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Priesthood: Hindu Priesthood


Hindu priesthood has its origins primarily in the Vedic religion, in which the primary focus was the ritual tradition. The Indo-Aryan-speaking invaders of northwestern India in the middle and late second millennium bce were apparently divided into a threefold hierarchy of social classes with religious as well as economic functions, the priestly class being uppermost and distinct from the warrior, and both of these relatively small echelons ranking above the masses, the pastoral, artisan, and agricultural producers. Kings and chieftains were evidently drawn from the warrior tradition, but the function of sovereignty itself involved divine-human relationships perceived as sacrificial exchanges and therefore the sacred work (karman ) of an elite priesthood, whose members came from the priestly social class (brāhmaa ). That this sacerdotal elite was diversified according to long tradition, being responsible not only for a wide range of cultic functions but also for the composition and preservation of the sacred traditions of oral poetry, is documented from comparative study of the gveda, the oldest of the Vedic texts, composed c. 1200 bce, and the Avesta of ancient Iran. Similarities in the functions not only of Vedic brahmans and Iranian magi but also of Celtic druids and Roman flamens have led some scholars to discuss a proto-Indo-European priestly tradition. In the absence of interpretable literary records from the Indus Valley, it remains undetermined what contribution a hypothetical Harappan priesthood may have made to subsequent South Asian religions.

Vedic Priesthood

The expansion of the priesthood during the period of composition of Rgvedic hymns and subsequent texts has a complicated history. The initial verse of the gveda identifies Agni, god of fire, as divine priest and hot, or invoking priest, originally the "pourer" of libations (his Avestan counterpart in name and function being the zaotar ). The gveda itself came to serve as the handbook of this essential priest, who called the gods to the sacrifices. gveda 2.1.2 honors Agni not only with the hot 's office but also with those of the adhvaryu, or administrative priest, and the brahmán (possibly indicating brāhmaācchasin ), pot, ne, agnīdh, and praśāst, with the householder, ghapati, as eighth priest. In several respects this staff corresponds to ancient Iranian sets of seven or eight priests. But the fully developed Vedic staff for the great soma rituals consisted of four major officiants, or tvij (a number including the udgāt with the hot, adhvaryu, and brahmán from the above group), and allowed each to employ three assistants for a total of sixteen, occasionally seventeen if an additional priest was required. Just as the gveda was the manual from which the hot recited, so the three subsidiary Samhitas eventually came to be specific texts for the other principal tvij and their assistants, the adhvaryu instructing and proclaiming from the Yajurveda, the udgāt and his acolytes singing as a quartet from the Sāmaveda, and the brahmán serving as proctor or monitor for the rituals, silently observing and listening for errors in need of expiation, his relationship to the Atharvaveda being only nominal because his training necessarily included coverage of all three primary Vedas. gveda 10.71.11 alludes to the tasks of the four major priests, that of the brahmán being the relating of knowledge (vidyā ), a significant clue to the nature of this important figure who, as transcendent fourth, represents the totality of priesthood. As brahmán (masculine) he is one who knows bráhman (neuter), the cosmic word in poetic formula. He "knows" and applies to the human world this vidyā of cosmic correspondences, his efforts being simultaneously ritual, speculative, intuitive, even magical. The bráhman as cosmic revelation is thus the sacred responsibility of the brahmán priest, and by extension, of the entire social class (vara ) of brāhmaa s.

In the early centuries of the first millennium bce, Vedic civilization expanded across North India, and sacerdotal literature explored new genres beyond the four Vedic Samhitas, including Brāhmaas, or theological and ritual discourses, and sūtra s, treatises for both levels of rituals, the great public (śrauta ) ceremonies requiring three fires and a staff of priests, and the domestic (ghya ) ceremonies dependent upon a single fire and priest. There developed an interactive system of schools (śākhā s) to safeguard and transmit oral traditions, each linked to one of the Vedas just as priests claimed descent from one of the traditional seven i s. Partly competitive but largely cooperative, these schools produced a specialized, highly skilled priesthood that was eventually to be found throughout the Indian subcontinent, and fragments of which exist in marginal areas, particularly in South India, still today. Prayoga s and paddhati s developed as combinative handbooks for specific rituals, as, for example, in detailing the procedures for the morning and evening milk-offering known as the Agnihotra, or for funerary and ancestral rites.

In ancient and classical India the sacrificer (yajamāna ), belonging to any one of the three high vara s, engaged one or more priests for the performance of his rites. His family priest was the purohita, an office known already in the gveda. The purohita 's spiritual guidance as guru or ācārya came to be regarded as highly as his textual skill as śrotriya or his ritual expertise for life-cycle rites (saskāra s). The purohita linked to a king could become a powerful state figure, as illustrated by Kauilya, court chaplain to the emperor Candragupta Maurya (late fourth century bce) and author of the influential political treatise known as the Arthaśāstra.

