Brahmans Then and Brahmins Now.

Authorship and Copyright Notice : All Rights Reserved: Satya Sarada Kandula

The Indian Caste System is not dead. All that has happened is that brahmins have lost their place in the caste hierarchy that was decreed by Manu Smrti – due to the Muslim Rule, the  British Rule and Finally Political Independence from British Rule. In this article I try to explore brahmans and their situation through the ages.

Most of the seers (rshis) of the Vedas were brahmans. Most of the ancient mathematicians were brahmans. Much of the literature in Sanskrit was composed by brahmans. So who were the brahmans exactly?

Brahmins are one of the jathi sets of India. A jathi is not a species or a race. But it has to do with which family you are born into (parentage) and which families you will marry into. In Karnataka alone there are more than 400 Brahman Jathis. Sri Krishna categorised all the 4000 odd jathis into 4 Varnas, based on gunas (qualities) and karma (actions).  He said that the foremost of the varnas would be called the brahmanas and they would eschew wealth and arms and focus only on the The Brahman(the great, or the absolute). They would see Him or That in everything and would therefore never harm themselves or others and be above the duality of like and dislike. In return for the sacrifice of power and wealth they would get status. They would represent Him on earth and would be worthy of great respect and should never be killed or hurt. This was close to 3100 BC, near the end of Dwapara Yuga, at the end of the Vedic-Upanishadic age, at the time when the Saraswathi River was drying up and when the Sindhu Valley civilization was just starting up. At this time, the Ganga, Godavari and Krishna civilizations were doing as well as ever, if not even better.

The brahmans relinquished their arms and wealth at Sri Krishna’s word, accepted the high status offered and were not worried as long as he was alive. (You can contrast the behaviour of Krishna with Sudama and of Drupada with Drona. Both indicate a Kshatriya – Brahmana friendship., the former with honour and love and the latter with pride and revenge).

But with Krishna’s death and the onset of Kaliyuga, they were fairly sure that they would have it bad at the hands of those with power and wealth… so they went to Naimisaranya and performed a Yajna invoking the Devas, to protect them from the Kaliyuga which would have evil effects for them.

As it turned out, Yudhisthira’s grandson, Parikshit was a noble ruler who more or less protected the brahman way of life for another 60 years or therabouts. (Parikshit himself is said to have decorated a rishi with a dead snake – when the rshi was too busy meditating to pay attention to him).  Parikshit died at the hands of Takshaka, considered to be a Naga king. Parikshit’s son, Janamejaya had revenge on the Nagas, but Takshak himself escaped with support from Indra.

With the passing on of Parikshit, there was hardly anyone who could judge a person’s guna and karma and decide who was a brahman and who was not. The children of the Brahmans, dressed and behaved like them and learnt the Vedas from them, and were taken to be brahmans, whether or not the science and spirituality of the Vedas was their calling. This led, on the one hand to great geniuses like Aryabhatta, Kalidasa and Varahamihira and on the other hand to people who ‘mugged up’ the Vedas and felt stifled by the forced ‘life of virtue’.

The brahmans of the Vedic-Upanishadic age (Saraswathi-Ganga civilization)., lived life from first principles. They ate meat, educated their daughters (Garga), learned and taught weaponry and fought in wars (Bharadwaja, Drona, Pasurama, Krpacharya). They tilled land, taught agriculture and found water sources (Gauthama). They married princesses (Rcka, Richika), rakshasis (Visravas), and fishergirls (Parasara) and owned the children and raised them like brahmans. They freely gave vent to their anger and pronounced a sapa (curse) on those who showed them disrespect (Durvasa, Vasishtha). Viswamitra turned brahmana from kshatriya and attained the high status of brahmarshi. He was the RSi of the Gayathri Mantram.

With the Saraswathi River drying up, some people moved west, where they settled along the Sindhu, building their towns as per the Vaasthu Sastra rules followed by Viswakarma Deva in designing Indraprastha and other cities. Every time the Sindhu flooded, they built their cities more and more carelessly.., their best excavated city is at the bottom. The others moved east, north east, south and south east. The Yadavas under Vajra (Indraprastha), the Kauravas under Yuyutsu (the son of Dhritarashtra and a Vaisya woman) and the Pandavas (Purus) under Parikshit (Hastinapura), were left in charge by Yudhisthira when he left on his final walk (Mahaprasthanam).

In the Vedic age itself, Narada and Kapila had advocated Ahimsa and Sukracharya forbade brahmans from consuming alcohol. Subsequently Gauthama Buddha challenged the worship of Agni and decried animal sacrifice, drawing his lineage from the ‘Buddhas before him’, such as Kapila. At this time abstinence from alcohol and meat, were further strengthened among the brahmans.

