Arya and Swastika

Maligned and associated with the Nazis, the Swastika symbol and the Aryan people have long been the sufferers of anti-Hindu rhetoric.

Arya and Swastika


A very crude kind of anti-Hindu propaganda, sometimes used by American Protestant sects in warning the youth against the dangers of Hare Krishna etc., points out that Hinduism and Nazism have a central symbol in common: the swastika. I have also heard the comparison from Ambedkarites who, taking V.T. Rajshekar’s lead, systematically refer to Hindus as “Hindu Nazis”.1

For the latter category, it may be of interest to know that the swastika is just as much a central symbol in Buddhism, Ambedkar’s chosen religion. In China, the swastika is known as a Buddhist symbol. Moreover, in the Aryan mythology of the post-Ambedkar Ambedkarites (if a teacher gets killed, it is by his pupils), the Hindus were invaders who destroyed the Hindus civilization, of which the Dalits are the legitimate descendants. Now, this pre-Hindu Indus civilization already used the swastika. The swastika is quite a sanatana symbol, not bound up with any nation or ideology. It is also found among peoples outside the Hindu sphere of influence.

It is because of his fallacious doctrine of the Aryan race that conquered both Europe and South Asia, and because of a mistaken belief that the swastika was typical of the Aryan peoples, that Hitler adopted this symbol as a symbol of his Aryan state. But of course, the legitimate Aryans, i.e. the Sanatana Dharmins of whatever ethnicity or race, and of whatever sect including Buddhism, cannot be blamed for Hitler’s misconceptions nor for Hitler’s crimes that gave a bad connotation to this symbol.

People who believe in magic, and in the independent power of symbols, infer from this primary belief, that Hitler’s spectacular rise to power may have been due to the power inherent in the swastika. In a moralistic variant on this superstitious theme, some people believe that the evil which Hitler committed under the swastika flag, must somehow be inherent in the swastika symbol. And from there, as they keep on inferring, they start suspecting that some mysterious evil is inherent in Hindu culture.

This reversal of the swastika’s meaning, from a sign of luck (always depicted on the hand of opulent Ganesh) to a sign of evil, is somewhat like the story of the Christian image of the devil: he is depicted with buck’s horns, a clear reference to the horned god of Paganism (like the Pashupati on one of the Indus seals). The positive imagery of Paganism got integrated into Christian imagery, but then as the symbol of evil. Now that we are no longer bound by the compulsions of the missionary project, we may clear the horned god, as well as the swastika, of the evil aura with which outsiders have covered them.

For Hindus who have migrated to the West, especially the U.S., there is a practical problem: if they display the swastika on the gates of mandirs, or other places, outsiders think that this is some Nazi outfit. Worse, people who have personally suffered under the Nazi regime, may feel painfully reminded. I think it is a matter of sensitivity to display those swastikas only in very modest ways, for as long as people who have lived through the horrors of the Nazi regime are with us. Meanwhile, the Hindus abroad should educate the public about the real meaning and hoary tradition of this symbol, so that some time in the next century the Swastika may regain its rightful place as a profound and timeless symbol, untainted by the accidental and misconceived association with Nazism.

With all this talk about the misuse of the swastika, it may be useful to briefly restate its basic meaning. The word comes from su-asti, it be good, as in the Sanskrit greeting Pratah swasti, good morning. So, swastika means auspicious-maker or sing of auspiciousness. What the swastika visually depicts, is the solar cycle, be it during the day or during the year. It shows the circular movement at the four cardinal points: sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight ; or spring equinox, summer solstice, autumn equinox, winter solstice. As such, it is a shorthand for the Zodiac as well as for all macrocosmic and microcosmic cycles. It signifies the completeness as well as the dynamics of the Whole. Being primarily a solar symbol, it is normally (except in black-and-white print) painted in solar colours like red, saffron or gold ; while the Nazi swastika was black.

Aryan & Semitic – Contrasting Worldviews

Like the swastika, the term Arya, which is rather central in Hindu tradition and more so in Nazism, is in need of rehabilitation. Of course, the term does not indicate a race, but a quality of character.2 When Buddha gives a short formulation of his teachings, he calls it the Arya Satyani, the four NobleTruths.3 If the secularists have been inhibited about the use of the word Aryaas proving the Fascist character of Hinduism, it is partly because of this terminology used by Buddha, the hero of their mythical anti-Brahmin revolution.

