Aug 22 2023, Chicago. Faith and symbols are integral to cultures, religion and identity. At the recently concluded Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, a unique panel titled “Swastika Proclamation: Swastika is different from Hakenkreuz” explored the distinction between the Nazi emblem of hate and the sacred Swastika, two similarly shaped symbols with diametrically opposite meanings. The panel featured Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a Buddhist priest, Grandmother Patricia Anne Davis, a Choctaw and Dine’/Navajo Indigenous Elder, Brahmachari Hari Chaitanya, a Hindu monk from Chinmaya Mission Dallas chapter, Jeff Kelman, a Holocaust Historian, and Nikunj Trivedi, President of the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA).

Presenting to a full room of over 100 people, the panel highlighted the importance of the historic Swastika Proclamation, unveiled in Oct 2022 last year by an august gathering of spiritual leaders belonging to the Buddhist, Hindu and Native American traditions. Over 50 religious organizations and spiritual leaders have adopted the proclamation under the aegis of the Swastika Awareness Coalition (SAC).

“Swastika” is a Sanskrit word which literally means “that which is good.” It is over ten thousand years old and symbolizes peace and well-being for nearly 2 billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Native Americans and other Indigenous people globally.

The discussion was moderated by Nikunj Trivedi, who kicked off the panel by reading the proclamation (full text can be found here). While acknowledging the genocide of Jews, Roma and others and the impact of Hitler’s symbol of hate to dehumanize vulnerable members of society even today, the proclamation clarifies that based on historical records, Hitler always called his symbol “Hakenkreuz” (German for “hooked cross”), and not “Swastika.”  

This was stressed by the next speaker, Jeff Kelman, a scholar of Genocide and Holocaust studies, who noted that the New York Times correctly distinguished Swastika and Hakenkreuz when reporting the rise of Hitler, but inexplicably stopped using Hakenkreuz after 1933 and this was a key factor in propagating the misinformation about the Swastika. “Hitler never called it [the Nazi symbol] Swastika,” said Kelman, adding that the associated stigma leads to self-censorship by the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Indigenous people in the West today.

Explaining its deep spiritual significance for the Indigenous people of North America, Grandmother Patricia Anne Davis, said, “this [Swastika] symbol is our whole galaxy and everyone is in this symbol.” She recounted that the Swastika was “used in our sand painting and healing ceremonies” but “in the 1940s our people were forced to sign a statement to not use this symbol” and that to this day her people are fearful of using the Swastika publicly.

Brahmachari Hari Chaitanya started his comments with a tribute to Swami Vivekananda, whose address at the Chicago Parliament 130 years ago was a turning point in the understanding of Hinduism in the Western world. He was pleased that this panel continued the work of Swami Vivekananda by explaining the true auspicious meaning of the Swastika versus Hitler’s symbol. He called on all faith leaders at the Parliament to take the message of the Swastika Proclamation further.

Rev. Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki mentioned that there is no confusion in his native Japan where they have different names for the two symbols – Manji for Swastika and Haakenkuroitsu for Hitler’s symbol Hakenkreuz. The same is still true for Germany, which uses Hakenkreuz to refer to the Nazi symbol. Dr. Nakagaki said that the resolution of the misconceptions is “quite simple” as we just need to learn to use the word appropriate to the context. In the context of hate and supremacy, the symbol should be called the Nazi Hakenkreuz or simply Hakenkreuz, and, in the context of peace and auspiciousness, it should be called Swastika.  

Event attendees used the Q&A session to share their own experiences and struggles on the topic, including poignant testimony from members of other faiths, such as the Baha’i. Members of the Jewish, Christian and other communities in attendance appreciated the information that was previously unknown to them and were eager to continue the dialogue beyond the Parliament.

For more information, please contact the Swastika Awareness Coalition at understandingswastika@gmail.com or visit www.understandingswastika.org.