A specific instance of the swastika's usuage before the Nazis is in the tradition of Jainism. It represents the four possible levels of rebirth: divine, human, netherworld, and animal. The word swastika itself means good being (sw or sv = good and asti = being). Although it is historically tainted, it is still used by the Jain faith imbedded within another symbol of the Jain faith. This was adopted in 1975 to try to keep their symbols from being confused with the Nazi symbol.

The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, meaning welfare (su = "well" + asti = "he is").

The swastika itself has been a symbol of good fortune since ancient times. Elegant in its simplicity and beautiful in its asymmetry, the swastika was widely used throughout the ancient world (appearing for instance on Mesopotamian coins). It was a solar symbol. The Nazis adopted it as their hakenkreutz. Its arms spin in a clockwise direction.

The swavastika spins in a counterclockwise direction. This was a night symbol, and often stood for magical practices. It was used as a symbol for Buddhism in Japan since ancient times.
The swastika or fylfot is known in Japanese as the manji. As Storm_Damage mentions above, it is used as a map symbol for a Buddhist temple. I have been told that it stands for fluidity, energy, and the dynamic balance of opposites.

There is a dungeon level in the original Legend of Zelda video game which is shaped like a manji -- which, I'm sure, must have given some folks pause when they saw it on the game maps.

The swastika is also known as the gammadion or crux gammatica. Both of these latter names derive from the Greek letter gamma; if you stick four capital gammas together at ninety-degree angles, you get a swastika. (Compare the term "pentalpha" for the pentagram.)

A related Greek symbol is the triskele or triskelion, which is a three-legged swastika. It appears to have been first used as a symbol of athletic victory: three running legs conjoined at the hip, denoting constant speed or endurance or some such.

Swastikas in clockwise and counterclockwise can be found in the character set at positions 5350 and 534D hexadecimal.

The Swastika was also seen in Finnish fighter planes during WW II on border between Finland and Russia.
However it has nothing to do with one used by Germans.

When first plane (Thulin D) was brought to just founded Finnish Airforce at 1918 by Swedish count Eric Von Rosen, there were already blue swastikas in the wings.
The reason was that when machine was manufactured in Umeå in Sweden, von Rosen just wanted to paint his family lucky symbol, which was blue and straight swastika, on the plain.

Main difference between one used by nazis and the Finnish one is that Germans used black one which was tilted 45 deg compared to Finnish.

After the war the swastika was removed from active use due its similarity to Nazi symbol and was replaced by white circle with blue circular stripe inside. Still it's used in some Air Force flags to honour the memory of count von Rosen.

The swastika is an ancient symbol of religion and art which appears in many forms. To add to examples that other noders have given, here are a few I have seen. Note that in each one of these examples, the swastika is used as a repeated pattern, rather than as a solitary figure.

(1) Floor of the cathedral of Amiens, France, featuring interlocking black and white swastikas in a striking design. The swastika was known to the Romans, and through them was known in Europe in medieval times. It seems likely the Romans became aquainted with the swastika by trade with the peoples of Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia, who in turn might have been in direct contact with India.

(2) Interlocking swastika design etched onto metal wall panels of the subway cars in Seoul, South Korea (seen by myself in 1997). These designs, which are also common in Japanese art, feature alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise turning figures. These patterns are perhaps associated with Buddhism, which originated in India although it is not much practiced there these days.

As you know, variants of the swastika are widespread in art around the world. It is an interesting pastime to look for examples in advertising or architecture; perhaps your college library or police station has a row of interlocking swastikas (a Roman architectural motif, I believe) on it.

It's worth noting that, since 1945, both France and West Germany have banned the flag from presentation in public. I don't know whether this also prevents the news media from showing footage of illegally-presented swastika flags, or whether the united Germany still has such a ban, or even whether this applies to films and television programmes. As far as I remember both 'Wolfenstein 3d' and an older 16-bit game called 'Colditz' required the removal of swastikas before they could be released in Germany, and one level of 'Doom' required the slight modification of room which contained some floor segments in the shape of a swastika.

The swastika is an old Navajo motif, appearing frequently in Navajo weavings. Since the Navajos stopped using swastikas (or “whirling logs” as they called them) after the symbol was appropriated by the Nazis, the appearance of the symbol dates a Navajo weaving to before 1935, when the Nazis officially adopted the symbol.

The symbol also helps date architecture in the Southwest. Prior to World War II, the swastika was borrowed for decoration of “Pueblo Revival” architecture. Thus, there are a lot of old buildings in the Southwestern United States festooned with swastikas. Extant examples in Downtown Albuquerque include the Kimo Theater (1927) on Central (Historic Route 66) , and the old federal courthouse on Gold Avenue. The courthouse, a Works Project Administration building from the 1930’s, has excellent examples of WPA-era murals, and many swastikas in the Southwestern-style details of its architecture, and carved in the furnishings of the grand court room on the top floor.


Sources:

Aigner, Dennis J.; The Swastika Symbol in Navajo Textiles (DAI Press, 2000).

Pre-WWII Arizona Highway sign with swastika: http://mdo20.tripod.com/az/az64.jpg

Detail of decoration of Kimo Theater, Albuquerque, New Mexico:

http://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa086.shtml
The swastika as etymological origin of a Chinese character for the number ten thousand
At the Tarim basin of China, swastikas were used to symbolize ten thousand. This character later made its way into Chinese characters and evolved into the shape 万, meaning ten thousand. Chinese characters also have another character for ten thousand, 萬, derived from a pictograph of a scorpion. Today, both 万 and 萬 are in use in China and Japan. The simpler one (万) is part of the simplified Chinese character set, while the more complex one (萬) is part of the traditional Chinese character set, even though both have existed since ancient times, and one is not a simplification of the other character. The Japanese name for 卍 is "manji" which literally means "the ten thousand character." It is not only a symbol, but an actual letter in Japan. In China, the clockwise swastika is also used as a letter, and is called wàn (a homophone of "ten thousand").