The term Aryan was used by the Nazis in opposition to the term Semitic. It so happens that both have

  1. a primary linguistic meaning (the Indo-European and the Semitic language families),
  2. a fallacious racial meaning (with Semitic standing for Jewish), and
  3. a derivative theological meaning, derived from the language groups in which the main texts of two religion families have been written the Hindu tradition in the largest sense, and the Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition.

The Nazis used the terms in the second meaning, vaguely basing it scientifically on the first meaning. For the third meaning, they didn’t have the brains not the philosophical inclination to go into it.

Aryan and Semitic are shorthand for two radically differing approaches to religion. With “Semitic” are meant the religions claiming revelation from the one and only God. In primitive Shamanistic cults, there may be spirits speaking through the Shaman, but that is never a unique and definitive revelation from a unique Creator- god. Similarly, there were oracles where a god was supposed to speak through a human medium; the point is that there were many of them. But the revealed monotheistic religions carry with them a typical fundamental doctrine that sets them apart from all other religions.

On the one hand, their God speaks to people at a specific moment in history, at a specific place, so that the beneficiaries or immediate witnesses are limited in number, certainly less than all of humanity. On the other hand, their God is the only one, so that all the other people on earth either have to get other revelations from this one God, or they are not getting revelations at all, except false ones from false gods. While the first option was theoretically possible, the Semitic religions have effectively chosen the second. This implies that humanity gets divided into two : those whom God has personally addressed, and those whom he has ignored. So, we get Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Pagans, Muslims and Kafirs.

Of course, every tribe used to divide the world into the tribe and the rest. The tribe was home, the rest was unsafe and foreign. And every group identity, tribal or other, can give rise to hostility against other groups. As an application of this general rule, even religious group identity could be the basis of polarization and conflict. However, the polarization between the One God’s Chosen Community and the rest of humanity was of a radically different nature than these ordinary group antagonisms.

The tribal division was a division between people on an equal footing. The others had their own identity and interests, with which our own might sometimes be incompatible, but there was nothing intrinsically evil or wrong about them. We had gods, and so had they. Both of us worshipped the sun god, or the goddess of fleeting time who devours us all, or the Unknown god, with local accents and variations, but not radically different. For instance, in Homer’s epic about the Trojan war, you see some of the gods side with the Greeks and other gods side with the Trojans. They shared the divine sphere between them.

This basic equality is broken in the Semitic religions. There, one part of humanity has God on its side. That implies that whoever stands against it, stands against God, with no divine friends on his own side. There is now a fortunate part of humanity, and another part which is doomed and cursed. Religion in its public aspect used to be a unifying thing, a celebration of a cosmic oneness transcending the biological social and other differences between the realms of nature and the members of a society. Now it became a divisive thing, pitting the Chosen against the doomed.

In this psychology, it is quite normal that all the non- human layers of the cosmos, who, just like the doomed part of humanity, were ignorant of God’s unique revelation, were all deprived of their sacredness. The golden calf and other idols of the Gentiles were smashed. The sacred trees of the Pagans were felled. The holy cows of the Kafirs were slaughtered. And all this cosmos was given to Adam and Eve for their pleasure. Henceforth, a tree was nothing but timber.

Thus, the Semitic religions constitute a radical break with natural religiosity, which had always made nature share in the manifestation of the divine, and which had never thought of limiting the awareness of the divine to one community.

In books written in a monotheistic cultural milieu, this revealed monotheism is always portrayed as a great step forwards in the march of humanity. However, in real terms I cannot see one genuine advantage that has accrued to humanity thanks to the is revelation-based monotheism. It is said that this monotheism meant the end of superstition, of people praying to godlings for favours. But people have prayed to this ne One God for the same favours. Worse, is there a bigger superstition than the belief that you are specially favoured over the other part of humanity, and that God is on your side?

By contrast, the Aryan religious tradition has not pretended to be the special recipient of a unique divine revelation. The divine is manifest everywhere, be it in different ways and to different degrees. It is not excluded that some elements/times/places/animals/people are more sacred than others, but the difference is only gradual. There is a divine oneness of all entities in the cosmos. If at all you want to give this outlook a philosophical name, you could say that roughly, it is monism. That means, the assumption or perception that somehow everything is of one essence.

