views updated


LOCATION: India; Nepal
POPULATION: 65–70 million
LANGUAGE: The language of their geographic region; Sanskrit for religious purposes
RELIGION: Hinduism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; Vol. 4: People of India


Brahmans are members of the first and highest-ranked of the four varnas or classes of traditional Hindu society. The name Brahman is frequently spelled " Brahmin" to avoid any confusion between the caste, the supreme being of the Hindus (Brahma), and the sacred scriptures known as the Brahmanas. In ancient times, Brahmans were above all a priestly caste. Their duties included daily recitation from the Vedas, performing religious rituals, conducting sacrifices, and studying and teaching the sacred books of Hinduism. It was almost inevitable, given their control of ritual sacrifice and claim to be the exclusive guardians of sacred knowledge, that Brahmans should rise to a dominant position in the life of the Hindu people. Wherever Hindus went, as during their expansion into Southeast Asia in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, Brahmans followed. (However, some scholars have argued Brahmans were brought to Southeast Asia by local rulers to help set up the administrative structures of their states). Even today, their former presence in the region can be seen in the Brahmans and caste system found on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Brahmans have faced periodic challenges to their power. The reformist religions of Jainism and Buddhism, for example, were founded on the basis of a society without castes or priests. The conversion of Ashoka (273–232 BC), in particular, to Buddhism was a serious setback to the Brahmans in India. However, the 5th century AD saw the beginnings of a Hindu revival that raised Brahmans to a position of social dominance. This was based on three features of Brahman society: a hostility to all languages not Sanskrit, an intolerance for all religions not Hindu, and a deep prejudice towards all castes not Brahman. From this point on, Brahmans openly claimed superiority in all aspects of life. This state of affairs continued for several centuries, until the Brahmans' dominance was threatened by the introduction of Islam and its egalitarian ideals at the end of the 12th century. Western ideas, introduced by missionaries and social reformers, and ideals of democracy have acted to reduce the power and prestige of the Brahmans in recent times.


Brahmans make up about 6% of all Hindus, or roughly 65 to 70 (2007 est.) million people. Rather than being a single caste, Brahmans form a bewildering array of subgroups. Each of these can be considered a caste (jati) in its own right in that it is endogamous (i.e., marriage occurs within the group) and subject to restrictions on interdining. The orthodox Brahman from Malabar in South India, for example, cannot eat with the orthodox Brahman from Kashmir. Today, there are over 1,800 subdivisions of Brahmans. The Brahman castes are generally divided into two broad divisions: those of northern India (Pancha Gauda), and those of the south (Pancha Dravida). Each of these divisions is further divided into five categories. The Pancha Gauda categories are the Sarasvata Brahmans of the Sindh, Punjab and Kashmir, the Kanykuba Brahmans of Kanauj, the Gauda Brahmans of Bihar and Bengal, the Utkala Brahmans of northern Orissa, and the Maithila Brahmans of the areas of Bihar and Nepal north of the River Ganges. These groups include both high caste groups (e.g. the Kashmiri Pandits) and those of lower ranking (e.g. the Chithu and Prot [Purohit] Brahmans, also of Kashmir). Although in any given area Brahmans are ranked as the highest caste, there is no relationship between the Brahman castes of different regions. The Brahman castes are even ranked into a hierarchy among themselves, depending on factors such as occupation and descent.

Although Brahmans are found throughout India and Nepal, they are not spread evenly over the subcontinent. Their highest concentration is in Kashmir, where they form 35% of the Hindu population. Around 12% of Hindus in the upper Ganges plains are Brahmans. However, the numbers of Brahmans drop dramatically in areas distant from the Aryan heartland. In Assam, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu, for example, they make up less than 3% of the Hindu population.


