Surinder Jain has a dream: to normalise the swasti in Australia.
Not the hate symbol that featured on the Nazi flag and is still waved by far-right racists today. Jain is referring to the ancient icon that plays a central role in the religious practice of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Surinder Jain, national vice president of the Hindu Council of Australia, has joined forces with NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Darren Bark to promote awareness of the sacred swasti.
“For us, it is a symbol of peace and prosperity, not an evil symbol of destruction,” Jain, the vice president of the Hindu Council of Australia, said.
But he says many Australian Hindus, including himself, are afraid to display the icon in public because of its superficial similarity to the hakenkreuz – the Nazis’ “hooked cross”.
While it is common to see the ancient swasti prominently displayed on exterior walls and street chalk drawings in India, Jain says the symbol has largely been trapped in an “indoor prison” in Australia.
“Even in the house we try to make it not very visible,” he said. “We display it inside our temples, but we don’t take it outside because it would be misunderstood.
“I had a case where a Jewish friend came over to my house, saw the swasti and was terrified. I explained it was a sacred symbol for us and they were OK with that.”
In 2019, an Adelaide resident went public when a delivery man defaced an elaborate swasti artwork displayed on his doorstep, presumably under the misapprehension it was a hate symbol.
The NSW government is preparing legislation to ban the display of the Nazi swasti, joining Germany, Austria, France, and parts of Canada. The Victorian government has also begun the process to ban the symbol. Some Hindu groups initially feared that banning the Nazi swasti could drive their sacred symbol even further underground because of confusion between the two.
But the NSW government has promised its legislation will include explicit exemptions for anyone who displays the symbol as part of the genuine practice of Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism.
Hindu groups in NSW now see the ban as a chance to bring their swasti out of the shadows, a mission the state’s Jewish community passionately supports. Darren Bark, chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, said it was “unfair” that many Hindus felt uncomfortable displaying a symbol that was hijacked by Hitler to promote his genocidal ideology.
“We want this legislation to be a turning point for both the Jewish and Hindu communities in NSW,” Bark said. “When you suppress the Nazi hate symbol by making it illegal, it creates an opportunity for the sacred symbol to be more widely displayed. “We have to unshackle it and make it safe for the Hindu community to display it outside their homes.”
The term swasti has Sanskrit roots and is associated with wellbeing, prosperity and good fortune. In Hindu philosophy it is said to represent various things that come in fours – such as four stages of life – while in Buddhism it signifies the footsteps of the Buddha.
In Jain symbolism, the emblem represents the seventh of 24 Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers and saviours).
“For Hindus it is a symbol of wealth and auspiciousness,” Praful Jethwa, a real estate agent who prays regularly at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple in Rosehill, said.
Several swastis are engraved into the temple’s main doors, although they would not be obvious to casual passers-by. The swasti is also displayed inside the Sri Mandir Hindu temple in Auburn.
Visitors to Customs House at Circular Quay are often shocked to see swasti symbols displayed on the terrazo floor of the historic building. A plaque explains the emblems were included by architect George Oakshott during a 1915-1917 renovation, before Hitler’s rise to power.
Announcing the proposed ban this year, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said: “Nazi symbols cause enormous distress to Holocaust survivors, to the Jewish community, and generally to ex-servicemen.
“There’s no reason why we should allow the public display of these hate symbols unless there’s a genuine religious reason, such as that used by the Hindu, Jain or Buddhist religions, or by the museum or through an educational purpose.”
The government plans to introduce its legislation into Parliament in June. Jain said he was urging the NSW government to fund an awareness campaign to educate the public about the differences between the two symbols. Unlike the ancient spiritual version, which commonly features four dots, the hakenkreuz on the Nazi flag is rotated 45 degrees to the right.
Bark, of the Jewish Board of Deputies, said the history of the symbol should be taught in schools and workplaces, while being integrated into displays at Jewish museums and cultural facilities. “People should be able to spot the difference between the two, allowing the Hindu community to feel proud to display their sacred symbol,” he said. “Nobody should ever feel they cannot express their religion and their faith.”