In debates on the politically controversial term Arya, we keep hearing from Hindus and Buddhists that it only means "noble", as in the Buddha's "four noble (Arya) truths". Following the Arya Samaj reinterpretation of the Vedas, many even insist that in the Vedic context, Arya meant “good” while its opposite Anarya meant “bad, immoral”. These moralistic and self-flattering readings bespeak a deficient sense of historicity, i.c. the realization that over time, terminology is susceptible to change. Attempts to derive Arya from a basic root *ar-, to which various meanings have been assigned, make good sense in principle, but bypass the Vedic age when from this ancient root, a far more precise meaning had crystallized.
While it is now a matter of consensus that the term had no racial or linguistic meaning ("Nordic" c.q. "Indo-European"), it did have an ethnic meaning. Starting from different considerations, invasionist linguist JP Mallory and anti-invasionist historian Shrikant Talageri agree on this, and we will argue further in favour of this finding. In the earliest historical age, attested in the oldest literature in Indo-European languages, we find Arya or cognate terms used in the sense of "compatriot", "one of us", viz. by the Anatolians, Iranians and Paurava Indians. In the Iranian world, it retained its purely ethnic meaning, as evidenced at the World Aryan Fair in Tajikistan 2006. In India, it evolved to "one who shares the civilizational norms of the Vedic Paurava tribes", and since it was in the Paurava milieu that the Vedas were composed, it came to mean "Veda-abiding", "civilized", and thence "noble".
In the Vedic-Avestan age, a group that designated itself as Arya could be deemed Anarya by another group that considered itself Arya. In particular, the Iranians called themselves Arya but in the Vedas they were designated by various tribal names including Dasa (which has nothing to do with “Dravidian aboriginals”) but never as Arya, a term which the Vedic people reserved for themselves. So, this was a relative ethnic term, not having a fixed reference to a particular nation, but used in self-reference by different nations. But when a community strongly identified with the Vedic tradition settled in new lands, viz. the Brahmins who settled in South India, the name Arya (> Aiyar, Aiyangar) did acquire an absolute ethnic meaning accepted by both insiders and outsiders. This division between Northern “Aryans” and their Dravidian surroundings presented an instance of the contrast between Indo-European and non-Indo-European, and in the 19th century, scholars prematurely generalized this into the assumption that Arya was an early synonym for “Indo-European”. This was a projection of a recent situation onto the proto-historic past, a childhood disease of the discipline of Indo-European philology.
In debates on the politically controversial term Ārya, we keep hearing from Hindus and Buddhists that it only means "noble", as in the Buddha's "four noble (Ārya) truths" and his “noble (Ārya) eightfold path”. Following the post-Vedic reinterpretations of the Vedas by Hindus from the Purāna authors down to the Ārya Samāj and today’s travelling gurus, many even insist that in the Vedic context, Ārya meant “good, moral” while its opposite Anārya meant “bad, immoral”. These moralistic and self-flattering readings bespeak a deficient sense of historicity, i.c. the realization that over time, terminology is susceptible to change. They project, or so we will argue, a meaning common in later times on to the term Ārya in Vedic context. Others go to the opposite extreme: they first suggest a deep etymology of the term, situated in the proto-language’s register of extremely simple and fundamental concepts, and next pretend that this is the sense in which the Vedic people used it.
- Deep etymology of Ārya
Let us consider the deep etymology approach first. It is still in dispute, but one hypothesis has an edge over the others. Köbler [2000 48 ff.] gives a range of explanations that have been proposed in the past two centuries.
Ārya has been analysed as stemming from the root *ar-, ‘plough, cultivate’ (cf. Latin arare, aratrum), which would make them the sedentary people as opposed to the nomads and hunter-gatherers; and lends itself to a figurative meaning of “cultivated, civilized”. Others, however, have connected it with the root of Latin ire, “to go”, so as to make it an apt name for a nomadic populations: the proverbial roaming warrior-bands that must have ransacked the Harappan cities.
A more surprising hypothesis derives Ārya as a lengthened form of Arya from a root *al-, “‘other” (cfr. Greek allos and Latin alius, “other”), hence “inclined towards the other/stranger”, hence “hospitable”. This could be similar in meaning to the name of the god Aryaman, “other-minded”, whose attribute is hospitality. From this sense, an ethnic meaning is tentatively derived: “we, the hospitable ones”, “we, your hosts”, hence “we, the lords of this country”. This too, admittedly, sounds rather contrived.
