Aryan Origins | Migration Theory and Etymological History

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3w Sep 2, 2021

Aryan is a designation originally meaning “civilized”, “noble”, or “free” without reference to any ethnicity. It was first applied as a self-identifying term by a migratory group of people from Central Asia later known as Indo-Iranians (who settled on the Iranian Plateau) and, later, applied to Indo-Aryans (who traveled south to settle northern India).

The word had no widespread ethnic connotation prior to the 19th century CE other than its usage by the Persians (known as 'Iranians' from 'Aryans') to distinguish themselves from their Muslim Arab conquerors in the 7th century CE, and even then (it could be argued) it was not so much an ethnic distinction as one of class and personhood. Prior to the conquest, Persia had been “the land of the Aryans” and, afterwards, a term was coined for non-Aryans.

'Aryan' became associated with ethnicity and, especially, with light-skinned (Caucasian) superiority, only after Western European scholars began translating, and often misinterpreting, Sanskrit texts in the 18th and more extensively in the 19th centuries CE. Theories had been advanced earlier regarding a correlation between Sanskrit and European languages, but this concept was popularized by the Anglo-Welsh philologist Sir William Jones (l. 1746-1794 CE) in 1786 CE who claimed there was a common source for these languages which he called Proto-Indo-European.

Jones' claim inspired later writers to identify this “common source” and encouraged the French elitist Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (l. 1816-1882 CE) to develop the racist theories concerning “Aryan Blood” and White Supremacy which would become popularized in Germany through the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (l. 1855-1927 CE), the British-born political philosopher who would become Adolf Hitler's mentor and inspiration as well as informing the ideology and work of Alfred Rosenberg (l. 1893-1946 CE) which empowered the Nazi Party in Germany c. 1930-1945 CE.

Jones' claim would also influence the work of the German philologist Max Muller (l. 1823-1900 CE) who, in attempting to identify this “common source” via the Rig Veda and the history of the Indus Valley Civilization, created the myth of an Aryan Invasion of the region which claimed light-skinned Aryans conquered darker-skinned indigenous people and established high civilization; an interpretation of his work which Muller himself never intended and, in fact, repudiated.

The work of Gobineau, Chamberlain, and the Aryan Invasion claim would be embraced by the British throughout the 19th and 20th centuries CE to justify their control of India as they were the “Aryans” – a superior race – who were bringing culture and civilization to the less fortunate. This view was encouraged and popularized by the work of the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler (l. 1890-1976 CE) who excavated the ancient Indus Valley Civilization cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and claimed his finds supported Muller's Aryan Invasion theory. Just as the fair-skinned Aryans of old had brought civilization to India, Wheeler claimed, so now had the British.

Most of Wheeler's work has been discredited in the modern day, as has Muller's invasion theory, and the works of every contributor to a definition of Aryan as referencing Caucasian have equally been dismissed as either misguided, misinterpretations, or intentionally racist. In the present day, the term is understood to properly refer to the early Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan migratory group, possibly originally from the region of the Ural River or, according to some scholars, to the Indo-Iranians only based on the continued usage of the term by the great Persian Empires of the Near East.

Link to original article titled Aryan by Joshua J. Mark

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