This Aryan tradition has found its classic formulation in the Sanskrit writings of entire lineages of human beings, referred to as Rishis. However, it is also present in Pagan traditions outside the area where Sanskrit was the language of culture. There are outward differences but a fundamental akinness with Pagan traditions the world over. If you analyze Pagan practices of ritual, sacrifice, incantation, you find the same presupposed attitude towards the cosmos: a basic awareness that it is one.

This basic awareness will be present in the religious feeling of many a member of the Semitic religions. But there, it is overlaid with the doctrinal assumption of a fundamental and irreducible two-ness of the cosmos: on the one hand God and His chosen ones, on the other hand the godless remainder. The degree to which individuals feel bound by their formal allegiance to this doctrine, may differ widely. And we will not judge the individuals. But we may give an opinion on the doctrine of the One God who reveals Himself to/through a specific individual, has brought an absolute division of mankind in the minds of its adherents, and this mental division has in turn caused untold suffering in persecutions and holy wars.

So, I cannot honestly compare the Aryan and the Semitic approach, and neutrally say that they are merely different. There is an inequality between the two. I think the Aryan approach is fundamentally more wholesome than the Semitic approach.

Because of this inequality, I think it is important to choose other terms for these basic doctrinal categories, than Aryan and Semitic. For, these terms also denote people. They may not denote races, as Hitler thought, but they do denote language groups, and people identify to quite an extent with their language. Moreover, these two types of religious outlook do not historically coincide with the said language groups.

The Bible was written in Hebrew and the Quran in Arabic, while Jesus spoke in Aramaic (though his words were preserved in Greek translation), all three Semitic languages. Nevertheless, there was a lot of Paganism in this language area before revelation-based monotheism took over. It is often forgotten that the Arabs whom Mohammed tried to convert, were just as much polytheists as the Hindus, and that they fought equally hard to preserve their Kaaba as the Hindus fought to repeat that the Jewish tradition lost the aggressive edge, which form the most reprehensible effect of the Semitic outlook, long ago.

Conversely, in Aryan Iran, under the Sassanian dynasty, we see the Aryanreligion of Zoroaster take on an equally exclusivistic attitude as is typical for the Semitic religions, complete with temple-destruction, idol-breaking and persecution of Manichaeans and Buddhists. Later, many Aryan-speaking people have been converted to the Semitic creed of Islam. In Europe, most followers of the Semitic religion of Christ, are speakers of Aryan languages. In Africa and other places, the division in Aryan and Semitic has no linguistic (much less a racial) relevance.

So, I propose to renounce the habit of using Semitic as shorthand for “revelation-based monotheistic” religions. The use of the word Arya as shorthand for Sanatana Dharma can continue, but one should be careful not to give secularist slanderers a chance of falsely associating it with the Aryan race nonsense.

But before renouncing the Semitic habit myself, I will use the term Semiticone last time, in order to show how Nazism itself, for all its anti-Semitic rhetoric, very much fitted into the Semitic tradition.

As Girilal Jain has convincingly argued, Nazism was an extreme realization of the 19th century secular nationalism in Europe. This secular nationalism was in its general attitude towards mankind a direct heir to the Semitic legacy carried into Europe by Christianity. There is a straight lineage from Moses’ Chosen People to Hitler’s Herrenvolk (superior people). The radical division of mankind into the chosen insiders and the lost outsiders is very much present in this secular nationalism.

A not-so-secular slogan of the impeccably secular Nazi state, written on the belt of the German soldiers, was: Gott mit unsp (God with us). This notion can be traced straight to Moses, from whom it had made a second lineage to Mohammed’s jihad.

Because of Hitler’s dislike for Christianity, and because of some Nazi intellectuals’ rhetoric involving the pre- Christian German mythology, many people, especially Christians, have considered Nazism as a return to Paganism.4 That is a case of being fooled by a superficial semblance. In the Nazi ideology, the Germanic mythology had no place whatsoever. There was a certain flirting with themes from Germanic mythology since the mind-19th century at the latest, the best-known being Richard Wagner’s operas (as there had been an exploration of Greek mythology since the Renaissance). So, by the time of Nazism, there were some artsy upper class people and some weird intellectuals playing with this ancient Germanic imagery, but there is no trace of any ideological influence from those fairytales on the actual political thought of the Nazis.