Also surprising is a meaning suggested in attempts to establish a deep historic connection (which the present author too considers very likely) between Indo-European and Semitic. Summarizing such attempts, Sūrya Kānta Śāstrī [n.d.:3] links Proto-Indo-European *h2er- (> ar, ārya) with “Arabic, Hebrew hrr, ‘to be free’”. This is the root of words like hurriyat, “freedom”, and tahrīr, “liberation”.
Alternatively, ārya could be from a root *ar, “possess, acquire, share” (cf. Greek aresthai, “acquire”), an interpretation beloved of Marxist scholars who interpret the Ārya class as the owner class.
Another explanation, the most likely and most popular one, is from a root *ar-, “to fit; orderly, correct”, cf. Greek artios, “fitting, perfect”; and hence “skilled, able”, cf. Latin ars, “art, dexterity”; Greek aretè, “virtue”, aristos, “best”. This may in turn be the same root as in the central Vedic concept rta, Avestan arta, “order, regularity”, whence rtu, “season”, cf. Greek ham-artè, “at the same time”.
Attempts to derive Ārya from a basic root *ar-, to which various meanings have been assigned, make good sense in principle, but they bypass the Vedic age when from this ancient root, a far more precise meaning had crystallized.
- Ancient Indo-European meaning of Ārya
While it is now a matter of consensus that the term Ārya had no racial meaning, whether “Nordic” or other [Ghurye 1932, Hock 1999], nor even a linguistic meaning ("Indo-European"), it did have a subjective ethnic meaning in the oldest attested Indo-European languages, viz. Hittite, Avestan and Vedic Sanskrit. Starting from different considerations, invasionist linguists like J.P. Mallory and anti-invasionist historian Shrikant Talageri agree on this, and we will argue further in favour of this finding.
In the earliest historical age, attested in the oldest literature in Indo-European languages, we find Ārya or cognate terms used in the sense of "compatriot", "one of us", viz. by the Anatolians, Iranians and Paurava (Vedic) Indians.
The use of Ārya cognates in the Anatolian languages Hittite and Lycian in the sense of “compatriot, fellow citizen” is given in some recent textbooks of Indo-European linguistics, e.g.:
“The most loaded term in the reconstructed lexicon is *h4erós or *h4eryós, ‘member of one’s own group’, which in Indo-Iranian is generally represented as ‘Aryan’. From *h4erós we have Anatolian, e.g. Hittite arā, ‘member of one’s own group, peer, friend’, Lycian arus-, ‘citizens’, while *h4eryós yields (perhaps) Old Irish aire, ‘freeman’, more certainly Avestan airya, ‘Aryan’, Sanskrit aryá, ‘kind’, ārya-, ‘Aryan’ (cf. arí-, ‘faithful’). The evidence suggests that the word was, at least initially, one that denoted one who belongs to the community in contrast to an outsider; a derivative of the word is found in Hittite āra, ‘(what is) fitting’, and natta āra, ‘not right’, cf. the use of kosher which originally meant (in Hebrew) ‘what is fitting’.” [Mallory & Adams:266]
While the connection with older and deeper meanings is transparent, the operative meaning of these ārya-related words in Anatolian society was “compatriot”. It didn’t exactly mean “Hittite” or “Lycian”, at least it wasn’t a synonym of those ethnonyms, for their neighbours didn’t use those words to refer to these nations. They themselves used it in self-reference, as “us” in distinction from “them”.
