JENNIFER CUNNINGHAM, The Herald, January 20 2007

For thousands of years, it has meant life and good fortune and for 80 years, in the west, it has denoted racism and genocide. Now the swastika symbolises a dichotomy in the new Europe as Germany seeks to extend measures against any resurgence of anti-Semitism, and western Hindus and Buddhists promote the time-honoured use of a symbol of life.

It is a criminal offence to display Nazi symbols in Germany and there are calls for the German government to use its current presidency of the EU to push for the ban on Nazi symbols and Holocaust denial to cover all 25 member states.

Similar attempts have failed on two previous occasions, and the European Commission has said it would be a strong signal at a time of growing Islamophobia, racism and hostility to foreigners across Europe.

Yet not everyone sees the symbol only through the prism of modern history. Next week, Hindu groups across Europe will launch a campaign to reclaim the swastika, a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, lobbying politicians and European governments against outlawing it.

Sanjay Mistry, of the Hindu Forum of Britain, says: "There was an attempt to extend the ban on swastikas throughout Europe in 2005. The UK government opposed that and we hope it will do so again. Outside areas with a large Hindu population, people do not know it as anything other than a Nazi symbol and we have been running workshops to make them aware of the history."

In Hinduism, facing right, it represents the evolution of the universe, and, facing left, it represents the involution of the universe: the two forms representing the two forms of the creator god, Brahma.

It is also seen as pointing in all four directions – north, east, south and west – and thus signifies stability and groundedness.

The swastika is considered extremely holy and auspicious by all Hindus. In India, it is used extensively on temples and the entrance of houses and at weddings, festivals and celebrations.

However, it also has an extensive history in Europe, appearing on artefacts from pre-Christian times.

Derived from the Sanskrit word svastika – a compound of su, meaning good or well; asti, meaning being; and ka, a diminutive – it translates as "small piece of wellbeing" or symbol of good fortune.

The Nazi party formally adopted the swastika or hakenkreuz – the hooked cross – in 1920. This was linked to the belief in the Aryan cultural descent of the German people. In the late-nineteenth century, swastikas were discovered in the archaeological excavations of Troy and linked to similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany.

This gave rise to the theory linking Germanic, Greek and Indo-Iranian cultures through migration. The Nazis considered the early Aryans of India to be the prototypical white invaders and hijacked the sign as a symbol of the Aryan "master" race. In the western world, this use is now better-known than its historic symbolism.