On swastikas that don't (or at least shoudn't) offend

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2011/08/27 07:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2011/08/27/10201146.aspx


As befits a non-practicing, passively atheistic M.O.T. (aka Jew) who has spent time researching religion in both East and South Asia, I look at the swastika through a decidedly odd lens.

Obviously the atrocities of World War II are unsupportable, and I feel neither need nor desire to support them.

But knowing the widespread usage connected to Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism across so much of East Asia and South Asia that predates Nazi Germany by millennia, the latent desire to support the symbol in these other contexts become much more of a temptation.

Quoting a little from the Wikipedia article:

Historical use in the East

The swastika is a historical sacred symbol in Indian religions. It first appears in the archaeological record here around 2500 BC in the Indus Valley Civilization. It rose to importance in Buddhism during the Mauryan Empire and in Hinduism with the decline of Buddhism in India during the Gupta Empire. With the spread of Buddhism, the Buddhist swastika reached Tibet and China. The symbol was also introduced to Balinese Hinduism by Hindu kings. The use of the swastika by the Bön faith of Tibet, as well as later syncretic religions, such as Cao Dai of Vietnam and Falun Gong of China, can also be traced to Buddhist influence.

Buddhism

Buddhism originated in the 5th century BCE and spread throughout the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BCE (Maurya Empire).

The swastika symbol (right-hand) is alleged to have been stamped on Gautama Buddha's chest by his initiates after his death. It is known as The Heart's Seal. The swastika figures on the Pillars of Ashoka.

With the Silk Road transmission of Buddhism, the Buddhist swastika spread to Tibet and China.

Known as a "yung drung" in ancient Tibet, it was a graphical representation of eternity.

The paired swastika symbols are included, at least since the Liao Dynasty, as part of the Chinese language, the symbolic sign for the character 萬 or 万 (wàn in Mandarin, man in Korean, Cantonese and Japanese, vạn in Vietnamese) meaning "all" or "eternality" (lit. myriad) and as 卐, which is seldom used. The swastika marks the beginning of many Buddhist scriptures. The swastika (in either orientation) appears on the chest of some statues of Gautama Buddha and is often incised on the soles of the feet of the Buddha in statuary.

Hinduism

Swastika on the doorstep of an apartment in Maharashtra, IndiaThe swastika is one of the 108 symbols of Hindu deity Vishnu and represents the Sun's rays, upon which life depends. Its use as a Sun symbol can first be seen in its representation of the god Surya. The swastika is used in all Hindu yantras and religious designs.

Swastika is also considered as a symbolic representation of Ganesha, in Hinduism. Ganesha as per Hindu rites is offered first offerings and as such in every pooja, at first Swastika is made with Sindoor during any religious rites of Hindu.

Among the Hindus of Bengal, it is common to see the name "swastika" (Bengali: স্বস্তিক shostik) applied to a slightly different symbol, which has the same significance as the common swastika, and both symbols are used as auspicious signs. This symbol looks something like a stick figure of a human being.

Jainism

Jainism gives even more prominence to the swastika than does Hinduism. It is a symbol of the seventh Jina (Saint), the Tirthankara Suparsva. In the Svetambar (Devanagari: श्वेताम्बर) Jain tradition, it is also one of the symbols of the ashta-mangalas. It is considered to be one of the 24 auspicious marks and the emblem of the seventh arhat of the present age. All Jain temples and holy books must contain the swastika and ceremonies typically begin and end with creating a swastika mark several times with rice around the altar.

Jains use rice to make a swastika (also known as "Saathiyo" or "Saathiya" in the state of Gujarat, India) in front of statues in a temple. Jains then put an offering on this swastika, usually a ripe or dried fruit, a sweet (Hindi: मिठाई, Mithai), or a coin or currency note.

Iran

Golden necklace of three Swastikas found in Marlik, Gilan Province Iran, dates back to first millennium B.C.In Iran, Golden necklace of three Swastika in Marlik, Gilan province Iran, dates back to first millennium B.C probably symbolising Indian influence there.

Other Asian traditions

During the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Empress Wu Zetian (684-704) decreed that the swastika would be used as an alternative symbol of the Sun.

The Mandarin "wan" is a homophone for the number 10,000 and is commonly used to represent the whole of Creation, e.g. 'the myriad things' in the Dao De Jing.

In Japan, the swastika is called manji. Since the Middle Ages, it has been used as a coat of arms by various Japanese families such as Tsugaru clan, Hachisuka clan or around 60 clans that belong to Tokugawa clan. On Japanese maps, a swastika (left-facing and horizontal) is used to mark the location of a Buddhist temple. The right-facing manji is often referred to as the gyaku manji (逆卍, lit. "reverse manji") or migi manji (右卍, lit. "right manji") , and can also be called kagi jūji (literally "hook cross").

In Chinese and Japanese art, the swastika is often found as part of a repeating pattern. One common pattern, called sayagata in Japanese, comprises left- and right-facing swastikas joined by lines. As the negative space between the lines has a distinctive shape, the sayagata pattern is sometimes called the "key fret" motif in English.

 Of course in Unicode only the ideographic characters (U+5350 and U+534d) exist, which means that is you want to support either symbol in a [presumably non-ideographic] font of South Asia, you need to include one or both of these ideographs.

Anyone who understands East Asian linebreak and width rules can be uncomfortable using the ideographs, for purely technical reasons.

And while this is not the kind of embarrassing PR flap that the Bookshelf symbol font inspired back in 2004, it certainly would have a similar feel when one is reviewing such a font. It would be easy to see the swastika or the reverse swastika at the end of the list of characters in Character Map.

Thus it would be easy to take offense.

I find it troublesome when I consider the impact on Hindus and Jains in South Asia versus the relatively more protected Buddhists in East Asia, yet I find myself lacking the desire to suggest a new character be encoded.

Even in Gemany the relevant laws (Strafgesetzbuch section 86a) carves out a huge exception for usage in these religious contexts -- so this ends up as more of a Unicode issue than anything else.

Since no one else is asking, it's perhaps easier to dismiss this "requirement" as not actually being required.

But perhaps there are some Hindus or Jains who might disagree.

I know how I'd feel if U+2721 was bein removed from a font, so if they would feel the same then I wouldn't refuse to support their view....


Michael S. Kaplan on 27 Aug 2011 7:34 AM:

Andrew West commented over on Facebook:

Are you forgetting about U+0FD5 through U+0FD8 RIGHT/LEFT-FACING SVASTI SIGN (WITH DOTS) which were encoded in 5.2 specifically so that the Ideographic characters need not be used in non-CJK contexts?

I did forget about these. Though they would assuage the EA context fears, they still have the "what if they are skipped to avoid fear of an incident" issue....


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