The same situation prevailed in ancient Iranian: “aryo-: self-designation of the Indo-Iranians. Perhaps a derivative of ar-.” [Watkins 2000:5] This root ar-, in turn, is explained as “To fit together” [Watkins 2000:5] Further to aryo-: “1. Aryan, from Sanskrit ārya, compatriot. 2. Iran, […] from Old Persian āriya, compatriot.” [Watkins 2000:5]
Likewise in to the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/, consulted June 2011), lemma Aryan, we read: “Ancient Persians used the name in reference to themselves (Old Persian ariya-), hence Iran. Ultimately from Skt. ārya- ‘compatriot’; in later language ‘noble, of good family’. Also the name Sanskrit-speaking invaders of India gave themselves in the ancient texts, from which early 19c. European philologists (Friedrich Schlegel, 1819, who linked the word with Germanic Ehre, ‘honor’) applied it to the ancient people we now call Indo-Europeans (suspecting that this is what they called themselves); this use is attested in English from 1851. […] German philologist Max Müller (1823-1900) popularized the term in his writings on comparative linguistics, recommending it as the name (replacing Indo-European, Indo-Germanic, Caucasian, Japhetic) for the group of related, inflected languages connected with these peoples, mostly found in Europe but also including Sanskrit and Persian. […] Gradually replaced in comparative linguistics c.1900 by Indo-European, except when used to distinguish IE languages of India from non-IE ones. […] As an ethnic designation, however, it is properly limited to Indo-Iranians (most justly to the latter) […].”
In his Behistun inscription, ca. 500 BC, Darius proudly called himself and his family since at least nine generations Airya, apparently in the caste sense of “noble”, “high-born”. The name Iran itself is from Airyānām Xśathra, “dominion of the Airya-s”. As a term in international usage, it soon became more than self-referential, it became a pure ethnonym also used by outsiders.
Yet, until modern linguists launched the notion of an Iranian language family, the term was not coterminous with the set of all speakers of Iranian languages. Some wayward Iranian-speaking peoples were not considered Airya by the citizens of the Persian and Afghan heartland of Iranian culture. From the Avesta down to Firdausi’s Śāhnāmeh (ca. 1000 CE), Tūrya or Tuirya was the name of Iranian-speaking people living beyond the Oxus, roughly contrasted with the Airya as nomadic with sedentary, illiterate with literate, barbarian with civilized. They were generally deemed hostile though some of them also accepted Zarathushtra’s religion, which promoted agriculture and the domestication of the environment. As soon as Turkic tribes started replacing the Iranian Scythians as masters of the Central-Asian steppes, the term got increasingly identified with the Turks, but originally it marked an intra-Iranian distinction between barbarian and civilized speakers of the various Iranian dialects.
The name Ērān/Iran was restored by Reza Shah Pahlevi in 1935 as a more accurate replacement of Persia, which was a pars pro toto ever since the Persian Achaemenids united the Iranians under one sceptre.
At the World Aryan Fair held in 2006 in Tajikistan, declared “guardian of Aryan civilization”, the “Aryan” peoples represented were all Iranian-speaking: Kurds, Ossetes (Scythians), Pathans, Persians, Tajiks, Baluch, and Indian Parsis. After the World Avesta Conference in Dushanbe in 1992, this was another instance of open support by the newly independent Tajik state to the pan-Iranian movement. Though not officially anti-Islamic, the movement’s conspicuous Zoroastrian revivalism makes the Islamic governments in Iran and Pakistan distrust it. A striking feature of the Aryan Fair was the widespread use of swastika flags featuring two intertwined blue swastikas, termed “wheel of Mithra”, the sun-god.
“The Sanskrit word ārya- (…) was the self-designation of the Vedic Indic people”, according to a standard textbook of Indo-European linguistics. [Fortson 2004:187] This is approximately true, but Shrikant Talageri fine-tunes this definition: it applies to the Vedic people, but only to some Indic people, viz. those of the tribe that created the Veda.
