The Swastika, Source of Confusion

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on September 14, 2015.)

Swastika on the chest of Vairocana Buddha, Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou

For the casual Western visitor to temples, few things are more confusing than the appearance of a peculiar symbol, often in the center of a Buddha's chest.

This is the swastika, a figure the use of which long predates Buddhism or any other known religion. It was used in preliterate cultures in many parts of the world, including Asia, Europe, and North America. The oldest known example is on a piece of carved mammoth tusk from the Ukraine dating to 10,000 BCE.

The confusion about the swastika stems from the fact that this ancient symbol of good luck was co-opted by the Nazis in the 1930s, saddling it with a less than "holy" association for many people today.

The Buddha was a member of the Kshatriya or warrior/kingly caste, one of the three castes called "Arya," or noble. The swastika was commonly used by his clan, the Shakyas, as a sun symbol. (The four arms of the swastika are seen as representing the sun as a swirling fire.)

It was widely known in Europe since at least the Bronze Age, but underwent a revival in German-speaking areas after Heinrich Schliemann's late 19th-century discovery of Troy--and the swastikas in it. It became associated with an imagined "Master race" of white Europeans who were related both to the peoples of Northern Europe, and to the "conquerors" of the Indian subcontinent--the historical Aryans.

Thus, the ancient symbol used by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains in India (as well as by many other cultures) is, sadly, now most closely identified with a 20th-century fascist movement.

No comments:

Post a Comment