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Aryan race

The Aryan race is a concept within 19th century and 20th century European culture. It was claimed by 19th century ethnologists that 'white' European peoples originated from an ancient people called the Aryans, a name derived from the Sanskrit and Avestan word Arya, which means 'noble person'. This idea arose when linguists identified these two closely related languages as the earliest known ancestors of all the major European languages, including Latin, Greek, Germanic and Celtic. They argued that the speakers of these languages, who called themselves ‘Arya’ must have been the ancestors of all the European peoples. From this point the term "Aryan" came to mean something similar to "white person". It also, significantly, excluded Jewish people from 'Aryan' identity because their ancestral Hebrew language has a different origin.

The beliefs and geographical origins of the ancient Arya were much disputed at this time. Avestan was the language of ancient Persia. Sanskrit is originally associated with the Indus Valley in the north of India, just to the east of Persia. The indigenous (and modern) name for Persia, "Iran", is a variant of "Aryan" (in fact it is Ayr + -an, "land of Aryans", where -an is a suffix of location in Persian). Furthermore, the leaders of Persia called themselves Aryans. Darius the Great, King of Persia (521 - 486 BC), in an inscription in Naqsh-e-Rostam (near Shiraz, Iran) proclaims: "..I am Darius, the Great King,..., A Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, having Aryan lineage...". The Avesta also records a homeland, called Airyanem Vaejah (The Aryan Expanse), from which the Aryans are supposed to have migrated.

These and other findings suggested that an Aryan people whose descendants were the Achamenianss (Cyrus and Darius the Great) existed and proclaimed it. However, many of these usages are also intelligible if we understand the word Aryan in its sense of 'noble'. Nevertheless many scholars accepted that the term originally identified a specific people and their culture. Certainly, an originating culture can be postulated behind those of ancient Persia and India. Other nearby peoples, notably the Hittites and Mitanni, also seem to have shared it. This culture worshipped the gods Indra, Varuna and Agni and Mithras. They also placed great emphasis on the ritualistic use of a hallucinogenic drink called Soma, extracted from an unknown plant. However, as groups separated and migrated, their religions changed. Eventually the Persian Zoroastrian and Indian Vedic faiths emerged from the primal Aryan belief-system. See also: Aryan gods.

This evidence gave rise to the search for the original Aryan homeland, and thus, it was believed, to the origins of the European 'race'. Many scholars argued that the Aryans originated in the Inner Asian Steppes, from which they migrated both west into Europe and south into Afghanistan, Iran and parts of India around 1800 BC. The spread of the Aryans was supposed to explain how it came to pass that Indo-European languages became so widespread throughout Europe and Asia. It was thought, moreover, that the Aryans came as conquerors, displacing earlier peoples, in most of the places where the languages were spoken. They were able to conquer so much territory because their nomadic lifestyle, their use of the horse and wheeled vehicles such as chariots gave them a decisive military advantage. This model of conquest and cultural replacement was once widely accepted, but now has generally been rejected, at least as it pertains to Europe as a whole. Conquest, if it occurred, was a local phenomenon; there is no evidence of general warfare or cultural replacements. It is also difficult to tell what language people spoke from pre-literate artifacts; where conquest has occurred, it may have been one group of Indo-Europeans by another.

Largely because of its association with Nazi and imperialist racism (see below), the term 'Aryan' is now problematic. However, in the Vedas the word is never used in a racial or ethnic sense. Arya is still used by Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Jains, as well as Hindus, to mean "noble" or "spiritual." It is similar to the Sanskrit word sri, an epithet of respect. The claim that a distinct Aryan people once existed is still debated. In scholarly contexts the term is now only used to label the proto-culture from which the Zoroastrian and Vedic beliefs emerged. In linguistics the Indo-Aryan languages are those that derive from Sanskrit. The speakers of the original unified Indo-European language are no longer called Aryans, but are referred to as PIEs, or Proto-Indo-Europeans. However, some white supremacist groups, such as Aryan Nations, still use the term Aryan as a racial label.

Nazi and imperialist uses of the term

The Russian Steppe theory of Aryan origins was not the only one circulating during the nineteenth century. Many German scholars argued that the Aryans originated in ancient Germany or Scandinavia, or at least that in those countries the original Aryan ethnicity had been preserved. It was widely believed in that the Vedic Aryans were ethnically identical to the Goths, Vandals and other ancient Germanic peoples of the Völkerwanderung. This idea was often intertwined with anti-semitic ideas. It was claimed that there were distinct 'Aryan' and 'Semitic' peoples, based on these assumptions about the linguistic and ethnic history of the ancient world. In this way Semitic peoples came to be seen as an alien presence within 'Aryan' societies.

This idea evolved into the Nazi's use of the term Aryan race to refer to what they saw as being a "master race" of people of northern European descent, going so far as to murder mentally ill children in order to maintain its purity under Hitler's T-4 Euthanasia Program. This usage now has nearly no meaning outside of Nazi or neo-Nazi ideology.

In India, under the British Empire, the British rulers also used the idea of a distinct Aryan race in order to ally British power with the Indian caste system. It was argued that the Aryans were 'white' people who had invaded India in ancient times, subordinating the dark skinned native Dravidian peoples, who were pushed to the south. The Aryans had established themselves as the dominant castes. They were also the authors of the most intellectually sophisticated Vedic writings of the Hindu faith. There was thus a natural alliance between the British and the descendants of the ancient Aryans. All discussion of Aryan or Dravidian "races" remains highly controversial in India to this day, but does continue to affect political and religious debate. Some Dravidians, most commonly Tamilss, claim that the worship of Shiva is a distinct Dravidian religion, to be distinguished from Brahminical "Aryan" Hinduism. In contrast, the Indian nationalist Hindutva movement denies that an Aryan invasion or migration ever occurred, arguing that Vedic beliefs emerged from the Indus Valley Civilisation, which is generally supposed to have pre-dated the advent of the Aryans in India. See also: Aryan invasion

These debates also led to the Theosophical movement founded by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott at the end of the nineteenth century. This was an early kind of New Age philosophy, that took inspiration from Indian culture, in particular from the Hindu reform movement the Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayananda. The theosophs claimed the Aryans to be God’s chosen race to free the world. The German Guido v. List Society later took up these ideas, mixing this ideology with nationalistic ideas. Such views also fed into the development of Nazi ideology.