When I saw the reports of swastikas drawn outside dorm rooms at The New School this week, I shared in the disgust and disbelief that this could happen here in New York—in this city, at the school where I’m a student. Then I felt what I always feel whenever some coward uses a swastika to deface property or scare a population: anger. Anger that all it took was one lunatic to completely change the meaning of an ancient and pure symbol from my religion when he decided it would be the center of his hate campaign.
I was born in New York to Indian parents, and grew up in Rockland County. Ours was a diverse neighborhood with a predominantly Jewish population. I was lucky enough to learn about my Indian heritage and Hindu religion at home while also being exposed to Christianity and Judaism early on. My first knowledge of the swastika was like everyone else’s: synonymous with the world’s worst psychopath. When I visited India as a young child, I panicked. There it was, that terrible design, adorning homes, temples, and shops. Even my grandmother would draw it out after her daily prayers. Had I missed something about my people?
“Mom,” I ventured nervously, “we don’t hate Jews, do we?”
“What!” she exclaimed. “Most of our friends are named Cohen and Weissman!”
“OK, then what about… those?”
She filled me in on some crucial information. The swastika is a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, used to denote auspiciousness and good luck. The root of the word, svasti, comes from the Sanskrit language; in ancient Vedic chants, svasti is repeated for the well being of the entire universe. Where Hitler got the idea to use a swastika to show his racial superiority and make it a symbol for genocide, I’ll never understand, but in the Western world that’s all it remains known for. Mom sighed, “Human ignorance always leads to disastrous results.”
Having a better understanding did little to counter the stigma, and admittedly the shame I felt. When wedding invitations from India made their way to our suburban mailbox, I’d pray any signs of auspiciousness hadn’t been put on the outside of the envelope, lest the neighbors get the wrong idea. It’s been hard for me to reconcile how something from my culture, meant to bring goodness to the entire world, got completely bastardized into an image meant to make the Jewish population fear for their lives. The two have nothing in common. But it’s difficult to be the person who tries to rectify a symbol that’s already too far gone, when I know what it means to my friends.
One recent summer, while enjoying a day at Rockaway Beach, a banner plane flew overhead. “Learn more about the swastika!” it said, with a website to visit.
“Oh, hell no!” A friend yelled.
“That’s disgusting!” said another. “I can’t believe they’d do that!”
I alone wondered if maybe this wasn’t a hate group but something more… but I was too scared to bring it up. I was also too scared to visit the website, in case it actually was a hate group. In spite of being Hindu and having enough resources to further investigate, I had grown too wary of it.
One of the many blessing of belonging to the human race, my religion teaches, is the ability to acquire knowledge. No matter who we are, we can better ourselves simply with open minds and our God-given ability to differentiate right from wrong. The meaning of the swastika was desecrated when a group preyed on the ignorance of people to advance their own selfish and completely incorrect ideas.
This week, one or more individuals at The New School scrawled on a dry erase board to intimidate students. We already know the dangerous turns such ignorance has taken in the past. It’s sad to see that in an age when we should know better, and in a place of education, ignorance and hate took center stage. It’s painful, but a universal truth is that the human spirit is stronger. Hitler’s regime crumbled, but in a different part of the world, the original meaning of the swastika, seeking betterment and well being for all of God’s children, still exists.
Tanvi Bale is a pharmacist from New York, currently studying writing at The New School.