When we look at the Brahman situation in the Mauryan times, we see that the brahman Chanakya was insulted by a drunken and unrepentant Mahapadma Nanda. We see Chankaya as a professor at Takshashila, as a king maker who put Chandragupta Maurya on the throne and as the author of several works of which the Kautilya Arthasastra is the siromani (jewel on the head). We see brahman teachers speaking out against the king, but not fighting with arms. We see brahmans being imprisoned for speaking up. At this time, we still see the fighting spirit of the Brahmans, though their tools were strategy and politics, and not axes and bows.

In the times that followed some brahmanas allied with kshatriyas and said that any king must be the representative of Vishnu on earth. One set of brahmans who allied with kings are called Niyogis. One set of the brahmans who stuck to their Vedic practices and poverty are called Vaidikis.While some brahmans rejected kingly gifts and patronage for eg, Pothana, Thyagayya, there were many who would bend their pens and skills in praise and support of the king.

“It was said that King Govinda IV of Rastrakuta gave brahmins 1400 villages along with large sums of money. The brahmins became the first Indian bureaucrats and they extended their power beyond their traditional religious duties. The brahmins were considered well suited for the job, because, drawing on scriptural authority, the Bhagavata Purana reasoned that “they possess nothing, still having no craving for wealth and kingdom.” (Source)

During the muslim rule, The Hanafi interpretation of shari’ah was used by Qasim to treat Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains as zhimmis, People of the Book, the same status accorded to Jews and Christians. That meant that they could continue to live under Islamic rule as long as they paid their religious tax (jizyah). Yet another concession to the Hindus was that out of respect for the Brahmins, Qasim decided to give them 3 percent of his government’s revenues.” (Source)

Between the Moghul and British rule, The Brahmin Peshwas of Maharashtra who were initially the prime ministers of the Maratha Empire, and became the de facto rulers of greater Maharashtra (from 1749 to 1818).

During the British Rule, there was a deliberate effort by the British colonial rulers to discredit brahmans and their knowledge., to increase their own control over Indian society. Westernization broke both legs of brahman power – knowledge and respect. Many brahmans themselves acquired western education, western habits, western values and gave up their traditional place in society. They were now allowed to “earn money” and “spend it on style and comfort”. They not only became professors of maths and english and allopathic doctors, but they also became clerks, lawyers and administrators. But Western knowledge was not restricted or exclusive., anyone could acquire it. While I firmly hold that Vedic knowledge was both scientific and spiritual, western science is easily accessible and can duplicate all the miracles that our Itihasas describe. A study of Vedic science and mathematics has many values but it no longer interests the man in the street who wants to do good for himself! (Maya Sabha – Claytronics?)

Brahmins Today: The brahmin stereotype is that “they are well-educated and are salaried employees, generally middle class, generally white collar and often employed in the government. Brahmins are considered a forward caste.” The reservation policy works against them and some of them are in very bad shape. It is a fairly frequent statement in brahmin families to hear “we have nothing but our education and if you don’t study, we have nothing to fall back upon”.  Compared to other Indian castes they have the lowest dowry rate. (The dowry rate is an indicator of disposable liquid wealth.) Some places have brahmin associations funded by NRI’s which pay for the education (Western or Vedic) of economically backward brahmin children).   Brahmins are generally, though not always, vegetarians. Many are physically thin and wiry. They are considered timid by temperament. They are generally considered non-confrontational.

Notes :