Brahmans speak the language of their geographic region. Thus, the Kashmiri Pandit speaks Kashmiri, the Nambudiri Brahman of Kerala speaks Malayalam, and the Ayyar Brahman from Tamil Nadu speaks Tamil. The sacred language of Hinduism, however, is Sanskrit. Brahmans need to know Sanskrit to carry out their priestly functions. There is, however, considerable variation in the level of the Brahman's knowledge of Sanskrit. A Vedic scholar may have extensive knowledge of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature. On the other hand, a temple functionary may be illiterate and have learned the Sanskrit passages he needs to perform his duties by rote.


In Vedic legend, Purusha was a giant being, representing the original primeval male. He was thought to be a form of Brahma, who created the universe. The Rig Veda, the earliest of the Vedas, tells of the sacrifice of Purusha that served as the model for all future sacrifice. The four castes (varnas) of Hinduism were created from Purusha's severed body. The Brahman was created from his mouth for the purposes of teaching humankind. The khsatriya came from Purusha's arms, the vaishya from his thighs, and the sudra from his feet. It is this origin from Purusha's (i.e., Brahma's) mouth that underlies the Brahman's claim to superiority over all other castes in Hindu society.


Brahmans are Hindu and embrace the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism. These include concepts of the soul (atman), the illusion that surrounds one's physical existence (maya), the cycle of rebirths (samsara), the law of karma, the pursuit of righteous behavior (dharma), the philosophy of nonviolence (ahimsa), and the total release (mokhsa) of the soul from the physical world. They also include belief in the authority of the Vedas, in the caste system, and in the superiority of the Brahman caste. Beyond this, however, Brahmans may follow different philosophical systems. The Smarta Brahmans, for example, are followers of the Smarta sect of Hinduism. They are orthodox, but in their worship ceremonies they invoke five deities (Shiva, Vishnu, Suraj, Ganpati, and Shakti). In contrast, the Shri Vaishnava Brahmans of the Tamil region exclusively worship the Hindu god Vishnu. There are almost as many differences in Brahman religious customs and practices as there are Brahman castes in the country.


Brahmans celebrate all of the major festivals of the Hindu calendar. Of particular importance to Brahmans, however, is the festival of Shravani-purnima, the full moon of the month of Shravana (July-August). Sometimes this is known as "Coconut Day" because people commonly throw coconuts into the ocean and rivers. It is a day on which Brahmans (and other high-caste Hindus) renew the sacred thread. For many Brahmans, this is the beginning of the sacred year, and the rituals they perform on this day serve to purify them of the sins of the past year.


All periods of transition and change in Hindu life are held to be times of danger and are accompanied by rituals to counteract evil influences. These rituals (samskara, in Sanskrit) are set out in the Vedas and other Hindu texts. At one time they numbered over 300, but now have been reduced to around 9 or 16 (there is disagreement among scholars as to the exact number of rites that should be performed). All Hindus perform these rituals, no matter what their caste, although they are often more elaborate for Brahmans. The Maithila Brahmans of northern Bihar, however, observe no pre-birth rituals. Mother and child are viewed as ceremonially unclean until the Chhattihar, the ritual purification undertaken on the sixth day. During infancy, rituals to protect the child from black magic, the first-feeding ceremony, and the head-shaving ceremony (mundan) are performed. One of the most important rites for the Maithila Brahman is the upanayana ceremony, the donning of the sacred thread. This is a ritualistic rebirth (hence the term "twice-born") by which the male is initiated to the full status of a Brahman.

In theory, soon after the sacred thread ceremony, a boy should enter the first of the four stages (asramas) into which a Brahman's life is divided. He lives as a student in the house of his teacher, studying the Vedas and the sacred law. Around the age of 30, he should return to his father's house to marry, raise a family, and become a householder (the second asrama). Then, having raised his children and fulfilled his family obligations, a Brahman is free to seek his own salvation. During the third stage, the Brahman leaves his family for an austere life of discipline and meditation in the forest. Finally, he progresses to the stage of Sannyasa. A sannyasin is an ascetic who has given up his possessions and renounced the world. He has no home, begs for his food, and wanders the country awaiting the ultimate release of the soul from the physical body. Few Brahmans follow the ideal of the four asramas today, although individuals who have become sannyasin may be seen today at Hindu pilgrimage centers and holy places across the land.

