Diwali Dilemma: My Complicated Relationship With The Swastika : Code Switch While most Westerners see the swastika as a symbol of Nazi Germany or white supremacy, it has been a symbol of good fortune in Asia thousands of years before Hitler.
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Diwali Dilemma: My Complicated Relationship With The Swastika

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Diwali Dilemma: My Complicated Relationship With The Swastika

Diwali Dilemma: My Complicated Relationship With The Swastika

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Halloween isn't the only major holiday around the corner. Thanks to this year's lunar calendar, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, falls on October 30. As NPR's Parth Shah reports, one traditional Diwali decoration could discourage trick or treaters. It's also raising questions from some Hindu families.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Scarecrows and jack-o'-lanterns are standard front yard decorations around this time of the year but not for the Prakash family. Instead they're decorating the pathway leading to their suburban D.C. home with rangoli.

TARA PRAKASH: It's colored sand.

SHAH: Ten-year-old Tara Prakash is using the sand to make designs on the asphalt. It's kind of like sidewalk chalk. The rangoli is drawn for Diwali, a major holiday celebrated by South Asians all around the world.

SARLA PRAKASH: Diwali, for me personally - nice clothes and lots of sweets.

INDIRA PAREKH: Diwali is like Christmas is here. In Diwali, everybody gets gifts.

SHAH: Sarla Prakash and Indira Parekh, Tara's grandmothers, are standing on the front porch overlooking the rangoli.

TARA: I made a peace sign here. Here's a star. Mom, what's that called again?

SHAH: What's that one?

TARA: I keep forgetting the name.

ANJALI PRAKASH: That's called a swastika.

TARA: Oh, and then this is a swastika.

SHAH: A swastika - some might be more familiar with the Americanized pronunciation, a swastika. And there's a large red one drawn on the porch steps. Tara's mom, Anjali Prakash, explains.

A. PRAKASH: For Hindus, it has a very positive connotation, and it means good fortune and good wishes to all that are coming in during the Diwali season. You know, and now the connotations are not so positive.

SHAH: The swastika has existed in Asia for 5,000 years as a symbol of good fortune. It has roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. But the Nazis appropriated it as a symbol of Aryan identity and German nationalist pride.

To the untrained eye, the ancient swastika and the Nazi one are pretty indistinguishable. But if you grew up seeing it year round at weddings and religious festivals like grandmother Indira Parekh, you can notice the differences.

PAREKH: This swastika is straight. The Nazi swastika is crooked. It's half-turned.

KEN JACOBSON: Someone from the West visits an Asian country and is horrified that they saw a swastika, and then we have to explain that for them it has a different meaning and a different context.

SHAH: Ken Jacobson is with the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group focused on anti-Semitism. He doesn't think that the swastika can exist in mainstream American society as a symbol of good fortune.

JACOBSON: The swastika, as some people have written, was hijacked, if you will, by the Nazis. And it has so overtaken history, and to be honest, I don't believe that history can be turned back with regard to the swastika. When others see it, they are only going to see it in the most negative way.

GAUTAM PRAKASH: I think that's a copout.

SHAH: Enter Anjali's husband, Gautam Prakash. He says reclaiming the swastika is a way of normalizing Hindu identity in America.

G. PRAKASH: Most Americans when they do look at that symbol will think Nazi. I 100 percent agree with that. That should mean - is - there should be more Hindus that very consciously put this symbol out.

SHAH: He says it's a means of taking back the image.

G. PRAKASH: Adolf Hitler - it's very unfortunate that he took this to be a symbol of his white supremacy and hatred of Jews. But that's not at all what this means to us.

SHAH: For the Prakash family, and for Hindu Americans around the country, the swastika symbolizes well-wishes to everyone who comes to their home this Diwali. And with the holiday being one day before Halloween, they'll be extending that message to trick or treaters, too. Parth Shah, NPR News.

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