Brahmins: The Priests

It would not be an unusual sight to see a Brahmin in a loincloth and a sacred thread sitting before a temple in India. These are members of the hereditary priestly class of India. The term “Brahmin” derives from the Vedic word brahman, meaning “prayer.”

The authority for the Brahmin's social place originally came from Vedic scriptures. Brahmins were responsible for the transmission of the Vedas over the centuries via oral tradition. This ensured Brahmin authority over all ritual, since it was only through knowledge of the Vedas that the rituals could be performed. As it stood, all public rituals had to be supervised by Brahmins and all private rituals could be learned only from Brahmins.

As Indian culture moved further away from exclusive reliance on Vedic ritual, Brahmins claimed that their exalted status was due to their purity. This purity implied special norms of conduct such as vegetarianism. Brahmins may give food to any group, but they will only accept food from or eat food with other Brahmins. Certain Brahmins considered the most pure will not associate with or marry anyone but other Brahmins.

The Brahmins kept their dominant role as transmitters of knowledge, so they maintained their social authority. Their knowledge extended beyond Vedic scripture; Brahmins are the reflective group, with an intuitive sense of what is right. They are the intellectual and spiritual leaders, so their class includes philosophers, artists, religious leaders, teachers, and others who live a “life of the mind.”

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