Incidentally, today there is a new revival of Pagan religion in Europe. In Britain we have had the New Druids, both formal groups who claim to revive the ancient Celtic traditions, and individuals who explore whatever lore has survived, combining it with astrology, Oriental mysticism, and more such ingredients. This movement started in the romantic 19th century, in the same climate in which Wagner wrote his Ring der Nibelungen and Lohengrin, and it has continued with ups and downs till today. In Germany too, there is now a rediscovery of pre-Christian Germanic religion. Apart from the fact that these New heathens have to reconstruct this lost tradition from stray fragments and outsiders’ testimonies, they also face the problem of this association of ancient Germanic lore with Nazism. But they manage to convince themselves and others of the utter superficiality in the Nazis’ appropriation of this ancient imagery, and of the inherent tolerant and open- minded attitude of the Pagan civilization. In today’s Germany, an estimated 20,000 people regularly participate in gatherings where the ancient or neo-ancient rites are conducted, most of them intellectuals with decent jobs.

If we look at the basic points in the Nazi programme, we do not find anything there that can be traced to Germanic Paganism. Anti-Semitism (i.e. anti-Judaism) has nothing whatsoever to do with Germanic Paganism, it is a strong Christian tradition. Especially the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Hitler’s Austria gave it implicit or explicit ideological support. Authoritarian political thought has nothing whatsoever to do with the Germanic tribal organization, which was largely democratic, with an elected king and a regular all-tribe assembly meeting. It had more to do with the secular organization of the Roman empire (which model had loomed large over the European polity all through the Christian period), which has also influenced the Church organization. The same Roman influence we find in outward forms like the uniformist discipline, the Roman salute and the fondness of grand parades. Secular nationalism, glorification of the state, genocide, racial purity and uniformity, all these essential ideological elements of Nazism have nothing whatsoever to do with the Pagan religion. Neither the Germanic Paganism, nor the Hindu Paganism with its swastika.

It is important to stress this profound foreignness of Nazism to pre-modern Paganism, because once Hindus set out to rediscover the social philosophy and other elements of their own traditions, there will of course be some secularist ignoramus who will say that “this is just what Hitler did”.

The Nazi kind of nationalism was also of the Semitic kind. Rather than seeing the nation as one step on the ladder in the organizational hierarchy, below civilization and humanity, and above regional, tribal and family units, it denied this gradedness. Instead, it divided the world in outsiders and insiders, thus in principle opposing itself to the rest of the world, and imposed uniformity on the nation, discouraging all subnational groupings. Again, this exclusivistic and uniformist nationalism is opposed to the Pagan outlook.

The dominance of monotheism has strongly promoted that single most essential trait of the monotheistic mind: simplistic crudeness. For a well-known example, monotheists are idol-breakers: they are for God’s unity, therefore they are against diversity. Their mental culture is too crude to see that multiplicity does not exclude unity, even while polytheists know fully well that there is one divine essence in all their gods (who anyway are all projections of the one but multi-faceted human consciousness). Most modernizers these days are appallingly limited to black-and white categories in their thinking. For instance, in the present discussion of multi-level integration, they are of course for slogans like unity and integration, and therefore they are against any narrow and chauvinistic championing of region, sect, language group etc. Their only concept of unity is to raze everything flat, then there will be no more difference and disunity, so that will be the realization of unity, equality etc. This is Hitler’s and Stalin’s approach to national integration.

Yet, real modern scientific thinking is gradual. It handles in-between categories (such as probability between certainty and uncertainty). This is formally a rediscovery of the old Pagan world-view. There is not just the absolute one God and the absolutely profane plural world, as in monotheism. There is a lot of life between the two. There is both sacredness and profaneness within the world, as there is both oneness and plurality within the divine. Similarly, there are in-between levels between the individual and the state, with units who entertain a certain specificity rather than submitting to uniformity.

A typically simplistic fallacy of the monotheistic mind is the one heard so often in the anti-Mandir rhetoric:“But Ram is everywhere! Ram would be ashamed if he saw how attached you people are to something as profane as a spatial location and a structure of bricks!” Of course God is everywhere. And yet, there is a sanatana, ineluctable tendency in man to make the sacred present within the world, by consecrating certain parts of space and time, and demarcating them from the profane parts. We like to create difference, and make some places and some times special. Even the monotheists have had to yield to this natural tendency. Even though Allah is not in any place and time in particular, the Muslims have places of pilgrimage, festival days, a special day for prayer (Friday), a special month for fasting (Ramzan). The uniformizing monotheists can’t help recognizing certain more sacred parts in space and time. So it is quite alright for Hindus to say : no, not any place will do, we want the one site that we have considered sacred since centuries. Sacred means: not just any.

