ETHNONYM: Vedic Indians, now usually known to linguists as Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian
These early speakers of Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, invaded the Indian subcontinent from the northwest in about 1500 b.c., although there is considerable disagreement about this date. Their descendants today form the great bulk of the population in Nepal, Pakistan, northern India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, though they do not identify themselves primarily as Aryans.
The term, arya in Sanskrit, means "noble," no doubt in reference to their dominant position in the society they invaded so long ago. They introduced to the Indo-Gangetic Plain the horse-drawn chariot and the Brahmanic religion still known to us from the four sacred books called Vedas. The earlier Indus Valley civilization, in all probability not Aryan in its language, was already destroyed or moribund by the time of their arrival. Archeologically, their early presence in India is marked by the distribution of Painted Gray Ware. The lands they occupied were called Aryavarta and are dealt with in the oldest Sanskrit literature, which is our chief source on the early Aryans.
Although the term "Aryan" has been used by European writers since 1835, it has fallen into disfavor among recent scholars because of its abuse by Nazi propagandists half a century ago, who imagined that northern and central Europeans were the purest representatives of an "Aryan race." Today the term "Aryan" is still used in discussion of early Indian History and in relation to the Subfamily of Indo-Aryan Languages. The last word on usage was in fact written over a Century ago by Max Müller: "I have declared again and again that if I say Aryans, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair nor skull; I mean simply those who speak an Aryan language. . . . To me an ethnologist who speaks of the Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary, or a brachycephalic grammar."
For many centuries after their arrival in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the Aryans lived as horsemen and cattle herders, clearing patches in the forests and inhabiting small villages, rather than living in the ancient towns that their ancestors had probably helped bring to ruin. Only with the start of the Indian Iron Age (about 700 b.c.) did Aryan towns begin to emerge; this development presumes a background of settled farming in the plains by that era.
There has been much speculation about the subsequent development of northern Indian society and the Aryans' further colonization of the subcontinent; about relations Between them and the conquered "Dasas" or "Dasyu" (names meaning "slaves" and probably referring to remnants of the earlier Indus Valley population); and about the rise of the caste system. During the Vedic period (about 1500 to 800 b.c.) the Aryans developed the enormously elaborate rituals of Brahmanism, the forerunner of Hinduism; and they formed a stratified society in which the rudiments of the caste system were already apparent. Thus there was a priestly caste (Brahmana), a ruling noble caste (Rajanya), a warrior caste (Kshatriya), and the menial caste (Sudra). Prior to the Mauryan Empire (321 to 185 b.c.) there was no organized Aryan government with a class of bureaucrats to administer the land throughout India. Instead, there were numerous ruling chieftains (rajan ) who commanded their armies and were assisted by purohitas, men who counseled and protected the rulers with their magical skills. As larger kingdoms emerged the purohita became like a combined archbishop and prime minister, consecrating the king, giving him political counsel, and performing major sacrifices for him. The introduction of iron technology led to urbanization, and by 500 b.c. many of these kingdoms had an important merchant class in the towns who were already using copper and silver coins. Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, came from the ruling family of one such kingdom (Kosala, now in Bihar State).
See also Castes, Hindu
Burrow, Thomas (1975). "The Early Aryans." In A Cultural History of India, edited by A. L. Basham, 20-29. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Childe, Vere Gordon (1926). The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Ltd. Reprint. 1987. New York: Dorset Press.
Thapar, Romila (1980). "India before and after the Mauryan Empire." In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology, edited by Andrew Sherratt, 257-261. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ar·y·an / ˈe(ə)rēən; ˈar-; -yən/ • n. a member of a people speaking an Indo-European language who invaded northern India in the 2nd millennium bc, displacing the Dravidian and other aboriginal peoples. ∎ dated term for Proto-Indo-European or for Indo-Iranian. ∎ (in Nazi ideology) a person of Caucasian race not of Jewish descent.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.