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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 , √) , 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=26541] Buddha
[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 sāvara 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)’  may 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 vddhi of the verb 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 .  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 )


mūrdhā divo nābhir agni pthivyā athābhavad aratī rodasyo |
ta tvā devāso janayanta deva vaiśvānara jyotir id āryāya||

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 ||


tve asurya vasavo nyṛṇvan kratu hi te mitramaho juanta |
tva dasyūr okaso agna āja uru jyotir janayann āryāya||

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
3) eye-light
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 jyoti 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).

Reccomended further reading on this subject: No Racism in Rig Veda by  by Kant Singh

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I recommend this new book as a fairly balanced introduction into the argument on the origins of Sanskrit and the Vedic culture.

“The earliest Indian inscriptions date from the third century before Christ.  Archaeological and palaeo-anthropological evidence, as well as the Indian oral tradition, consistently  point  to the ‘continuity’ of the Indian Civilization back to a much earlier date. However, the question of the origin of Indian Civilization prior to that period remains open. There are three main schools of thought in this regard. Proponents of the Indo-European theory suggest that the Sanskrit language and civilization were an intrusion into India from the West. Proponents of the continuity theory, on the contrary, believe that they arose locally. The third school of thought proposes that the current scholarship is insufficient to trace the Sanskrit language and civilization back to pre-historical times, and that further research is required to develop a fair comparison between the European languages and the Indian languages. Published literature  in the field often reflects one or the other of these perspectives, rather than offering an integrated view. Read the rest of this entry »

The topic of Iranian loans into Slavonic has become a common place in Slavistics reflecting, to a considerable extent, the stereotype view on Slavonic mainly as a target language for borrowing. In reality, the number of truly attested Iranian loans is confined to a rather short list of words. Strictly speaking, the term ‘iranism (иранизм)’, widely used in Russian linguistic literature, stands for a direct borrowing from one of the attested Iranian languages.  However, according to the academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences Oleg Nikolajevič Trubačev, such loans are limited to a few cultural terms such as *kotъ ‘stall, small cattle shed’, *čьrtogъ ‘inner part of a house’, *gun’a ‘shabby clothes, rags’, *kordъ ‘short sward’, *toporъ ‘axe’ etc., plus a separately standing group of religious terms and names of gods. However, even if any of these words are indeed borrowings they may not  necessarily be ‘iranisms’ in the true sense (i. e. direct borrowings from one of the attested Iranian languages). Read the rest of this entry »

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