  1. Brahmana Warriors: The Bhargavas were fierce warriors for eg Parasurama fought the Kshatriyas 21 times and won before he was finally overcome by the younger and stronger Sri Rama. The father of the Kausikas, Viswamitra was a powerful Kshatriya before he turned brahman. Dronacharya, a Bharadwaja, was a master of weaponry, a teacher of the Pandavas and Kauravas and a warrior who could not be defeated until he layed down his arms voluntarily. In the Vedic times, brahmans ate meat and drank alcohol (soma rasa). They were a force to be reckoned with even till the time of the Mahabharata. Agastya himself wielded an axe on occasion.  Bharadwaja was adopted by a Kshatriya, ruled a kingdom and renounced it. He and Agnivesha taught Drona weaponry. Drona’s son Aswatthama ruled part of Panchala. Ahimsa was not a brahman concept.
  2. Brahmana Anger: Brahmanas are stereotypically described as satvik, in the sense of gentle or passive. But all of them were prone to anger ( a rajasic trait), and were capable of prouncing curses. Durvasa is the most famous for his temper, Viswamitra had to give it up to become a brahmarishi, but even the gentle Vasishtha got angry with king Nimi and pronounced a curse on him. It was a common belief that blessings (vara) and curses (saapa) pronounced by brahmans come true, because they are committed to truth. You do not want to see them reach for a kamandalam (water-pot), say a mantram over the water and sprinkle that water on you! Even today it is common to seek the blessings of Sat Brahmanas (good brahmans) on auspicious occasions.
  3. Brahmans and Agriculture: Gauthama Maharshi not only settled on Brahmagiri, but he also developed the land, discovered water sources and taught agriculture to the people who came to live in his settlement. See also:
  4. Brahman Lineage : The brahmans were descendants of Brahma, but they freely intermarried with other jathis. Brahman lineage can be used to trace the number of generations between Sri Rama and Sri Krishna.
  5. Brahman Marriages : Agastya married Lopamudra a Kshatriya princess of Vidarbha. Richika (Bhargava) married princess Satyavati, Viswamitra’s sister. RisyaSringa married princess Santa, Dasaratha’s daughter. Parasara owned and raised his son Krishna Dwaipayana (Veda Vyasa), borne by a fisherwoman Satyavati. Some Saraswat brahmans claim their descent from Veda Vyasa. Sukracharya‘s daughter Devayani was the first wife of Yayati, a Kshatriya and their son Yadu was Sri Krishna’s ancestor. Pulastya’s son, Visrava, married Kaikasi (a rakshasi) and fathered Ravana. There is a high rate of inter-caste, inter-state  inter-race and even inter-religion marriages among urban brahmins even today. See Also : Nehru’s descendants

Brahman Alliances : Brahmans as a jathi, have always been considered experts in Rajaniti (politics) and have forged many political alliances over time.

  1. Devas: Initially, the brahmans worshipped the devas, as per special rites using special mantras. The devas attended these rituals called Yajnas. (The word yaj means to worship). They accepted their share of the offerings. Soma Rasa (a kind of alcohol) was made from plants and animals were freshly slaughtered. The devas protected the brahmans and their Yajnas. The devas never seemed to have performed Yajnas themselves. Indra is called SataKratu, which means a 100 times talented or powerful, but some people think it means he performed 100 kratus (sacrifices). The east coast of Andhra Pradesh where the Krishna and Godavari enter the Bay of Bengal, is full of places associated with Devas and their names. This is where the Devas may have lived. As per the puranas, the Devas were forever fighting the Asuras for control of the earth. Some Asuras were noble kings, like Prahlada and Mahabali. Some Asuras were not fond of brahmans and went out of their way to destroy the Yajnas and pollute the places of worship by messing things up. Tarakasura was from the east coast (Tanuku), Mahishasura was from Mysore, Mooshikasura was from the west coast. In the early Vedic hymns, Asura was an adjective that meant mighty!. So the brahmans and devas always sided with each other. Today, the brahmins believe that the devas have magical or mystical powers and that they can control the forces of nature. They believe firmly that the devas can be invoked by mantras even when they are physically far away. (Click here: for an astronomical perspective of Devas and Asuras.)
  2. Dalits: “ The 2007 state election demonstrated Mayawati’s ability to build cross-caste alliances on economic and social issues. Since 2002, for example, she has built support for the BSP among Brahmins, traditionally at the apex of the caste structure. Just as Dalits fear the landholding castes in the middle of the caste system, so Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh have felt their position threatened by this group. Mayawati showed herself just as capable of addressing Brahmin fears of middle-caste self-assertion as she was of mobilising Dalit identity. The approach paid off; the party increased its share of Brahmin votes in the state election from 6 per cent in 2003 to 17 per cent in 2007. Mayawati campaigned on a platform of law and order, and on a promise of equal development, irrespective of caste. Coupled with some careful handing out of party tickets to ensure that all castes were well represented, it was enough to win her power”. (Source)

Brahman Associations : Quotes and Notes  From :  Brahmins in the modern world, Association as enunciation, Ramesh Bairy T.S (Ramesh Bairy T.S. is at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Powai, Mumbai 400 076. Email:

“The state recognises caste as a measure of the in/equality among communities. Caste associations have been important in this quest for equality. Caste Associations have emerged because of  the demand for an equitable and representative distribution of modern resources – education and employment. The single most defining ground of justification for Brahmin Associations is  a sense of siege – of the brahmins under duress. The Brahmin Jathi Associations try to support poorer brahmins with money and hostel facilities for education. The Brahmin Secular Associations try to work for Brahmin Unity, Pride and Identity, at a time when people try to hide the fact that they are brahmins or apologise for it.”

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Authorship and Copyright Notice: All Rights Reserved: Satya Sarada Kandula