Brahmanismis an ideology and a way of life, originating from the history of the Vedas, often called a philosophy, practised on the basis of specific inferred beliefs. The fundamental and principle belief of Brahmanism defines Brahman and its attributeless element that was first captured by the Rishis who compiled the Vedas. "That which existed before creation, that which constitutes the existent whole, and that into which all creation dissolves is the all-pervading Brahman, and the cycle of creation, sustenance, and destruction of the universe is endless." (Kena Upanishad)
BRAHMAN, THE UNIVERSAL INTELLECT
The Vedic era thrived from 1500 BCE to 500 BCE in northern India on both sides of the Indus river. The Indus valley was civilised by the Aryans – the 'noble' ones – who worshipped nature. The Vedas originally believed in the concept of Sanatana Dharma (eternal order of life) where nature was worshipped with rituals and praise, which supposedly forms a significant part of the Vedas. The Vedas originated the ideology of Brahman, which became the central theme of those following the Vedas and its principles.
" ... That which cannot be expressed by speech, but by which speech is expressed — That alone is known as Brahman and not that which people here worship.
That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is apprehended — That alone is known as Brahman and not that which people here worship.
That which cannot be perceived by the eye, but by which the eye is perceived — That alone is known as Brahman and not that which people here worship.
That which cannot he heard by the ear, but by which the hearing is perceived — That alone is known as Brahman and not that which people here worship. (Kena Upanishad) ... "
Brahman as the Ultimate Reality, the Universal Intellect that is endless, without beginning, middle and end is a metaphysical concept which forms the basis of Brahmanism. Brahmanism is considered to be the predecessor of Hinduism. Brahmanism is the central theme and belief of Vedic followers, its thoughts and philosophical concept giving rise to the primary and socio-religious belief and conduct in Hinduism.
Since the inference and perception of Brahman were put forward by the Rishis, the ones who later became staunch followers of Brahmanism, they were considered, according to some, to be of priestly caste and were called Brahmans. They duplicated the ideology through teachings and performance of rituals, and thus Brahmanism came to be practised with vigour and unwavering determination. Brahmanism, as some researchers claim, is also said to have got its name from the Brahmans, who performed the Vedic rituals. Moreover, a Brahman priest is the one who is always engrossed in the thoughts of the eternal Brahman. Brahmanism, nevertheless, remains the most sought after ideology which baffles the interpretation abilities of the wisest preceptors and superior scholars and to this day remains an exhaustless mystery.
CORE CONCEPTS OF BRAHMANISM
The core concepts of Brahmanism are significantly aligned with metaphysics, questioning what is actually real, the validity of time, of being, of consciousness, and the origin and basis of all existence. Many scholars, such as archaeologists, geologists, Indologists, and philologists, have taken refuge in the writings of the Vedas, especially in the concept of Brahman since it is directly related to humans and their origin.
Brahman as the all-pervading, all-eternal, and the prime cause of 'all that moves and does not move', forms a major acceptance in Brahmanism. It rests on the belief that everything that ever existed, that exists now, and that is going to exist is a minuscule event in the all eternal universal reality, called Brahman. The Atman – the soul – forms the second most important concept in Brahmanism. The Atman is considered to be the source of all vitality among humans. The soul of a living being is considered to be self-same as Brahman itself, thus leading to the belief that a human who embodies the soul is no other than Brahman and has all the attributes of Brahman. The soul, thus identified to be identical with the Supreme Soul which pervades everything, forms a significant belief in Brahmanism. The Supreme Soul, which is never born yet is the reason for the birth of all, forms the underlying principle in Brahmanism, which expanded following the inference of Brahman.
One soul is considered as self-same with the Supreme Soul, which is nothing but Brahman. This belief shows the influence of Brahmanism on Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Hinduism today is regarded nothing less than the progeny or an offshoot of Brahmanism, since Hindus got their name from Indus river, on the banks of which, the Aryans practised the Vedas. Hence, Hindus following the Vedas and its Brahman belief were seen as the first propellers of Hinduism.
INFLUENCE & INTERPRETATIONS
Brahmanism’s famous but most ingrained influence is seen on Hinduism, in the sense and to the extent that Hindus do not distinguish between Brahmanism and Hinduism. Brahmins, a priestly caste privileged to practise the Vedic rituals are the carriers of the performance-based implementation of the ideology. They perform rituals and sacrifices described in the Vedas, including worship and praise of the forces of nature. Brahmanism today is a belief system well-researched among cosmologists trying to decipher the complexity of the universe and its likely origin.
