Reclaiming our Swastik
As a senior entering my last semester of undergrad, I’ve taken a lot of time to reflect on what experiences of mine have been the most memorable these past four years. Close to the top of my list has been my job since freshman year at the Conference and Event Services of the University Unions. It helped me discover one of my most important spaces on campus, one that many students pass by every day without a second thought. As both a student staff member and student representative to the Michigan League Board of Governors, the Michigan League is a place I consider a home.
Tucked among the many historical relics and steeped in the building’s history of the first space for women on the University of Michigan’s campus is the Blagdon Room — one of my favorites for its antique feel and beautiful stained glass windows. Another reason I feel so at peace in this room is the room’s historical purpose as a non-denominational religious space. Among the stained glass windows are depictions of many world religions — including symbols such as the Star of David and the Christian Cross. A prominent figure at the League shared a powerful quote with me from the original architects of the building. Irving and Allen Pond noted: “The room is to appeal to individuals of all shades of belief, or non-belief; to anyone who desired in contemplative spirit, touched with humility, to place herself in harmony with the universe.”
It is with the Blagdon Room’s original purpose and meaning in mind that I take offense to a request to University President Mark Schlissel, made by a group of students in early November, to remove one of my religion’s most sacred symbols – which has since the 1920s occupied a pane on one of the stained glass windows.
As a Hindu, the Swastik (S-vas-thik) or Swastika (S-vas-thik-a) is very important to me. This clockwise rotated cross with four dots in each quadrant is an essential sign of Hinduism. Celebrations and prayers are incomplete without the Swastik. It symbolizes the sun and is an auspicious symbol used as a good luck charm in many aspects of Hindu life. In my house, a Swastik along with a symbol that resembles the number 3 called Om or Aum – they’re also frequently seen on the sides of yoga studios and interfaith bumper stickers. These symbols greet visitors as a way of welcoming them into our home and are used to prevent negative energy and evil from entering my family’s space.
Historically, Om and the Swastika have been held as equally important spiritual relics necessary to mark occasions of happiness and allow for the influx of positive energy wherever they are placed. While the Om symbol is commonly tattooed on non-Hindus, viewed as a sign of peace and even a symbol of hippie culture, my family and other Hindus have been forced to decrease our use of the Swastik sign and feel ashamed and embarrassed by it because the symbol was culturally appropriated in the 1930s.
This symbol belongs to my people, but I’ve faced questions about its relation to Nazism my entire life. It’s important the general population knows the symbols have no relation to one another. The Nazi swastika (swas-tik-a) is black and turned on a 45-degree angle. This is different from the Hindu Swastika that is not turned on an angle and is typically made out of gold or is colored red. The Nazi swastika has been in use since the 1930s while the Hindu Swastika use has been documented as early as 500 B.C.!! However, like many other elements of Indian culture, the Swastik was stolen by white supremacists to erase our existence and culture and replace it with their own ideology.
My job on the Michigan League Board of Governors is to serve as an adviser to the director of the League and promote the heritage of the building. With this responsibility in mind, I think it would be a great shame to remove the window. While I understand the pain and violence that has been perpetuated under similar symbols, I urge University leadership to stop the stigmatization of the Hindu symbol by keeping the pane up alongside labels with explanations of all the religious symbols in the Blagdon Room and the significance of the room as a whole. It’s important that students on this campus understand the symbol has a huge cultural significance and positive meaning that represents a good proportion of students on this campus. It is not fair to those like myself that hold this symbol sacred to have it stolen away from us once again. Let us be represented on this campus and have it be an educational experience for all others.