I have recently done the same work, going through Pali also, here it is (I’ll copy-paste the article here below). The general conclusion was that:
- Ariya when applied to phenomena or states means what leads to the end of dukkha
- When applied to persons, it may mean just only arahants, or sotapannas, or generally people who are securing themselves on the way to the end of dukkha (ariyasavaka).
ariya: (adj:) noble - (n:) a noble one.
The earliest evidence for the use of the word ‘arya’ (e.g. The Behistun Inscription, 6th century BCE) indicate that it was widely used to designate the Indo-Iranian people as well as their language. The word is also recognized as the origin of the country name ‘Iran’. With the migration of Indo-Iranian people to India, the term was later used by the Indic people of the Vedic period to designate themselves, and as a religious distinction between those who worshiped the Vedic deities and performed sacrifices according to the established rules, and those who did not follow the Vedic religion. The word has been understood with a racial connotation by 19th century scholars among whom Rhys Davids (and subsequently in Nazi Germany), but modern scholars reject this interpretation.
Ariya as an adjective is juxtaposed 15 times in the four Nikāyas with niyyānika (leading out [to salvation], emancipatory). It can actually be understood as meaning ‘leading to the end of dukkha’, as explained at MN 12:
“tāyapi kho ahaṃ, sāriputta, iriyāya tāya paṭipadāya tāya dukkarakārikāya nājjhagamaṃ uttariṃ manussadhammā alamariyañāṇadassanavisesaṃ. taṃ kissa hetu? imissāyeva ariyāya paññāya anadhigamā, yāyaṃ ariyā paññā adhigatā ariyā niyyānikā, niyyāti takkarassa sammā dukkhakkhayāya.
"Yet, Sariputta, by such conduct, by such practice, by such performance of austerities, I did not attain any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. Why was that? Because I did not attain that noble wisdom which when attained is noble and emancipating and leads the one who practices in accordance with it to the complete destruction of suffering.
“ahañca kho, bhikkhave, ariyaṃ dhovanaṃ desessāmi, yaṃ dhovanaṃ ekantanibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya upasamāya abhiññāya sambodhāya nibbānāya saṃvattati, yaṃ dhovanaṃ āgamma jātidhammā sattā jātiyā parimuccanti, jarādhammā sattā jarāya parimuccanti, maraṇadhammā sattā maraṇena parimuccanti, soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-upāyāsa-dhammā sattā soka-parideva-dukkha-domanass-upāyāsehi parimuccanti.
Bhikkhus, I will teach [you] a noble washing that leads exclusively to disenchantment, to detachment, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to awakening, to Extinction, a washing owing to which beings by nature subject to birth are liberated from birth, beings by nature subject to old age are liberated from old age; beings by nature subject to death are liberated from death; beings by nature subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, affliction and despair are liberated from sorrow, lamentation, pain, affliction and despair.
“dvemā, bhikkhave, pariyesanā: ariyā ca pariyesanā, anariyā ca pariyesanā. katamā ca, bhikkhave, anariyā pariyesanā? idha, bhikkhave, ekacco attanā jātidhammo samāno jātidhammaṃyeva pariyesati, attanā jarādhammo samāno jarādhammaṃyeva pariyesati, attanā byādhidhammo samāno byādhidhammaṃyeva pariyesati, attanā maraṇadhammo samāno maraṇadhammaṃyeva pariyesati, attanā sokadhammo samāno sokadhammaṃyeva pariyesati, attanā saṃkilesadhammo samāno saṃkilesadhammaṃyeva pariyesati.
Bhikkhus, there are these two quests: ignoble quest & noble quest. And what is ignoble quest? Here someone, being himself subject to birth, goes after what is also subject to birth. Being himself subject to aging, he goes after what is also subject to aging. Being himself subject to illness, he goes after what is also subject to illness. Being himself subject to death, he goes after what is also subject to death. Being himself subject to sorrow, he goes after what is also subject to sorrow. Being himself subject to defilement, he goes after what is also subject to defilement.