BRAHMANISM IS CONNECTED TO & CONCERNED WITH THE FORCES OF NATURE, THE ORIGIN OF HUMANKIND & THE INHERENT MYSTERY ASSOCIATED WITH EVERY CREATURE.
Buddhism and Jainism have been considered to be offshoots of Brahmanism in terms of its ideology and principle beliefs, but they have fine-tuned it to their own interpretations. One following Brahmanism is most likely to believe unquestionably in the concept of rebirth of humans because the soul embodied by the human flesh would soon take refuge in a new body, a new avatar, to accomplish its unfulfilled desires. Buddhism does not believe in the concept of rebirth but has interpreted Brahmanism to the comfort that everything else is nullity in the universe except Brahman that alone exists and is eternal. Buddhists also defy and reject the belief of a human soul, stating that there is one undeniable living soul, and humans do not embody a soul but are full of suffering, constituting their impermanence. Likewise, Jainism adopts another interpretation of Brahmanism and places their reliance on the existence of soul, matter, time, space, dharma, and Adharma. In contrast, Brahmanism believes in the oneness of all beings and of all elements, forming the entity of Brahman, which is without any property or attributes. Thus, Buddhism and Jainism, though considered as offshoots, have deviated from the principle belief of Brahmanism and formulated their own understanding.
Brahmanism has a much more intellectual appeal than other ideologies/religions as it is connected to and concerned with the forces of nature, the origin of humankind, and the inherent mystery associated with every creature. Vedanta is one of the most influenced traditions or ideological forces that emerged from Brahmanism. It places its belief in non-duality and shuns everything that proposes the duality of existence, thus called as Advaita (non-dualism). Dvaita (dualism) in Vedanta, has also been influenced by Brahmanism and has a sect of followers. In addition, Yoga, a large and growing spiritual practice and discipline, has also been influenced by the philosophy of Brahmanism. Samkhya philosophy, relying on the three elements of perception, inference, and testimony from reliable scriptures to gain knowledge, has gained significant influence from Brahmanism regarding how knowledge is acquired and conduct is regulated.
Ancient India in the Vedic Period (c. 1500-1000 BCE) did not have social stratification based on socio-economic indicators; rather, citizens were classified according to their Varna or castes. 'Varna' defines the hereditary roots of a newborn, it indicates the colour, type, order or class of people. Four principal categories are defined: Brahmins (priests, gurus, etc.), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings, administrators, etc.), Vaishyas (agriculturalists, traders, etc., also called Vysyas), and Shudras (labourers). Each Varna propounds specific life principles to follow; newborns are required to follow the customs, rules, conduct, and beliefs fundamental to their respective Varnas.
The first mention of Varna is found in the Purusha Suktam verse of the ancient SanskritRig Veda. Purusha is the primordial being, constituted by the combination of the four Varnas. Brahmins constitute its mouth, Kshatriyas its arms, Vaishyas its thighs, and Shudras its feet. Likewise, a society, too, is constituted by these four Varnas, who, through their obedience to the Varna rules, are provisioned to sustain prosperity and order. A newborn in a specific Varna is not mandatorily required to obey its life principles; individual interests and personal inclinations are attended upon with equal solemnity, so as to uproot the conflict between personal choice and customary rules. Given this liberty, a deviated choice is always assessed for its cascading impact on others. The rights of each Varna citizen are always equated with their individual responsibilities. An elaborated Varna system with insights and reasoning is found in the Manu Smriti (an ancient legal text from the Vedic Period), and later in various Dharma Shastras. Varnas, in principle, are not lineages, considered as pure and indisputable, but categories, thus inferring the precedence of conduct in determining a Varna instead of birth.
PURPOSE OF THE VARNA SYSTEM
The caste system in ancient India had been executed and acknowledged during, and ever since, the Vedic period that thrived around 1500-1000 BCE. The segregation of people based on their Varna was intended to decongest the responsibilities of one's life, preserve the purity of a caste, and establish eternal order. This would pre-resolve and avoid all forms of disputes originating from conflicts within business and encroachment on respective duties. In this system, specific tasks are designated to each Varna citizen. A Brahmin behaving as a Kshatriya or a Vaishya debases himself, becoming unworthy of seeking liberation or moksha. For a Brahmin (having become one by deed, in addition to the one by birth) is considered the society’s mouth, and is the purest life form as per the Vedas, because he personifies renunciation, austerity, piousness, striving only for wisdom and cultivated intellect. A Kshatriya, too, is required to remain loyal to his Varna duty; if he fails, he could be outcast. The same applies to Vaishyas and Shudras. Shudras, far from left out or irrelevant, are the base of an economy, a strong support system of a prosperous economic system, provided they remain confined to their life duties and not give in to greed, immoral conduct, and excess self-indulgence.
