Why were Brahmins treated superior in ancient India? Do Brahmins of the present day really think they are superior to other classes of people? Is ‘Brahmin pride’ really justified?

The source of knowledge of all rituals and mantras is Vedas, particularly Yajur Veda for rituals. Only Brahmins were originally entitled to learn Veda and practice the rituals because only brahmins had the required qualities and qualifications for it.

Those who do the poojas, prayers and rituals were expected to live a pure life, be very dedicated, be free from lust and greed, lead an extremely simple life (funded purely by donations/ gifts/ grants from Kings or the dakshina —voluntary offering paid by the ritual seekers). They were expected to eat less, practice austerities of the highest order, never work for a salary, follow vegetarianism, not consume alcoholic drinks etc. These were indeed the essential qualifications for people who were to be fit enough for conducting rituals and also to memorize Vedas and repeat them verbatim, because Vedas were transmitted from generation to generation only through word by mouth.

Of the four varnas, only Brahmins were able to live up to these fundamental expectations. Brahmins had access to Sankrit and they were good in reciting Vedas with proper intonation that is very essential for the mantras to take effect. Naturally, the tradition was followed generations after generations. Further other knowledge like Dhanurveda (scriptures about archery) and philosophy (contained in Upanishads) were to be taught to others for which Brahmins were fit enough and brilliant enough.

Thus even though Brahmins were in exclusive possession of the greatest knowledge source of Hinduism, they opted to live an extremely simple and pure life as per dharma ordained on them. They were free from jealousy, greed and they shunned violence. Naturally, they commanded respect in the society. Kings prospered through their association with Brahmins and they naturally showed lots of respect to Brahmins.

That’s how in ancient India, Brahmins were treated superior to other varnas.

However, in today’s cultural background things are totally different.

Practically all those who call themselves brahmins have only a semblance of  Brahmins  today. If you read “Deivatthin Kural” by Kanchi Maha Swamigal (Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi) (1884-1984), you will find that he has unequivocally said that today’s brahmins are far, far deviated from what true Brahmins are supposed to be and we have little to claim and feel proud to be brahmins in the real sense.

Mind you, Kanchi Maha Swamigal was the pontiff of Kanchi Kamakoti Matt and he was an extremely revered Brahmin saint, considered to be a Jivan Mukta. When he makes such a statement, we have to take it at its face value.

Who is a Brahmin?

A Brahmin is

  • One whose whole time job is Veda parayana (chanting vedas) , Veda abhyasam (learning veda’s teachings) and Veda Samrakshanam (protecting veda).
  • one who does nitya karma (daily rituals) without fail. It covers
    • 1) Trikala Sandhya Vandanam (worship-thrice-a-day: as Pratha Sandhya — at early morning, Madyaniga Sandhya — at noon and Saayam Sandhya — at dusk) to be done by all males. who have obtained Brahmopadesam.
    • 2) Samithadanam (offerings to fire) recommended daily once, by unmarried Brahmacharis)
    • 3) Aboupasanam (offerings to fire — recommended daily twice, by married Adults and unmarried Brahmacharis)
    • 4) Brahma Yagnyam (recommended to perform daily, once, after Madhyaniga Sandhya)
    • 5) Pithru Tharpanam (offerings to deceased parents — specific dates in a month, Lunar cycle dependent, to be performed ONLY by those Male members whose father has passed away).
  • One who eats his food by begging, or by means of dana obtained from kings
  • one who lives the life of a teacher to teach Vedic knowledge (or arts, archery etc) and lives by guru dakshina (offerings to the guru) which is not to be demanded (i.e. only voluntary contributions).
  • One who leads a life of extreme simplicity (bordering on poverty) as a dharma
  • one who does not work and earn his livelihood by any other means
  • one who abhors possessing of material wealth, accumulating and hoarding
  • one who is extremely careful about his physical and mental purity and takes immediate corrective measures and goes through self-purification ceremonies.
  • is never offensive, always following ahimsa, never retaliating, never killing, always forbearing, sacrificing. having his senses under control, never lustful, non-drinking etc
  • one who strives for Brahma Gnyana (knowledge of the supreme) as the only purpose of life.
  • one who does not resort to doing activities of the other varnas — Kshatriya (warriors) , Vaishya (traders) or Sudra (laborers and artisans).

Of course, it is obvious that not only brahmins but also all other varnas have deviated far away from the type of lives ordained to them in scriptures. Obviously there is virtually no scope of going back.

Most of the brahmins of today are brahmana-kshatryas (rulers and buracrats) , Brahmana-Vysyas (businessmen, company executives, traders) or Brahmana-Sudras (workers and skilled labor force – including IT Engineers!).

Brahmins are supposed to be never running behind money. But every educated brahmin is very much in the rat race of money-making; it has almost come to a stage in Tamil Nadu that if a brahmin boy does not earn in dollars, he is not considered as Brahmin!

Even brahmins fitting into Vedic brahminism (purohits called Vadhyars/ Shashtrigalin Tamil) who conduct rituals like marriages, death ceremonies, Shraddda Karma etc as per vedic practices are extremely money-minded and demand their cut but not necessarily proportionately knowledgeable in mantras and rites.

On the positive side, we should also acknowledge that many Brahmins even today carry better principles and values by way of their strict upbringing; they are in general far more honest, straight forward, free from bad/evil habits, trustworthy, intelligent, reliable, sincere, non-violent and law abiding.

Varnashrama is gone and only castes remain in Indian society. And Brahmins too exist as a caste only, carrying a false sense of superiority, not as per the original definition and exalted role of Brahmins outlined in varnashrama dharma.

If Varnashrama system were ordained by God truly, why is not existing in other cultures or societies across the world?

The Varnashrama Dharma (classification of the society into 4 classes of people based on their work and role in society in Hinduism), which unfortunately got hardened and compartmentalized into a system of castes, is frequently blamed as a major reason for underprivileged people in the lower strata of the society to leave Hinduism for good.

While the caste system and the consequent demarcation of some of them as ‘upper’ and some as ‘lower’ can be blamed for some of the ills in the social practices of Hinduism, it is outright foolhardy to imagine that “Varnashrama” does not exist in any other religion or society!

In any  religion, even where an overt caste or profession-based demarcation does not seemingly exist, there will invariably be the rich, powerful and influential persons who become de facto “upper castes” and the rest who are not so privileged become “lower castes”. Again there will indeed be different levels of people fitting between “upper” and “lower” depending on the clout they have with money, power or influence.

In any part of the world, in any decent society, you will find these sort of people:

  • Teachers, professors, clergies, preachers, research scholars, scientists, intellectuals, linguistics — They are de facto equivalent to Brahmin class
  • Politicians, statesmen, ministers, Top officers in administrative services, chiefs of Defense (Army/ Navy. Air force), military officers — they are de facto equivalent to Kshatriya Class.
  • Businessmen, traders, Industrialists, small Industry owners — they are de facto equivalent to Vysya Class.
  • Laborers, workmen, craftsmen, technicians — they are de facto equivalent to Shudra Class.

In the present times, even in India, it is common place to see Brahmins by caste being engaged in politics, civil services, trading/ business etc. Poor under-educated Brahmins too work as cooks, technicians etc. If a shudra by birth becomes a Sanskrit professor, he is in a way a Brahmin only, as per original definition.

Even if caste systems go, the social class differences between the rich and poor, the elite and the underdog are not going to vanish. That is the reality of human society.