- (Brahman)A Brahmin is a member of the hereditary priestly class of India. The term is derived from the Vedic word BRAHMAN, which means (among other things) “prayer.” In Sanskrit the same Vedic word desig-nates prayer and the one who prays, the overseer of the Vedic ritual and its MANTRAS. In the ancient VARNA or class system the Brahmin was said to emerge from the mouth of the divine being, the warrior from his arms, the ordinary people from his thighs, and the servants from his feet.Originally, Brahminical status was ensured by Vedic authority. Brahmins were responsible for the transmission of the VEDAS over the centuries via oral tradition within Brahminical families. This assured Brahminical authority over all ritual, since it was only through knowledge of the Vedas that the rituals could be performed. All public rituals had to be supervised by Brahmins and all private rituals could be learned only from Brahmins.As the Brahminical tradition was challenged over the centuries to include more and more indigenous forms of religion, and the culture began to move away from exclusive reliance on Vedic ritual, Brahmins began to emphasize “purity” as a new justification for their superior status. This entailed special norms of conduct including very strict vegetarianism. However, they always maintained their dominant role in the transmission of knowledge and, thereby, in realms of social authority. Such knowledge extended far beyond the Vedas themselves. If there is a stereo-typical or ideal role for a Brahmin in the modern world it is teaching. Transmission of knowledge is the traditional role of the Brahmin and remains so today. Brahmins continue to perform the rituals at all the great temples in India, but the role of ritual-ist is now viewed as less important for Brahmins than the role of teacher or preceptor.Further reading: Louis Dumont Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (Chicago: Uni-versity of Chicago Press, 1980); Vasumath K. Duvvury, Play, Symbolism and Ritual: A Study of Brahmin Women’s Rites of Passage (New York: Peter Lang, 1991); Brian K. Smith, The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Glenn E. Yocum, “Brahman, King, Sannyasi and the Goddess in a Cage: Reflections on the ‘Conceptual Order of Hin-duism’ at a Tamil Saiva Temple,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 20 (1986): 15–39.
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.