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I have recently had a conversation with a man from India over the Internet and he told me this interesting claim.

He said that "Aryan" meant "noble" in Sanskrit, and the British, knowing that Indo-European languages were related and that Indo-Eropean speakers in India had lighter skin, as opposed to Dravidian speakers, created the legend that white Europeans were the "true Aryans", closely related to the Indian nobles, but still above them, being even more Aryan.

This helped them to justify colonization and gain support of local upper classes.

So, he claims, the very idea of "Aryan race" and linking Europeans to Aryans originated from British India where it was created as a theory justifying colonization.

Is this claim true?

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  • Quite possible, considering that invasions of India mostly came from North to South . And even today population of Indian subcontinent tends to have lighter skin in the North. Of course, word Aryan is closely connected to India, specifically to Indo-Iranian group of people. Aryans were aforementioned conquerors in ancient times.
    – rs.29
    Mar 20 at 8:43
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    – MCW
    Mar 20 at 11:14
  • 3
    Anixx - Please read the wikipedia page and let us know what's missing. I think it is pretty comprehensive. I'm going to VTC.
    – axsvl77
    Mar 20 at 12:01
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True Aryans

Does the idea of white Europeans being the “true Aryans” come from the British India?

No. According to some sources the idea originated in Germany

for example:

https://www.etymonline.com/word/aryan says

[...] it was the word early 19c. European philologists (Friedrich Schlegel, 1819, who linked it with German Ehre "honor") applied to the ancient people we now call Indo-Europeans, suspecting that this is what they called themselves. This use is attested in English from 1851. In German from 1845 it was specifically contrasted to Semitic (Lassen).

German philologist Max Müller (1823-1900) popularized Aryan in his writings on comparative linguistics, [...]

The Encyclopedia Brittanica says

In Europe the notion of white racial superiority emerged in the 1850s, propagated most assiduously by the comte de Gobineau and later by his disciple Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who first used the term “Aryan” to mean the “white race.” Members of that so-called race spoke Indo-European languages, were credited with all the progress that benefited humanity, and were purported to be superior to “Semites,” “yellows,” and “blacks.” Believers in Aryanism came to regard the Nordic and Germanic peoples as the purest members of the “race.” That notion, which had been repudiated by anthropologists by the second quarter of the 20th century, was seized upon by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and was made the basis of the German government policy of exterminating Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and other “non-Aryans.”

The comte de Gobineau was French. Houston Stewart Chamberlain was a British-born German philosopher.

Wikipedia says

Chamberlain's best known book is the two-volume Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century),[2] published in 1899, which became highly influential in the pan-Germanic Völkisch movements of the early 20th century and later influenced the antisemitism of Nazi racial policy.

It describes how Chamberlain was unhappy with his life in Britain and moved to mainland Europe where his political outlook changed and he became an influential proponent of views associated with white Aryanism.

So the idea of white Europeans being the true Aryans arose primarily outside Britain and not from British India.


"Aryan" as justification for Colonialism

The word Aryan has its origins in Sanskrit and, in 19th century Europe was associated with the invasion of India by Sanskrit speaking people.

a man from India [...] said [...] This helped [the British] to justify colonization

Not in the first 200 years of European and British colonialism in India. The dates don't support this.

  1. British colonial involvement in India began long before the development in Europe of the ideas of Aryanism described above.
  2. British colonialism began long before the involvement of the British in India.

Wikipedia gives these dates for Colonial India:

Imperial Entities Dates
Dutch India 1605–1825
Danish India 1620–1869
French India 1668–1954
Portuguese India (1505–1961)
Casa da Índia 1434–1833
Portuguese East India Company 1628–1633
British India (1612–1947)
East India Company 1612–1757
Company rule in India 1757–1858
British Raj 1858–1947

So the notions of Aryanism from 1819 occur long after the onset of colonialism in India.

Some say Ireland was Britain's first colony, and that was begun in the late 1170's by French-speaking Anglo-Normans who were descendents of the Normans who had invaded and conquered most of Britain.

So colonialism was an established idea long before British involvement in India. Colonialism in general didn't rely on any ideas about Aryianism because it predated them.

There's little doubt that ideas of European supremacy were a part of at least later European post-hoc justification for European colonialism but trade and mercantilism were probably the primary driving forces in the early colonial era.


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  • In the beginning, you say "no" and in the end, you seem to say "yes". And if you say "no", you will explain why the word is the same. It seems to be an unlikely coincidence.
    – axsvl77
    Mar 20 at 11:43
  • @axsvl77: I was concentrating on the "British" part of the question but I'll go back and cover the origins of this use of "Aryan" (I regard that as a separate, though related, question). Mar 20 at 11:47
  • According to Wikipedia, it is Ramayana and Mahabharata → 1750's India → Britain → France → Germany
    – axsvl77
    Mar 20 at 12:00
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Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire

It does appear to be a notable claim that is taken seriously by certain journalists such as Roger D Long from the Journal of Interdisciplinary History whom writes that the concept of Aryanism did indeed play a central role during British imperial rule and that the discovery of ancient Indian texts written in Sanskrit by British officials played an important part in forming their world views

Muse

Ballantyne argues that the concept of Aryanism played a central role in British imperial rule and tied together the disparate parts of the empire from the Pacific to South and Southeast Asia and to the metropole itself in a single imperial ideology.

The first of the six chapters deals with the heart of the subject, the discovery of ancient Indian texts and the Sanskrit language by (mostly) British officials working in India. Ballantyne includes useful short pen portraits of the ideas of William Jones and Henry Thomas Colebrooke (as well as of the German Max Müller), among others. Interestingly, he also discusses how Aryanism stimulated the writing of global history during the Scottish Enlightenment, and how it forged a link between ancient Irish culture and ancient Indian culture during the Irish Enlightenment.

Aryan

It would also make sense that India has a huge role to play, as Aryans were thought to have settled in the Indian subcontinent during prehistoric times, according to Britannica encyclopedia.

It is also said that the impact of Aryanism in India was such that it shaped Indian literature, religion and culture, so it makes sense that the British would have became aware of those concepts whilst in India during the colonisation.

Britannica encyclopedia, Aryan

Aryan, name originally given to a people who were said to speak an archaic Indo-European language and who were thought to have settled in prehistoric times in ancient Iran and the northern Indian subcontinent. The theory of an “Aryan race” appeared in the mid-19th century and remained prevalent until the mid-20th century. According to the hypothesis, those probably light-skinned Aryans were the group who invaded and conquered ancient India from the north and whose literature, religion, and modes of social organization subsequently shaped the course of Indian culture, particularly the Vedic religion that informed and was eventually superseded by Hinduism.

Does the idea of white Europeans being the “true Aryans” come from the British India?

It would certainly appear highly probable and most plausible that the ideas adopted on european mainland regarding Aryanism were brought to europe, and in particular Germany, via the British colonisation of India during the British imperial rule.

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