“katamā ca, bhikkhave, ariyā pariyesanā? idha, bhikkhave, ekacco attanā jātidhammo samāno jātidhamme ādīnavaṃ viditvā ajātaṃ anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ nibbānaṃ pariyesati, attanā jarādhammo samāno jarādhamme ādīnavaṃ viditvā ajaraṃ anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ nibbānaṃ pariyesati, attanā byādhidhammo samāno byādhidhamme ādīnavaṃ viditvā abyādhiṃ anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ nibbānaṃ pariyesati, attanā maraṇadhammo samāno maraṇadhamme ādīnavaṃ viditvā amataṃ anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ nibbānaṃ pariyesati, attanā sokadhammo samāno sokadhamme ādīnavaṃ viditvā asokaṃ anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ nibbānaṃ pariyesati, attanā saṃkilesadhammo samāno saṃkilesadhamme ādīnavaṃ viditvā asaṃkiliṭṭhaṃ anuttaraṃ yogakkhemaṃ nibbānaṃ pariyesati. ayaṃ, bhikkhave, ariyā pariyesanā.
And what, bhikkhus, is the noble quest? Here someone, being himself subject to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, goes after the unborn, supreme relief from the yoke: Extinction. Being himself subject to aging, seeing the drawbacks of aging, he goes after the aging-less, supreme relief from the yoke: Extinction. Being himself subject to illness, seeing the drawbacks of illness, he goes after the illness-less, supreme relief from the yoke: Extinction. Being himself subject to death, seeing the drawbacks of death, he goes after the deathless, supreme relief from the yoke: Extinction. Being himself subject to sorrow, seeing the drawbacks of sorrow, he goes after the sorrow-less, supreme relief from the yoke: Extinction. Being himself subject to defilement, seeing the drawbacks of defilement, he goes after the undefiled, supreme relief from the yoke: Extinction. This is the noble quest.
Ariya as a noun has been traditionally understood as designating an individual who is at least a sotāpanna. However, as is often the case, it appears that the term is used with a rather loose meaning in the suttas. Sometimes, the Buddha himself is referred to as the Noble One (MN 137, SN 56.28). Some suttas imply that the word designates arahants. At MN 60, the arahants are referred to as ariyas:
santaṃyeva kho pana paraṃ lokaṃ ‘natthi paro loko’ti āha; ye te arahanto paralokaviduno tesamayaṃ paccanīkaṃ karoti…
Because there actually is the next world, when he says that ‘There is no next world,’ he makes himself an opponent to those arahants who know the next world…
ayañca… ariyānaṃ paccanīkatā
this… opposition to the noble ones
At AN 7.91 and 92, a noble one is described as one who is either ‘far remote from’ (in the Burmese edition) or ‘having detroyed the enemy’ (in the PTS edition), i.e. the three lower saṃyojanas which are abandoned by a sotāpanna, but also further the three akusala·mūlas that are abandoned only by an arahant (cf. SN 22.106, SN 38.2 etc.) and māna, which is one of the five saṃyojanas that are only abandoned by an arahant:
“sattannaṃ, bhikkhave, dhammānaṃ ārakattā-(Burmese Edition)/arīhatattā-(PTS Edition) ariyo hoti. katamesaṃ sattannaṃ? sakkāyadiṭṭhi ārakā hoti, vicikicchā ārakā hoti, sīlabbataparāmāso ārako hoti, rāgo ārako hoti, doso ārako hoti, moho ārako hoti, māno ārako hoti.
Bhikkhus, it is by keeping far away from/the enemy-destruction of seven things that one is a noble one. Which seven? The view of self-existence is far away/destroyed; uncertainty is far away/destroyed; attachment to religious observances is far away/destroyed; avidity is far away/destroyed; aversion is far away/destroyed; delusion is far away/destroyed; self-esteem is far away/destroyed.