When listing and discussing all 36 instances of the use of Ārya in the Rg-Veda, Talageri concludes: “The word is used in the sense of ‘We, the Noble’. When an Iranian, for example, used the word Airya, he undoubtedly meant an Iranian, or even perhaps an Iranian belonging to his own particular tribe or community. He would never have dreamt of referring to a Vedic Aryan or an Irishman by the same term. The use of the word Ārya in the Rigveda must be understood in this sense: the Vedic Aryans used the word Ārya in reference to Vedic Aryans as distinct from other people, and not in reference to Indo-European language speaking people as distinct from non-Indo-European language speaking people. All other people, Indo-European or otherwise, other than themselves, were non-Āryas to the Vedic Aryans.” [Talageri 2000:154-155]
In the Rg-Veda, the ethnic horizon mainly consists of the “five peoples”, pañca janāh, conceived as descent groups of five patriarchs: Anu, Druhyu, Turvaśu, Yadu and Puru. These five were the five sons of Yayāti, himself a king belonging to the Aila lineage (from Ilā, daughter of Ur-patriarch Manu Vaivasvata) or Lunar dynasty. The term Ārya is used in the Rg-Veda for three individuals belonging to the Paurava tribe: king Divodāsa, his father Vadhryaśva, and his descendant Sudās, winner of the crucial battle of the Ten Kings. In a tribal sense, it always refers to the Paurava tribe or segments of it, the putative descendents of Puru, youngest and favoured among the five sons of king Yayāti. In nine cases, reference is to Ārya enemies. This means that politically, they were temporarily in the enemy camp, but ethnically they were of the same stock as the Vedic seers. They and the Dāsa-s are distinguished as sanābhi (kinsmen) c.q. nistya (non-kindred) enemies. Contrary to the moralistic interpretations by the Ārya Samāj and other moderns, Ārya did not mean “good” nor Anārya “bad”. Even a hostile reference to a traitorous fellow-Paurava will still call him Ārya, while non-Paurava friends whose virtues are praised do not get promoted to the Ārya category.
The Paurava-s considered all others, including Iranians (Dāsa, Dasyu, Pani) and non-Paurava Indians (Yādava, Aiksvaku, et al.), as non-Ārya. It is possible that the latter, like the Iranians, also considered themselves as Ārya and the Vedic Paurava-s as non-Ārya, but we simply don’t have their testimony for that period. Only when the Paurava-originated Vedic tradition became normative for the neighbouring tribes did Ārya gradually lose its Paurava exclusiveness and acquire the non-ethnic meaning of “Vedic”, “partaking of Vedic tradition”, “civilized”, “noble”; while Anārya became “barbarian”.
The one exception in the Rg-Veda where ārya seems to have a non-ethnic, generally moral meaning, is RV 9:63:5: krnvanto viśvam āryam, “making everything ārya” or “doing every ārya (deed)”, usually translated as “ennobling the world”.
- The non-Aryans in the Rg-Veda
The Iranians were divided in tribes, some of which are mentioned in the Rg-Veda. Of these, some are also known through Greco-Roman sources: Dahae corresponds to Vedic Dāsa, Parnoi to Pani. Through Avestan and more recent Iranian sources, we know of the Dahyu, “nation”, the Vedic Dasyu; and of at least four of the tribes mentioned as opponents of Vedic king Sudās in the Battle of the Ten Kings: Pashtu or Pathan, in the Veda Paktha; Persian or Parśu; Parthian or Prthu; and Baluch (living near the Bolan pass) or Bhalāna. Likewise, the Medes (now Kurds) are probably the Madra-s. That Persians and Medes are known historically as living in Western Iran while their confrontation with the Vedic people took place in what is now Pakistan, is not really problematic. From Mesopotamian sources we know of them as intruders from the East. The intervening centuries were sufficient to allow a migration or expansion from the Indo-Iranian border zone to Mesopotamia.
It is a matter for wonder that so many authors have seen in the Dāsas and other opponents of the Vedic people the Dravidian or Munda “aboriginals” confronting the “Aryan invaders”. To the careful reader, the Iranian identity of most of them is simply obvious.
For those who are inclined to dismiss Talageri’s views as discredited by his Hindu nationalism, note that in a number of respects, his position goes against the majority opinion among Hindu nationalists, e.g. his denying an implication of moral superiority to the Vedic Ārya-s. While many Hindu writers assume that “the battles between the Vedic Aryans and their enemies were somehow battles between Good and Evil (…) our analysis of the Rigveda and Vedic history is not based on this rosy viewpoint” . [Talageri 2008:368] In fact, “there is nothing to indicate that the Āryas were more civilized and cultured than the Dāsas, (…) nor that the struggles between the Āryas and Dāsas involved any noble social, moral and ethical issues.” [Talageri 2000:405]
In the context of Talageri’s identification of the Iranian tribes, we note that Hindu nationalist author N.R. Waradpande [2000:116-117] denies an ethnic meaning to Prthu and Parśu, preferring their literal meaning of “broad” c.q. “axe” (the latter actually translates the similar-sounding paraśu). Against this, Talageri [2008:] shakes the Hindutva pride further by arguing that the name Paraśurāma, “Rama with the axe”, is a misreading by Puranic authors of the Vedic name Parśurāma, “Persian Rama”, a nickname of Rāma Jāmadagnya, author of RV X.110, for whom he manages to demonstrate an Iranian ancestry. This means that the authors of the Purāna-s, treated as revelation by many Hindus, misunderstood the name of Vishnu’s sixth incarnation. More generally, it illustrates a point made repeatedly in Talageri’s work, explicitly and implicitly, that the Sanskrit literary tradition was as human and prone to changes and retroprojective reinterpretations as the religious text corpus of other civilizations.
