by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011.
Updated 29 January 2017
The term 'Aryan' is a Western take of the word 'Arya',
which simply means 'noble one'.
group of people can also be called Vedics, or the people who believe in
the Vedas, their holy scriptures. In fact the term Indo-Aryan is
considered to be language specific rather than race specific.
Some Indologists believe that the Aryans
(Vedics) came to India at some point around 1500-1000 BC.
section of Indologists maintain Vedic existence almost as far back
as 10,000 BC, although this assumption is based more on astronomical calculations than
archaeological evidence. Some have theorised their findings on the basis
of the text, Aitreya Brahmana of the Rigveda, and on
the use of the positioning of the stellar constellations mentioned in the text.
There are further conflicting theories given by several
Orientalists regarding the advent of the Aryans. The Aryan Invasion
theory generally states that the Aryans faced resistance in the form of the already
established non-Vedic groups in India, who were also known as the Dravidas, Dasas, Dasyus, Panis, Mlechas,
and so on, whom they eventually either subjugated or forced southwards.
There are various theories about where the Aryans
came from. They are claimed as hailing from the Caucasus
mountains and the southern regions of Russia (put forward by Morgan), Eastern
Europe (as per McDonnell) or, most remarkably, the Arctic (put
forward by B G Tilak). According to some, the Aryans came from
the north of Persia. Some have pinpointed a region which
was known as Aryanem Vaejah as being the homeland of the Aryans.
From there they were said to have divided and migrated to greener pastures. Some went to
Persia, some towards Europe, some
towards Bactria and some proceeded via the Hindu Kush mountains
Their first stop in India was along the River Indus (Sindhu) and
its tributaries such as the Drishadvati and the mythical Saraswati (Aryan concentration was
said to be mainly along the River Saraswati but due to the constant
shifting of the Indus, this river is no longer
in existence). It is believed that the River Saraswati drying up is
what forced the further migration of the Aryans, southwards
towards the Gangetic plains and from there towards eastern, central
and western India.
There are of course other theories which conflict
with this particular one.
Some believe that the Aryans existed in India for thousands of years
before the traditionally accepted date. Whether the Aryans
invaded (the Aryan Invasion theory) or migrated (the Aryan Migration theory)
is also in contention. According to the Out of India theory, the Sapta
Sindhu (Indus) region was in fact the original homeland of the
Aryans from where they migrated outwards in various directions,
towards the Hindu Kush
mountains, and further to Central Asia, some to Persia, from where
they branched out to the Middle East, and some further into India
itself after the drying up of the Saraswati. Another branch
proceeded towards Europe.
An illustrated section of manuscript containing the Vedas
Similarities are drawn between the Indo-Aryan tribes and the people
of Europe on a linguistic basis. There are a lot of similarities
between the Sanskrit language spoken by the Indo-Aryans and the
basis of most modern European languages.
This was first proposed by Fillipo Sasseti and
later by Sir William Jones in the Asiatic Society meeting in Calcutta
in 1786. Sanskrit has words such as 'pitra' (father) and 'matri' (mother)
which are similar to the Latin words 'pater' and 'mater', and the German word 'vater' and
'mutter'. Also alluding to their foreign origins was the
description of the Vedic Aryans as light-skinned people (in their
texts) in comparison to the non-Vedic people (dasas = other people,
anis = cattle lifters, mlechas = barbarians), whom they mention as dark-skinned.
The Out of India theory states that Sanskrit is in fact the
mother of all the Indo-European languages.
The Aryans were divided into different tribes. Each tribe had a king. Wars
between Aryan tribes were also quite common. There is an example in
one King Sudas of the Tritsu tribe who fought off a confederacy of ten
tribes. Wars were also fought to extract tribute. In war they used
weapons including swords, spears, axes, bows and arrows, etc. They
also used horses and chariots in war.
The Aryans were warlike tribes and are credited
with making several introductions into India such as the chariot (something many
believe the Aryans created in India at a later date), the
domesticated horse, the major tenets
of modern Hinduism, etc.