The exact same description is given in the next sutta with reference to arahantship:
“sattannaṃ, bhikkhave, dhammānaṃ ārakattā arahā hoti. katamesaṃ sattannaṃ? sakkāyadiṭṭhi ārakā hoti, vicikicchā ārakā hoti, sīlabbataparāmāso ārako hoti, rāgo ārako hoti, doso ārako hoti, moho ārako hoti, māno ārako hoti. imesaṃ kho, bhikkhave, sattannaṃ dhammānaṃ ārakattā arahā hotī”ti.
Bhikkhus, it is by keeping far away from seven things that one is a noble one. Which seven? The view of self-existence is far away; uncertainty is far away; attachment to religious observances is far away; avidity is far away; aversion is far away; delusion is far away; self-esteem is far away.
Similarly, at MN 39 a noble one and an arahant are described in exactly the same terms:
“kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ariyo hoti? ārakāssa honti pāpakā akusalā dhammā, saṃkilesikā, ponobbhavikā, sadarā, dukkhavipākā, āyatiṃ, jātijarāmaraṇiyā. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ariyo hoti.
"And how is a monk noble? His evil, unskillful qualities that are defiled, that lead to further becoming, create trouble, ripen in stress, and lead to future birth, aging, & death have gone far away. This is how a monk is noble.
“kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu arahaṃ hoti? ārakāssa honti pāpakā akusalā dhammā, saṃkilesikā, ponobbhavikā, sadarā, dukkhavipākā, āyatiṃ, jātijarāmaraṇiyā. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu arahaṃ hotī”ti.
“And how is a monk an arahant? His evil, unskillful qualities that are defiled, that lead to further becoming, create trouble, ripen in stress, and lead to future birth, aging, & death have gone far away. This is how a monk is an arahant.”
But on the other hand, some suttas make it clear that a noble one is not always an arahant:
“kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ariyappatto hoti? idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ‘Idaṃ dukkha’nti yathā·bhūtaṃ pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkha·samudayo’ti yathā·bhūtaṃ pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkha·nirodho’ti yathā·bhūtaṃ pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkha·nirodha·gāminī paṭipadā’ti yathā·bhūtaṃ pajānāti. evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ariyappatto hotī”ti.
And how has a bhikkhu attained [the state of] a noble one? Here, a bhikkhu understands as it occurs: ‘This is suffering.’ He understands as it occurs: ‘This is the origin of suffering.’ He understands as it occurs: ‘This is the cessation of suffering.’ He understands as it occurs: ‘This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’ It is in this way that a bhikkhu has attained [the state of] a noble one.
“katamo ca, bhikkhave, pariyāyo yaṃ pariyāyaṃ āgamma sekho bhikkhu sekhabhūmiyaṃ ṭhito ‘sekhosmī’ti pajānāti? idha, bhikkhave, sekho bhikkhu ‘idaṃ dukkhan’ti yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhasamudayo’ti yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodho’ti yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti, ‘ayaṃ dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā’ti yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti — ayampi kho, bhikkhave, pariyāyo yaṃ pariyāyaṃ āgamma sekho bhikkhu sekhabhūmiyaṃ ṭhito ‘sekhosmī’ti pajānāti”.
And what, bhikkhus, is the method coming to which a bhikkhu who is a learner, standing at the level of a learner, understands: ‘I am a trainee’? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who is a learner understands as it occurs: ‘This is suffering’; he understands as it occurs: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; he understands as it occurs: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; he understands as it occurs: ‘This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering.’ This is a method coming to which a bhikkhu who is a learner, standing at the level of a learner, understands: ‘I am a learner.’
As made clear later on in that same sutta (not provided here), a learner (sekha) is one who is not an arahant yet. Thus, AN 4.190 and SN 48.53 taken together show that a noble one is not necessarily an arahant. Some suttas also indicate that a sotāpanna would be referred to as ‘a noble one’:
ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako diṭṭhisampanno itipi, dassanasampanno itipi, āgato imaṃ saddhammaṃ itipi, passati imaṃ saddhammaṃ itipi, sekkhena ñāṇena samannāgato itipi, sekkhāya vijjāya samannāgato itipi, dhammasotaṃ samāpanno itipi, ariyo nibbedhikapañño itipi, amatadvāraṃ āhacca tiṭṭhati itipī”ti.
