Āryatvārtha Nirṇayam

Āryatvārtha Nirṇayam: Determination of the meaning of “Aryan”-ness

While there are scores of words that are contentious and loaded with historical baggage; ready to summon ghosts from the past to haunt a particular target group, it is perhaps the word, “Aryan”, arguably of course, that remains a bastard, with several theories claiming paternity. It is difficult to understand what the word, “Aryan” meant to the Ancient Hindu mind, the collective intelligentsia of priests, kings, ascetics and philosophers that shaped the Sacrosanct Veda, Smritis of Manu, Gautama and others, the Dharmasutras of Apastamba, Baudhayana and etc and the Itihasa Purana canon (Mahabharata, Ramayana and the scores of Puranas, all plenty with interpolations and obvious corruptions) over a continuum of two millennia.


The word “Aryan” has been interpreted in the context of race, culture, religion, language and etcetera, in academically and scientifically meaningful ways. But some would go to the ridiculous extent of claiming that it only refers to noble character as it is used in the Rig Veda. While due credit must be given to the sheer strength of imagination on the part of thinkers such as Dayananda Sarasvati, Aurobindo, Kapali Sastry, Subhash Kak and others who feel compelled to interpret an entire body of scripture as symbolic and strip it of its historical substance, one must set the humour aside and give in, for once, to objective thinking and approach the Rig Veda with the respect it deserves as a text that chronicles some of the most hoary events and persons of Bhāratadeśa.


So, were the “Aryans” an ethnic group that subscribed to a set of cultural practices and was part of a linguistic group? The answer depends on the era in Vedic history. When the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-Europeans first entered Bhāratavarṣa, they were carriers of a particular culture and proto-language (Proto-Vedic) and had a shared genetic identity. However, even this did not happen as neatly as imagined, in a single wave of migration. Manu and his progeny is likely to have been the first Indo-Aryan settlers in Bharatavarsha and his clan, over time, gave rise to the Ikśvākava, along with the Vaisālī and the Videha peoples.


It might have been possible that there was a (relatively) short interval between the era of Ikśvāku’s reign and the arrival of the second wave, that of the Aila (Descendants of Ilā, daughter of Manu and the ancestors of the Chandravamśi dynasties)-probably about 2-3 centuries. This seems substantiated by the Paurānika testimony, as cited by F.E. Pargiter in Ancient Historical Indian Tradition, that Ikśvāku inherited Madhyadeśa as the eldest son of Manu. (Brahma 7, 20. Harivamsa 10, 634. Siva vii, 60, 17. Linga i, 65, 28. Brahmanda iii, 60, 20; Vayu 85, 21.  

The text from Harivamsa states: “ikShvAkuH jyeShTha dAyAdo madhya-desham avAptavAn”

But in other parts of the Paurānika tradition, Yayati seems to be the ruler of Madhyadesa with his capital at Pratiṣṭhana. It seems that the Solar kingdoms, which derive patrilineal descent from Manu, (Whom Pargiter had styled as the ‘Manva’ kingdoms) were pushed more eastwards by this incoming second wave of the Aila. Going back to the meaning of the term, “Ārya”, the Aila definitely were culturally distinguished from the Manva although linguistically they were more or less the same stock.

However, the Aila themselves separated into the Panchajana, that is, five different tribes with their separate territories-Anu, Druhyu, Puru, Yadu and Turvasu-and this resulted in further cultural differentiation. However, the Panchajana and the Manva were still genetically distinct groups in contrast with the Dravidians who had arrived in Bhāratavarṣa prior to even the first wave of the Ārya and the still earlier, indigenous tribes of India. (Note that the Dravidians themselves are not the indigenous people of India as is commonly proclaimed by some individuals with vested interests) The latest genetic evidence also appears to suggest the relatively recent date for the admixture of these distinct genetic streams. Read this enlightening article by the learned Dienekes Pontikos

Gradually, this admixture translated into the diffusion of Ārya ideals from Āryavarta into Prāchya and Dakshina Bharata and several ruling tribes were embraced into the fold as honorary Kṣatriyās. However, the term, ‘Ārya’, seems to have been remembered primarily for its linguistic and cultural references. The tamil Saiva works often praises the religious canon that is both “Ariyamum Thamizhum” (That is, both Sanskrit and Tamil). Hence, the term, ‘Ārya’, seems to have been remembered among its peripheral subscribers in the southern region primarily for its linguistic and religious meaning. Thus, it is futile to divide the Hindus based on ‘Ārya’ as the term has constantly evolved and it now stands to represent a shared heritage to which we can all lay claim.

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4 responses to “Āryatvārtha Nirṇayam”

  1. Shiva Rai says :

    Considering the meaning of the word has been to refer to “honorary Kshatriyas”, would it be possible that it’s usage has eroded through the years such that it’s actual linguistic and cultural connotations are lost? Such that would the noble characteristics of behaviour would be the future use of such a word? Perhaps the Aurobindos were more utilitarian in their interpretations?

