Readers' Submissions

Ignorant Thais Or Ignorant Farangs?

I’d thought I’d drop you a note after reading one of the emails in this week’s column. It was regarding Thais being the epitome of ignorance with regard to the swastika.

Well, it is difficult to answer this without seeing if the swastika is actually intended as a Nazi swastika, so maybe I am being stupid by writing this as I’m sure all your learned readers would be aware that there is a big difference in meaning between the Nazi swastika and its use as a religious symbol that is important to Hindus and Buddhists as well as other religions.

Just in case I’m right and he isn’t aware the swastika has a special meaning in religion maybe a brief explanation might be worthwhile.

The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit swastika, meaning a lucky or auspicious object, and in particular it is a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck.

The swastika appears in ancient art and design in different contexts representing: luck, the sun, Brahma, or the Hindu concept of samsara. In the past, the swastika was used extensively by Hitties, Celts and Greeks. It occurs in other Asian, European, African and Native American cultures – sometimes as a geometrical motif, sometimes as a religious symbol. It was even used by Jews prior to WWII, on the spines of Rudyard Kiplings books and by Baden Powell's Boy Scouts, amongst many many others. Today it is very common in Hinduism, and Jainism. Hinduism is of course considered the parent religion of Buddhism and Jainism.

In Buddhism more specifically the swastika used in Buddhist art and scripture is known as a manji, and represents Dharma, universal harmony, and the balance of opposites. When facing left, it is the Omote (front) Manji, representing love and mercy. Facing right, it represents strength and intelligence, and is called the Ura (rear facing) Omoje. Balanced Manji are often found at the beginning and end of Buddhist scriptures. It is also often incised on the soles of the feet of the Buddha in statues.

The discovery of the indo-European language group in the 1800’s led to a drive by archaeologists to link the history of the Europeans to the Ancient Aryans. A leading German archaeologist, called Heinrich Schliemann discovered objects bearing the swastika in the ruins of Troy and after consulting the leading Sanskrit scholars of the day Emile Burnouf and Max Muller, he concluded that the swastika was a specifically Aryan symbol. . This idea was propagated by many other writers and the swastika became popular in the west appearing in designs from the 1880’s to the 1920’s

The positive meanings of the swastika in other cultures was subverted when it was adopted as the symbol of the Nazi party by Hitler. He made the association through the fact that historical Aryans were supposed to be modern Germans, the supreme race. The symbol emphasized the Aryan- German connection. So since WWII, many westerners see the swastika as a solely fascist symbol, without understanding its pre-Nazi use and its current meaning to other cultures.

It is thought by some that the counter clockwise swastika or left facing swastika known as the sauwastika in Hindu tradition is considered evil, however there seems little evidence to support this, as many Hindu’s in Nepal and India use this left facing swastika although the right facing or clockwise swastika is the most common. Whilst the Nazi’s used both with the swastika being normally tilted 45 degrees the right was more common. Today Buddhists normally use the left facing swastika because of the association with Nazism of the right facing swastika despite the different meanings between right and left.

So is it a case of ignorant Thais as so often is the subject of submissions on this site, possibly if it is actual Nazi memorabilia. However, it could be a case of ignorant farang something mused far less on the site.

Although there is so much information available about Thailand online now, including this site, to help guide us through the pitfalls of holidays, relationships, jobs, travel and pleasure in the Land Of Smiles there does seem to be a lack of understanding of how religion has shaped modern day Thailand beyond the fact that they are Buddhists, do strange things at Temples and pray to different gods. Even if you have different or no religious beliefs a basic understanding of the history, philosophy and spread of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism help to explain amongst others, many aspects of Thai life that farangs encounter everyday such as devotion to family, the social hierarchy, the concept of face, xenophobia and of course acceptance and the mai phen rai attitude.

Stickman's thoughts:

I was one of the ignorant, I'll admit.