published on 19 January 2013
The term “Aryan” has had a complicated history. The Sanskrit word ārya, the source of the English word, was mainly the self designation of the Vedic Indic people although during time it developed some secondary meanings. It has a cognate in Iranian arya, where it is also a self designation. Both the Indic and Iranian terms descend from a form ārya that was used by the Indo-Iranian tribes to refer to themselves which is also the source of the country-name Iran, from a phrase meaning “Kingdom of the Aryans”.
It is widely accepted that the meaning of the term is “nobleman”. During the 19th century CE, it was proposed that this was not only the Indo-Iranian tribal self-designation but also the self-designation of the Proto-Indo-European themselves (today this theory has been abandoned). “Aryan” then came to be used in scolarship to refer to Indo-European. Some decades later it was further proposed that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was located in northern Europe, a theory no longer accepted. This led to the speculation that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were of a Nordic racial type. In this way, “Aryan” developed yet another, purely racial meaning, probably one of the most familiar meanings today. Some scholars (particularly those involved in Indo-European linguistic studies) today use the term “Aryan” and “Indo-Aryan” in the older sense: “Aryan” to refer to Indo-Iranian and “Indo-Aryan” to refer to Indic. However, if we stick to its Sanskrit English root ārya, then “Aryan” refers to the the Vedic Indic people.
Before the time of the Aryan invasion, there was a civilization in ancient India known as “The Indus River” civilization that can be traced back as far as 3300 BCE and was located in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent, present day Pakistan and northwest India. From 2500 to 2000 BCE, this civilization was at its peak. Two cities, in particular, have been excavated at the sites of Mohenjo-Daro on the lower Indus, and at Harappa, further upstream. The evidence suggests they had a highly developed city life; many houses had wells and bathrooms as well as an elaborate draining-system. The social conditions of the citizens were comparable to those in Sumeria and superior to the contemporary Babylonians and Egyptians. They also had commercial, religious and artistic connections with Sumeria and Babylon and a writing system that still remains undeciphered.
By 1500 BCE, a large group of nomadic cattle-herders, the Aryans, invaded and conquered the region, coming from the west, thus putting an end to the Indus civilization which may have had at its peak a population of 1 million. Over the course of several centuries, they migrated from the northwest into the river Valley. They gradually settled down and took up agriculture. We know a lot more about the Aryans because of their literature, which remained purely as oral tradition for almost a thousand years and was passed orally by the priests.
Aryans fought with bows and arrows, led by armored warriors in chariots, who wielded battle-axes and spears. It appears that political hypocrisy as we know it today was unknown to the Aryans since they conquered India without claiming to elevate it: their word for war said nothing about national pride or anything alike, but simply meant “a desire for more cows”. As they passed from armed warfare to settled tillage their tribes gradually coalesced into petty states. Each state was ruled by a king checked by a council of warriors.
Aryans had strict rules of endogamy and exogamy. Marriage outside the racial group or within near degrees of kinship was forbidden. Outnumbered by a subject people whom they considered inferior to themselves, the Aryans foresaw that without restrictions on intermarriage they would lose their racial identity in just a few generations. The first caste division, therefore, was not by status but by colour. We can see this in the early Sanskrit word for caste: várna, which means “colour”. This restriction divided the Aryans from the Nagas and Dravidians (the original inhabitants of the region). Among the Aryans themselves, marriage was free, except between near kin.
Caste division became more rigidly defined around the 1000-500 BCE period. At the top of the social structure we find the Kshatriyas, or warriors, who held it a sin to die in bed. Then we find the Brahmans, or priests, who at the beginning did not have as much power as they would have later on. However, as war gradually gave way to peace and as religion grew in social importance and ritual complexity, the Brahmans increased in number, wealth and power and eventually challenged the social status of the Kshatriyas. We also find the the Vaishyas, or the commoners (land-owners, merchants, etc.), and the Shudras, or labourers, who comprised most of the native population. Pariahs, or outcasts, were people who did not even fit into this caste system, typically those who were born from, say, a brahman father and a shudra mother. They had no caste, no place at all in the system and their lives were truly miserable. In this last group we also find war captives and men reduced to slavery as a punishment.
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