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    Map Academy

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    A symbol associated with a variety of ideas and used in several cultures across the world, the swastika is today part of the religious iconography of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Visually, the swastika is depicted as a cross with a perpendicular line or ‘leg’ extending from each extremity — in a clockwise direction for a right-facing swastika, or counter-clockwise for a left-facing swastika. While the symbol has generally held positive connotations connected with luck, prosperity and the Sun, since the Second World War it is also associated with White supremacy, antisemitism and Nazism due to the Nazi Party’s appropriation of the symbol.

    Whereas swastika is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘aiding in well-being’, the symbol and its derivatives have been known by many names, including tetragammadion in Greek and fylfot in English. Of the many variations of the swastika, some of the most common ones are those with wavy legs and a dot in each quadrant used in Hinduism, and one used as a repeating motif with connected legs seen on panels in Grecian architecture. Among the many interpretations of the symbol, the right-facing swastika is commonly understood to be a solar motif signifying the Sun’s movement from east to west with a southward dip on the way, when observed from the northern hemisphere. The swastika is also seen as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. 

    Its geometric simplicity, symmetry and suggestion of circular movement has led to widespread adoption of the symbol by many cultures, possibly independently. The earliest known appearance of the swastika is a pattern carved onto a bird figurine from a Palaeolithic site near Kiev, Ukraine, estimated to be up to fifteen thousand years old. The symbol has been seen often across regions and time, including on ceramic objects and monuments in both prehistoric and early urban settlements in Mesopotamia; rock paintings in prehistoric Britain and Ireland; architecture and ceramics from Mycenae in Greece; ancient Roman mosaics; Scandinavian mythological iconography; ceremonial costumes and accessories worn by the Navajo, Apache and other Native American peoples. 

    The earliest occurrence of the swastika in the Indian subcontinent dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Seals dated to the third millennium BCE at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro depict clearly developed swastikas meant to stamp the right-facing variant of the symbol. While the purpose of this early swastika has not been conclusively determined, there is greater clarity on later applications of the symbol in India. In Hinduism, the right-facing swastika represents the Sun (or, loosely, the solar deity Surya), whereas the left-facing version — known as a sauvastika in Sanskrit — represents its counterpart, the night, and by extension, the rituals associated with Kali. In Buddhist iconography, the right-facing swastika represents the cycle of death and rebirth as well as the footprints of the Buddha. In Jainism, the swastika symbolises the seventh Tirthankara and the four realms where a person can be sent through rebirth — the animal kingdom, hell or naraka, human society, and the spirit realm. Hindus and Jains also draw the swastika on objects such as accounting ledgers and doorways to attract good fortune. The swastika is also often drawn as part of rangoli decorations during festivals such as Diwali.

    With the spread of Buddhism to East Asia, the swastika was incorporated into Chinese and Japanese iconography, writing and art, becoming identified with the similar Chinese character ‘wan’ and signifying immortality, longevity and good fortune. It is used here singly, in pairs of right- and left-facing swastikas, or repeating in interlocking patterns such as sayagata

    The swastika also had a long history in the West prior to its adoption by the Nazi Party in 1920. Generally associated with good luck, it was commonly used for branding and embroidery design during the Modern period in Europe and America until it became associated with Nazism. The swastika was appropriated by occultist movements such as Odinism (also known as Wotanism) that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century under the influence of figures such as Guido von List. These groups drew erroneous connections between ancient Indic and European cultures, where commonalities like the swastika appear, and propagated the misguided notion of a superior racial group termed ‘Aryan’ that originated in northern Europe and invaded India. Adolf Hitler incorporated these ideas into the Nazi manifesto and adopted the Hakenkreuz (‘hooked cross’ in German) as the party symbol and a marker of racial supremacy. A right-facing swastika rotated to a forty-five degree angle and displayed in red, black and white — the imperial colours of the erstwhile Prussian state — this became the German national flag until Nazi defeat in 1945. 

    The swastika continues to hold ritual importance in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain practices. In the West, however, its association with racism and intolerance remains strong in the public imagination, largely overwriting the symbol’s long history and its commonplace use in other cultures. While the swastika in general is not banned anywhere, its contemporary use in the West has often led to confusion and controversy, and its use as the Nazi symbol is illegal in Germany and several other countries.


    Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Swastika.” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 4, 2023. Accessed December 27, 2021.

    Campion, Mukti Jain. “How the World Loved the Swastika – Until Hitler Stole It.” BBC News, October 23, 2014.

    “Germany’s Confusing Rules on Swastikas and Nazi Symbols.” Deutsche Welle, August 14, 2018.

    Hoskote, Ranjit. “Stop the Outrage: India Doesn’t Have a Monopoly on the Symbol Used to Protest Modi’s UK Visit.”, November 15, 2015.

    Mukherjee Pandey, Jhimli. “Swastika is Pre-Aryan, Dates Back 11,000 Years.” The Times of India, July 7, 2016.

    Skidmore, James M. “How Nazis Twisted the Swastika, a Symbol of the Buddha, into an Emblem of Hate.” Quartz, September 4, 2017.


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