Thirty years ago, the literary critic and cultural historian Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. In what would become a classic work in the field of cultural studies, Williams examined a long list of words, words like culture, society, nature, image, and work, tracing their etymology and describing how their meaning, their use, and their derivatives evolved over time. He selected words that he felt were significant, as he put it, for “certain forms of thought.”

Buddhism is, of course, filled with such terms. There are so many, in fact, that no one has produced a complete list of keywords for Buddhism; indeed, the Buddha is said to have taught 84,000 doctrines as antidotes to 84,000 afflictions.

In addition to words that carry particular significance within the Buddhist tradition, there are also terms that have floated free from Buddhism to acquire significance in a broader historical milieu. If we were to try to compile a list of such words, we might begin with the letter A and the word Aryan, a term with a long Buddhist history. But that history is sometimes forgotten, or avoided, because of the word’s unfortunate role in more recent history.

In his first sermon, after describing the two extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism and the Middle Path between them, the Buddha said to the group of five ascetics (in the Pali version), Idam kho pana bhikkhave dukkham ariyasaccam, usually translated as “Now this, O monks, is the noble truth of suffering.” The word translated as “noble” is ariya (arya in Sanskrit). What the term ariyasaccam means in the original Pali is something of a grammatical conundrum. But for the long tradition of commentary, at least, it seems clear that the famous translation “noble truth” is inaccurate: it is not the truths that are noble, but rather those who understand them. Suffering, origin, cessation, and path are truths, or facts, only for those who are somehow “noble.” For all others, they are not true. As Vasubandhu states in the Abhidharmakoshabhasya, “They are the truth for the Aryans, truths of the Aryans; this is why they are called aryasatya.” And the term is not used simply in the context of the four truths. The term Aryan appears with great frequency in Buddhist texts, modifying nouns like dharma, person, view, speech, and path. Hundreds of Mahayana sutras are called “Aryan,” Nagarjuna is often called “Aryan,” the Tibetan lama at the court of Kubalai Khan was named ’Phags pa, Tibetan for “Aryan.” When someone requests permission to become a monk, he asks to go forth (in Pali) into the ariyadhammavinaya, the dharma and the discipline of the Aryan.

T he potency of the Buddha’s use of the word Aryan cannot be appreciated without knowing something of its pre-Buddhist history. As that history has long been told, some time in the fourth millennium BCE a nomadic people, skilled in the use of horse and chariot, invaded the Indian subcontinent from what is today modern Iran and Afghanistan. They swept through the Indus River valley, defeating the remnants of a once great urban culture, moving eventually east to settle in the Ganges basin. They called themselves “Aryan” and subjugated the local population, whom they called dasha (a word variously rendered into English as “fiend,” “barbarian,” and “slave”). The religion of the Aryans was one of sacrifice to their thirty-three gods, and their society was organized by caste, with the first three castes composed of Aryans and the fourth and lowest caste populated by the conquered peoples. Their language, which nineteenth-century philologists would call Indo-Aryan or Indo-German or Indo-European, was related to Greek and Latin and German and English because, originally, the speakers of these languages were one people.

This story, which has been told and retold in classrooms and textbooks for more than a century, has in recent years been called seriously into question, with some scholars rejecting the long-held theory of the Aryan invasion and conquest of north India on the basis of linguistic and archaeological evidence. But it is clear that in ancient India, Aryan denoted a social status, a superiority thought to derive from birth.

The Buddha, or at least the early Buddhists, apparently sought to remove the word’s connotation of an inherited superiority and to give it instead the meaning of an acquired superiority—a superiority, it must be said, held only by Buddhists, and eventually only by some Buddhists. The person who entered the order of monks and nuns lost his or her caste identity and gained a new identity, the identity of an Aryan.

The early texts would thus seem to suggest that anyone who entered the order thereby acquired this status. However, as the tradition developed, the title of Aryan would become more exclusive, reserved only for the so-called eight noble persons, those who had achieved various levels of the path to nirvana: two types of stream-enterers, two types of once-returners, two types of never-returners, and the two types of arhats; the least of these would never again be reborn as an animal, ghost, or hell being, and was destined to achieve nirvana in seven lifetimes or less. This was clearly an elite group, one that the tradition regarded as increasingly small in the centuries after the Buddha’s own passage into nirvana. As the tradition developed, the rank of the Aryan became more and more remote. According to the Mahayana treatises, for example, the bodhisattva only became an Aryan on the third of the five paths, the darshanamarga, or path of vision. Scholiasts explain that this occurs 1059 aeons after taking the bodhisattva vow to achieve buddhahood for the welfare of others. In Buddhist scholastic literature, aryan is commonly paired with its opposite; pritagjana, a term usually translated as “common beings,” but which also means simply “other people.”

Exactly who belonged to this class of other people would be redefined in Europe, where, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, the philological links between languages turned into bloodlines, and Aryan came to denote not simply a family of languages, but a race, a race more advanced and refined than all other races, including the race of Semites. The ancient Indian term for a social superiority thus came to name a self-proclaimed master race that would inflict unprecedented misery upon the world. And the sinister meaning of Aryan did not die with Hitler in 1945, but lives on today in hate groups in America and elsewhere.

All of this would seem very far away from the Buddha’s use of the term and its legacy in Buddhism. One is thus surprised to find the renowned modern Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) consistently referring to the Buddha as “the great Aryan Saviour” who “spent forty-five years of His perfect manhood in the moral regeneration of the greater part of advanced Humanity.” He contrasted the Buddha with the Semite savior, the “half Jew half Hittite” Jesus, who
was “a victim of megalomania and at times suffered from paranoia,” whose teachings differed so radically from “the virile, vigorous manly ethics of the Tathagato.” Dharmapala wrote these words before the Second World War, and before the advent of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

We can observe, then, that the Sanskrit and Buddhist term Aryan left India to take on a new meaning in Europe. That meaning was then imported back to India, where it was reclaimed by a leading Buddhist figure who claimed to restore Buddhism to the original message of the Buddha himself.

Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.