A Brahmin is a member of the highest caste or varna in Hinduism. The Brahmins are the caste from which Hindu priests are drawn, and are responsible for teaching and maintaining sacred knowledge. The other major castes, from highest to lowest, are the Kshatriya (warriors and princes), Vaisya (farmers or merchants), and Shudra (servants and sharecroppers).
Interestingly, the Brahmins only show up in the historical record around the time of the Gupta Empire, which ruled from the 4th to the 6th century CE. This does not mean that they did not exist prior to that time, however. The early Vedic writings do not provide much by way of historical detail, even on such apparently important questions as “who are the priests in this religious tradition?” It seems likely that the caste and its priestly duties developed gradually over time, and probably were in place in some form long before the Gupta era.
The caste system has evidently been more flexible, in terms of appropriate work for Brahmins, than one might expect. Records from the classical and medieval periods in India mention men of the Brahmin class performing work other than carrying out priestly duties or teaching about religion. For example, some were warriors, merchants, architects, carpet-makers, and even farmers.
As late as the reign of the Maratha Dynasty, in the 1600s to 1800s CE, members of the Brahmin caste served as government administrators and military leaders, occupations more typically associated with the Kshatriya. Interestingly, the Muslim rulers of the Mughal Dynasty (1526 – 1857) also employed Brahmins as advisors and government officials, as did the British Raj in India (1857 – 1947). In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of modern India, was also a member of the Brahmin caste.
The Brahmin Caste Today
Today, the Brahmins comprise about 5% of the total population of India. Traditionally, male Brahmins performed priestly services, but they may also work in jobs associated with lower castes. Indeed, occupational surveys of Brahmin families in the 20th century found that less than 10% of adult male Brahmins actually worked as priests or Vedic teachers.
As in earlier times, most Brahmins actually made their living from work associated with the lower castes, including agriculture, stone-cutting, or working in the service industries. In some cases, such work precludes the Brahmin in question from carrying out priestly duties, however. For example, a Brahmin who begins farming (not only as an absentee land-owner, but actually tilling the land himself) may be considered ritually contaminated, and can be barred from later entering the priesthood.
Nonetheless, the traditional association between the Brahmin caste and priestly duties remains strong. Brahmins study the religious texts, such as the Vedas and the Puranas, and teach members of other castes about the holy books. They also perform temple ceremonies and officiate at weddings and other important occasions. Traditionally, the Brahmins served as the spiritual guides and teachers of the Kshatriya princes and warriors, preaching to the political and military elites about the dharma, but today they perform ceremonies for Hindus from all of the lower castes.
Activities that are forbidden to Brahmins according to the Manusmriti include making weapons, butchering animals, making or selling poisons, trapping wildlife, and other jobs associated with death. Brahmins are vegetarian, in keeping with Hindu beliefs in reincarnation. However, some do consume milk products or fish, particularly in mountainous or desert areas where produce is scarce. The six proper activities, ranked from the highest to the lowest, are teaching, studying the Vedas, offering ritual sacrifices, officiating at rituals for others, giving gifts, and accepting gifts.
The word Brahmin has totally lost its original and main significance! The class of Brahmins today are far removed from the qualities and virtues of the Brahmins of the previous eras like the Vedic period. Time has ravaged various civilisations as well as many institutions including the nature and quality of the Brahmin class of society. Today we have Brahmins only for namesake, divested of almost all qualities and virtues of the earlier generation! It is very sad to see the downfall and decline of the idealism and spirituality of the Brahmin class in the present. They have lost their prominence and say in society. They are a minority now in the country and fighting for their rights and privileges in society! The caste system of ancient ages has played a havoc in the lives of the Brahmins today! They are looked down upon by the political class and the reservation system has virtually eliminated the Brahmin from almost all avenues of employment and other opportunities! What were the qualities of the Brahmins of yore? Why was he considered important to society? The Sasthras say about this:
Brahmins were generally considered as priests, teachers and protectors of sacred learning.
The earliest reference is from the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda where the Brahmins are represented as the face of the Viratpurusha or the Cosmic Being. The Kshatriyas represent the shoulders, the Vaisyas form the thighs and the Sudras the feet of of the Purusha! This is called ‘chaturvarna’ -division into four classes of society. It was only a broad demarcation and no superiority or inferiority was contemplated! Every section of society is as important as the other and complementary to the other. Brahmin was thought as an advisor and an intellectual, the Kshatriya as a protector, the Vaisyas as a trader and merchant while the Sudras the helper to the other three. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna speaks of the creation of the four ‘varnas’ Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra according to their qualities and actions?!. No higher or lower status was given to them. Birth in the family cannot determine if the person is a Brahmin or otherwise. It is his conduct and character and actions that decide his class. “Chatur varnam maya srustwa Guna karma vibhagasaha” There is needless confusion and controversy over these statements in the present day politics. Brahmin community today is more sinned against the sinning.
According to Gautama Dharma Sastras, every Brahmin should possess eight virtues like truthfulness, teaching the virtuous, following the rules of rituals, studying the Vedas, gentleness and nonviolence, self control and kindness and others. Baudhayana Dharma Sutras require a Brahmin to refrain from anger. He should never be arrogant. Vasishta Dharma Sutras insist on austerity, self control, purity, compassion, erudition, intelligence and religious faith. According to Manu Smriti, “A well disciplined Brahmin although he knows just the Savitri verse is far better than an undisciplined one who eats all types of food and deals in all types of merchandise though he may know all three Vedas” ( Manu Smriti 2.118) A Brahmin can engage himself in agriculture, trade, lend money on interest, become a warrior in times of adversity and take up any occupation to sustain himself according to Gautama Dharma Sutras!
Manu Smriti forbids Brahmins from producing or trading in poison, weapons, meat, trapping birds and others, Six duties are prescribed for the Brahmin. He has to study the Vedas which is called ‘adhyayana’. He should teach and instruct the students in the Vedas called as ‘adhyapana’. He should perform yagna or sacrifices for the welfare of society. He should offer alms to others and this is called ‘dana’. He should also receive alms from others which is termed ‘prarigraha’. How many of us, today, follow at least a few of the principles prescribed by these Dharma Sutras? We don’t know even the names of these Sastras and Sutras!
One becomes a Brahmin not by birth but only when one realises the Supreme Brahman. Unfortunately we gloat ourselves as Brahmins only by our birth in those families.We don’t bother about the very normal and ordinary duties of a Brahmin like performing ‘Sandhya vandana’ at least once a day. We have become victims of social transformation and carried away by a directionless society that has lost its values and principles. We take non-vegetarian food and take to drinking. We have taken professions forbidden and even question the very rules and principles laid down by our ancestors. Morality and faith have given place to immorality and loss of faith and atheism.
There is a purpose in the creation of man. He is expected to know his real Self. He should realise that the body is separate from the eternal Soul or Spirit that is embedded in the innermost recess of his heart! This is termed as Self Realisation or realising the Supreme Brahman! Then he can call himself a Brahmin, not otherwise.