Brahman, Brahmin, and Brahma have different meanings. Brahman refers to the Supreme Self. Brahmin (or Brahmana) refers to an individual, while the word Brahma refers to the creative aspect of the universal consciousness. The English word brahmin is an anglicised form of the Sanskrit word Brāhmana. In the Smriti view, there are four "varnas" or classes: the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras (outcastes, chandalas). The Atreya smriti 141-142 enjoins that:janmana jayate shudrah
One is a Shudra by birth
samskarad dvija ucyate
By observing Sanskara one becomes a Dvija
vedapathi bhaved viprah
By studying the Vedas one becomes a Vipra
brahma janati brahmanah
Brahmins were engaged in attaining the highest spiritual knowledge (brahmavidya) and adhered to different branches (shakhas) of Vedas. This was described to be a difficult path of discipline of body, mind, and intellect. Brahmins have taken on many professions – from being priests, ascetics and scholars to warriors and business people, as is attested for example in Kalhana's Rajatarangini. An example mentioned in mythology is the sage Parashurama who is considered an avatar of Vishnu. Sage Parashurama is portrayed as a powerful warrior who defeated the Haiheya kshatriyas twenty one times, was an expert in the use of weapons, and trained others to fight without weapons. He is said to have established the Bhumihar Brahmins as landowners once he destroyed the Kshatriya race. These Brahmins, after having mostly abandoned their priestly functions (although some still perform), took to land-owning (Zamindar) as a profession.
However, certain persons, though very few in number, were born into other varnas but dedicated themselves to such an austere life that they were also recognized as Brahmins in ancient India (e.g., sage Vishwamitra, a non-brahmin who attained brahmavidya and composed the Gayatri mantra was venerated as "Brahmarishi", not by caste but by title / pre-fix accorded to him by the well-read in general in those days).
Historically, the semantic change from a tribal state into the Hindu state of the jati-varna matrix saw the conversion and absorption of tribals into the Brahmin class, through adoption of the priestly occupation. In medieval and colonial India, people in different occupations also proselytized themselves into Brahmins, usually upon leading an austere life, gaining positions of power or upon becoming wealthy.
The priestly class is expected to practice self-abnegation and play the role of being the custodians of Dharma (as a Brāhman who is well versed in Vedic texts). The fee paid to the Brahmana for performance of a sacrifice was considered as a return for the priestly duties.
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Famous quotes containing the word brahmin:
“They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882)