Taiji and Swastika—The Circles Of Birth And Death

Taiji and Swastika main
The Swastika symbol can be found on the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping Lantau Island in Hong Kong.
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By Jonatan Ang

If you are familiar with the genesis of civilisation, there is a common thread of folklores depicting how gods descended onto earth, hand-carried people in the acquisition of language and civilisation, instilled the notion of divine faiths, and imparted crafts and skills to deal with the environment, amongst others.

And so it seems, different gods nurtured different civilisations in different parts of the world.  Despite the fundamentally different developments across different human civilisations in the past, archaeological discoveries in both the East and West have unearthed relics featuring two common iconographs: The Swastika 卍 (萬字符) and the Taiji Symbol (太极图).

Historically, the Swastika 卍 was found in ancient India.   It adorns the statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva in Buddhist temples.  It has also appeared in ancient China as well, where it is called 萬 (wan), representing the number 10,000.   The Taiji is a symbol representing the religious and philosophical tradition of Taoism.  The term means a ‘diagram of the supreme ultimate’; it follows the concept of yin and yang where opposites exist in complete harmony, yet interpenetrate each other.

Where Are Swastikas 卍 Found?

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Swastika seals from the Indus Valley civilisation.
A Greek coin
A Greek coin showing Pegasos (Pegasus) on one side and swastika on the other side.

Interestingly, these two symbols are not confined to India and China.  They are found throughout the ancient world in many civilisations for many millennia. Swastika shapes appeared on numerous artifacts from the Iron Age in various European civilisations: Greco-Roman, Illyrian, Etruscan, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, and Georgian.

Archaeologists discovered a pottery fragment bearing a Swastika in present day Bulgaria.  It is dated some 7,000 years ago.  In Greece, as in Cyprus and at Rhodes, the swastika adorns pottery with geometrical ornamentation.  With the introduction of money, it became a favourite emblem in Greek and Roman coinage.

In the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, there is a small ivory figurine of a female bird.  An intricate pattern of swastikas is engraved on the torso of the bird.  This is the oldest identified swastika pattern in the world and has been radio carbon-dated to an astonishing 15,000 years ago.

Among the earliest cultures utilising the swastika are the Old European neolithic Danube Valley Civilisation, Vinca culture, Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, and the Varna Civilisation—all in Europe!

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What profound meaning does it hold for people to embrace the swastika so abundantly?  Historically, the Swastika has represented the positive concepts of well-being, creativity, fertility, good fortune, justice, dynamism, and rebirth. In Buddhism, the symbol means compassion and virtue. In Tibetan Buddhism, it means eternal life—life that glows forever. Buddhist scholars contend that 卍 is symbolic of Buddha’s wisdom, where one attains enlightenment through the deep inner understanding of one’s self.

Mezin Paleolithic mammoth ivory bird with swastikas.
Mezin Paleolithic mammoth ivory bird with swastikas.
Ancient Greek vase with swastika symbols.
Ancient Greek vase with swastika symbols.

Cultural Footprint of Taiji

The Taiji engraved
The Taiji engraved in a ceramic shrine artefact during the Cucuteni-Trypillia period.

The Taiji symbol consists of two (one black and one white) swirling ‘teardrop’ shapes that fit within each other to form a perfect circle.  This symbolises that everything exists in duality, a foundational characteristic of nature: Good and bad, men and women, right and wrong, light and darkness, positive and negative, hot and cold, day and night, and all other contrasting elements are inter-dependent and cannot exist in isolation.

Interestingly, the Taiji symbol is also found in the Roman Notitia Dignitatum around 500 AD. This document is a “directory of the charges” of the civil and military administration of the Empire and contains many emblems appearing on Roman army shields, one of which is the Taiji. Even earlier than this is the Taiji appearing on the painted ceramics of the Cucuteni and Tryphillia civilisation around 7,000 BC.   The name of this civilisation was named after the villages of Cucuteni (in Romania, near Laşi) and Trypillia (in Ukraine, near Kiev).

The Circle of Birth and Death

The swirling motion of the Taiji symbol and the angular rotary movement of the swastika coincide to describe the divine longitudinal circle of life. The world changes constantly and moves forward in distinct cycles, where day turns into night and night leads on to another day, every birth ends in death and death leads to rebirth.

At the stellar level, most stars will eventually come to a point in their evolution when they collapse under their own weight and undergo the process of stellar death. The amount of gravitational potential energy liberated during the collapse is so great that it results in a supernova. Supernova expels remnants away at such a high speed that its expanding shockwaves trigger the formation of new stars. The cycle of birth, stasis, degeneration, and death repeats.

Scientific discoveries in astrophysics have brought images of the birth and death of celestial bodies in the universe to the naked eyes of humans. They have also sparked a millennia-old inquiry in humans that has taken many forms—the question of life and death.

Christian eschatological views hold that there will be a Second Coming of Christ to offer salvation when people of the earth are experiencing great trials and calamities. This is a time of great turmoil, wickedness, war, and suffering.  Buddhism contends that in The Latter Day of the Law when humans run afoul of divinely-installed moral principles, demons will reincarnate to take the form of clergy-personnel in temples to disrupt Buddhist practice, thus depriving humans of any spiritual anchor.

Christian eschatological views hold that there will be a Second Coming of Christ to offer salvation when people of the earth are experiencing great trials and calamities.

We now live in a time where traditional references for morals and family are thought to be oppressive to human instincts, leading to a call for post-modernistic people to be liberated.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s has given rise to modern-day polymorphous sexuality and perversity, so widely prevalent in the West and also the East. Equally so is the breakup of traditional family structures to accommodate modern family structures.

In a letter to Queen Mother Elisabeth of Belgium on January 9, 1939 to ask for her help to get his elderly cousin out of Germany and into Belgium, Albert Einstein wrote:

“The moral decline we are compelled to witness and the suffering it engenders are so oppressive that one cannot ignore them even for a moment. No matter how deeply one immerses oneself in work, a haunting feeling of inescapable tragedy persists.”

The period of moral decline is one that is calamitous for humankind. Has the day come?

The Taiji symbol (4th row, 3rd from left)
The Taiji symbol (4th row, 3rd from left) in the Roman Notitia Dignitatum in 5th century AD.

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