This article gives an insight on the brahmin caste with intentions to try to answer questions that have been debated and discussed.
Before diving into the Brahmin caste let’s see some of the discussion on how the caste system came to be. There have been many debates on the origin of the caste system which has been a big sociological discussion and debate. Many theories have been made on the origin and the most well-known theory is the Divine origin theory or the traditional theory. The main source for this theory is through the Purusha sukta of the Rig-Veda. This theory states that the four varnas came from the four different arts of the Prajapati Brahma or called the supreme being! Based on this theory the first and highest are the Brahmins who emerged from the mouth of the supreme being, next to the Kshatriyas from the arms, then the Vaishyas from the thighs and the lowest and last was the Shudras from the feet. According to the place of origin, the four varnas or social divisions are given different functions which lead to the occupations. However, this theory is criticized for being unscientific and there are different reasons for not being accepted however this theory is well-known despite it all.
Theoretically, brahmins are the highest position in the social class systems. There was the Divine Origin Theory in which they represent the fourth and the highest ranking in the Vedic system. If we take the Divine theory into play here a Brahmin has the function to spread the word of god, therefore, they had occupations such as priest, teachers and protectors of sacred learnings across generations were the Brahmin caste. The brahmins from ancient times have enjoyed many privileges and due to their capability to read and study the sacred scriptures. Therefore for centuries all of the Indian scholarship was in their hands and they had prestige and education compared to the other castes, They were acted as advisors to rulers, teachers of kings and sacred priests for ceremonies and rituals.
They were well-thought-out to have higher level purity compared to the other castes, therefore, certain rituals were limited to them and they were allowed to be performed only by them due to this there were many benefits enjoyed by them. To maintain their purity they go through certain steps such as the agreement with several taboos, many of which generally relate to their diet, food and contact with lower castes. Most Brahman castes, in general, are strictly vegetarian while maintaining that lifestyle, their members must refrain from certain occupations too!
They are a caste which is linked with purity and the highest in the varna system while the lowest is the Dalits who are associated with impurity. This linkage with impurity and purity caused many discriminations and inhumane treatment of those in the lower caste especially the Dalits or the Shudras. The discriminations and cruel treatment has been documented and the untouchability concept of the lowest caste has had a law against it. However, it is still prevalent in some parts of India. The caste system has been dominant in India for generations and many attempts were made by the government to curb discriminations. However, these caste hierarchies are still widespread and some groups have had to bear the brunt of the discriminations and harsh treatments.
Who is a true Brahmin?
If you type the above question on google there will be many articles directing you on who is really a Brahmin. This question has been debated about and I would like to talk about a brahmin in the context of a metaphysical concept in Hindu philosophy. According to this philosophy, one is not a brahmin by birth, but one has to become a brahmin. I would refer to the Vedas, that a Brahman can be theorized as a Cosmic Principle. According to various ancient Indian scriptures, a human being becomes a Brahmin not by birthright but only through the process of when knows who a Brahman is.
A brahman is a person who has a mixture of Tyagi and Gyani! In accordance to the Upanishad terms, Atman Viddhi (know thyself) would be Gyani a person who seeks self-discovery and self-discipline. Therefore a Gyani is well conscious of his objective which is to be action-orientated without attachment to the result and instead the final objective is to achieve Moksha (Liberation). Tyagi means that a person has no desire for worldly objects which includes wealth and instead will lead a simple life and will devote himself to the quest for knowledge. The combination of the characteristics of Gyan and Tyagi needs to be filled with a criterion of discipline, wisdom, spirituality that makes a person a Brahman and it disregards the notion that one is a brahmin by birth or family or lineage. Therefor an example will be that if someone is born from a family of pundits the person does not automatically become a Brahmin instead the person has to be tested on his Gunas and Karmas and work towards achieving it.
Regrettably, this notion is mostly disregarded and instead in today’s world and in the past there have been people who gloat themselves as Brahmins only by birth in families with zero considerations to any interest in scriptures, wisdom, and spirituality which are abandoned and are no longer the principles that would lead to acknowledging a person as a Brahmin.
Purusha Sukta: is a hymn in the Rig-Veda which is dedicated to the “cosmic being”
Rig-Veda: is the ancient Indian text and is the oldest of the four Vedas.
Prajapati Brahma: Prajapati any person who takes the duty of populating the earth. It is therefore not just one person but it is a role of being the creator. (depends on context)
varna system: is the social stratification of the people based on varna or caste.
Upanishads: The Upanishads is a Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teaching and concepts still honoured in Hinduism.
Tyagi: Tyagi may mean Sacrifice, the concept is that it is not about just giving up externally alone is not enough as a person must also give up one’s mind or the persons conscience.
Gyani is a knowledgeable person who acts according to the truth and stands by it.
Gunas is a concept in Hinduism which may be translated as quality.
Karmas is the spiritual belief of cause and effect where a person’s intent and actions influence the future of that particular individual.
Kaminsky, Arnold P. and Long, Roger D. “India Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic, Volume One.” p. 68. ABC-CLIO. 2001.
Pattanaik, D., 2020. Who Is A Hindu? The Curious Case Of Brahmins – Devdutt. [online] Devdutt. Available at: <https://devdutt.com/articles/who-is-a-hindu-the-curious-case-of-brahmins].
The Mundaka Upanishad: Above information was taken from the second Mundakam which defines and talks about the nature of the Brahman, the Self and about the pathway to know Brahman.