Diwali Dilemma: My Complicated Relationship With The Swastika

Oct 28, 2016
Originally published on October 28, 2016 9:10 pm

There's an etiquette to holiday decorations.

The jack-o-lantern should be tossed in the compost on November 1st and the Christmas tree ornaments need to stay in the attic until Thanksgiving dinner is over.

And in my family, there's another holiday tradition to consider: On Diwali, we put out swastikas.

The South Asian holiday of Diwali is often called the festival of lights, but I think of it as Christmas with fireworks. During Diwali, families get together, exchange gifts, and consume an unhealthy amount of sweets (just switch out the sugar cookies for gulab jamuns.)

My family has always been minimalist when it comes to Diwali decorations. While others create intricate rangolis and light diyas around the house, my mom would just place two tea candles outside on the doorstep. And two stickers with swastikas printed on them.

The swastika has existed for 5,000 years in Asia as a symbol of good fortune. It's a very common religious symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Placing the swastikas on the doorstep is a way of extending good wishes to all who come through our home.

But that's not how most Westerners interpret the image. They see it as the symbol of Nazi Germany.

I first learned about the Nazi swastika in the fourth grade at Morehead Elementary in Charlotte, N.C. I was reading a book about the Holocaust, and seeing the word 'swastika' surprised me. I showed it to my teacher and asked if it was the same thing as the Indian swastika I saw at home and at the temple. Mrs. Gamertsfelder had no clue what I was talking about.

Ever since, I've pleaded with my mom not to put the stickers out. I didn't want people to think we were Nazi sympathizers. Diwali changes dates based on the lunar calendar, and this year, it's Oct. 30. When Halloween falls so dangerously close to Diwali, I argue that the swastikas will scare off trick-or-treaters.

And because holiday etiquette has never been my family's strong suit, the swastikas would remain on our doorstep for weeks after Diwali. In India, there doesn't need to be a holiday. They're out year-round.

"I only put them out during Diwali time," my mom told me. "Your grandmother would draw two by the door every day with kumkum."

Growing up in Gujarat, swastikas were all around her. She would see them on wedding invitations, on street signs, during pujas. My mom didn't realize the negative connotation of the symbol until my older sister and I started berating her about it.

"I'm not doing anything wrong, I shouldn't be afraid," she said the other day when I asked why, after all our pleading, she never took them down.

To the untrained eye, the ancient swastika and the Nazi one are pretty indistinguishable. But for my mom, who has always seen the symbol as something dear, the differences are as clear as day.

"Hitler's swastika is turned around; it's not the same thing as my sathiyo," she said, referring affectionately to the swastika by its Gujarati name.

But seeing it outside of the historical context makes people nauseous. In school, books and movies, I was taught the swastika is a symbol of anti-Semitism. Growing up, I didn't want to be associated with the symbol, regardless of its meaning. I didn't want us to stand out.

But while it's easy for me to distance myself from the swastika, asking my mom to suppress her culture is unfair. I didn't realize that until this year.

I haven't been home for Diwali since I started my first job two years ago. This year, I celebrated the holiday early with a Hindu American family that lives a few miles from me in Chevy Chase, Md. While I was with the Prakash family, I asked grandmother Sarla Prakash if she felt the need to cover up her Indian identity when she immigrated to the United States in the 1960s.

"No! I wore a sari all the time," she said with pride. "I wore my sari even in the snow. And people will look and I would say, 'At least they are noticing me.'"

Talking to Sarla made me think of my mom. Just as Sarla held onto her sari, my mom wants to hold onto her culture, her sathiyo; her swastika.

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Halloween isn't the only major holiday around the corner. Thanks to this year's lunar calendar, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, falls on October 30. As NPR's Parth Shah reports, one traditional Diwali decoration could discourage trick or treaters. It's also raising questions from some Hindu families.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Scarecrows and jack-o'-lanterns are standard front yard decorations around this time of the year but not for the Prakash family. Instead they're decorating the pathway leading to their suburban D.C. home with rangoli.

TARA PRAKASH: It's colored sand.

SHAH: Ten-year-old Tara Prakash is using the sand to make designs on the asphalt. It's kind of like sidewalk chalk. The rangoli is drawn for Diwali, a major holiday celebrated by South Asians all around the world.

SARLA PRAKASH: Diwali, for me personally - nice clothes and lots of sweets.

INDIRA PAREKH: Diwali is like Christmas is here. In Diwali, everybody gets gifts.

SHAH: Sarla Prakash and Indira Parekh, Tara's grandmothers, are standing on the front porch overlooking the rangoli.

TARA: I made a peace sign here. Here's a star. Mom, what's that called again?

SHAH: What's that one?

TARA: I keep forgetting the name.

ANJALI PRAKASH: That's called a swastika.

TARA: Oh, and then this is a swastika.

SHAH: A swastika - some might be more familiar with the Americanized pronunciation, a swastika. And there's a large red one drawn on the porch steps. Tara's mom, Anjali Prakash, explains.

A. PRAKASH: For Hindus, it has a very positive connotation, and it means good fortune and good wishes to all that are coming in during the Diwali season. You know, and now the connotations are not so positive.

SHAH: The swastika has existed in Asia for 5,000 years as a symbol of good fortune. It has roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. But the Nazis appropriated it as a symbol of Aryan identity and German nationalist pride.

To the untrained eye, the ancient swastika and the Nazi one are pretty indistinguishable. But if you grew up seeing it year round at weddings and religious festivals like grandmother Indira Parekh, you can notice the differences.

PAREKH: This swastika is straight. The Nazi swastika is crooked. It's half-turned.

KEN JACOBSON: Someone from the West visits an Asian country and is horrified that they saw a swastika, and then we have to explain that for them it has a different meaning and a different context.

SHAH: Ken Jacobson is with the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group focused on anti-Semitism. He doesn't think that the swastika can exist in mainstream American society as a symbol of good fortune.

JACOBSON: The swastika, as some people have written, was hijacked, if you will, by the Nazis. And it has so overtaken history, and to be honest, I don't believe that history can be turned back with regard to the swastika. When others see it, they are only going to see it in the most negative way.

GAUTAM PRAKASH: I think that's a copout.

SHAH: Enter Anjali's husband, Gautam Prakash. He says reclaiming the swastika is a way of normalizing Hindu identity in America.

G. PRAKASH: Most Americans when they do look at that symbol will think Nazi. I 100 percent agree with that. That should mean - is - there should be more Hindus that very consciously put this symbol out.

SHAH: He says it's a means of taking back the image.

G. PRAKASH: Adolf Hitler - it's very unfortunate that he took this to be a symbol of his white supremacy and hatred of Jews. But that's not at all what this means to us.

SHAH: For the Prakash family, and for Hindu Americans around the country, the swastika symbolizes well-wishes to everyone who comes to their home this Diwali. And with the holiday being one day before Halloween, they'll be extending that message to trick or treaters, too. Parth Shah, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.