This is a loaded question that some people feel strongly about and others don’t think matters at all, but, knowing what I talked about in Who Were the Proto Indo-Europeans?, this is one of the first questions that comes to my mind. The Buddha’s ethnicity has been hotly debated for a long time. He was born in current day Nepal, so modern-day Nepalese nationalists have claimed him as their own. The Nepalese, though technically Indo-Iranian have more East Asian DNA than Indians. Indians, of course, contend that he is Indian. Both sides are generally repulsed by the idea that he was Caucasian, although some racist, light-skinned Northern Indians have embraced the notion, as have white supremacists, such as Nazis and Neo-Nazis, and a few ethnographic and linguistic researchers.
India is more diverse than most people realize. The brown-skinned Dravidian people of Southern India are the original inhabitants of the sub-continent. While Northern Indians (more like the typical Bollywood look) are varying degrees of mixture between Dravidian and Indo-Aryan. If you don’t think it’s possible for two races to completely mix, think about the Mestizos of Mexico, Central America and Northern South America. These are a group of mixed race (European / Native American) people who comprise the majority across the region, with only scattered pockets of fully European or fully Native American people. And this mixing only happened in 500 years ago. Think of the level of mixing that could have taken place in the 4-5 thousand years since the so-called ‘Aryan invasion’ of Northern India. There could very easily be no trace of one of the original populations.
Since WWII, the word ‘Aryan’ has generally been associated in Western culture with the Germanic people of Northern Europe. But it historically refers to speakers of the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European languages in Persia and the Indus valley. Some people today still identify as Aryan (namely Iranians, Kurds, Pashtuns, Tajiks, some Pakastanis, and some Northern Indians, especially native Hindi speakers.) A lot of these people take pride in being Aryan, and there is a significant amount of anti-Dravidian and anti-Arab racism in these communities.
In Nazi mythology, the word ‘Aryan’ is synonymous with Proto Indo-European. Depending on which Nazi you’re talking to, their place of origin was either Atlantis, Tibet, the inner Earth, another planet, or some combination of the four, but most seem to agree that Tibet is central to the story. The core of the Nazi party arose from the Thule Society. Many members of the Thule Society were admirers of philosophers like Rudolph Steiner and Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky gained many of her insights through channeling. She even claimed to be in telepathic contact with a group of people in deep caverns under the Himalayas who secretly influence world events. She believed that human society expands and contracts in stages, with each stage being dominated by a ‘root race,’and that the current root race are the Aryans, with their first advanced civilization being in ancient India, perhaps the remnants of which are what is now known to archaeology as the Indus Valley Civilization. In her timeline, it would have existed a few thousand years before Ancient Egypt. After mass migrations and intermixing in India, she asserted, the most pure blooded Aryans can now be found in the Anglo-Germanic world, and in particular the Nordic countries. (So think blonde hair and blue eyes.) Hitler sent a team of archaeologists to India to investigate.
There is nothing theoretical about the Aryan invasion to a linguist. It has been widely accepted since the 19th century. The main thing to consider is whether we should view ‘Aryan’ as a linguistic or ethnic classification.
Blue eyes are not unheard of in South Asia today but are very rare. They seem to be most common among the Kalash people of Pakistan and in certain communities in Kashmir and Nepal.
The Army of Alexander the Great made contact with Persians and Indians just a couple centuries after the Buddha’s time. One of the Greeks was recorded as observing that “the Persians look like Ethiopians, and Indians look like Egyptians.” Ethiopians speak a Semitic language but have some African DNA. I think linguistics tell you about a nation’s distant past, while DNA tells you more about who the nation has been mingling with in recent centuries. So it is hard to know for sure what Ethiopians would have looked like 2,300 years ago. Likewise, the Egyptians that the Greek was describing were pre-Arab Egyptians. They were probably Hamitic people, with their closest living relatives being native North African groups like the Copts and Berbers, who are considered Caucasians. Interestingly, Blavatsky said the ruling class of Ancient Egyptian were also Aryans.
There have been several mummies found in the Tarim Basin along the Silk Road in Western China. A civilization lived there in 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. who spoke Tocharian languages (an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family). Tocharian, along side Pali, was also used as an early liturgical language for Buddhism in India. You can’t help but notice the blonde, Caucasoid features of these people. See for yourself.
The idea that the roots of Indian culture came from far away, and from a race not their own, doesn’t sit well with many Indians. But, ironically, one of their most celebrated anti-colonial intellectuals and fathers of India Independence came to that conclusion. In 1903, Bal Gangadhar Tilak published The Arctic Home of the Vedas. He read ancient Vedic hymns about tails passed down from their ancestors in which celestial bodies were described as moving in circles and nights seemed to draw on forever. He, being an astronomer, observed that this was a description of the heavenly dome from the perspective of the high arctic. He theorized that the ancestors must have come from Siberia’s Arctic Sea coast, their civilization possibly arising during an inter-glacial period before 8,000 BC. This theory could explain the light skin pigmentation of Caucasians. This theory was echoed by British researcher John G. Benet in his essay The Hyperborian Origin of Indo-European Culture . They weren’t the first to theorize along these lines. In 1883, Austrian researcher Carl Penka published Origins of the Aryans in which he claimed that Aryans originated in the far North and have slowly split up and ‘devolved’ as they migrated South. Some of them went to Northern Europe, and possibly founded the mythical Thule Kingdom (from which the Thule Society takes its name) rumored to be a predecessor state to the modern Germanic nations. Penka is credited as being the first to theorize the Nordic-Aryan link.
Many have taken Tilak’s theory and concluded that race was the original basis of the Hindu caste system, with the Aryans being the highest cast. There is almost certainly some correlation between race and caste, with the darker-skinned Southern Indians usually being of lower caste. Here is an article from The Times of India that quotes David Reich of Harvard Medical School as saying that the “caste distinctions trace their roots back to 70 generations of social differentiation based on genetic lines.” Several different studies have found India to be the most racist country in the world.
It is widely accepted that Guatama Buddha came from the Shakya Clan. There are still Nepalese people today claiming to be Shakya, though this is almost certainly a modern invention, as most historians agree that the historical Shakyas ceased to exist a long time ago. The ethnicity of the original Shakyas is up for debate. His native language is believed to have been Mugadhi or some other vernacular Pali dialect and Sanskrit derivative.
In English translations of the Pali Canon, the Buddha is described as being “tall, light-skinned, with blue eyes.” ‘Tall’ and “light-skinned’ are subjective, but eye color is a clear-cut, objective observation. The Pali Canon, like Christian scripture, was written centuries after the fact, and, as others have pointed out, blue symbolizes spirituality and enlightenment in some South Asian traditions, as evidenced by the fact that Hindu gods are sometimes depicted with blue skin. Others have pointed out that Pali, in fact, had no word for ‘blue,’ and that the word that is sometimes mistranslated as ‘blue’ actually meant ‘dark.’ Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the concept of ‘blue’ did not exist until recently. It sounds strange, I know, but give the article a read. I know from personal experience that classical Khmer doesn’t distinguish between green and blue. So, anyways, this ancient description and the fact that the Buddha is sometimes depicted with blue eyes does not necessarily mean that Indians of that time looked like the Swedes of today.
In conclusion, the various theories about the origin of Indo-Europeans (Aryans) in South Asia are inconclusive but intriguing. As for the Buddha and the Vedic authors being Caucasians, I see no reason to doubt it, but there is no way to know for sure. I don’t really know why this is controversial. If you are a Buddhist, and you’re subjectively and egotistically concerned with the Buddha’s race, you have kind of missed the point. You can still be a proud Indian and take an honest and objective look at your colorful history.