The phrase Aryan race is sometimes used to translate Old Persian inscriptions and other Persian sources from c. 500 BC onwards that refer to an Aryan lineage or nation. The word Iran itself means "the Land of Aryans" and Indians and Iranians consider their ethnicity and stock as being Aryan.
In the 19th Century, new ideas about the Aryan race were developed in tandem with new theories about Indo-European languages and race. Inspired by the discovery of the Indo-European language family, 19th century ethnologists speculated that the white European peoples descended from an ancient people called the Aryans. These ideas reached their height of popularity in Europe and America in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century.
The idea that certain European peoples belonged to the Aryan race was adopted by several European colonialist and nationalist movements of that era — notably Nazis, who used the concept of the Aryan race (redefined to mean a "master race" of people of northern European descent) to justify their racial and military policies.
Largely because of its association with Nazi and imperialist racism, the word "Aryan" is now heavily tainted, and the phrase Aryan race is hardly used except in connection with Nazism. However, because it continues to be in use by many nonracists, one should never assume that the term "Aryan" appearing by itself necessarily denotes racism or white supremacy, but instead should judge it by the context in which it appears.
Support for the concept of a superior Aryan race is sometimes referred to as Aryanism. This should not be confused with the religious belief called Arianism.
Origin of the concept
The idea of the "Aryan race" arose when linguists identified the Avestan and Sanskrit (ancient languages of Persia and Northern India, respectively) as the oldest known relatives of all the major European languages, including Latin, Greek, and all Germanic, Celtic and Slavic languages. They argued that the speakers of these languages originated from an ancient people who must have been the ancestors of all the European peoples.
These hypothetical ancestors were given the name Aryans, from the Sanskrit and Avestan word Arya, which means "noble person". From this point the term "Aryan" came to mean something similar to "white European" — excluding the Jewish and Arab peoples, because their ancestral languages (Hebrew and Arabic) do not belong to the Indo-European family.
It is notable that in the Vedas the word Arya is never used in a racial or ethnic sense. It is still used by Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Jains to mean "noble" or "spiritual". It is similar to the name Shri (another for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi), which is used as an epithet of respect. In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is called the Arya Astangika Marga, the Four Noble Truths are called the Arya-Satya.
The Aryan homeland question
The geographical origins of the ancient "Aryans" are still the object of much dispute. Avestan was the language of ancient Persia (roughly coincident with modern Iran). Sanskrit is originally associated with the Vedic Civilization of Modern Day Northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, among other areas. 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 clues suggested that an Aryan people whose descendants were the Achaemenians (such as the kings Cyrus II 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".
See also: Kurgan, BMAC, Aryan invasion.
The culture of the Aryans
It is generally accepted that the cultures of ancient Persia and India have common roots, though some scholars dispute this (see Aryan invasion theory). Other nearby peoples, notably the Mitanni, also seem to have been related to it. That ancestral culture includes the worship of the gods Indra, Varuna, Agni, and Mithra, and 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, and the ancestral Aryan gods gave rise to different pantheons.
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. However, some white supremacist groups, such as Aryan Nations, still use the term Aryan as a racial label.
Imperialist, nationalistic and Nazi 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. During this time Arthur de Gobineau became read around Europe.
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. Because many modern European languages are derived from Sanskrit, British colonialists used this as a justification for their rule of India. They claimed 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. They also sought to divide the society by caste by claiming that Aryans had established themselves as the dominant castes, who were traditionally the scholars of the intellectually sophisticated Vedic writings of the Hindu faith. Much of these theories were simply conjecture on the part of European imperialism, as there is nothing in the ancient Indian literature to suggest that caste had any kind of racial basis. There is also no record in the vast corpus of ancient Indian texts of people with "white" racial features, and archaeological findings show that the inhabitants of the region had much the same racial features as the current population. 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 Tamils, 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 argues that no 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 supposed 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. Blavatsky named the fifth root race (out of seven root races) the Aryan Race or Aryans. She thought that the Aryans originally came from Atlantis and described the Aryan races with the following words: "The Aryan races, for instance, now varying from dark brown, almost black, red-brown-yellow, down to the whitest creamy colour, are yet all of one and the same stock -- the Fifth Root-Race -- and spring from one single progenitor, (...) who is said to have lived over 18,000,000 years ago, and also 850,000 years ago -- at the time of the sinking of the last remnants of the great continent of Atlantis." (Secret Doctrine, vol.II, p.249). Blavatsky used the term "Root Race" mainly as a technical term to describe the large time periods in her cosmology. However, her use of terms like "Aryan Race" and "Root Race" was not connected to fascist or racialist ideas, she believed in a Universal Brotherhood of humanity and wrote that "all men have spiritually and physically the same origin" and that "mankind is essentially of one and the same essence." (The Key to Theosophy, Section 3)
Guido von List (and his followers such as Lanz von Liebenfels) later took up these ideas, falsifying and mixing this ideology with nationalistic and fascist ideas. Such views also fed into the development of Nazi ideology.