This, bhikkhus, is called a noble disciple who is accomplished in view, accomplished in vision, who has arrived at this authentic Dhamma, who sees this authentic Dhamma, who is endowed with a learner’s knowledge, a learner’s correct knowledge, who has entered the stream of the Dhamma, a noble one with discriminating discernment, one who stands knocking at the door of the Deathless.
Here the expression ‘dhamma·sotaṃ samāpanno’ quite obviously describes a sot·āpanna. Moreover, SN 56.36 states that one accomplished in view (diṭṭhi·sampanno) understands the four noble truths as they occur, and AN 10.63 explains that one accomplished in view has reached certainty about the Buddha and is at least sotāpannas. Therefore, it can be concluded that the following expressions may be considered equivalent: being an ariya, being a sotāpanna, being accomplished in view (diṭṭhi·sampanno) and understanding the four noble truths as they occur.
The suttas occasionally mention some characteristics of ariyas:
akkodho avihiṃsā ca, ariyesu ca vasatī sadā
Non-anger and harmlessness always dwell in the noble ones
sukhaṃ diṭṭhamariyebhi, sakkāyassa nirodhanaṃ
The noble ones have seen as pleasantness the ceasing of personality
Occasionally, the epithet ariya changes the meaning of the related word in a way that goes beyond merely adding to it the notion of ‘leading to the end of dukkha’. Thus, noble silence (ariya tuṇhī·bhāva) means the second jhāna:
‘ariyo tuṇhībhāvo, ariyo tuṇhībhāvoti vuccati. katamo nu kho ariyo tuṇhībhāvo’ti? tassa mayhaṃ āvuso, etadahosi — ‘idha bhikkhu vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ cetaso ekodibhāvaṃ avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ pītisukhaṃ dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati. ayaṃ vuccati ariyo tuṇhībhāvo’ti.
‘“Noble silence, noble silence,” it is said. But what is noble silence?’ Then the thought occurred to me, ‘There is the case where a monk, with the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, enters & remains in the second jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. This is called noble silence.’
AN 4.251 & 253, AN 8.67 & 68 state that factual ‘declarations’ (vohāra) are noble.
The Buddha often redefines certain concepts ‘in the discipline of the noble ones’ (ariyassa vinaye).
Death (maraṇa) means disrobing, and deadly suffering (maraṇa·matta dukkha) means a certain defiled offence (aññataraṃ saṃkiliṭṭhaṃ āpattiṃ), i.e. a pārājika or a saṅghādisesa āpatti (MN 105, SN 20.10).
The four jhānas are called ‘pleasant abidings in the visible world’ (diṭṭha·dhamma·sukha·vihāra), e.g. at MN 8.
Singing is wailing, dancing is madness and laughing a long time showing the teeth is childish (AN 3.108).
A poor person ‘in the discipline of the noble ones’ is one who doesn’t have saddhā, hiri, ottappa, vīriya and paññā (AN 6.45).
‘The world’ (loka) means the five kāma·guṇas (AN 9.38) or whatever is subject to disintegration (paloka·dhamma), at SN 35.67.
‘Purity’ (or ‘purification’, soceyya) means the ten kusala kamma·pathas (AN 10.176).
‘A thorn’ (kaṇṭaka) is whatever in the world has a pleasing and agreeable nature (yaṃ loke piya·rūpaṃ sāta·rūpaṃ), at SN 35.197.
What is ignoble (an·ariya) can be defined as what does not lead to nibbāna:
etaṃ, bhikkhave, dhovanaṃ hīnaṃ gammaṃ pothujjanikaṃ anariyaṃ anatthasaṃhitaṃ na nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya na abhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṃvattati.
This ‘washing’ is inferior, vulgar, belonging to ordinary people, ignoble, not beneficial, and it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to awakening, to Extinction.