- Relative and absolute use of Ārya
It is possible and indeed likely that other Indian tribes contemporaneous with the Vedic Pauravas also called themselves Ārya (and the Paurava Anārya), but they have left us no texts to prove it. After the spreading of the Vedic tradition outside the Paurava tribe among these other tribes, such usage may have facilitated the adoption of the already familiar term Ārya in the (to them) new meaning of “Vedic”.
But sometimes a community strongly identified with the Vedic tradition settled in new lands, where no one was familiar with the term Ārya. In Northwest India, the neighbouring peoples, the Iranians and the non-Paurava Indo-Aryans, already knew the term and probably used it to designate themselves. But in South India, the term Ārya came to designate the Northern immigrants who described themselves as such: Buddhist and Jaina preachers and Brahmin settlers. The latter's caste names Aiyar and Aiyangar are evolutes of Ārya. The local population took the name Ārya to be an objective designation, identified with Northerner and speaker of Indo-Aryan.
This division between Northern-originated “Aryans” and their Dravidian surroundings presented an instance of the distinction between Indo-European and non-Indo-European, with the former designated as Ārya. A similar situation had existed in the lands conquered by the Iranians, where the Semitic, Turkic, Uralic and other communities were non-Aryan in contrast with the Indo-European-speaking Iranian or “Aryan” conquerors. In the 19th century, scholars prematurely generalized this into the assumption that Ārya was an early synonym for “Indo-European”. This projection of more recent situations onto the proto-historic past is now considered as a childhood disease of the discipline of Indo-European philology.
2.6. A synonym for “Indo-European”?
If some Indo-European peoples used ārya or a cognate form as an ethnic self-designation, could this not be a remnant of a pan-Indo-European usage? Could it be that Slavic or Italic had the same usage originally but lost it over time?
In the 19th century, many scholars explored this scenario, including claims of the use of an Ārya cognate as ethnic self-designation in Celtic (Eire) and Germanic, but these have been abandoned. So has the relation with German Ehre, “honour”, which is in fact from *aiz-, cognate with Latin aes-timare, whence English esteem. The etymon of Eire seems to be *iweriu, < piHwerion, “fat land”, “opulent country”. The Irish word aire, “freeman”, may be related to ārya, but it is a different word and is not known to have served as an ethnic self-designation. Thus far, only Anatolian, Iranian and Vedic Sanskrit are certified to have used it as a self-referential ethnonym.
So, there is no firm indication that Ārya, or *Heryo, ever was a pan-Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European self-designation and thus a valid synonym for “Indo-European”: “ Although in Indo-Iranian the word takes on an ethnic meaning, there are no grounds for ascribing this semantic use to Proto-Indo-European, i.e. there is no evidence that the speakers of the proto-language referred to themselves explicitly as ‘Aryans’.” [Mallory & Adams:266] But in theory, it remains a possibility.
- Post-Vedic meanings
- Vedic standards
From meaning “belonging to the Paurava tradition”, “Vedic”, Ārya evolves in a trans-ethnic cultural sense. The Dharmaśāstra-s of Manu and Baudhāyana relate it to wider territory of North India, Āryavarta, but distinguish the Kuru-Pañcāla region, i.e. from the Saraswati eastward to the Ganga-Yamuna doāb, as the best: there, the people naturally observe the Vedic norms, so all others should seek to emulate their customs. To Manu, their defining ingredients are the Vedic sacrificial ritual and the observance of varnāśramadharma, the differentiation of society according to social function and age group, each with its own duties and privileges. The absence of order, i.e. of ritual (as, to a large extent, in modern society) and of functional differentiation (as in tribal societies with their supposed Ur-communism), counts as Anārya, uncivilized or barbaric.