Hindu Priesthood from the Classical to the Modern Period

From the middle of the first millennium bce, the Vedic sacrificial structure and its priestly custodians had faced competition from renunciant movements (including the Jains and Buddhists), Upaniadic speculation, and yogic techniques, all dispensing with or "interiorizing" the sacrifice. Then emergent Hindu theistic movements promoted devotion (bhakti) and worship (pūjā) above yajña, the Vedic sacrifice. The great śrauta system enjoyed a revival in the classical Gupta period, but began to disappear as an institution after the fifth century ce, while the Vedic domestic ritual system was absorbed into Hindu faith and practice, as indeed was its priesthood; the brahmans were now divided into temple officiants in villages, towns, and cities, or linked as purohita s in traditional hereditary exchanges of services with twice-born classes, known as the jajmāni relationship (in the vernacular, from Vedic yajamāna, "sacrificer-patron"). Increasingly, brahman priests found themselves to be one category among specialists of the sacred as "Hinduism" slowly broadened its base to accommodate virtually every religious expression of the multicultural subcontinent. Still the most versatile of priests by virtue of their paramount social position and range of linkages across classes and caste groups (jāti s), brahmans nevertheless gave significantly more space to nonbrahman religious specialists, who doubtless had long been part and parcel of religious life but had been accorded neither prominence nor legitimation in Vedic and Sanskrit Brahmanic literatures.

By the early medieval period the "priesthood" of Hinduism could be said to have included at least three distinct groups, each with its own interior hierarchy: a remnant of Vedic brahmans (Vaidikas) whose textual and ritual locus remained one or another Vedic school; a larger segment of brahmans whose textual and ritual base was not the Vedas but largely the Sanskrit epics, Purāas, and gamas, and whose recourse was increasingly toward regional vernacular renditions of these in Tamil, Konkani, Bengali, Hindi, and so forth; and a far larger representation of nontextual priests, unlettered but not unlearned, drawn largely but not exclusively from the lower castes and marginally Hindu tribal peoples, connected with an inexhaustible variety of localized shrines and cult phenomena, and more likely than their brahman counterparts to be concerned with village boundary, hero and goddess cults, spirit possession, exorcism, divination, healing, sorcery, astrology, and shamanic calls to office. Villages afforded priestly roles within virtually every caste or even subcaste. Temples in urban areas displayed wide latitude in the range of priests, including (to cite one eleventh-century example) some fifty priests among a staff of hundreds, all ranked in office and salary from the brahman pandita down through lesser priests appointed to serve acolyte deities in the temple or perform animal sacrifices, and even listing as part-time priests specialists in the gveda, Sāmaveda, and Yajurveda.

Hindu priesthood in the twentieth century retains many features of the past, including the hereditary jajmāni relationship, the location of brahman priestly subcastes near the top of the jāti hierarchy (although, interestingly, not as high as most nonpriestly brahman subcastes), a strong emphasis on purity and consecrated ritual status, a hierarchical organization as well as a sectarian one, and a bewildering range of specialization from every caste group, from the incongruously high-caste but low-ranking brahman funeral priest of North India (the mahāpātra ) to the low-caste barber who performs the same function in parts of South India, to the priests from a wide range of brahman and nonbrahman castes who frequent the great holy centers and engage as patrons the incoming pilgrims. The village or urban brahman purohita and his nonbrahman counterpart may find themselves jacks-of-all-trades, called upon to recite mantra s, perform or advise on life-cycle rites, inaugurate a new house, provide horoscopes, sanction marital arrangements, advise on illnesses, counteract the evil eye, arbitrate disputes, perform accounting, or administer the age-old ritual attentions to the images in the household shrine. The urban brahman priest of a famous Vaiava or Śaiva temple, like the nonbrahman pūjāri of the crudest roadside rock shrine, will find his role more circumscribed than that of the domestic priest, yet still fixed in the same office of mediation between the human and divine worlds.

See Also

Brahman; Druids; Flamen; Magi; Vedism and Brahmanism.


There is no detailed study of the Vedic priesthood and its history. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 2 vols., edited by Frits Staal (Berkeley, Calif., 1983), presents the śrauta staff of priests in the context of the Agnicayana ritual (vol. 1, pp. 4054); numerous color plates from the 1975 Kerala Agnicayana and an excellent bibliography make this an indispensable work. Volume 2 contains a catalog of living and recently deceased Vedic sacrificers with brief regional histories, "Śrauta Traditions of Recent Times," compiled by C. G. Kashikar and Asko Parpola (pp. 199251). The Indo-Iranian background to Vedic priesthood is summarized by Bruce Lincoln in his Priests, Warriors and Cattle (Berkeley, Calif., 1981); see especially pages 6063, with references. Henk W. Bodewitz's "The Fourth Priest (the Brahmán ) in Vedic Ritual," in Selected Studies on Ritual in Indian Religions: Essays to D. J. Hoens, edited by Ria Kloppenborg (Leiden, 1983), has summarized and contributed to interpretations of the fourth śrauta priest. An innovative and influential discussion of the relationship among Vedic priests, their sacrificer patrons, and renunciation is Jan C. Heesterman's "Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer," Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Süd- und Ostasiens 8 (1964): 131. Still useful for both Vedic and later Hindu priesthood is the overview by Arthur Berriedale Keith, "Priest, Priesthood (Hindu)," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1918).

The best single book on Hindu temple priests is the field study by C. J. Fuller, Servants of the Goddess: The Priests of a South Indian Temple (New York, 1984), with details on the hierarchy of priests in the Mīnākī temple of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. L. P. Vidyārthi, B. N. Saraswati, and Makhan Jha's The Sacred Complex of Kashi (Delhi, 1979) includes a dozen types of sacred specialists active in Banaras. Among the best anthropological field studies to include sustained and informed discussion of priestly activities in villages are Lawrence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975), especially chapter 6, a comparative study of brahman priests and the baiga (nonbrahman priest-exorcist) of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh; and David F. Pocock's Mind, Body and Wealth (Totowa, N.J., 1973), especially chapter 3 on goddess cults in central Gujarat, in which the bhuvo (nonbrahman priest) is possessed by a particular mātā, or goddess.

David M. Knipe (1987)

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