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The term Aryan is derived from the Indic word árya (noble). The ancient Hindu Rig Veda (variously dated 4000–1200 BCE) uses árya as a self-designation of its authors. According to another Hindu text, the Manu Smriti (c. sixth century BCE), the inhabitants of the áryávarta (the Hindu heartland) were setting the standards for dharma. In the Bhagavad Gita (c. second century BCE), the Hindu god Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna that it would be an-árya not to fight a just war. In Buddhism, ariya has an ethical connotation: not birth but high moral standards make one an ariya. Gautama Buddha (c. sixth century BCE) taught the ariya saccáni, or the “(four) noble truths.” Jains also use the word as an expression of moral excellence. The word árya also occurs in the Zend-Avesta, the oldest scripture of the Zoroastrians, which states that Iran is the “ariya country.” In 1875 Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883) founded the Ürya Samáj, a Hindu reform movement aimed at restoring Vedic religion by eliminating all later accretions to sacred Hindu writings known as Purana and excluding all foreign influences.
“Aryan” entered European scholarly discourse in the mid-nineteenth century through philology as a generic name for Indo-European languages. A major international interdisciplinary enterprise appeared under the title “Indo-Aryan research.” The Sanskrit scholar F. Max Müller (1823–1900) cautioned other scholars not to load the linguistic term with racial overtones, as had already been done by some anthropologists of his time. Joseph Arthur Conte de Gobineau (1816–1882) maintained that within the “white race,” the “master race,” the blue-eyed, blond-haired, dolichocephalic Aryans constituted the highest variant. Variously Scandinavia, Lithuania, the (dried-out) North Sea, northern Germany, southeastern Russia, the North Pole, and the (mythical) Atlantis were claimed as the cradle of the Aryans. For at least two thousand years, Europeans, relying on ancient Greco-Roman traditions and on the Genesis story of the peopling of the earth after the great flood, assumed that their ancestors had migrated westward from the East. By the nineteenth century, when it had become accepted that the earth and humankind were much older than six thousand years and the claim of European cultural superiority seemed to have been established, the direction of migration was reversed. The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) that arose in England in the second half of the nineteenth century specifically suggested that “Aryan” conquerors brought horses, iron, Sanskrit, and the Vedas to India around 1500 BCE.
By the early twentieth century, it had become impossible to find any scholarly agreement on either the identity or the origin of an Aryan race: now ideology took over. Widespread racism in Europe and North America led to the creation of “scientific” race theories that not only justified white-black segregation, but also supported an increasingly militant anti-Semitism. Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s (1855–1927) The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) inspired the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg (1893–1946) to claim in his 1930 book Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (The Myth of the Twentieth Century) that the preservation of the purity and dominance of the Aryan race was the main agenda of the twentieth century. Rosenberg also used the publications of the racist-nationalist Gustaf Kossinna (1858–1931) and Hans Reinert (1900–1990), who held the chair for “Prehistory and Early Germanic history” at the University of Berlin, to prove his thesis. The so-called Aryan race, or Herren Rasse, included besides the North Germans also the Scandinavians, the English, and the (Nordic) North Americans. Rosenberg’s Mythos offered “scientific” grounding to the Arier Paragraphen (legislation requiring pure Aryan ancestry) through which the Nazi government in early 1933 forced all German Jewish civil servants into retirement; it also provided theoretical support for the genocide later carried out on Jews, Gypsies (Roma), and other so-called inferior races.
For many years following the Holocaust, the term “Aryan” rarely appeared in scholarly literature. It resurfaced in the 1990s in a controversy about the Aryan Invasion Theory in connection with the early history of India. While archaeological, anthropological, and DNA research has proven the (AIT) all but untenable, some philologists, such as Michael Witzel, and some historians, such as Romila Thapar, defend it. Karl Marx (1818– 1883) had also believed in it.
In a different context, but related to the older race ideologies, the “Aryan Nations” movement in the United States, founded in 1974 by Richard G. Butler (1918–2004), has revived the issue through its use of Nazi symbols and vocabulary to promote its white supremacist anti-Semitic agenda. The Aryan Nations movement openly advocates the aims and strategies of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), and supporters strive to establish a worldwide “Fourth Reich” dominated by “Aryans.”
- Aryan Nations. http://www.aryan-nations.org/about.htm.
- Elst, Koenraad. 1999. Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
- Sieferle, Rolf Peter. 1987. Indien und die Arier in der Rassenkunde. Zeitschrift fur Kulturaustausch (3): 444–467.
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