Who Are the Brahmins?

A Brahmin priest prays beside the Ganges River. Christopher Pillitz / Image Bank

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.

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, studing the Vedas, offering ritual sacrifices, officiating at rituals for others, giving gifts, and accepting gifts.

Pronunciation: "BRAH-mihn"

Alternate Spellings: Brahman, Brahmana

Examples: "Some people believe that the Buddha himself, Siddharta Gautama, was a member of a Brahmin family. This may be true; however, his father was a king, which usually aligns with the Kshatriya (warrior/prince) caste instead."