Several religious groups are outraged after Walgreens decided to issue a national recall on Hanukkah wrapping paper that contained a subtle swastika pattern. For Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Raëlians, the swastika is a holy symbol for good fortune, and some are demanding that the retail chain put the gift wrap back on its shelves.
“Long before it was unjustly hijacked by Hitler and the Nazis for ill purposes, it was revered for thousands of years as a religious symbol and a sign of good will,” Thomas Kaenzig, president of the ProSwastika Alliance, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Would Walgreens dare to remove gift wrapping containing crosses if a Native American complained that his culture suffered enormously under the Christian cross?”
Many say that Cheryl Shapiro, the Jewish woman who spotted the gift wrap, overreacted. Not only is the swastika difficult to find on the gift wrap but it is a mirror image of the swastika used in Nazi imagery. Some argue it does not represent the hatred and violence associated with the Holocaust but the complete opposite.
“The image in question is basically a Sayagata pattern,” Khanh Ho, a former creative writing professor at Grinnell College, wrote in the Huffington Post referring to the Japanese Buddhist symbol of good fortune. However, for those who are unfamiliar with the symbol’s past, it can easily be misinterpreted.
“I sympathize with the woman, nonetheless, because in times past I have used this pattern to teach my college students a lesson about how symbols travel,” Ho said. “The lesson starts with a good, old-fashioned ambush: At the beginning of the class, I bring in beautifully handcrafted artisanal wrapping paper and let the students admire it, and it usually takes about 15 minutes before some student lets out a squawk of disbelief and claps hand to mouth.”
Ukyo Duong, a Buddhist who immigrated to the U.S., had a similar experience in school. He would wear the swastika and get punished for it.
“Hitler violated the copyright and usage of our Buddhists without ever asking for permission,” Duong wrote in an email to International Business Times, adding that many individuals in the West continue to provide only one interpretation of the ancient symbol.
“That is so wrong," Duong said. "It's kind of like saying the cross is the product of Ku Klux Klan.”
The swastika has a 5,000-year-old history. The two earliest swastikas date back to 2500 or 3000 B.C. in India and Central Asia. According to a 1933 study, the symbol migrated from India to Persia to Greece and then to Germany by the first millennium B.C. Pre-Columbian swastikas have been discovered in the New World as well.
The word “swastika” derives from the Sanskrit word “svastika” which means “good fortune” or “well-being.” The symbolism behind the swastika varies -- the movement of the sun in the sky, the cardinal points, several Hindu deities, water and fertility are some interpretations.
Today, the swastika is commonly seen on temples or houses in India and Indonesia, but it is also present on architecture throughout Europe and the U.S. as well. For instance, a window at the Episcopalian Church of the Transfiguration in New York City features the swastika on its “Golden Rule Window” dedicated to world religions. At the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, a swastika is placed above the Star of David on a pillar that bears each symbol of other religions in chronological order.
Its modern use, which led to its adoption by Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1920, stems from the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. He uncovered the symbol at an ancient site of Troy between 1871 and 1875 and connected it to symbols in German pottery. He called the swastika a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors.”
“Pretty soon swastikas were everywhere, rotating both clockwise and counterclockwise,” Sarah Boxer wrote in the New York Times in 2000. In 1925, Coca-Cola handed out swastika pendants. The swastika appeared on Carlsberg beer bottles, as shoulder patches on the American 45th Infantry division’s uniforms and until 1940 the Boy Scouts awarded swastika badges.
The swastika was used by a militarist German youth movement and an anti-Semitic group in Germany known as the Germanen Order, according to Steven Heller, author of "The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption." The Nazi Party adopted the symbol around 1920, and despite its history, it has become widely associated with the crimes committed during the Holocaust.