Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Symbol, Symbol, What's in a Symbol

As I perused around the Internet the other day for information on Jainism I stumbled upon this unholy demonic symbol. How can anyone dare to call this a religious symbol? Sacred? Holy? For those of us in the West, the Swastika is associated with pure evil and, except for Neo-Nazi groups, no one dares to walk down the street displaying this symbol without drawing an angry mob. But the stigma of this once culturally ubiquitous symbol is held by us Westerners only after its use in Hitler's Germany. What, or should I say who, gives meaning to a symbol? Is it possible for a symbol to hold multiple meanings, and if so how do we deal with that multiplicity?

[The Universal Jain Emblem adopted during the 2500th anniversary of the nirvana of Lord Mahavira]

Symbols have been an integral part of humanity's existence as a means to communicate a broad range of ideas. They can transmit ideas as simple as Stop, Danger! to as complex as E pluribus unum. Yet at the sight of some of our ubiquitous symbols, which have developed different and at times contrasting meanings, can touch the very foundation of our collective souls and stir up a wide range of emotions. Intentionally or not, we bestow these symbols with meaning and the "appropriate" emotion connected with the local interpretation. The burning of an American flag on American soil can stir up hatred towards the flag burners, whereas the burning of an American flag on foreign soil can stir up hatred towards the people (or concept) the flag represents. What I mean by appropriate emotion is just that, the appropriate emotion that is found to be acceptable by the local populace. Mores.

The Universal Jain Emblem is an example where any average Joe from America could mistake this symbol as the banner for some sort of Muslim Nazi group. Why Muslim? Because many people unfamiliar with Eastern script (including myself) could mistake the writing as Islamic because of the widespread ignorance and fear of Islam here in the States. Click here and here for an interesting detailed breakdown of the Universal Jain Emblem.

Not all symbols have multiple meanings but imagine what we could learn from our global neighbors if we educated ourselves in those that do. We would find that the swastika itself is a sacred symbol to over a billion followers if the Eastern religions. In fact the swastika has a long history throughout the world and "by the early 20th century, it was widely used worldwide and was regarded as a symbol of good luck and success" (Wikipedia). Of course it went sour after that, but it seems that we've all but forgotten (at least in the West) what the symbol originally stood for.

We can't turn back the clock and erase the damage done to our collective soul and to the name of a holy symbol, and it may even be associated with Nazism until the end of time. My goal isn't to undo the past but to positively influence the future through encouraging mutual respect and understanding among all cultures, faiths, and nations. I believe it is possible to look past our own interpretation so that we may glimpse into how others interpret the symbols that surround us. By understanding the symbols our neighbors live by we might be that much closer to understanding our neighbors themselves. A Muslim doesn't have to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior to be able to appreciate the love shared that binds Christians together through the act of Christ's sacrifice anymore than either one having to accept, but at least appreciate, the awe-inspiring transcendent beauty of the Buddha's enlightenment. Listening leads to understanding which leads to compassion and mutual respect.

So will it hurt you to listen?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice post about a religion I knew little about. Thanks!


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