- This article is about the term "Aryan". For "Arian", a follower of the ancient Christian sect, See Arianism.
Aryan is an English word derived from the Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan term arya, meaning "noble".
In the 19th century, the term was used to refer to what we now call the Proto_Indo_Europeans. More accurately, and more modernly, Aryan refers to the Indo-Iranian language family, or to its Indian sub-branch known as Indo-Aryan. The term may also suggest a race, but only in the very loose sense of "descendents of an original population of speakers", or the Iranian people themselves, and the Zoroastrians (who were mostly expelled from Persia to India several centuries ago).
Etymology and history of the term
*aryo- (Indo-Iranian *arya-) is an adjective to the PIE root *ar-, originally meaning 'to assemble', possibly with positive overtones of "accomplished, skillful". *aryo- as the name of a people, the "Aryans", is only attested in India and Persia, but the root is well known from other languages in the Indo_European world, e.g. the aristoi, the "most noble," of Greece, and possibly Éire, the Irish name of Ireland (although this is not commonly accepted). The original meaning of the root, pertaining to skillful assembly, union, confederacy, may be perceived, for example in Latin ars "art" and ordo "order" or in Greek harma "chariot".
In its original meaning, in languages of the 3rd or 4th millennium BC, "aryan" may or may not have had any racial meaning, certainly not in the sense that we define race today. However it does seem to have been used to identify certain populations in distinction from others. Max Müller theorised that this usage originated as a denotation of farmers. More recently it has been taken that the probable proto-meaning 'to assemble' developed to imply kinfolk or clansmen bound by socio-linguistic, not ethnic, ties. The word arya may have then developed in later times its usage as a general term of respect, signifying nobility, in Hinduism (the descendant of Vedic religion), Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. The term likely grew from a tribalist self-identity. It has been subject to racialist distortions, only in 20th century Western culture, see "racist connotations" below.
Max Müller and other 19th century ethnologists (see also Indo_European studies) theorised that the term *arya was used as the self_descripton of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. This more general sense of the word is now obsolete, see Indo-European studies for details.
The most probable date for Proto-Indo-Iranian unity is roughly around 2500 BC. In this sense of the word Aryan, the Aryans were an ancient culture predceding both Vedic and Zoroastrian cultures. The most likely candidate for an archaeological identification of this culture is the Bronze Age Bactria_Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) in what is now northern Afganistan and Turkmenistan.
The Aryan tribes in the Indian subcontinent called their land Aaryaa varta or "Aryan land", while ancient Persians named their realm Airyanem Vaejah, or "Aryan land", and today the word survives as Iran.
See also Aryan Invasion Theory.
It has been suggested since the mid 19th century that certain Aryan tribes migrated into India, around 1800 BC-1500 BC, possibly waging war against the declining Indus Valley Civilization. The Rig-Veda has been interpreted by (mostly Western) Indologists as describing warfare and struggle for control of territory. These claims are disputed by (mostly Indian) scholars who believe that the Indo-Iranian languages are indigenous to the Indus Valley.
Other speakers of Indo-Aryan appear in Mesopotamia as the Mitanni rulers around 1500 BC. Some Pamir languages remain difficult to classify a either Iranian or Indo-Aryan.
See also Achaemenid dynasty.
Ancient persians used the term Aryan to describe their lineage and their language. Darius the Great, King of Persia (521 - 486 BCE), in an inscription in Naqsh-e Rostam (near Shiraz in present-day Iran), proclaims: "I am Darius the great King... A Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage...". The name Iran is a cognate of Aryan meaning the Land of Aryans. The term has become a term of art in the Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religions.
Herodotus also discussed the common origin of the Medes, the Persians, and Scythians as Aryan tribes separating (and re-combining in the case of the Medes and Persians).
The term remains also a frequent element in modern Persian personal names, Ariana, Iran-dokht ("Aryan-Daughter"), Arian, Aryan-Pur, Aryaramne etc.
Another meaning refers to the Aryan race in a more radical and distinctive usage of the term "race", according to which humanity as a whole is divided into distinct races with separate characteristics. This meaning was, and still is common in theories of racial superiority, which were embraced by Nazi Germany. This usage tends to blur the Sanskrit meaning of 'noble' or 'elevated' with the idea of distinctive ancestral ethnicity marked by language_distribution. In this interpretation, the Aryan Race is both the highest representative of humanity and the purest descendent of the Proto_Indo_European population.
According to Hitler's ideology the Germanic race corresponded to this ideal and was thus a master race, at the top of a racial hierarchy, with the Negro race at the bottom. The Semitic race, represented by the Jews, was deemed to be a racial threat to Germany's homogenous Aryan civilization. Nazism portrayed their misinterpretation of an "Aryan race" as the only race capable of creating culture and civilizations, while other races are merely capable of some preservation, or destruction of, culture.
Because of historical racist use of Aryan, and especially use of Aryan race in connection with the myths and propaganda of Nazism, the word is sometimes avoided as tainted. However, as a linguistic technical term, it is in continued use without any ideological implication.