Aryan is an English word derived from the Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan term arya, meaning "noble" or "lord".
In the 19th century, the term was often used to refer to what we now call the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
Aryan currently refers to the Indo-Iranian language sub-family, or to its Indian sub-branch known as Indo-Aryan.
The Aryan (Indo-Iranian) proto-language evolved into the family of Indo-Iranian languages and European languages, of which the oldest known members are Sanskrit and Avestan (and the fragmentary Mitanni language). Many Aryan religious beliefs and practices survived in Zoroastrianism (Iran), and Hindu (India). The Circassians of today speak a language that is connected to a version of Aryan language not spoken since about 10,000 B.C.
The term has also been used to refer to a "race", originally in the loose sense of a distinct population. Ancient writers such as Herodotus described the Persians, the Medes, and the Scythians as some of the ancient Aryan peoples. 19th century writers used it as name for Indo-Europeans peoples as a whole. It also describes the people who invaded ancient India and conquered the Harappans/Dravidians, to become the Hindu people. The term today, is often replaced by the well-defined Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Indo-Iranian, Indo-Iranian, Iranian or Indo-Aryan.
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 (hence aristocrat, aristocracy), 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 connotations, certainly not in the sense that we define race today. However it does later seem to have been used to identify certain populations in distinction from others, in particular those clans who accepted proto-Vedic and proto-Zoroastrian beliefs. Max Müller theorised that this usage originated as a denotation of farming populations. 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 more modern usage as a general term of respect, signifying nobility, in Hinduism (the descendant of Vedic religion), Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Jainism. In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is called the Arya Astangika Marga, the Four Noble Truths are called the Arya-Satya.
The term thus grew from a tribalist self-identity, possibly in Iran to differentiate Aryan peoples from the powerful Assyrians who dominated the Middle East until Astyages of the Medes, an Aryan nation, began to conquer Assyrian lands, leading to the rise of the Persian Empire, through Astyages' grandson, Cyrus II, who, aside from being part Mede, was also part Persian, the Persians being another Aryan tribe.
"Aryan" has been subject to racialist distortions, only in 19th and 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-description of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
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 preceding 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 Afghanistan 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 as either Iranian or Indo-Aryan.
See also Achaemenid dynasty.
Ancient Persians used the term Aryan to describe their lineage and their language, and this tradition has continued into the present day amongst modern Iranians. Darius the Great, King of Persia (521 - 486 BC), 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 Shah had the title Arya-Mehr, which means Light of the Aryans. The name Iran itself 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, including Arya (a boy's name), Aryana (a common surname), Iran-dokht (Aryan daughter), Aryanpur (or Aryanpour), Aryaramne, among many others.
Another meaning refers to the Aryan race in the 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 Alfred Rosenberg's ideology the "Nordic-Atlantean" (nordisch-atlantisch) or "Aryan-Nordic" (arisch-nordisch) race corresponded to this ideal and was thus a master race, at the top of a racial hierarchy,
pitted against a "Jewish-Semitic" (jüdisch-semitisch) race, deemed to be a racial threat to Germany's homogeneous Aryan civilization, thus rationalizing Nazi Antisemitism. Nazism portrayed their interpretation 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 being tainted. Similarly, the swastika was an ancient Aryan/Sanskrit symbol chosen by Hitler for its Aryan significance, to the effect that it is now often identified with Nazism. As a linguistic technical term, Aryan is in continued use without any ideological implication.