It is well known that in Iranian languages airiia- / airya- had a clear ethnic meaning which is reflected in the modern name of the country Iran.
However, in Sanskrit, this word had a more general meaning: ‘a good worthy family man who respects the traditions of his country, who is a good housekeeper and duly performs the rites of yajña’:
This is how ārya is translated in the MW dictionary:
(H1) ā́rya [p= 152,2] [L=26533] m. (fr. aryá , √ṛ) , a respectable or honourable or faithful man , an inhabitant of āryāvarta
[L=26534] one who is faithful to the religion of his country
[L=26535] N. of the race which immigrated from Central Asia into āryāvarta (opposed to an-ārya , dasyu , dāsa)
[L=26536] in later times N. of the first three castes (opposed to śūdra) RV. AV. VS. MBh. Ya1jn5. Pan5cat. &c
[L=26537] a man highly esteemed , a respectable , honourable man Pan5cat. S3ak. &c
[L=26538] a master , an owner L.
[L=26539] a friend L.
[L=26540] a vaiśya L.
[L=26542] (with Buddhists [pāli ayyo , or ariyo]) a man who has thought on the four chief truths of Buddhism (» next col.) and lives accordingly , a Buddhist priest
[L=26543] a son of manu sāvarṇa Hariv.
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26544] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. Aryan , favourable to the Aryan people RV. &c
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26545] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. behaving like an Aryan , worthy of one , honourable , respectable , noble R. Mn. S3ak. &c
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26546] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. of a good family
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26547] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. excellent
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26548] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. wise
(H1B) ā́rya [L=26549] mf(ā and ā́rī)n. suitable
(H1B) ā́ryā [L=26550] f. a name of pārvatī Hariv.
(H1B) ā́ryā [L=26551] f. a kind of metre of two lines (each line consisting of seven and a half feet ; each foot containing four instants , except the sixth of the second line , which contains only one , and is therefore a single short syllable ; hence there are thirty instants in the first line and twenty-seven in the second) ; ([cf. Old Germ. êra ; Mod. Germ. Ehre ; Irish Erin.])
One conclusion which can be drawn from the above is that the widespread translation of ārya only as ‘noble’ or ‘distinguished’ (e.g. in Encyclopædia Britannica) is clearly a simplification. Also the meaning ‘of the race which immigrated from Central Asia into āryāvarta (opposed to an-ārya , dasyu , dāsa)’ my originate in the specific interpretation of Rig Veda by the 19th century European (mostly German) scholars. The key to understanding the primordial meaning of ārya could be in the cardinal meaning of the root but there is a problem with its identification.
The ār may be considered as a separate root but it may also be a vṛddhi of the verb ṛ having lots of meanings : ‘to go, move, rise, tend upwards; to advance towards a foe, attack, invade; to put in or upon, place, insert, fix into or upon, fasten; to deliver up, surrender, offer, reach over, present, give’ etc. Such conflicting meanings is an indication that there could be several separate verbs merged in this root.
Such a wide range of meanings is a source of conflicting explanations of arya / ārya. Somehow it is often overlooked that there is an obscure verb ār – *āryati ‘to praise’ which may be connected to ṛ. This verb has been poorly attested only tree times in RV as 3 P, pl. āryanti (RV 8.016.06 & RV 10.048.03 (twice)) but there is also a prominent noun arka ‘praise, hymn, song; one who praises, a singer’ which may be related here. The final -ka is a diminutive/comparative suffix (much used in forming adjectives; it may also be added to nouns to express diminution, deterioration, or similarity e.g. putraka, a little son; aśvaka, a bad horse or like a horse) having clear parallels in Slavonic ( e.g. Rus. znat‘ ‘to know’ > znajka ‘one who knows’ etc.). Interestingly, in Rus. dialects there is a verb arkat’ ‘to cry, speak loudly’. From this perspective ārya could have originally meant simply ‘the praised one = good respectable person’ being synonymous to śravya ‘worth hearing, praiseworthy’ (cp. also śravaḥ ‘glory, fame, loud praise’ and its Rus cognate slava ‘fame, glory’).
In Rig Veda ārya is met about 30 times. I looked at two RV verses which are often cited in the literature on this topic and tried to translate them as close as possible to the text.
(RV text from Rigveda )
Agni (is) the head of the Sky, the navel of the Earth. He became the messenger of the two worlds |
Such you were born by Gods. О, Vaishvanara! Indeed you are the (celestial) light for the Arya ||
Into you the Vasus have put the power of an Asura for they appreciate the strength of your spirit, O, (you) great as Mithra |
You chased away the Dasyu from (his) abode creating the broad light for the Arya ||
Some general observations. Both verses are addressed to Agni and in both of them is mentioned the celestial light jyotiḥ (cp. also Rus. žёlt ‘yellow’ which could be transcribed using Skr. translit. as jyolt ).
This word, which could be the key to understanding the verses, has the following meanings (in Vedic)
1) light (of the sun , dawn , fire , lightning , &c. ; also pl.), brightness (of the sky)
2) light appearing in the 3 worlds , viz. on earth , in the intermediate region , and in the sky or heaven
4) the light of heaven , celestial world
5) light as the type of freedom or bliss or victory
In post-Vedic times it acquired an even more philosophical meaning: ‘human intelligence’ and ‘highest light or truth’.
The two verses, although they appear in different books of Rig Veda, are coined by the same template and could be variations of the same invocation:
Agni is addressed with all fitting praises and epithets and thanked for giving the ‘light’:
in 1.059.02 : vaiśvānara [relating or belonging to all men, omnipresent, known or worshipped, everywhere, universal, general, common] jyotir [light] id [indeed] āryāya [for the Arya (Gen. case)].
in 7.005.06: uru [wide, broad, spacious, extended, great, large, much, excessive, excellent] jyotir [light see above.] janayann [creating] āryāya [for the Arya (Gen. case)].
As it is usually the case with ancient texts, these verses are subject to interpretations depending on what sense you put into jyotiḥ and ārya . Note that in the second verse there are mentioned dasyu [enemy of the gods, impious man, any outcast or Hindu who has become so by neglect of the essential rites]. However, it is important that both Dasyu and Arya are mentioned in singular. Therefore, one can interpret them as ethnonyms but, in my view, keeping in mind that the cardinal meaning of ārya in Vedic was ‘a good, faithful person’, this could be also interpreted as ‘an impious man’ vs. ‘a faithful man’. In modern terms it may be defined as ‘fidel’ vs. ‘infidel’. I am particularly inclined to understand it in this way because Agni is not thanked for giving the land or cities of ‘Dasyu’ but for the ‘light’ in the broadest philosophical sense and agree with Kuiper (Aryans in the Rigveda. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi, 1991, pp. 90–93) that the creators of Rig-Veda considered as `aryas’ anybody who followed the Vedic traditions and performed the sacred yajña rites. I would also like to quote Hans Hock
“Close examination of the textual evidence regarding the “white” vs. “black” distinction turns out strongly to suggest that it refers, not to a distinction in skin, but to an “ideological” one between “bad” and “good”
(Hock, H. H., Bauer, B. & Pinault, G.-J. (Eds.), Did Indo-European linguistics prepare the ground for Nazism? Lessons from the past for the present and future. Language in time and space: A festschrift for Werner Winter on the occasion of his 80th birthday, de Gruyter, 2003, 167-187).