Swastika is Sanskrit for ‘good luck charm,’ or a wish of well-being and good fortune. A lucky penny, four leaf clover, or other talisman of positivity could be said to be more or less synonymous with the general meaning of swastika. The unfortunate selection of the swastika as a Nazi Party emblem in World War II left the West cold to the symbol sometimes referred to as a broken cross, but its origin is as ancient as mankind itself, predating modern genocidal associations.
The swastika is a sacred symbol that appears as far back as the Stone Age, or Neolithic times. The oldest record of the swastika comes from artifacts unearthed in modern-day Iran dating back 7,000 years. Swastikas also appear on archaeological items from the Bronze and Iron Ages and are closely associated with peoples of the Mesopotamian regions. The ubiquitous symbol is also found among the Indo-European Celts, Greeks, throughout Asia and Africa, and even among Native American peoples.
To the ancient Zoroastrians of Persia, the swastika represented the revolving sun, the source of live-giving fire and infinite creativity. This pre-Christian monotheistic religion is thought by some scholars to have heavily influenced the development of Judaism, which in turn influenced Christianity and Islam.
The swastika is mentioned in ancient Indian epic poetry, among the oldest epics known to the world. Hindu scripture is in part based on these poems. In Hinduism, one arm of the swastika represents Brahma, or creation, and the other represents the evolution of that which is created, or consciousness. The four arms also commonly represent the four winds of change or the four cardinal directions.
In Buddhism, the swastika represents the balance of opposites and signifies All That Is, or divine totality. Christianity used the “hooked cross” or swastika as a symbol of Christ’s ability to overcome death on the cross through resurrection. It might be interesting to note that prior to the Nazi’s adoption of the symbol in the mid-18th century, the swastika was used as a motif not just in Europe and Asia, but throughout the United States as well. Purportedly, through the 1930s, a swastika design could be found in lobbies, on road signs, and even in a Coca-Cola advertising campaign.
In India and many other nations, the swastika continues to be used as a symbol of good fortune to mark weddings and to bless entrances to homes and temples. Its ubiquitous presence throughout ancient history the world over has led some, like Carl Jung, to suggest its origin might be psychological. Astronomer Carl Sagan noted that a spinning comet sometimes takes the shape of a swastika, as depicted in at least one ancient manuscript reproduced in Sagan’s book, Comet. Both explanations might give insight into the origin of the swastika as a symbol hearkening back to the very origins of mankind.
Unfortunately, in the West, the swastika continues to be used by neo-Nazi groups that practice modern-day hate mongering. This only strengthens negative associations established in World War II, ensuring that the historically benevolent swastika remains a despised icon in this part of the world.