Saturday, March 12, 2011

The ethnic meaning of "Arya"

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". This bespeaks a deficient sense of historicity, i.c. the realization that terminology is susceptible to change.

While the term had no racial ("Nordic") or linguistic ("Indo-European") meaning, it did originally have an ethnic meaning. On this, invasionist linguist JP Mallory and anti-invasionist historian Shrikant Talageri agree. At least, it has a relative ethnic meaning, not designating a particular nation, but being used by several Indo-European nations (viz. Anatolians, Iranians and Paurava Indians) in the sense of "compatriot", "one of us". This term, in India, then evolved to "one who shares the civilizational norms of the Vedic Paurava tribes", "Veda-abiding", "civilized". And thence "noble".

The use of Arya cognates in Hittite and Lycian (Anatolian) in the sense of “compatriot, fellow citizen” is given in standard textbooks of Indo-European linguistics, such as JP Mallory’s, and in the On-line Etymological Dictionary

The same in Iranian is beyond dispute. Iran itself is from Airyanam Khshathra. In 2006, Tajikistan hosted the UNESCO-sponsored World Aryan Fair, where “Aryan” in effect meant “Iranian”, including Baluch, Kurd, Osset (Scythian), Pathan and Tajik. Non-Iranians including Indians were Anairya to them, regardless of whether they called themselves Arya.

The evidence for Arya used in the Rg-Veda in the sense of “compatriot” is given at length in Talageri’s latest two books, The Rg-Veda, a Historical Analysis and The Rg-Veda and the Avesta, the Final Evidence. He arrived at his conclusions without any knowledge of the linguists’ findings. What he shows is that the Paurava tribe, in which (particularly, in whose Bharata clan) the Veda hymns were composed, referred to its own members as Arya. All others, including Iranians (“Dasa”, “Dasyu”, “Pani”) and non-Paurava Indians (Yadava, Aikshvaku et al.), were counted as Anarya.

Contrary to Arya Samaji and other modern-moralistic interpretations, Arya does not mean “good” nor Anarya “bad”: even a hostile reference to a traitorous fellow-Paurava calls him Arya, even non-Paurava friends whose virtues are praised remain Anarya. It is only when Paurava Vedic tradition become normative for the neighbouring tribes that Arya gradually loses its Paurava exclusiveness and acquires the non-ethnic meaning of “Vedic”, “partaking of Vedic tradition”, “civilized”, “noble”; and “Anarya” becomes “barbarian”.

One resultant semantic development is "upper-caste", meaning those people who received the Vedic initiation. Since Kshatriyas and Brahmins had their own more specific titulature, the general honorific Arya often designated the Vaishya. It is also used as a form of address to any honoured person, which is probably the origin of the present-day honorific suffix -ji, evolved through the Prakrit forms ayya, ajja, 'jje. In South India, the term Arya designated the Northern immigarnts who described themselves as such: Buddhist and Jaina preachers and Brahmin settlers. They latter's caste names Aiyar and Aiyangar are evolutes of Arya.

It is in the sense of "noble" that the Buddha spoke of the Arya 4 truths and 8-fold path. However, we must take into account the possibility that he used it 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 gods Indra and Brahma his recognition as the Buddha and his mission to teach; and when predicting the future Buddha Maitreya, had him born in a Brahmin family; and had over 40% Brahmins among his ordained disciples.

I haven’t looked into original sources about this yet, but surmise that pre-war racists waxed enthusiastic about descriptions by contemporaries of the Buddha as tall and light-skinned. That would be “Aryan” in the then-common sense of “Nordic”. Nowadays, some scholars including Michael Witzel suggest that the Buddha’s Shakya tribe may have been of Iranian origin (from Shaka, “Scythian”), which would explain their fierce endogamy. They practised cousin marriage, e.g. th 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 (gotras are exogamous) and like the Catholic Church, imposed respect for "prohibited degrees of consanguinity"; but it was common among Iranians. (It was also common among Dravidians, a lead not yet fully exploited by neo-Buuddhists claiming the Buddha as “pre-Aryan”.) The Shakya-s justified it through pride in their direct pure descent from Arya patriarch Manu Vaivasvata, but this could be an explanation adapted to the Indian milieu hiding their Iranian origin (which they themselves too could have forgotten), still visible in their physical profile. Thus far the “Iranian Buddha” theory.

It is possible and indeed likely that other Indian tribes contemporaneous with the Vedic Paurava-s also called themselves Arya (and the Paurava-s Anarya), but they have left us no texts to prove it. Such usage may have facilitated the adoption of the term Arya in the (to them) new meaning of “Vedic”.