Sense pleasures are typically ignoble:
yaṃ kho, udāyi, ime pañca kāmaguṇe paṭicca uppajjati sukhaṃ somanassaṃ idaṃ vuccati kāmasukhaṃ miḷhasukhaṃ puthujjanasukhaṃ anariyasukhaṃ.
Now, Udāyin, the pleasure and mental pleasantness that arise dependent on these five strings of sensuality are called sensual pleasure, a filthy pleasure, a worldly pleasure, an ignoble pleasure.
SN 56.11 most notably explains that both the pursuit of happiness in sensuality and that of mortification are ignoble:
Yo c·āyaṃ kāmesu kāma·sukh·allik·ānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko an·ariyo an·attha·saṃhito, yo c·āyaṃ attakilamath·ānuyogo dukkho an·ariyo an·attha·saṃhito.
On one hand, the pursuit of hedonism in sensuality, which is inferior, vulgar, common, ignoble, deprived of benefit, and on the other hand the devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, deprived of benefit.
At MN 122, the tiracchāna·kathā are said to be ignoble. At AN 6.30, all the following are considered ignoble: the sight of an elephant, a horse, a jewel, or else of a samaṇa or a brahmin of wrong view; the hearing of the sound of a drum, of lutes, of singing, or else of the Dhamma of a samaṇa or a brahmin of wrong view; the gain of a son, a wife, wealth or goods, or else the gain of faith in a samaṇa or a brahmin of wrong view; the training in elephantry, in horsemanship, in chariotry, in archery, in swordsmanship, or else training under a samaṇa or a brahmin of wrong view; the service to an aristocrat, a brahmin, a householder, or else to a samaṇa or a brahmin of wrong view; the recollection of the gain of a son, a wife, or wealth, or else of a samaṇa or a brahmin of wrong view.
The suttas often warn against misconduct towards ariyas.
yam·ariya·garahī nirayaṃ upeti,
vācaṃ manañca paṇidhāya pāpakan”ti.
He who blames the noble ones,
Having set evil speech and mind, goes to hell.
The following sentence frequently appears in the suttas, as part of the sattānaṃ cut·ūpapāta·ñāṇa formula (available here):
“ime vata bhonto sattā… ariyānaṃ upavādakā… te kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapannā
Those esteemed beings [who were]… revilers of noble ones… at the breakup of the body, after death, have reappeared in a state of loss, in a bad destination, in perdition, or in hell
AN 11.6 explains what would happen to such a person:
“yo so, bhikkhave, bhikkhu akkosako paribhāsako ariyūpavādo sabrahmacārīnaṃ, aṭṭhānametaṃ anavakāso yaṃ so ekādasannaṃ byasanānaṃ aññataraṃ byasanaṃ na nigaccheyya. katamesaṃ ekādasannaṃ?
“Bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu is one who insults, disparages his fellows in the brahmic life, reviling the noble ones, it cannot be, it is impossible that he will not undergo one or the other of these eleven misfortunes. What eleven?
saddhammassa na vodāyanti,
saddhammesu vā adhimāniko hoti,
anabhirato vā brahmacariyaṃ carati,
aññataraṃ vā saṃkiliṭṭhaṃ āpattiṃ āpajjati,
sikkhaṃ vā paccakkhāya hīnāyāvattati,
gāḷhaṃ vā rogātaṅkaṃ phusati,
ummādaṃ vā pāpuṇāti cittakkhepaṃ vā,
sammūḷho kālaṃ karoti,
kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinipātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjati.
He does not achieve what he has not yet achieved,
he falls away from what he has achieved,
his good qualities are not purified,
he overestimates his good qualities,
he lives the brahmic life dissatisfied,
he commits a certain impure offense,
he gives up the training and returns to the inferior life,
he catches a severe illness,
he goes mad and loses his mind,
he dies confused,
or at the breakup of the body, after death, he reappears in a state of loss, in a bad destination, in perdition, or in hell.