Thus, the Manu Smrti [10.45] says that those outside the caste system, “whether they speak barbarian languages or Ārya languages, are regarded as aliens”, indicating that some people spoke the same language as the Ārya-s but didn’t have their status of Ārya because they disregarded the varnāśramadharma.
Note that we need not agree with the Śāstrakāra-s that the varnāśramadharma is truly “Vedic”, for we do not find it in the first nine books of the Rg-Veda. Even in the tenth book, the last and youngest one, we find it mentioned only once, and there only in the vaguest use, viz. the Purusa Sūkta’s recognition of the existence of four functions in society, without any details of how their personnel is recruited nor of how they should conduct themselves vis-à-vis one another, the very stuff that is the main focus of the Śāstra-s. Like medieval and contemporary Hindus, the Śāstra composers may have considered as ”Vedic” everything they held sacred, regardless of whether a particular norm or custom is indeed traceable to the Veda-s.
- Varna meaning
One resultant semantic development is "upper-caste", meaning those people who received the Vedic initiation. Since Ksatriya-s and Brahmins had their own more specific titles, the general honorific Ārya often designated the Vaiśya. It is also used as a form of address to any honoured person, which is probably the origin of the present-day honorific suffix -jī, evolved through the Prakrit forms ayya, ajja, 'jje.
The term distinguished those who had received the Vedic initiation symbolized by the sacred thread. In particular, it became a form of address for members of the Dvija (twice-born) castes, i.e. those whose members (or later, whose male members) wore the sacred thread. And among these, it was particularly in use among the lowest of the three, the Vaiśya-s. Whereas the Ksatriya-s and Brahmins further distinguish their own specific varna also setting themselves apart from the other Dvija-s, Vaiśya-s seem happy enough to set themselves apart from the non-Dvija-s.
We find a parallel situation in Western society too, mutatis mutandis. An employee or servant (Śūdra) has no title, he may even be addressed with his first name by his boss. The employer (Vaiśya), by contrast, is addressed as “Mister X” (from magister, “greater one, master”), or “Sir” (from senior, “elder”). These general forms of respectful address could in principle also be applied to Ksatriya professions, but in those cases you will normally specify as Captain, General, Minister, Excellency, Your Majesty. Likewise, people in Brahmin professions will be addressed as Doctor, Professor, Reverend, all the way up to Your Holiness. In their cases, just calling them “Mister” would be a slight on their specific state of merit, whereas it is perfectly fine to address a businessman as “Mister” regardless of the extent of his business achievement.
Applied to communities and cultural patterns, Ārya came to mean “of Vedic tradition”, “conforming to Vedic norms”. For insiders to the Vedic tradition, it would consequently mean “up to standard”, “proper”, "civilized". To outsiders, it would still mean “Vedic”, and refer to those people or communities distinguished as adhering to Vedic norms. Those outsiders, who used the term not to designate themselves but to designate outsiders whom they saw observing or bringing the Vedic tradition, included the natives of South India, where the term acquired the ethnic connotation of “North-Indian”.
Soon enough, people started objecting that nobility or Āryatva is not a matter of birth but of character, e.g.: “O my Lord, a person who is chanting Your holy name, although born of a low family like that of a Candāla, is situated on the highest platform of self-realization. Such a person must have performed all kinds of penances and sacrifices according to Vedic scriptures many, many times after bathing in all the holy places of pilgrimage. Such a person is considered to be the best of the Ārya family." (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 3.33.7)
The meaning of the term became vaguer, from conformity with a specific (viz. Vedic) code or with criteria of high birth to a general quality of character, “noble”. That is exactly parallel to the evolution of the European term "noble", which originally meant someone belonging by birth to the nobility class, the princes and dukes and earls. The same evolution also affected the Chinese word junzi. People can see for themselves that qualities of character appear in all classes and all religions, so the concept “noble” or ārya got delinked from its religious or sociological basis.
- Ethical meaning
From the Hindu Epics on down, Ārya and Anārya are frequently used in the moral sense. People are sometimes classified as Ārya or Anārya based on their behavior, but the ethnic or caste meaning still tends to shine through.