Aryans as nomads
The Aryans eventually gave up
their nomadic lifestyle and settled down. They lived in wooden and
bamboo dwellings. An early king, Prithu (probably of the Bharata
tribe), was said to have cleared the forest lands enabling his tribe
to settle down in that region.
Aryan family customs
The Aryan family system was
patriarchal, yet women had no secondary role. Some women even rose to the stature of
rishi, including Visvavara, Apala, Gargi, Maitreyi, and Ghosha.
Polygamy was not uncommon, especially for people of higher social
status. The life of a man was divided into brahmacharya (the first 25
years of his life, during which he has to stay with his teacher, work
for him, and learn from him), grahasta (householder, between the ages of
of 25-50), vanaprastha (between the ages of 50-75, during which he
is expected to live in the forests, retiring from his materialistic life
and concentrating on philosophical meditation), and sanyas (where he lives alone as
a hermit from the age of 75 until the end of his life).
An illustrated section of manuscript containing the Vedas
In the later Vedic period certain yagnas or fire
rituals came into existence, like the 'Rajasuya yagna', performed
after the coronation of a king, and the 'Ashvamedha yagna', or horse
sacrifice, performed to declare a king to be an emperor. 
They wore two-piece clothing made of wool, animal
skins, or later linen or cotton, etc. They combed their hair and also wore
headdresses. Many adorned themselves with jewellery, ornaments,
beads and trinkets.
They enjoyed music, dance and games such as dice (called dyoot),
marbles, or balls. They also indulged in sports involving horses, bullocks, chariot races, bull fights, cock
fights, archery, wrestling, and duels with weapons. They consumed alcoholic
drinks including sura (a brandy made of corn and barley) and soma
(a juice extracted from the soma plant, found mainly in and about
modern Afghanistan). They even venerated soma as a deity. They
believed in the basic concepts of karma, but were not fatalistic in
their approach. They believed in living life to the full.
Aryan occupation and trade
Agriculture was the main occupation of
the Aryans (besides trade, etc). The Aryans practiced the barter
system and the cow was a principal standard of valuation and
Their diet consisted of rice, flour products, barley, beans and sesamun
(a genus of annual or perennial herbs with edible seeds).
They ate vegetables, fruits, and meat and consumed milk and milk
The Aryans spoke languages including Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, etc. Their scripts (which developed later)
were Brahmi, Kharoshti, etc.
 Horse sacrifice had a strong
tradition with the Indo-Europeans of Central Asia.
An illustration of Vedic priests
Government matters were discussed by an
administrative body called the 'samiti' in an assembly called the 'sabha'.
Amongst the royal officials were the purohita (the high priest), the senani
(army general), the amatya (chief minister), and the gramani (head of the
village). Then there were the doot (envoys), and spas (spies). Later,
several other departmental posts came in existence including the samagrahitri (treasurer),
the rathakara (chariot maker), the suta (charioteer),
kshattri (chamberlain), bhagadugha (tax collector) and interestingly
even a superintendent of the dice (akshanapa).
Types of governance either involved the rajya-monarchies/kingdoms
(where the king was the supreme head who ruled with the help of a
council of ministers) or the gana sanghas-oligarchies (where a clan
or a confederacy formed a council that concerned itself with administration).
Cattle lifting and robbery were the principal crimes in Aryan society, whereby the guilty were tied to the stake.
The Aryans worshipped everything in nature that held
power and had a definite effect on them, like fire, wind, earth, lightening,
and water. Amongst their early gods were Mitras, Dyaus, Nasatya, Indra
(the god of rain and light), Marut (the god of lightening and thunderstorms),
Parajanya (the god of rain, although earlier Indra
was believed to be the sole god of rain), and Varuna (the god of the oceans
and upholder of the moral code). Dyaus was said to be similar to
his Greek counterpart, Zeus, but the Aryans never had a king of gods
as such, until after the Puranas when Indra held that position. The Vedas
also mention Agni (the god of fire and food), Soma (the alcoholic
drink), Usha (dawn), Surya (the sun), Aswins (twilight), Vayu (the wind), Prithvi (the earth), Brihaspati (prayer,
although later Brihaspati is portrayed as the teacher of the gods), Chandra (the
moon), and more.