This Semitic simplistic crudeness, the same which prevents secularists from properly understanding the Ayodhya issue, is present in many modern unhealthy forms of nationalism, among them Nazism. They see their nation in isolation, as an absolutely independent unit, which on the other hand excludes all subdivisions within the nation. In a healthy international set-up, there are grades of independence, which are proportional to the grades of separate identity between ethnic and linguistic units.

A case in point is “Khalistan”. The Sikh community is distinct by its dress, and by its specific choice of Hindu scriptures and parampara. It is not distinct by language, for Panjabi (if at all it can be considered a language rather than a Hindi dialect) is also spoken by Hindus and Muslims; and its scriptures are in Hindi, the language of crores of non-Sikh Hindus. It is not distinct geographically, for it has always lived mixed with other communities. It does not have a separate political history, for Ranjit Singh’s empire was a state ruled by a Sikh, but by no means a Sikh state in which Sikhdom was shared by all or even the majority of the citizens. So, by the United Nations criteria for recognition as a separate nation, the Sikhs don’t qualify at all. To the extent of the distinctness of their identity, they are entitled to, well, cultivating the things that make up their identity, but not to a separate state.

There has been a gradual increase of Semitic influence on the Sikh community during this century, or rather, on the Akalis who have set themselves up as the leaders. They have exchanged the Hindu concept of God’s oneness, through many forms, for the Semitic concept of God’s unicity, inimical to all personified depictions or goods. They have reshaped their gurus into prophets, intercessory mouthpieces of God, with guru Govind Singh as the “last and final prophet”. These prophets have revealed the words that make up Sikh Scripture, and made the Sikhs into a “people of the Book”. The chief influence is of course that of Islam, but the general depreciation for polytheism and idolatry which the British brought, has also played a role.

It is no wonder that with this artificial Semitic identity, some Sikhs have developed a Semitic concept of nationalism, not admitting of any gradations. They began applying the crass simplistic reasoning of absolutizing their small measure of distinctness into a separate nationhood, and denying their internal differences and sub-identities for the sake of uniformity. They have a separate dress, therefore they have a separate identity, therefore they are entitled to an independent state. On the other hand, within their own community, they accept no differences and impose the Khalsa Sikh identity on the otherwise pluriform Nanakpanthi community: any Sikh who is not a Khalsa Sikh is not a real Sikh. Absolute cleavage with other communities and uniformity within the community, these are the essential ingredients of modern nationalism, generated in the Semitic cultural context of late- Christian Europe.


For the sake of national integration in India, it is imperative to set the record straight, to reverse this process of absolutizing any minor difference in identity into a separatist claim to a nation-state. In the specific case of the Sikhs, the obvious fact should be made clear, that Sikh identity is integrated in a hierarchy of differentiation within Hinduism : it is a Bhakti sect within the broad Vaishnava tradition within Sanatana Dharma.

In general, a theory of graded integration of distinct communities via a hierarchy of political levels that does justice to this distinctness should be evolved. That is the Aryan answer to a world-wide problem of plural- identity states, which has been aggravated by the Semitic absolutist approach.

This excerpt is taken from Ayodhya and After: Issues Before Hindu Societyby  Koenraad Elst and reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher, Voice of India.

References / Footnotes

1. It is also used in a subtler form, as in Mani Shankar Aiyar’s article The Saffron Swastika, in Sunday, 2/12/1990.

2. In Greek, the etymologically related words are aristos, the best (wherefrom aristocracy), and arete, virtue.

3. While the term Arya is used only a few times in the Vedas, it was used a lot by the Buddhists and Jains. Today, everybody uses it all the time, though perhaps unknowingly : the honorific – ji, as in Gandhiji, is an evolved form, through Pali aya or aja and Apabhramsa aje, from Sanskrit arya.

4. Prem Shankar Jha writes :The Nazis created myths about Germany’s Aryan heritage and resurrected legends by symbols such as the Nordic sagas and the Swastika to mobilize mass support. Mainstream, 1/12/1990. That this had anything to do with Hitler’s mass support, is nonsense ; the common people were in no way familiar with these myths and symbols.

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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