Buddhists, Hindus: Our ancient swastika is a symbol of love — not Nazi bloodlust
Photo by Jean Vella on Unsplash

Young, idealistic sweethearts Frank and Josephine Duveneck created a gorgeous rural utopia, about an hour from San Francisco, for visitors who can’t afford to enjoy paradise. Hidden Villa has a farm where visitors meet lambs, pigs, cows and chickens surrounded by fields blooming with yellow daisies, white Queen Anne’s lace and purple wisteria. Hidden Vista hosted a multi-racial family camp in 1945. After WWII, it housed Japanese Americans released from internment camps which no longer had a place to go. Hidden Villa welcomed Cesar Chavez to organize farmworkers there.

Now, Hidden Villa hosts children’s summer camps for kids to learn about environmentalism, growing strawberries, lettuces, broccoli, kale, arugula, radishes, green garlic and turnips — shared with food insecure families.

But in June, the utopia exploded. Hidden Valley closed summer camp for 1,000 kids because staff resigned after the camp director noticed two antique tiles made in 1913 decorating the Duvenecks' historic mansion (built in 1929). The tiles were carved with the ancient Buddhist swastika---sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Jain.

Buddhists, Hindus and Jain have used swastikas as a symbol of protection and joy for thousands of years. Pre-WWII temples, homes and Buddha statues are often adorned with swastikas. The confusion of their symbol with Nazism is a source of heartbreak. It’s also dangerous as anti-Asian American violence continues to plague communities.

At Hidden Villa, leaders discussed adding explanatory signs near the tiles, but camp staff disliked the idea. In a June 3 letter, they wrote, “We are not comfortable educating children in proximity to this symbol of hate...we cannot purport to provide a safe or affirming environment.”

Villa officials removed the tiles days later. But that didn’t appease staff enough to save summer camp. It was such a depressing tale of a good intentions fiasco, HBO political commentator Bill Maher brought it up on his show.

The good news is that the controversy spurred a discussion on how to educate Americans, K-12 students and adults about hate symbols.

California and other states are currently considering legislation to educate students about hate symbols. Hindus and Buddhists worry that most legislation doesn’t include their swastika’s history. The Coalition of Hindus of North America launched an outreach campaign. Meeting with rabbis, Jewish community leaders, Black activists and lawmakers to share their swastika’s history dating back to 500 BC.


When New York lawmakers proposed a 2020 bill to teach students the swastika was a symbol of hate, CoHNA met with rabbis and lawmakers to ask that the legislation be rewritten to include the swastika’s pre-Nazi history. At that time, I asked CoHNA leader Nikunj Trivedi how crucial the swastika was to Hinduism and Buddhism.

“That’s kind of like asking Christians how important the cross is for their worship,” Trivedi replied gently.

Adolf Hitler never used the Sanskrit word “swastika” in his racist manifesto, Mein Kampf, a point historians have made repeatedly. The dictator boasts that it was his idea to add the “Hakenkreuz“ or “hooked cross” to the Nazi flag. The Christian Hakenkreuz symbols decorated churches in Germany and a monastery where he attended choir practice.

T.K. Nakagaki, former President of the Buddhist Council of New York, wrote a seminal book, “The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace from the Forces of Hate,” Nagasaki traces the story of how an Irish priest swapped the word, “swastika” for “broken cross” into his 1939 translation of “Mein Kampf” into English. It seems unlikely that a genocidal racist would embrace a sacred symbol to millions of people of color. So, historians still debate whether the priest wanted to distance Christianity’s cross from Nazism and deliberately substituted the wrong word.

Hindus for Human Rights deputy executive director Nikhil Mandalaparthy told Raw Story that the Nazi symbol looks different from the swastikas unearthed in ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Mayan and Navajo ruins. The Nazi symbol is normally set at an angle giving it a diamond outline while the religious swastika sits flat on one leg.

Mandalaparthy remembers when he was a teen, his Hindu temple was defaced with racist insults and Nazi swastikas all over the outside.

“Inside the temple, there were Hindu swastikas meant as symbols of protection, love and good fortune,” he told Raw Story. “The irony wasn’t lost on me.”

Mandalaparthy doubts that there are many American Hindus or Buddhists who would use swastikas outside the home given the pain it could cause Jewish and Black neighbors unfamiliar with its religious context. The swastika is still used indoors in some Hindu worship. He described a highlight of many Hindu wedding ceremonies, the moment the couple walks around a fire burning on an altar that’s often engraved with good luck swastikas blessing the lovers.

Throughout the 1920s, Americans associated swastikas with good luck. The symbols decorated playing cards and wedding invitations. Graphic designer and art historian Steven Heller writes in “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” that during the roaring 20s, Coca Cola gave away swastika key chains figuring they were more humane lucky charms than a rabbit’s foot.

But spray painted or scrawled across walls chill the blood of anyone who knows anything about WWII. That’s why New York legislators in 2020 proposed legislation that required “instruction regarding symbols of hate, including the swastika and the noose, to be incorporated into the curricula for grades 6 through 12."

Members of New York’s Hindu community met with bill sponsors and members of the New York Board of Rabbis to ask that the legislation include language that would differentiate between their sacred symbol and the Nazis.

Miraculously, politics worked. All sides listened to each other’s concerns.

After meeting with the Hindu faithful, New York Sen. Todd Kaminsky withdrew his symbols of hate bill so it could be rewritten to include the swastika’s ancient history. So, there’s hope for a happy ending in California.

"Educating students about hatred, racism and bigotry is essential,” CoHNA’s website said, reporting the good news. “This is even more urgent, given the recent increase in hate crimes against the Jewish and African American communities within New York. Incidents of the (neo-)Nazi emblem being graffitied outside Jewish homes and synagogues, often accompanied by horrific acts of violence by anti-Semitic and white power groups… the swastika in the West is inscribed with the transgenerational trauma of the eleven million Jews and others killed by Nazi persecution…(but) the important work of fighting anti-Semitism and racism must not inadvertently stoke resentment against other religious minorities.’