What Happens When a Symbol’s Meaning Changes?
Much has transpired recently regarding the killing of nine African-Americans in South Carolina and its impact galvanizing those who see the Rebel Flag as a symbol of racism and hate. Living in the South since the early 1990s, I have seen the flag frequently in both Georgia and North Florida. I have heard the argument that it represents heritage and is not a symbol of racism. Assuming this is true, for the moment, such an argument still misses that symbols change and their meanings evolve. This is something that I have had to examine in my study of the Theosophical Society because another symbol of bigotry and hate, the swastika, is part of their organizational seal.
The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City and promoted Eastern ideals and traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. The swastika is a common symbol within these traditions and has been used within the iconography for centuries. Even today, if you are in some Asian countries and see a restaurant with a swastika on its sign, it means the restaurant serves Buddhist-friendly vegetarian food. Thus, it is not surprising that the society adopted the swastika as part of their logo. At one point, Blavatsky explained the swastika “is the summary in a few lines of the whole work of creation, or evolution.” It is a symbol of the dynamic aspects of creation, a point Theosophy stresses.
But we all know that the swastika was also adopted by the Nazi party as their emblem and is connected in the minds of most people to the racism and genocide of the Nazi regime. This was done fifty years after the Theosophical Society incorporated the symbol into its seal. Yet, now that the meaning of the swastika has changed, many claim that Theosophy, and in particular its founder Madam Blavatsky, is racist. Despite the fact that Blavatsky died two years after Hitler was born, there are numerous websites which use the inclusion of the swastika in the TS logo as evidence for its connection to Nazism.
The claims that Blavatsky was a Nazi are so common that Theosophists have had to respond. Much like those claiming the Rebel Flag is about heritage, Theosophists attempt to correct those with erroneous views connecting Blavatsky, the swastika, and Hitler. For instance in one essay, plainly entitled “Was Blavatsky a Nazi?,” the author begins stating the obvious: “H.P. Blavatsky was not a nazi. She lived and died in the 19th century when nazism didn't exist yet.” Nevertheless, such connections between Blavatsky, Theosophy, and Nazism are not so easily assuaged. This is the problem for both Theosophists and those who attempt to uphold the flag as heritage: symbols change, their meanings evolve, and something that was acceptable in the past can come to mean something that is no longer acceptable.
Recognizing that educating the world about the history of the swastika is a losing battle, some in the TS have implemented a change to the seal to make the swastika less obvious. In an updated version of the Theosophical Society seal, the swastika turns from rigid right angles to swirls. While this version is used sporadically, I have noticed it becoming more common. I think this is because those in the organization recognize there simply is no rehabilitating the swastika. The symbol, at least for the foreseeable future, is associated with bigotry and hate in the minds of most. Similarly, the Rebel Flag being associated with racism is a fact those who promote the flag’s heritage are going to have to face too.