There is a Sanskrit word that I often hear in the news today with very negative connotations. That word is ‘Aryan.’ In its first use the word meant ‘noble’ and the authors of the Vedas in ancient India referred to themselves as the Noble People, the Aryans.

The Nazi government in the 1930-40’s sought validation by attempting to attach their peoples’ origin to an ancient people who, over thousands of years, evolved to become the different peoples of Europe. It seems their intention was to claim themselves as closest to this heritage, the direct descendants of the noble people.

At this time, Sanskrit was thought to be the oldest Indo-European language, and the root of European culture. So it was believed that the Vedic people were these ancient fathers, or the oldest known descendants of these ancient fathers. Seeing that the Vedic people called themselves Aryans, the Nazi Germans adopted this term for themselves. Later on scholars found an extinct language in Iran that was a precursor to Sanskrit, shifting this root away from India to the west.

I first encountered this word in the Bhagavad Gita, which I interpret as an allegory for the inner struggle that deep yoga practice can bring. In the second chapter, the ‘seeker,’ Arjuna is preparing for a battle between his higher self and his lower self. The goal of this battle is to see that he is really the soul, and all souls are the same. (He who is disciplined by yoga sees the Self present in all beings, and all beings present in the Self. He sees the same Self at all times. Bhagavad Gita 6.29) Arjuna is overwhelmed by the challenge of releasing his small self and embracing the supreme Self. His teacher Krishna, responds: you are not behaving like an Aryan, like a noble person. (whence of thee timidity this, in danger come, not befitting an Aryan, not leading to heaven, disgrace causing, Arjuna? Bhagavad Gita 2.2 Literal translation by Winthrop Sargeant)

Recently I was giving a talk on Sankhya philosophy and I referred to the possible influences of Buddhism on Sankhya. I referred to the Buddha’s four Noble truths, and later I began to wonder, what word did the Buddha use for ‘noble’.

A quick google search revealed that in the Four Noble Truths the Buddha did use Aryan for noble: In Sanskrit, the language of later Buddhism: catvāriāryasatyāni, and in Pali, the related language that the Buddha probably spoke: cattāri ariyasaccāni. A literal translation is, ‘the four truths of the noble ones.’

I find it fascinating that a word in modern use synonymous with white supremacy and xenophobia originally referred to people who believed that:

1) We are all suffering.

2) The suffering is caused by desire (which is also fear) and attachment (holding on to what is familiar).

3) This suffering could be eliminated for everyone.

4) The way to eliminate suffering is the Buddha’s teachings of compassion, forgiveness, contemplation etc.