Maithila Brahman death rituals involve the custom of Godan, or "gift of a cow." When possible, just before death a Brahman worships a cow and gives it away as a gift to a near relative. This is seen as essential, as the cow will carry the dead Brahman across the river of blood and filth (Vaitarani) that separates the earth from the land of the dead (this rite is described in the Vedic literature). The body is placed on a bamboo stretcher and carried out to be cremated. The Maithila Brahmans have no common cremation ground, each family having its own place, usually in a mango garden, for the burning of bodies. Water is sprinkled on the ground to thwart evil spirits. The corpse is bathed, dressed in a white shroud, and placed on the funeral pyre with the head pointing south. The chief mourner, usually the eldest son, places five pieces of wood on the pyre, walks around it three times, and then sets it alight. All the participants in the funeral ceremony take a ritual bath in a river or pond before returning home. Before entering the house, they are required to touch iron, stone, and fire, and then tear a chili into three pieces. Various rituals are performed in the following days, including the gathering up of the bones and ashes and placing them in the sacred Ganges River. A grand feast, at which fish and meat are served and to which a minimum of 11 Brahmans have to be invited, is held on the thirteenth day to complete the sraddha (funeral) rites. If the funeral rites are not performed correctly, it is believed the soul of the departed will become a ghost (preta) and never obtain salvation.


Brahmans use the standard Hindu greetings, "Namaste" or "Namaskar," accompanied by the joining together of hands in front of the body. Orthodox Brahmans concerned with ritual purity take great care to avoid physical contact with people of lower castes, and, thus, rarely venture into crowded public places or use public transport. Even the shadow of an Untouchable falling on a Brahman is polluting and requires ritual purification.


The living conditions of Brahmans reflect factors such as occupation, economic status, and regional culture. The Anavil Brahmans, who are relatively affluent landowners in Gujarat, have a very different lifestyle from the Ganga-patra, a Brahman who guides pilgrims through the sacred city of Varanasi (Banaras). The pilgrim-guide also leads an existence quite different from that of the Vedic scholar who lives and works in Varanasi, the holiest of the Hindus' holy cities. In general, the material culture of Brahmans (e.g., settlement patterns, house type, household belongings, and furniture) conforms to regional cultural patterns.


Brahmans generally follow regional systems of kinship and marriage, although considerable diversity exists in their practices. Among the Nambudiri Brahmans of Kerala, for example, only the eldest son was traditionally allowed to marry. Like all Hindu castes, Brahmans are divided into exogamous gotras. One marries outside one's gotra, but there are also complex rules delineating other gotras and degrees of relationship that are taboo. Marriages between persons of the same name is usually prohibited because they are considered to be related. The matter is further complicated by the fact that many Brahmans will not marry outside their own sect. Brahmans have been known to practice hypergamy, i.e., members of a caste will accept daughters from a caste of lower status but will not give their daughters in return. Marriages are, of course, arranged, and the forms of marriage available to the Brahman are clearly set out in the sacred texts. The extended family with patrilocal residence is the norm for Brahman families. Most Brahman groups do not recognize divorce or widow remarriage.


The traditional dress for the Brahman man is the dhoti, a single piece of white cotton wrapped around the waist for half its length, and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist behind. There are regional variations in the way the dhoti may be tied. The chest is usually left bare. A turban, often red in color, may be worn by the cultivating castes. Any items made of bone or leather are regarded as unclean and are shunned. Women wear the typical Hindu dress of sari and choli (bodice) and share in their countrywomen's love of jewelry. Orthodox Brahmans continue to wear their traditional clothing, though in many areas the cultivating castes have adopted local styles of dress.


Geography and ecology set the broad outlines of the Brahmans' diet. In the drier northern and western regions, cereals (wheat, millet, barley) made into flat, unleavened breads (roti) are the staple food. This is eaten with spiced vegetable dishes, pulses (dal), and fruits. Rice (chawal) replaces the cereals in the more humid east and south.