In the Rāmāyana, the Vānara-s and Rāksasa-s call themselves Ārya. The monkey king Sugrīva is called an Ārya and speaks of his brother Vali as an Ārya. Rāvana regards himself and his ministers as Ārya, which is only natural as he is a Brahmin and descendent of the Vedic sage Pulastya. Likewise, Rāma’s being an Ārya may have as much to do with his Ksatriya status as with his exemplary moral conduct.
In the Mahābhārata, the term is generally applied to people according to their behaviour. Duhśāsana, who tried to disrobe Draupadī in the Kaurava court, is therefore called Anārya. Vidura, the son of sage Vyāsa by a maidservant, was the only person in the assembly whose behaviour is called Ārya because he alone openly protested against Draupadi’s disrobing. The Pāndava-s reproached themselves for their Anārya conduct when they killed Drona through deception.
However, this should not be taken to prove, as Hindu reformists are wont to claim, that this ethical meaning supersedes and nullifies the social stratification meaning. Just as the metaphorical meaning of “crusade” or “jihād” as “moral struggle against the evil in oneself and society” presupposes the meaning of “holy war” and doesn’t nullify the underlying doctrine of religious war, so likewise the extended usage of Ārya in Sanskrit or “noble” in European languages presupposes and doesn’t discard its literal sociological meaning, viz. “characteristic of the hereditary upper class”.
- “Noble” in Buddhism
Against the association of the anglicised form “Aryan” with colonial and Nazi racism, modern Hindus always insist that the term Ārya only means “Vedic” or “noble” and has no racial or ethnic connotation. This purely moral, non-ethnic meaning is in evidence in the Buddhist notions of the “four noble truths” (catvāri-ārya-satyāni) and the “noble eightfold path” (ārya-astāngika-mārga). So, the meaning “noble” applies for recent centuries and as far back as the Buddha’s age (ca. 500 BC), and contrasts with the Vedic age (beyond 1000 BC), when the ethnic sense prevailed, and post-Vedic Hindu society, when either Vedic sectarianism or caste pride animated the use of the term Ārya.
At least, this is what the Buddhists claim: that when the Buddha lived and taught, the term Ārya had a general psychological-ethical meaning, “noble”, larger than and not dependent on any specific cultural or religious tradition or social class. However, we must look at the historical data, even and especially when pertaining to a venerated person like the Buddha, without assuming modern and sectarian predilections.
Firstly, we must take into account the possibility that he too used the term in the implied sense of “Vedic”, broadly conceived. That after Vedic tradition got carried away into what he deemed non-essentials, he intended to restore what he conceived as the original Vedic spirit. After all, the anti-Vedicism and anti-Brahmanism now routinely attributed to him, are largely in the eye of the modern beholder. Though later Brahmin-born Buddhist thinkers polemicized against Brahmin institutions and the idolizing of the Veda, the Buddha himself didn’t mind attributing to the Vedic gods Indra and Brahma his recognition as the Buddha and his mission to teach. At the end of his life, he unwittingly got involved in a political intrigue when Varsakāra, a minister of the Magadha kingdom, asked him for the secret of the strength of the republican states. Among the seven unfailing factors of strength of a society, he included “sticking to ancient laws and traditions” and “maintaining sacred sites and honouring ancient rituals”. [Dīgha Nikāya 2:73, discussed in Elst 2010:197-199] So, contrary to his modern image as a “revolutionary”, the Buddha’s view of the good society was close to Confucian and indeed Brahminical conservatism. Far from denouncing “empty ritual”, he praised it as a factor of social harmony and strength. In this light, his understanding of Ārya may have been closer to the Brahminical interpretation of the term as “Vedic” than nowadays usually assumed.
This even applies to the Buddha’s view of caste. When predicting the future Buddha Maitreya, he had him born in a Brahmin family; and he had over 40% Veda-trained Brahmins among his ordained disciples. His impact on his disciples was such that after his death, the messages by cities claiming a part of his ashes for veneration in stupas took the form of: “He was a ksatriya, we are ksatriya-s, therefore we are entitled to a share in his ashes.” Clearly, lay followers of the Buddha did not shed their caste pride, nor feel a need to even pretend to when speaking in a Buddha-related setting par excellence.