The 19th-century claims of the use of an “Arya” cognate as ethnic self-designation in Celtic (“Eire”) and Germanic have been abandoned, as well as the relation with German Ehre, “honour” (which is from *aiz-, cognate with Latin aes-timare, whence English esteem). There is no firm indication that it ever was a pan-Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European self-designation and thus a valid synonym for “Indo-European”.


Gururaj B N said...

Too scholarly a paper to be commented on by lay person like me. Suffice it to state here that at least in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian political parties give the term Arya, an ethnic meaning. For them, all the fair complexioned people and people from up north are Aryans, and are required to be excluded from mainstream life in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps, rather crudely, they treat Rama as an Aryan invader. However, sage Agasthya is respected in Tamil literature, even though he is, according to Puranas, the first Aryan representative to come south of Vindhya mountains.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Fascinating post! What a wealth of information.

There are some interesting similarities (along with, naturally, significant differences) in the way the term "Hellene" has varied in its meanings over the centuries and millennia.

Unknown said...

Very very informative and useful! A must read for all Indians

Karthikrajan said...

Massive !!, sent my head into a spin. One history professor from Madurai opines that 'Aiyangaar' evolved from the word 'Aiyar-gaaru' , the 'gaaru' of telugu language is similar to 'ji' of hindi for respect. It later simplified to become 'Aiyan-gaaru' and finally settled to 'Aiyangaar'.


Daniel Mohanpersad said...

Dear Koenraad Elst, have you heard about India banning insults on Gandhi? I'd like to hear your opinion on this issue.

Urjva said...

This shows how deeply has been the colonial European view of India and Hindus injected in the mindset of Indians. Let me put it this way. The tadbhava of "Arya" in prakrit and most South Indian languages is "Aiyah." But "-aiyah" is not a suffix used by "Ayyars" or "Ayaingars" as said by PRAGATHEESHWAR.

Infact it forms the suffix of both brahmin and non-brahmin names in Andhrapradesh and Karnataka. If "Arya" was a term for the vedic or the so-called "similarly civilized" it should have benn purely for the Brahmin caste members. Furthermore, FYI, the term for so-called Dravidian language Telugu literally means "language of the white people or the fair skinned." If it is a "Dravidian Language" how come it is of the "more civilized whites"??? Food for thought?

The explanation is that there never was an Arya-Dravida divide. It was a convenient intelligent insertion by the British to divide Indians again and justify their own colonization of India.

Globalist said...

Well for the first fellow.the same exists in the north for dravidatsa's being excluded from political life. Somemore u claim to be secular when politics takes place in Hindi? For the last commentator...the British didn't compose the mahabarata or Ramayana and dichotimize us. The premise had been set way before. Even Buddha sought enlightenment from this confusion. The British however did create Pakistan and left harrappa and mohanjo daro with them. To perpetuate confusion and maintain disunity I suppose.

gdp said...

In Mahabharata rendered in Telugu by Tikkana, Arjuna calls Duryodhana, a member of his own family as 'Anarya'.

Tikkana wrote around 1255 A.D, and that time obviously Arya meant a decent character and Anarya a bad character.

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Arya Samaj Mandir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bmdriver said...

Nowadays, some scholars including Michael Witzel suggest that the Buddha’s Shakya tribe may have been of Iranian origin (from Shaka, “Scythian”), which would explain their fierce endogamy''

Oh well, Elst i once had some respect for you, thinking that this western man, who had a dharmic soul would uncover the lies and distortions, now only to realise that the agenda you have is no different from the colonialist aryan theorist. Now i suppose the aryan theory is true for you.

Have you ever read genetics?..Which 100% refutes any such claim. Its sad that you shold lower oneself to such a degree, but then make an admission that you have NOT READ THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS. Witzel also promoted certain texts that where proved to be distorted, witzel is a nazi intellect, he hides his racism by using academic theoris.

And you seem to like promoting him.

IF you want the hundreds of genetic articles that refute ANY ARYAN INVASION..i can happily provide.



Gururaj B N said...

bmdrivdr's comment is unfortunately an intemperate response to the scholarly work of Dr.Koenraad Elst. He does not even address the author properly, disclosing high degree of discourteous attitude. Much as we may dislike it, the fact is that north-west of India has been a gateway for foreigners to enter India. Arabs were an exception who came through the sea and the deserts of Sindh. Whether or not aryans a native of India, the fact is that India has been the home of diverse races of people since distant pre-historic times.

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