Interfaith leaders promote dialogue and tackle misconceptions around the Swastika

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Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, and Jewish speakers shared their perspectives along with historical evidence and current usage of the misunderstood symbol

Sunday, February 8, 2021. Virtual. The Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA) and Heiwa Peace and Reconciliation Foundation of New York (Heiwa) co-sponsored a three-day event aimed at spreading awareness, encouraging dialogue, and developing a deeper understanding of the Swastika – a symbol held sacred by nearly 2 billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and other communities around the world. Held during the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, the event highlighted the need to remove various misconceptions that have incorrectly deemed the Swastika as a symbol of hatred in the west.

“This series is part of our Swastika Education & Awareness Campaign, which CoHNA launched in 2020 when the State of New York introduced a bill mandating the Swastika be taught as a symbol of hatred in schools,” shared Nikunj Trivedi, president of CoHNA. “Ultimately, our objective is to engage with all stakeholders on this sensitive but important issue while also stimulating much-needed dialogue.”

The event kicked off with sacred chants and prayers by Guruji Dileepkumar Thankappan, Chairman of the World Yoga Community and Ven. Refa Shi, the Founder and Head Priest of the Ruiguang Temple in Brooklyn, New York. Afterwards, Dr. T.K. Nakagaki, Founder and President of Heiwa and the author of The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross gave an intriguing presentation on the global history of the Swastika and its usage as a symbol of peace, well-being, and prosperity throughout the world.

Day two delved into the scriptural and religious significance of the Swastika in multiple traditions. Rev. Doyeon Park, the Buddhist Chaplain at Columbia University and New York University recited verses from the Buddhist Sutras, while Suresh Krishnamoorthy, Board Member of CoHNA and a volunteer priest at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta provided references of the usage of the Swastika in various Hindu texts and how the Sanskrit word “Swasti” conveys well-being and peace upon the world. Similarly, Naresh Jain, a Director with JAINA, shared the importance of the Swastika for Jains – from symbolizing one of their most important spiritual leaders to the four states of existence and the four characteristics of the higher Self.

Subsequently, Dr. Nakagaki delved deep into the linguistics of the Swastika and the “Hakenkreuz,” or the “Hooked Cross,” a German word used by Hitler and the Nazis for their emblem of hatred and intolerance. He illustrated how Hitler never used the word Swastika nor was he inspired by any of the Eastern traditions to create the Hakenkreuz. Along with the misconceptions around the word “Aryan” (a Sanskrit word which means “noble”), the Swastika has been wrongfully associated with Hitler and Nazi Germany.

The final day was marked with remarks by eminent spiritual and community leaders and a screening of Manji, a documentary aimed at promoting dialogue around the Swastika. Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the President of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, commended CoHNA and Heiwa for this important event and the need for greater education around this topic. James Lynch, the President of the Buddhist Council of New York, shared how, as an African American whose ancestors were subject to slavery, the Hakenkreuz brings fear and intimidation and yet we must actively de-link this symbol of hatred from the swastika, which is a symbol of peace, in our efforts to fight bigotry and intolerance. This sentiment was also shared by Bawa Jain, the Founding Secretary-General of the World Council of Religious Leaders, who highlighted dialogues between Hindu and Jewish leaders at the highest levels and a recognition of the Swastika as a sacred and ancient symbol at the 2008 Hindu-Jewish Summit in Jerusalem.

A statement from Howard Aubin, a Board Member of the town of Swastika, New York, shared recollections of how he saw the Swastika on Boy Scouts coins and how the town’s residents overwhelmingly voted to keep the name so as not to let Hitler define hatred from his grave.

A sneak preview of Manji was followed by a conversation with its producer Adam Weissman. Weissman, who is Jewish, recalled a jarring effect when he first encountered Dr. Nakagaki’s book and work on this topic. Yet, he gradually understood the need to stimulate greater dialogue between all parties in order to understand each other’s perspectives.

This feeling was echoed in subsequent remarks by Jeff Kelman, a Master’s Candidate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Gratz College while also impressing upon the need to distinguish between Swastika and the Hakenkreuz while rightly denouncing the latter.

The events closed with an interactive panel discussion with Dr. Nakagaki, Pandit Satish Sharma, Director of the Global Hindu Federation, Rev. Monshin Paul Naamon, Abbot of the Tendai Buddhist Institute and Naresh Jain of JAINA. Pandit Sharma shared how colonial rule around the world had created myriad problems for indigenous traditions, and that the conflation of the Swastika with the Hakenkreuz was one such deliberate attempt to shift the blame on traditions that had nothing to do with campaigns of hate. Rev. Monshin, who is also of Jewish heritage and had relatives who were holocaust survivors, echoed the fact that Hitler’s symbol of hatred brings fear and trauma to many Jews and minorities, and yet the important task of distinguishing the Swastika and the Hakenkreuz must continue.

“We fully support the World Interfaith Harmony Week,” remarked Dr. Nakagaki. “However, as the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, those from the Dharmic traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism would like to appeal to the UN to recognize and acknowledge the Swastika as an auspicious and peaceful symbol used by one-third of the world’s population and differentiate it from the Hakenkreuz or ‘Hooked Cross’ of Hitler. Treating the Swastika as a hate symbol reinforces Hitler’s legacy and discourages mutual respect and appreciation for world cultures and traditions.”

Through such events and awareness campaigns, CoHNA and Heiwa hope to build bridges within the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Native American and other traditions, as well as with the Jewish community to promote mutual respect and appreciation of each other’s viewpoints and perspectives.