do you think that there may be an undercurrent of racism in the opposition from some locals?

In 2005 (I think) there was a man in Pakuranga who started flying an actual Nazi flag from a flagpole on his roof. My partner went around to his house to find out why and see if he might take it down as it was upsetting a lot of people. It turned out that this guy was a war veteran himself, and had the flag from his time as a soldier. He'd got drunk with a mate one night and decided to clamber up on the roof and put it up. He was quite happy to take it down once someone talked to him respectfully about it. I sat outside in the car nervously waiting.

merc said...

The nazi's reversed the swastika and placed it on a 45 degree tilt. Goering proposed it, an ancient usual direction swatika was carved on one of his family estate's fire surrounds.

stargazer said...

Do you think that there may be an undercurrent of racism in the opposition from some locals?

well the WWII vet, who was a prisoner of war for three years, would have a good case for finding it offensive. for others, yes, racism is a possiblity. but it's hard to disassociate the memories of suffering from the symbol. when i saw it in our (partially built) mosque, it made me feel sick, which is why i can understand the objections.

however, as i said, i don't think we should allow neo-nazis (or even the original ones) to take ownership of what is a religious symbol, and one that's been around for thousands of years.

merc: reading around last night, there were some sites stated that the swastika was used as a symbol of the aryan race, mostly from northern india and iran. in that context, it did, even in earlier times, symbolise racial superiority. this bothers me, but since i couldn't find it on a website that i considered to be authoritative, i left it out of my post. i raise it because it was possibly this link that led it to be used by the thules, a precursor group to the nazis (see:

merc said...

I'm deep into symbols. I had a book, The Book Of Symbols, I gave it away. It was in there that I read of Goering's contribution. Without the book I cannot quote it, though this site is based on the book,
The inference is that the symbol was chosen , albeit in altered form (not always!) to represent national reincarnation. And of note is Goering's background

stargazer said...

dammit, i just couldn't resist the wiki link to goering's background. i don't know what part of human nature it is that gets drawn towards stuff like this, but now i know a whole lot of things about goering that i would much rather i didn't.

u r evil, merc!!!!

merc said...

I'm not evil, just badly drawn. I think when it comes to reading about the Goering's of this world, it's wise to keep an eye on history, he did say this and I think it sounds like our times,
"Göring spoke about war and extreme nationalism to Captain Gilbert (see Nuremberg Diary):
Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. ...Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

Are you with us, or against us?