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What Is an “Aryan”?

Swastika, symbol of the Aryan Hindus

Aryan: A problematic word in the Bhagavad Gita

We need to go back a bit to a word whose analysis at that time might have distracted us from the main thrust of the Gita’s message in that part. Sargeant translates the second verse of the second chapter in this way:

“The Blessed Lord said: Whence has this timidity of yours come to you in time of danger? It is not acceptable in you, does not lead to heaven, and causes disgrace.”

What he translates as “not acceptable” is really anarya, which is accurately translated “unaryan”–not aryan.

The real meaning of “Aryan”

Because the monsters who marched under the Nazi banner (which bore the sacred symbol of the swastika that was thereby dishonored and made to bear an odious connotation in the West) plagiarized the Sanskrit word arya(n), it has become usual for us outside India to use the expressions “Vedic religion” or “Sanatana [Eternal] Dharma” in reference to the spiritual tradition of primeval India.

These are accurate and bona fide expressions, of course, but “Arya Dharma” is the oldest expression and has a unique value. So important was arya in the vocabulary of the ancient Indian sages that India itself was known as Aryavarta, the Land of the Aryas, for the people living there were commonly known as Aryas. Buddha used the term a great deal. Although his teachings are referred to as “The Noble Eightfold Path” or “The Four Noble Truths,” what he really said was “The Aryan Eightfold Path” and “The Four Aryan Truths.”

This is not without real significance, so we cannot avoid looking at the word, no matter how distasteful its use in twentieth-century racial bigotry and genocide has made it for contemporary sensitivities. Hitler liked to toss around “holy” and “God” in his rants–as well as “justice” and “freedom”–but that in no way invalidates them. Evil as he was, he did not have the power to corrupt or degrade such an ancient term of honor–only to condition our response to it. And we should not let his madness prevail in our personal reactions.

The origins of Aryan

Arya comes from the root word ri, which means “to rise upward.” A legitimate translation is: “one who strives upward.” This gives us the whole idea about wherever it is used. An aryan is one who puts forth real effort to improve himself in any area of life. Naturally arya was most fittingly applied by the philosophers of India to spiritual and personal life. The word “noble” is too inactive, besides it can be interpreted passively, such as in thinking that a person is born noble or made noble by the declaration of another.

An arya is one who labors to rise, exemplifying the saying that a diamond is a piece of coal that never gave up. Truly a saint is a sinner that never gave up, as Yogananda often said. In other words, an arya is one on the path to sainthood as well as one who has attained it.

In very ancient Indian texts humanity is divided into two classes: the aryas and the vritras, or dasyus. Vritra means “one who covers up” in the sense of burrowing into the darkness of the earth, of material consciousness and involvement. Dasyus are slaves–slaves of materiality living in willing servitude to lower life and consciousness. Aryas, on the other hand, strive upward into the light, into freedom.

aryan swastikaAnother misunderstood word: Swastika. It is an ancient symbol in India, that has been used for thousands of years representing prosperity and good fortune. It symbolizes the Sun and evokes a divine feeling and a sense of auspiciousness. The word Swastika itself is derived from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “conducive to well-being”.

Next: Arya Dharma, or the Path to Perfected Being

Further Aryan Readings:


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