    • angirasasrestha says :

      That is a pretty good question Shiva. It would be possible to claim those connotations are lost if we are talking about solely with respect to India. However, the word “Arya” is not intrinsic to Sanskrit. It has proto-Indo European roots. It survives in the term, “Iran”, a corrupt version of “Airyana”, the term Zarathustris used to refer to their religious and ancestral homeland. There might be also reason to believe, that the “Ire” in Ireland is related to “Arya”.

      The fact that there was a proto-culture shared by indo-europeans before they branched out from a central region to all of Eurasia, also means that we cannot simply secularize the meaning of “Arya” as noble. The word only deserves to be used by people who as an ethnic group subscribe to those cultural practices. Which is why, the Cambodians and Javanese of Ancient times, in adopting Aryan culture as entire ethnic groups, deserve to be called Aryans in my opinion although they are genetically distant from the Indo-Europeans.

      The Ethno-Cultural ramifications of “Arya” cannot be ignored. There is a verse in the Rig Veda that says, “Vishvam Krnvanto Aryam”. “Make the whole world Aryan”. This Aryanization was achieved, as in the above cited example of the Hindu influence in South-east Asia or its foray into Central Asia and even parts of China, not by transgressing ethnic boundaries. While there was some genetic admixture during these events, the linguistic and ethnic identity of the peoples remained largely unchanged. As in any pagan polytheistic culture, the uniqueness of one’s ethnic roots were sacred.

      Regarding the Aurobindos, they may have had some “utility” in interpreting the word as such. But I believe it is wrong to interpret the Rig Veda’s language by modern developments. The Rig Veda is clearly a product of its own time and its focus, concerns, audience are definitely not universal and we myst respect this.

  2. Flint F. Johnson says :

    Interesting stuff. I am sure I am behind in this area, but weren’t the Aryans the same as Indo-Europeans, Aryan being suddenly politically incorrect after Hitler’s racial theories? They showed up around 3000, were patriarchal, militant, not necessarily heroic?

    • angirasasrestha says :

      Hi Flint,

      Happened to read your blog article: “The Socio-Economic Importance of the Bard”. The Bards’ role in legitimizing a King’s political authority bears a striking similarity to how the Rishis of Ancient India and the Brahmana priests of later India helped do the same for their patron kings.

      Coming back to your question, Well, we are not exactly clear what these various peoples called themselves. The word, “Aryan” is used because it is in abundant usage in the Rig Veda, their oldest literary contribution in India. However if you read the native Indian texts or perhaps read the very insightful research papers and books by Frederick Eden Pargiter, a High Court Judge in British India, you will gear towards the conclusion that the ancestors of the “Aryans” in the Rig Veda had long settled in India from Western Eurasia (More than a millennium at least when I use the genealogical records of the Hindu texts). Thus, the Rig Veda, which modern day scholars love to quote so much as proof for Aryan movement into India, was composed way after these Aryans had actually moved into India.

      So, are the Aryans same as Indo-Europeans? This is a slightly complicated question to answer. Well if you see my above reply to Shiva, you would realize that certain forms of the word, “Arya” are still preserved in West European languages and cultural expressions. But I think it is the group that moved towards India retained this term and thus I would use Aryans or Indo-Aryans to describe this people. The other groups are, “Germanic, Celtic, Tocharian, Hittite, Roman and so on”. These are all Indo-European groups and the Indo-Aryan is just one among them.

      As regards 3000 (do you mean B.C or B.P.), I am not too positive about the dates. I pay first and foremost respect to genetics and archaeology which proves that one ancestral group of the Indian people (The Indo-Aryans) definitely came out of central Asia/West-Eurasia and migrated eastwards into the Indian subcontinent and gives us a certain idea about what route they may have taken. However, I am not sure if these disciplines have got a grip on the right dates. I believe, the Hindu textual tradition, which have preserved the lineage of various dynasties, should be respected and calculations of dates must account for these sources. I will avoid the issue of dates for now and perhaps deal with them in a later post.

      Regarding the militant/patriarchy, patriarchy itself is a modern construct. The way I see it, the Aryans were warrior tribes and hence a male-dominated society was natural. It would be inaccurate to ascribe militancy to the whole of the ancient aryans because the Aryans themselves did not arrive in India in one single stock. The Solar dynasties (The Iksvakus i speak of in my posts, and etcetera) had settled quite a while before the Lunar dynasties (The Puru, Yadu, etc). The former had acquainted themselves with the previous inhabitants of India and adopted a more settled life, centering around agriculture. The lunar dynasties, had a tendency to use war as a means of economic growth.

      Lastly, an assumption that is made is the Aryans’ entry was a rude interruption whereas the “Black-skinned” dravidians were passive, static peoples. This is really wrong. The Dravidians themselves had entered India from the Northwest via central asia milleniums before the Aryans and had come into contact with the Indigenous people there.

      These links might prove very useful for further reading of the various gene flows into India:


      Thus, the so-called “Aryan Invasion”, if anything, is a rather boring story of human migration and the competition for space and the displacement that happens afterwards. There is no reason for anyone feeling guilty or resentful of events that happened in primitive societies

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