What’s in a Symbol

One of the things I love about my travels to Asia, is that they remind me of how many little bits of knowledge and learnings have been packed inside my head over the past 40 years. For instance, color association: we associate red with hot and blue with cold, and black is evil and unknown, white is good and pure. In Bali, their religious colors are swapped – black is good and white is death, which for most of us is counter intuitive. Add to it red, which is the creator’s color (their creator god, Brahma is denoted with red at temples). We would most likely associate a red mask with evil or devils, but they see the crazy red mask in their dances as a good and welcome symbol.

The one that has taught me the most about myself is the use of the swastika. The Sanskrit word “svastika” means “well being” or “good fortune” and is still widely used in Buddhist and Hindu holy decoration. For me, it was a lovely bit of introspection to unwind from the connotations that I, as a Westerner, held of this symbol. Symbols by definition mean something and until I went to a Buddhist country, a swastika always denoted Nazi Germany, evil, exclusion, horrible thoughts, etc. I remember my thought process exactly, when I sat in a cold common room at 15,000 feet, and first noticed with shock, then contemplated a beautiful brass and copper urn in the corner. It had dabs of butter pressed on the cover where it met the lip of the urn, and I got up and studied it before asking the meaning of the butter and then the urn itself. And then I asked about the decoration, a swastika that doubled back on itself, in brass, then continued into the rest of the ornate design overlay. It is part of the eternal path in Tibetan Buddhism. Like the Christian labyrinth, a knot that doubles on itself and continues onward.


Designwork and symbols on the gate at Tengboche Monastery in Tengboche Nepal

I remember that it was easier than I thought it would be to unwind my negative ties from that symbol, and understand it for the meaning it had for Tibetan Buddhists. And it is pervasive in Bali, too. There is a Hotel Swastika in the tourist district, though I am not sure it does very well. Then I thought of how the locals see that hotel, and if they wonder why it isn’t a polished, glowing successful place. But that’s not fair. That’s imposing outside connotations on a different and separate use of a symbol.

Our own culture can be so ingrained that it becomes invisible. Visiting other cultures, particularly one with stark differences in symbolism, like the friendly red gods of Hinduism, remind us what we have assimilated through our own upbringing. I remember learning that red was hot, danger, stop.

I’ve done a lot of design study, particularly those of Celtic knotwork and repeating designs. The Book of Kells held my attention through college for its illuminated lettering. I insisted on learning those knotwork constructions in triangle, circle and square, and how to create my own using the same patterning and logic. One of them is much like the swastika – turning back on itself to catch another shape before looping in the opposite direction.


Celtic symbol construction methods from a book I’ve had 20 years: Celtic Art, the Methods of Construction, by George Bain

It can mean whatever you want it to. It’s a symbol. And since I realized that a swastika has pleasant, positive meaning in Asia, when I see it, it’s my job not to read into it with my own past learning, but to unhinge from it and move forward in seeing something differently than I always did before. That’s what I love about travel. If your eyes are open, you learn a lot about the place. If all of you is open, you learn a lot about yourself, too.