Aryans and the passage to Hinduism

In our last article, we promised to talk about the origin of Hinduism next. But before talking about Hinduism and its origin, it is important to take a slight detour and talk about a different origin instead. As Hinduism despite being the oldest religion on earth is followed almost exclusively only in the Indian Subcontinent (that too, mostly India and Nepal), it is important to first talk about the origin of people in the Indian Subcontinent. And since it also coincides with my childhood curiosity (and confusion) about a particular term ‘Aryan’, I will start from the story of my curiosity first, and connect that with the two origins pivotal to our story.

As a kid, every time I would want to know about anything in general, my mom would be the chief source of information for me. So it is not a coincidence that the first time I heard the terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Mongolian’ was from my mom. Nepal, although smaller in size lying between two massive countries, is rich in diverse cultures and ethnicities. So my mom created a rough ‘binary classifier’ to make it easier for me to understand about the origin of people of different ethnicities in Nepal, and the classifier would be the Aryans and the Mongolians.

It took me years to comprehend the racial connotation attached to the word Aryan in the global scenario and subsequent catastrophe that line of thinking would result in. The differences in the Aryan term mom told me about as a kid and the one that is attached in global space, intrigued me a lot, which resulted in me studying and researching more about it. And as it turns out, in order to understand the term Aryan (and the origin of people in the Indian Subcontinent), we need to go back in time, super-long ago!

Early disclaimer: Since there are plenty of conflicting theories and controversies regarding the origin and overall history of the people of the Indian Subcontinent, I will go forward with the one that is comparatively the most accepted.

The first people to migrate to the Indian Subcontinent were the people from Africa some 60,000 years ago, going in line with the Out of Africa theory. These people are generally termed as the Early Indians by the historians. The second major wave of migration to the Indian Subcontinent came from a region that is the modern-day Iran, and these people introduced domestication of agriculture to the subcontinent (as it first started in the Fertile Crescent region just beyond Iran.) The early Indians and the ones from the second wave would together be part of the great Indus Valley Civilization. These people are generally termed as the Harappans by the historians (named after the famous Indus valley city Harappa).

The third wave of migration to the Indian Subcontinent was of people of Indo-Aryan origin. This wave of migration theory is the most talked about and often the most heated and controversial theory, one could also arguably say the most impactful too, as it gave rise to the most dominant religion of the Indian Subcontinent today Hinduism.

The fourth wave of migration came from the people of Austronesian and East Asian origin who lived mostly in the hilly and the mountainous region of the Indian Subcontinent.

However, since we’re trying to understand more about Aryans here, I’ll only be talking about the third wave of migration from this point forward.

Truthfully, there actually never was any word called ‘Aryan’ to begin with, at least none in the context of the Indian Subcontinent. The people from the third wave of migration called themselves ‘Arya’ (which means noble). It was only later that the word Arya was used interchangeably with Aryan, mostly in English texts.

To understand how the word Arya and Aryan began to be used interchangeably, we have to take a linguist route and trace the history of these Arya people with the aid of language. We also have to travel way further back in time, around 5000 BC, to the Great Eurasian Steppes (parts of the region around the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea).

Most of the languages spoken in modern-day Europe, Iran, and the Indian Subcontinent (English, Spanish, Farsi, Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, etc.) are considered to have originated from a common dialect known as the Proto Indo-European. The Proto Indo-European (PIE) is not a particular language like English or Nepali, though. When the similarities between Sanskrit and Latin for example, the two ancient languages spoken in widely distant lands, was noticed by early linguists, it led to further comparative studies on all these languages, and ultimately the classification of different Indo-European languages under the common umbrella known as the Proto Indo-European.

The speakers of the dialect were based around the great Eurasian steppes in around 5000 BC. From there, one group migrated to modern-day Europe, eventually giving rise to ancient European languages like Greek and Latin. Another wave of migration happened to the Central Asian Steppes (around modern-day Kazakhstan), eventually giving rise to the Proto Indo-Iranian language.

The Proto Indo-Iranian speakers called themselves Arya, and they further diverged into two groups, one towards modern-day Iran giving rise to the Iranians and the other towards the Indian Subcontinent giving rise to the Indo-Aryas. These two sets of people gave rise to their own different languages, with the Iranians giving rise to Avestan and the Indo-Aryas giving rise to Sanskrit. These Avestan and Sanskrit speaking people would also go on to give rise to two of the oldest religions on earth, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.

As the Indo-Iranians and the Indo-Aryan speakers were cohabitants for an even longer period of time, the similarities in their languages, scriptures and rituals can be seen very clearly. Both the Avestan scripture Avesta and Hindu religious scripture Rig Vedas mention rites that are common to both the scriptures, like the usage of a liturgical fire (Yajna in Sanskrit/Yasna in Avestan), usage of sacred drink from a plant (Soma in Sanskrit/Hoama in Avestan) and belief in the power of sacred utterings (Mantras in Sanskrit/Manthras in Avestan).

Therefore, the word Arya is not just linked with the Indian subcontinent alone, it is also linked with Iran. In fact, the word Iran in itself originates from the word Arya.

Later when this Aryan theory got attached to the race is when it became controversial (both in the Indian Subcontinent and Europe), ultimately leading to the catastrophe in Europe that is the Holocaust. The Nazis linked the word ‘Aryan’ with the German word ‘Ehre’, which means ‘honor’ and therefore, used the word to depict their image of ‘the honorable people’. Hitler’s obsession with ‘racial purity’ and considering the non-Aryan descendants, particularly the Jews, as impure, evil and a threat to Aryan superiority is what paved the way for the racial chaos and genocide. Seeing as how it is a very sensitive and controversial topic, historians mostly take the linguist road rather than the racial one when defining and differentiating the terms like Indo-European, Indo-Iranian, and Indo-Aryans, and rightfully so, since it was mainly the language that differentiated these sets of people.

To get back to our story, Aryas were the speakers of the Proto Indo-Iranain language and Indo-Aryas were the speakers of Sanskrit language. And the aforementioned Indo-Aryans, around 1800 BC, would migrate to Indian Subcontinent and give rise to a new era, known as the Vedic Era. And it is Vedic Era that would give rise to the core of Hinduism. 

Next up, Vedic Era and the origin of Hinduism in the Indian Subcontinent. 

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