The swastika as a symbol of religious significance
The origin of the religious symbol (卍) may or may not be the same as the origin of the ten thousand letter (万). The religious symbol was said to have originated as a representation of Vishnu's chest hair, a symbol of Sri, or good luck. Later, it also represented Buddha's chest hair too. While only counter-clockwise swastika is used as a symbol on maps for Japanese Buddhist temples, both rotations are used for designs within the temples.

Design variations
The swastika symbol (both rotations) is encorporated as the central design in several Japanese family crests. There's also a word suavastika, invented by Max Müller, as the name for the counter-clockwise swastika 卍. However, swastika is usually not limited in meaning to the clockwise swastika. Similarly, Chinese and Japanese words for swastika, wàn and manji respectively, do not specify rotation. Popular swastika designs in Japan are the itsutsu-wari and the mitsu-wari manji which defines the width of the arms to be one-fifth or one-third of the side of the whole square.
ITSUTSU-WARI MIGI MANJI

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Some Japanese terms that use the kanji 卍:

卍固め (manji gatame) - a type of wrestling move.
卍巴 (manji tomoe) - to mix and swirl somewhat chaotically. Sometimes used do describe how snow falls during a blizzard.
卍手裏剣 (manji shuriken) - a throwing weapon used by ninjas that are shaped like a swastika.
The makers of Pokémon, Nintendo, once had a Pokémon card out with a swastika on the upper left side. This was meant to be sold only domestically. However, through third parties it got over to the USA, where complaints were made to the Anti-Defamation League. After ADL's complaint towards Nintendo, Nintendo halted production of the "swastika cards," despite the fact that it was not intended to convey racist ideology.
Update: According to a December 12, 2003 Reuters article, MS will be issuing a software patch to remove swastika characters from Bookshelf Symbol 7.

A short discourse on the different rotations of swastikas:

I have recently had the experience of being told, by two different intelligent and sensible people, that the direction a swastika is 'rotating' changes its meaning -- specifically, a swastika with right-pointing arms* is evil, and means that you are on the side of Hitler, while the left-pointing swastika has a rich history as an emblem of All Things Good And Happy. This is bunk.

The right-pointing, or 'Nazi' swastika has, in earlier times, been used in a number of contexts, including, but not limited to:

  • A Hindu religious symbol, closely related to the OM or Omkar. The Hindu symbol can be drawn with the arms going in either direction.
    "The word swastika means auspicious in the Sanskrit language and hence is used to symbolize the welcoming of auspiciousness and driving away evils. The symbol also represents the changing of the universe around the unchanging nature of God".**
  • A Boy Scout badge; specifically, the Thanks Badge:
    "...when anyone has done a kindness to a Scout it is their {the scout's} privilege to present him -- or her -- with this token of their gratitude, which makes him a sort of member of the Brotherhood, and entitles him to the help of any other Scout at any time and at any place." ***
    At the time the swastika was called a fylfot. The swastika also appeared in other parts of pre-WWII American culture. ****
  • A number of Native American groups used the swastika, in both forms. Unfortunately, I have not been able to untangle which groups used which form of the swastika.
  • The Bon religion of Tibet (slowly being replaced by Buddhism) uses this right-pointing swastika. (Buddhism uses the left-pointing).
  • Cave art in France; Pottery from ancient Mesopotamia (5,000-4,000 BCE); Knossos, Crete, (+/- 1000 BCE). There are many more examples, but you get the idea.

Another list, just as long, could be made of cultures that used the left-pointing swastika, but I think that most of the main uses have been covered in the other writeups in this node. Suffice to say, swastikas are generally Good Things, with rather unique exception of the black swastika on a white background on a red field.


* It is debatable which way a swastika is 'meant' to spin; the previous WUs in this node have already managed to give inconsistent accounts of what a Nazi swastika looks like. Because of this, I will not be using the damnable terms clockwise and counterclockwise. Instead, I will use the terms left- and right-pointing. To avoid any possible confusion, here are pictures. The 'Nazi' swastika looks like this:

Right-Pointing Swastika

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If you were to reverse it, it would look like this:

Left-Pointing Swastika

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** http://www.hindunet.com/faq/hindufaq/cache/12.html
*** http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-can3.htm
**** www.eskimo.com/~bpentium/articles/swastika.html
        www.heathenworld.com/swastika/

Swas"ti*ka, Swas"ti*ca (?), n. [Also suastica, svastika, etc.] [Skr. svastika, fr. svasti welfare; su well + asti being.]

A symbol or ornament in the form of a Greek cross with the ends of the arms at right angles all in the same direction, and each prolonged to the height of the parallel arm of the cross. A great many modified forms exist, ogee and volute as well as rectilinear, while various decorative designs, as Greek fret or meander, are derived from or closely associated with it. The swastika is found in remains from the Bronze Age in various parts of Europe, esp. at Hissarlik (Troy), and was in frequent use as late as the 10th century. It is found in ancient Persia, in India, where both Jains and Buddhists used (or still use) it as religious symbol, in China and Japan, and among Indian tribes of North, Central, and South America. It is usually thought to be a charm, talisman, or religious token, esp. a sign of good luck or benediction. Max Müller distinguished from the swastika, with arms prolonged to the right, the swavastika, with arms prolonged to the left, but this distinction is not commonly recognized. Other names for the swastika are fylfot and gammadion.

 

© Webster 1913.

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