The specifics of the Brahman diet are determined by concerns for ritual purity and the need to avoid pollution. Food habits in Hindu society are closely linked to social status and standing in the caste hierarchy. As high-caste Hindus, Brahmans are subject to rigid dietary restrictions. In theory, Brahmans are strict vegetarians, eating no animal flesh and even avoiding eggs. But Kashmiri Brahmans eat mutton, and Brahmans in Bengal eat fish. In South India, however, no orthodox Brahman will eat animal flesh. No Brahman in India will eat beef, either, as this violates the basic Hindu concept of the sanctity of the cow. Milk and milk products are important foods, however. They also have ritual significance, because the five products of the cow are regarded as both sacred and sanctifying. (These five products are milk, curds, ghi or clarified butter, dung, and urine—known collectively as pancha-gavya.) Some Brahmans even avoid foods such as onions and garlic that grow in the ground and are regarded as unclean. Alcohol is strictly forbidden. Even inadvertent violation of food taboos can lead to serious problems. An incident is recorded among the Maithila Brahmans where an individual accidentally ate a vulture, thinking it was a water-hen. He was cast out of the community for this act, and the priest refused to purify him.

Dietary restrictions extend not only to the foods a Brahman will eat, but also to who can prepare the food and with whom the Brahman can eat. In any given region, rules of commensality, i.e., rules concerning with whom one can eat, are a clear indication of one's standing in the caste hierarchy.


Educational levels vary among Brahman castes across the country. Some, such as the elites among the Pandits of Kashmir, have a long tradition of learning and scholarship. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, was of this caste. By contrast, a Brahman cultivator in a desert village in Rajasthan may have had hardly any schooling at all. There is a tendency among the more conservative groups, such as the Nambudiri Brahmans of Kerala, to shun Western education. This has restricted their opportunities for advancement in modern India.


Brahmans all over India share many common features, e.g., high social status, traditional priestly functions, and restrictive food taboos. However, the cultural heritage of a particular Brahman group is rooted in the group's own regional culture. Each group shares in the language, literature, history, and folk traditions of the regional society of which it forms a part. Thus, the Ayyars of South India are Brahmans by caste but Tamil in culture; the Pandits of Kashmir have helped shape Kashmiri society; and the Maithila Brahmans are an integral part of the peoples and culture of the middle Ganges plains.


The traditional occupation of the Brahman castes is to serve as priests for Hindu society, either in temples or as family priests (purohit). In the past, because of their learning and literacy, Brahmans rose to positions of power in the state administrations, acting as royal advisors and even attaining the rank of "Diwan" (Chief Minister). Textual sources indicate that, in addition to their priestly role, Brahmans have been teachers, soldiers, tillers of the soil, and even traders. Today, there are still Brahman castes (e.g., the Anavil Brahmans, the Bhaghban, and the Bhumihar) who are primarily landowners and cultivators, and who are barred from performing priestly functions. These groups do not, of course, have the ritual status of the priestly castes. Brahmans are also found in occupations such as teacher, scribe, and government clerk.

Of the Brahmans involved in religious occupations, those connected with the actual rituals of temple worship are considered socially inferior. These include the pujari who performs the pujas (rituals of worship) at temples and shrines, the ojha who exorcises demons and evil spirits, and the jyotisha or astrologer who casts horoscopes and determines auspicious dates. The Brahmans who act as guides for pilgrims at sacred centers such as Varanasi or Allahabad, as well as those who preside over funeral rites, also fall into this category of "inferior" Brahmans. By contrast, the Sarasvata Brahmans of the northwest are regarded as among the purest of the Brahman castes.


There are no games or sports associated specifically with Brahmans, although individual groups have developed certain athletic skills. For example, the Chaturvedis are a Brahman caste of Mathura (in western Uttar Pradesh) who are known for their wrestling ability.


There are no forms of entertainment or recreation specifically identified with the Brahman castes.


Brahmans are not known for any unique folk arts or crafts.


