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Aryan race
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Aryan race

Indo-European
Indo-European languages
Indo-European religion
Aryan race
Aryan invasion theory
Kurgan
Vedic civilization
Indo-European

The Aryan race is a concept which reached its height of popularity during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Inspired by the discovery of the Indo-European language family, 19th century ethnologists speculated that all "white" European peoples descended from an ancient people called the Aryans.

This idea 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 to Nazism. The very existence of a distinct "Aryan people" — or Proto-Indo-Europeans, as the speakers of the original unified Indo-European language are now called — is still debated.

The concept of Aryan race, and the various beliefs related to it, should not be confused with the religion 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 and Celtic 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 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 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 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 clues suggested that an Aryan people whose descendants were the Achaemenianss (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".

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, Pakistan and parts of Northern 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.

The culture of the Aryans

It cannot be denied that the cultures of ancient Persia and India have common roots. Other nearby peoples, notably the Hittites and 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. 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 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. The theosophs claimed the Aryans to be God's chosen race to free the world. Guido von List (and his followers such as Lanz von Liebenfels) later took up these ideas, mixing this ideology with nationalistic ideas. Such views also fed into the development of Nazi ideology.

These and other ideas idea 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 so far as to kill 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.

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 Circassians and southern Slavs, but certainly not the Nordic Germans and English.

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