Brahmin (n/; Sanskrit: ब्राह्मण) is a varna (class) in Hinduism specialising as priests (purohit, pandit, or pujari), teachers (acharya) and protectors of sacred learning across generations.[1][2]

The traditional occupation of Brahmins was that of priesthood at the Hindu temples or at socio-religious ceremonies and rite of passage rituals such as solemnising a wedding with hymns and prayers.[2][3] Theoretically, the Brahmins were the highest ranking of the four social classes.[4] In practice, Indian texts suggest that Brahmins were agriculturalists, warriors, traders and have held a variety of other occupations in the Indian subcontinent.[3][5][4]

Vedic sources

Brahmin priests
a brahmin doing ahaman and chanting
early 19th century India

Purusha Sukta

The earliest inferred reference to "Brahmin" as a possible social class is in the Rigveda, occurs once, and the hymn is called Purusha Sukta.[6] According to this hymn in Mandala 10, Brahmins are described as having emerged from the mouth of Purusha, being that part of the body from which words emerge.[7][8][note 1] This Purusha Sukta varna verse is now generally considered to have been inserted at a later date into the Vedic text, possibly as a charter myth.[9] Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, a professor of Sanskrit and Religious studies, state, "there is no evidence in the Rigveda for an elaborate, much-subdivided and overarching caste system", and "the varna system seems to be embryonic in the Rigveda and, both then and later, a social ideal rather than a social reality".[9]

Shrauta Sutras

Ancient texts describing community-oriented Vedic yajna rituals mention four to five priests: the hotar, the adhvaryu, the udgatar, the Brahmin and sometimes the ritvij.[10][11] The functions associated with the priests were:

  • The Hotri recites invocations and litanies drawn from the Rigveda.[12]
  • The Adhvaryu is the priest's assistant and is in charge of the physical details of the ritual like measuring the ground, building the altar explained in the Yajurveda. The adhvaryu offers oblations.[12]
  • The Udgatri is the chanter of hymns set to melodies and music (sāman) drawn from the Samaveda. The udgatar, like the hotar, chants the introductory, accompanying and benediction hymns.[12]
  • The Brahmin recites from the Atharvaveda.[11]
  • The Ritvij is the chief operating priest.[11]

According to Kulkarni, the Grhya-sutras state that Yajna, Adhyayana (studying the vedas and teaching), dana pratigraha (accepting and giving gifts) are the "peculiar duties and privileges of brahmins".[13]

Brahmin and renunciation tradition in Hinduism

The term Brahmin in Indian texts has signified someone who is good and virtuous, not just someone of priestly class.[14] Both Buddhist and Brahmanical literature, states Patrick Olivelle, repeatedly define "Brahmin" not in terms of family of birth, but in terms of personal qualities.[14] These virtues and characteristics mirror the values cherished in Hinduism during the Sannyasa stage of life, or the life of renunciation for spiritual pursuits. Brahmins, states Olivelle, were the social class from which most ascetics came.[14]