Given the wide geographical distribution and varied occupations of Brahmans, it is difficult to generalize about their problems. Some problems, such as the violence and political instability in Kashmir or the deteriorating law and order situation in Bihar, are regional in nature and affect all castes. Others, for instance the difficulties faced by struggling Brahman cultivators, are class—rather than caste—related. Perhaps the single greatest problem facing Brahmans in recent years has been the emergence of a secular and democratic India. The modernization of India, especially in economic terms, has eroded the traditional power and prestige of the Brahmans. The adoption of the democratic principle of one person, one vote has given the lower castes, and especially the Untouchables, political power that they could never have possessed in times past. Political movements among the lower castes, such as the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra State, often are based on a rejection of Brahmanism. Recent government actions, such as the Mandal Commission's recommendations to "reserve" government jobs and university places for the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, have further strengthened the position of the lower castes at the expense of the upper castes. It is perhaps no accident that a militant Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), supported in part by Brahmans, has recently emerged as a major force on the Indian political scene.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is an example of this. Created in 1980, the BJP is a major center-right Indian political party championing the socio-religious cultural values of the country's Hindus and is supported by members of the set of Hindu nationalist organizations informally known as the Sangh Parivar, in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) plays a leading role. Currently, the BJP rules in eight states of India (Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand) and while its leaders are not necessarily Brahmans, the party supports the traditional values of Hinduism. Under Atal Bihai Vajpayee, the BJP led the National Democratic Alliance, which formed the Union (central) Government in Delhi between 1998 and 2004. L. K. Advani, Deputy Prime Minister under the Vajpayee administration explained the BJP's unexpected loss to the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) in the 2004 general elections in terms of a failure to keep to the tenets of Hindutva.


The Brahman's emphasis on ritual purity has led inevitably to discrimination against women. In the past, Brahman women have been subject to the worst excesses of Hindu society—child marriage, early consummation of marriage, prohibitions against widow remarriage, and demands for dowry. As members of India's highest castes, they were expected to religiously practice the basic tenets of Hindu society. Even though many of these practices have been made illegal in modern India, (viz. the 1984 Dowry Prohibition [Amendment] Bill), they still occur. One only has to read the press, even today, to find instances of "dowry deaths": over 6,700 dowry deaths were reported in India in 2005 and one suspects many more go unreported as such. Brahman women also face problems in accessing education and tend to experience the same discrimination faced by all Hindu women, especially in rural areas where they are expected to perform agricultural labor, as well run the households. Casteism absolutely forbids a Brahman women from having any kind of physical relationship with a man of lower caste and requires marriage (usually arranged) into the Brahman caste.

Brahman women, by virtue of their status, tend to be better educated than other women in South Asia, and many have achieved prominence in public life in India. Indira Gandhi (Nehru's daughter) was a Kashmiri Brahman (Pandit), who was educated at Oxford and continued the Nehru dynasty, ruling India with an iron fist from 1966 until her assassination by Sikhs in 1988 (with an inter-regnum between 1977 and 1980). Brahman women have risen to positions of prominence in science (for instance, Ashima Chaterjree in organic chemistry and Archana Sharma in particle physics) sports, and politics. But in general, they still play a subordinate role to males and their husbands, in particular, and face many of the same issues—access to education, poverty, health awareness, sexual discrimination and abuse, inequality in the workplace, inheritance of property and balancing work and family life—as other women in modern Hindu society.


Ghosh, G. K. and Shukla Ghosh. Brahmin Women. Kolkata: Firma KLM, 2003.

Kumar, Raj. History of the Brahmans: A Research Report. Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2006.

Maitra, Asim. Religious Life of the Brahman: A Case Study of Maithil Brahmans. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1986.

Sharma, Rajendra Nath. Brahmins through the Ages: Their Social, Religious, Cultural, Political, and Economic Life. Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1977.

Stevenson, Mrs. Sinclair. The Rites of the Twice-Born. London: Oxford University Press, 1920.

Walker, Benjamin. "Brahmin." In Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1968.

—by D. O. Lodrick