Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Aryan — A Much Misunderstood Word

No word in recent times, one may say, has caused so much misunderstanding and trouble to mankind as the word Aryan. For centuries this word lived a peaceful existence until Western scholars discovered it in the late 19th century and then all hell broke loose.

This episode is briefly and succinctly narrated in of all places a dictionary —the Oxford Reference dictionary; and a word about dictionaries at this point before we proceed may not be out of place.

In the beginning all dictionaries were a kind of reference dictionary telling you various things about words and also various things about things. This trend was reversed by dictionary makers in England who concentrated more on words leaving the description of things to encyclopedias. But American dictionary makers did not join the throng. Instead they went on to add pictures and drawings in order to make things easier to grasp.

But wisdom has finally come to England, to be precise in 1986, the year the Oxford Reference Dictionary was born. It may not quite define a word like Dr. Samuel Johnson did when he called oats — "a grain, which is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people," but it tries to combine encyclopedic knowledge with lexical precision like this:

Aryan... adj. 1. of the Indo-European family of languages 2. of the ancient inhabitants of the Iranian plateau speaking a language of this family. — n. 1. a member of the Aryan peoples (not to be regarded as a race; see below) 2. (in Nazi Germany) a non-Jewish European, a person of Nordic racial type. f. Skr. Aryas noble, earlier used as a national name.

And this is what the ‘see below' part says:

The idea current in the 19th c. of an Aryan race corresponding to a definite Aryan language was taken up by nationalistic, historical and romantic writers. It was given especial currency by M. A. de Gobineau, who linked it with the theory of the essential inferiority of certain races. The term ‘Aryan race' was later revived and used for purposes of political propaganda in Nazi Germany.

No easy feat this to put everything on a thumbnail as it were, for, as the ORD admits ‘to write succinctly about complex subjects is not within everyone's power'.

But the main thing to grasp in this description is how with customary brilliance Western scholars have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Reading this entry in the ORD may not however, succeed in dousing the flames of controversy now raging in this country over a word — the word Aryan.

But at least let us hope it would act as the first drop of water to fall on the flames.

Arya as the dictionary tells us means noble. Since nobility is a virtue accessible to anyone who strives to reach it he or she irrespective of ethnic origins, can become an Aryan—something, let us say, available to even those who call themselves Dravidians who thus become Aryans in spite of themselves.

It is the Buddha who first drew this word out from the closet of the Hindu vocabulary and gave it a special emphasis. He applied it to very many things like his ‘path of awakening' which he named ariya magga, the ‘four fundamental truths' ariya saccani and the ‘mode of knowledge' as ariya-naya and those who have attained the fruits of wisdom ‘Awakened Noble' as the Arya.

There is no allusion to any race here nor to a caste but perhaps there is an indication here of a class of intellect something that recalls an aristocratic temperament. As described by a Western author the Aryan-ness of the original Buddhist teaching ..."has too much respect for other people, and its sense of its own dignity is too pronounced to allow it to impose its own ideas upon others, even when it knows its ideas are correct".

These are qualities, it must be said, not confined to one group of humanity but something that can be found among people who belong to very different races and groups and worthy of emulation by all, like the famed Sri Lankan smile, for instance, whose origin no doubt can be found hidden among the words quoted above. But, and this is the other, the weaker side of human nature which in trying to absorb good things comes a cropper by distorting the good.

A notable example of this was when Max Muller who, like the Buddha, perhaps fell in love with the word arya only to bring upon ourselves our present woes. It turned out that he was a much misunderstood man for having rescued arya and affixed it to race which, says his biographer Nirard C. Chaudhuri, emerging as the ‘Aryan race' has become a ‘sort of red rag to contemporary radicals'.

The irony of it all was that Muller was actually attacking the very concept his opponents thought he was its strongest advocate. In his defence his biographer quotes what he really said when speaking before an audience at the University of Strassbourg in 1872: "...I must repeat what I have said many times, it would be as wrong to speak of Aryan blood as of dolichosephalic grammar."

But nobody was listening to him or, if they were, taking in as usual only what they wanted to hear. Sixteen years later seeing the danger of a concept like ‘Aryan race' running amuck in the world he went to some length in his Biographyof Words to stop it:

There is no Aryan race in blood, but whoever, through the imposition of hands, whether of his parents or his foreign masters, has received the Aryan blessing, belongs to that unbroken spiritual succession which began with the first apostles of that noble speech, and continues to the present day in every part of the globe. Aryan in scientific language, is utterly inapplicable to race. It means language and nothing but language; and if we speak of Aryan race at all, we should know that it means no more than Aryan speech.

But to what purpose? Hitler grabbed the concept and liquidated six million human beings. Indian nationalists too took inspiration they say from what Muller did not mean. Though this did not lead to any kind of ghastly massacres as in Germany still it did give the radicals, Chaudhuri mentioned, enough weapons to bash whom they called ‘racists'.

But what is racism? It is nothing, says Chaudhuri, "but an exaggerated consciousness of group identity based on a common language and a common culture, often accompanied by a sense of superiority to other human groups."

At this point I think I should bow out leaving it to the readers to search their hearts to find out who has this exaggerated sense of group identity from which stems all our evils. Such exaggerations may be overcome by what the Buddha called the Aryan mind, or if that word is too sodden with the blood of history let us call it ‘nobility of mind' or still better as reflected in that redeeming phrase. Noblesse Oblige meaning ‘privilege' entails responsibility.


Courtesy: The Island (Colombo) of 2 December 1992