It is not widely known that the European quest to appropriate the highly prized library of Sanskrit’s ancient spiritual texts motivated the construction of the “Aryan” race identity, one of the ideological roots of Nazism. The Sanskrit word “arya” is an adjective that means noble or pure. For example, the famous Buddhist Four Noble Truths are described as the Four Arya Truths or catvari aryasatyani in Sanskrit. Arya does not refer to a race, but a cultural quality venerated in Sanskrit texts.
German nationalism turned this word into a noun, “Aryan,” and capitalized it to refer to an imagined race of people that were the original Sanskrit speakers who had composed its great texts. Early romantic claims that Indians were the ancestors of the Europeans were gradually replaced by the new myth that a race called “Indo-Aryans” was the common ancestors to both. Their origin was thought to be in the Caucasus Mountains, hence the term “Caucasian.” Later, the “Indo” was dropped and the white Aryan Race Theory emerged. Thus, from the European desire to be seen as the inheritors of the Sanskrit civilization, the notion of a European super-race was born, with Germany as its highest manifestation.
How did this come about? In the late 1700s, European identity was shaken when scholars discovered that Sanskrit was closely related to the European languages, though much older and more sophisticated. At first, this discovery fed European Romantic imagination, in which India was glorified as the perfect past. Herder, a German Romanticist, saw Europe’s “discovery” of India as a “re-discovery” of its own foundation. India was viewed as Europe’s mother civilization by Frederick Schlegel in Germany and by Voltaire in France. William Jones, a British colonial administrator, considered Sanskrit the most marvelous product of the human mind. Sanskrit and Indology entered most major European universities between 1800 and 1850, challenging if not replacing Latin and Greek texts as a source for “new” ideas. Many new disciplines were shaped by the ensuing intellectual activity, including linguistics, comparative religion, modern philosophy and sociology.