So, secondly, the Buddha may not have renounced the caste-related meaning of Ārya altogether. After all, determination by birth was not alien to the worldview of the Buddha, whose ascent to Awakening was predetermined by physical marks he was born with, according to common Buddhist belief. Buddhist scripture makes much of the Buddha’s noble birth in the Solar lineage, as a relative (and reincarnation) of Rāma. So, as Gómez [1999:132] points out, the Buddhist usage of Ārya is subject to “ambiguities”, e.g. in the Mahāvibhāsā: “The Buddha said, ‘What the noble ones say is the truth, what the other say is not true. And why is this? The noble ones […] understand things as they are, the common folk do not understand. […] Furthermore, they are called noble truths because they are possessed by those who own the wealth and assets of the noble ones. Furthermore, they are called noble truths because they are possessed by those who are conceived in the womb of a noble person.” [cit. Gómez 1999:133]
To play devil’s advocate, we could even extend our skepticism of the Buddha’s progressive image to an involvement in the racist understanding of Ārya. Some pre-WW2 racists waxed enthusiastic about descriptions by contemporaries of the Buddha as “tall and light-skinned”. [Schuman 1989:194] That would seem to make him “Aryan” in the then-common sense of “Nordic”. Nowadays, some scholars including Michael Witzel [on his own Indo-Eurasian Research yahoo list] suggest that the Buddha’s Śākya tribe may have been of Iranian origin (related to Śaka, “Scythian”), which would explain his taller stature and lighter skin in comparison with his Gangetic fellow-men. It would also explain their fierce endogamy, i.e. their systematic practice of cousin marriage. Indeed, the Buddha himself had only four great-grandparents because his paternal grandfather was the brother of his maternal grandmother while his maternal grandfather was the brother of his paternal grandmother. The Brahminical lawbooks prohibited this close endogamy (gotra-s are exogamous) and like the Catholic Church, imposed respect for "prohibited degrees of consanguinity"; but consanguineous marriages were common among Iranians. (It was also common among Dravidians, a lead not yet fully exploited by neo-Buddhists claiming the Buddha as “pre-Aryan”.) The Śākya tribe justified the practice through pride in their direct pure descent from the Ārya patriarch Manu Vaivasvata, but this could be a made-up explanation adapted to the Indian milieu and hiding their Iranian origin (which they themselves too could have forgotten), still visible in their physical profile. So, that would make the Buddha an “Aryan” in the historically most justified ethnic use of the term, viz. as “Iranian”.
- Ārya = Hindu?
The relative authoritative Hindu “law-book” Manu Smrti [10.43 ff.] claims that the Greeks and the Chinese had originally been Ārya-s too but that they had lapsed from Ārya standards and therefore lost the status of Ārya. So, non-Indians could be Ārya, on condition of observing certain cultural and ethical standards, viz. those laid down in the Manu Smrti itself. The term Ārya was culturally defined: conforming to Vedic tradition.
Nonetheless, Manu had a strong pro-Indian bias, and at least in the two millennia since the Manu Smrti, the only ones fulfilling the requirement of living by Vedic norms were Indians. In 1875, a socially progressive but religiously fundamentalist movement (“back to the Vedas”, i.e. before the “degeneracy” of the “casteist” Śāstra-s and the “superstitious” Purāna-s) had been founded under the name Ārya Samāj, in effect the “Vedicist society”. They used the term in an exclusive sense: it excluded many Hindus not by caste but by their degree of strict observance of the (putative) Vedic norms. It rejected all non-Vedic elements in Hinduism as Anārya, a distinction that has a certain historical justification in the Vedic identification of Ārya with the Vedic tribe.
But the modern age has also seen a rise in the inclusive use of the term, as referring to all Hindus, or indeed all Dharmic Indians. During India’s freedom struggle, philosopher and freedom fighter Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950) wrote in English about “the Aryan race”, by which he meant “the Hindu nation”, nothing more nor less. In 1914-21, together with a French-Jewish admirer, Mirra Richard-Alfassa, he also published a monthly devoted to the cause of India’s self-rediscovery and emancipation, the Ārya. If the word Ārya had not become tainted by the colonial and racist use of its Europeanized form Aryan, chances are that by now it would have replaced the word Hindu (which many Hindus resent as a Persian exonym unknown to Hindu scripture) as the standard term of Hindu self-reference.
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(Vedic Venues 2, 2013)