There is also mention of Rudra (the vault of heaven,
referenced as rudraprashna namak vibhaaga), today believed to be similar to Shiva
(the destroyer) and Vishnu (the creator). Vishnu is been mentioned
ninety-three times in the Vedas, but more as Indra's friend and aide
who assists him in his most arduous battles. Later Shiva and
Vishnu were to acquire the lead roles amongst the pantheon of gods
while Indra and Varuna were sidelined.
The Rishis (sages) prayed before 'Agni', the fire god, for purity of
thought. They performed their rituals (chanted hymns) before a
central fireplace called 'Agni kunda' or 'Havana kunda'. Temples for the
gods were a later phenomenon.
 These gana sanghas were ruled
either by a confederacy of clans (the Koliyas and the Mallas) or
by a single clan (the Vrijis and the Shakyas). These gana
singhas were mostly in mountainous areas. Their ruling clans
were Kshatriyas (warrior class). But some Brahman texts have
denounced them as worse than shudras (the peasant class) for not
adhering to the traditions of the Vedas. What is interesting is
that these clans produced some great individuals who provided a
different school of thought from that of the Vedic Brahmanism,
such as the Vriji clan which produced Mahavira, who gave rise to
Jainism, while the Shakya clan produced Gautama Buddha who
There is also mention of a tusked god who
was associated with Ganesha
(the elephant-headed god of learning - he was interpolated in later
epics like the Mahabharata as the one who actually wrote down the
epic while its composer Vyas breathlessly recited it to Ganesha.
However, it was in the Purana stage that Ganesha emerged as a primary
god). Yama was similarly associated (he was mentioned in the Vedas as the first mortal to ascend
to heaven and was duly made the god of the departed). Later on, gods
such as Brahma (the creator) were added. The mother goddess also came to be
reviled in various forms such as the Goddess Parvati, consort of Lord
Shiva, who was also manifested in the shakti form as Durga, or Kali.
Then there was Goddess Laxmi (the goddess of wealth),
consort of Lord Vishnu, Godess Saraswati (the river goddess and also the goddess of
learning), consort of Lord Brahma - some also describe her as his
daughter. After the Puranas, in the first century AD, mortal gods like Rama
and Krishna, who were heroic characters from the Ramayana and
the Mahabharata respectively, came to be worshipped as the incarnations of Lord
Vishnu. Even the cow came to be venerated as a mother goddess.
Indo-European burials in Central Asia frequently included a horse
Interestingly, some of these gods, Indra, Varuna, etc, have found
mention in the Avesta, the scriptures of the Zorastrians - fire
worshippers of early Iran. The Ahuras (the asuras of the Vedas) of the
Avesta are considered the forces of good, while the Devas (the gods of the
Vedas) are called the forces of evil in the Avesta, which is an exact
antithesis of the Vedas. 
A level of interchange has been found to exist between
the letters 'h' and 's' in the Avesta and the Vedas. For
example, in the Avesta, 'hepta hindu' is the 'sapta sindhu' of the
Vedas, 'homa' in the Avesta is the 'soma' of the Vedas,
'daha' is the 'dasas', and so on. The Aryas of the Vedas are referred
to as the Arias in the Avesta. Evidence has even been found in a
fourteenth century BC treaty between the Hittites and the Mitanni who
dominated the Syrian region of Mesopotamia, where both tribes refer to gods
such as Mitra (mentioned as Mitrasil), Indra (Indara), Nasatya (Nasatiana),
and Varuna (Uruvanas) as their witnesses.
Even the non-Indo-European Kassites of Babylon
mention gods such as Suria (surya - the sun god in the Vedas), and Marutas (Marut -
the thunder god in the Vedas). So in all probability, it can be deduced that
both the Zoroastrians and the Aryans had common ancestors. Little wonder
that in later years when Zoroastrians faced persecution in Persia from the
radical Islamists, they sought refuge in India and are today one of the
country's most integral group of citizens, popularly known as the Parsi
community (adulterated from the word 'Pharsi' or Persian).
 Varuna in the Avesta is
called Ahura Mazda, their supreme god. The Avesta is
assumed to be a first millennium BC treatise.
Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987
Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History,
Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000
Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India,
Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990