These and other ideas evolved into the Nazi use of the term "Aryan race" to refer to what they saw as being a "master race" of people of northern European descent, going to extreme and violent lengths to "maintain the purity" of this race through a far-reaching eugenics program (including anti-miscegenation legislation, compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and the mentally deficient, the execution of the institutionalized mentally ill as part of a euthanasia program, and eventually the systematic targeting of Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals in the Holocaust). This usage now has nearly no meaning outside of Nazi or neo-Nazi ideology.
Aryan race and genetics
Contemporary anthropologists who believe in the existence of an ancient Aryan race generally have the opinion that its closest descendants today are the Persians, not the Germans; that is, if Aryans existed, they were "white" after the manner of imperial-era, pre-Muslim Persians, and possibly the Ossetes and Slavs, but certainly not the Nordic race with which they were equated in Nazi ideology.
Ethnical and racial interpretations of the Vedic Aryans
- See also Aryan, Arya, Aryan Invasion Theory, Dasa
In Nazi Germany, Aryan referred to blue-eyed, blond and tall Germanic people. But this was just one of the many definitions that have been given to the word Aryan, most of which are unrelated to the Sanskrit term Arya. The racial interpretation of the Vedic Aryans might also have been motivated by colonist politics.
Arya has also been interpreted by some as a term refering to only blond-haired and blue-eyed people. But apart from about three gods (Indra, Rudra (who is also described as having brown-hued skin color and golden-coloured arms) and Savitar, gods that are associated with the sun or with the lightning), there is in Sanskrit literature according to Michael Witzel only one goldhaired (hiranyakeshin) person, i.e. Hiranyakeshin, the author of the Hiranyakeshin-Shrauta-Sutra. (J. Bronkhorst and M.M. Deshpande. 1999; p.390) While it is possible that this person was golden-haired, the author's name could also refer to one of the epithets of the solar deity Vishnu. These descriptions could also be poetic allegories: solar deities and gods associated with the sun were often described as golden-haired. On the other hand, there are references in Sanskrit literature where the hair of Brahmins is assumed to be black. For example, Atharva Veda 6:137. 2-3 contains a charm for making "strong black hairlocks" grow and in Baudhayana’s Dharma-Sutra 1:2, (also cited in Shabara ’s Bhasya on Jaimini 1:33) we read the verse “Let him kindle the sacrificial fire while his hair is still black”. Nearly all upper-caste Hindus of the Mahabharata are, if mentioned, at least described as black-haired.
Some verses of the Rig Veda have been interpreted racially. Hans Hock (1999b) studied all the occurences that were interpreted racially in Geldner's translation of the Rig Veda and concludes that they were either mistranslated or open to other interpretations. He writes that the racial interpretation of the Indian texts "must be considered dubious." (p.154) Hock also notes that "early Sanskrit literature offers no conclusive evidence for preoccupation with skin color. More than that, some of the greatest Epic heroes and heroines such as Krishna, Draupadi, Arjuna, Nakula and (...) Damayanti are characterized as dark-skinned. Similarly, the famous cave-paintings of Ajanta depict a vast range of skin colors. But in none of these contexts do we find that darker skin color disqualifies a person from being considered good, beautiful, or heroic." (p.154-155) Draupadi is also often called Krsnā ("black") in the Mahabharata.
According to another examination by Trautmann (1997) the racial evidence of the Indian texts is soft and based upon an amount of overreading. He concludes: "That the racial theory of Indian civilization still lingers is a miracle of faith. Is it not time we did away with it?" (p.213-215)
The earliest still existing commentary on the Rig Veda is the one by Sayana (14th century). According to Romila Thapar (1999, The Aryan question revisited), "There isn't a single racial connotation in any of Sayana's commentaries."
- J. Bronkhorst and M.M. Deshpande. 1999. Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia
- Bryant, Edwin: The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture. 2001. Oxford University Press.ISBN 0195137779
- Elst, Koenraad Update on the Aryan Invasion Debate. 1999. ISBN 8186471774 , 
- Frawley, David The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India, 1995. New Delhi: Voice of India
- Hock, Hans. 1999b, Through a Glass Darkly: Modern "Racial" Interpretations vs. Textual and General Prehistoric Evidence on Arya and Dasa/Dasyu in Vedic Indo-Aryan Society." in Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia.
- Schetelich, Maria. 1990, "The problem ot the "Dark Skin" (Krsna Tvac) in the Rgveda." Visva Bharati Annals 3:244-249.
- Parpola, Asko. 1988. The Coming of the Aryans to Iran and India and the Cultural and Ethnic Identity of the Dasas.
- Sethna, K.D. 1992. The Problem of Aryan Origins. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
- Trautmann, Thomas R. 1997, Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
"I have declared again and again that if I say Aryas, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair nor skull; I mean simply those who speak an Aryan language… To me an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar." Max Muller