THE UNDERLYING REASON FOR ADHERING TO VARNA DUTIES IS THE BELIEF IN THE ATTAINMENT OF MOKSHA ON BEING DUTIFUL.
The main idea is that such order in a society would lead to contentment, perpetual peace, wilful adherence to law, wilful deterrence from all misconduct, responsible exercise of liberty and freedom, and keeping the fundamental societal trait of ‘shared prosperity’ above all others. Practical and moral education of all Varnas and such order seemed justified in ancient Indian society owing to different Varnas living together and the possibility of disunity among them. Hence, Brahmins were entrusted with the duty of educating pupils of all Varnas to understand and practice order and mutual harmony, regardless of distressed circumstances. Justice, moral, and righteous behaviour were primary teachings in Brahmins’ ashrams (spiritual retreats, places to seek knowledge). Equipping pupils with a pure conscience to lead a noble life was considered essential and so was practical education to all Varnas, which provided students with their life purposes and knowledge of right conduct, which would manifest later into an orderly society.
The underlying reason for adhering to Varna duties is the belief in the attainment of mokshaon being dutiful. Belief in the concept of Karma reinforces the belief in the Varna life principles. As per the Vedas, it is the ideal duty of a human to seek freedom from subsequent birth and death and rid oneself of the transmigration of the soul, and this is possible when one follows the duties and principles of one’s respective Varna. According to the Vedas, consistent encroachment on others' life responsibilities engenders an unstable society. Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras form the fourfold nature of society, each assigned appropriate life duties and ideal disposition. Men of the first three hierarchical castes are called the twice-born; first, born of their parents, and second, of their guru after the sacred thread initiation they wear over their shoulders. The Varna system is seemingly embryonic in the Vedas, later elaborated and amended in the Upanishads and Dharma Shastras.
Brahmins were revered as an incarnation of knowledge itself, endowed with the precepts and sermons to be discharged to all Varnas of society. They were not just revered because of their Brahmin birth but also their renunciation of worldly life and cultivation of divine qualities, assumed to be always engrossed in the contemplation of Brahman, hence called Brahmins. Priests, gurus, rishis, teachers, and scholars constituted the Brahmin community. They would always live through the Brahmacharya (celibacy) vow ordained for them. Even married Brahmins were called Brahmachari (celibate) by virtue of having intercourse only for reproducing and remaining mentally detached from the act. However, anyone from other Varnas could also become a Brahmin after extensive acquisition of knowledge and cultivation of one’s intellect.
Brahmins were the foremost choice as tutors for the newborn because they represent the link between sublime knowledge of the gods and the four Varnas. This way, since the ancestral wisdom is sustained through guru-disciple practice, all citizens born in each Varna would remain rooted to the requirements of their lives. Normally, Brahmins were the personification of contentment and dispellers of ignorance, leading all seekers to the zenith of supreme knowledge, however, under exceptions, they lived as warriors, traders, or agriculturists in severe adversity. The ones bestowed with the titles of Brahma Rishi or Maha Rishi were requested to counsel kings and their kingdoms’ administration. All Brahmin men were allowed to marry women of the first three Varnas, whereas marrying a Shudra woman would, marginally, bereft the Brahmin of his priestly status. Nevertheless, a Shudra woman would not be rejected if the Brahmin consented.
Brahmin women, contrary to the popular belief of their subordination to their husbands, were, in fact, more revered for their chastity and treated with unequalled respect. As per Manu Smriti, a Brahmin woman must only marry a Brahmin and no other, but she remains free to choose the man. She, under rare circumstances, is allowed to marry a Kshatriya or a Vaishya, but marrying a Shudra man is restricted. The restrictions in inter-caste marriages are to avoid subsequent impurity of progeny born of the matches. A man of a particular caste marrying a woman of a higher caste is considered an imperfect match, culminating in ignoble offspring.
Kshatriyas constituted the warrior clan, the kings, rulers of territories, administrators, etc. It was paramount for a Kshatriya to be learned in weaponry, warfare, penance, austerity, administration, moral conduct, justice, and ruling. All Kshatriyas would be sent to a Brahmin’s ashram from an early age until they became wholly equipped with requisite knowledge. Besides austerities like the Brahmins, they would gain additional knowledge of administration. Their fundamental duty was to protect their territory, defend against attacks, deliver justice, govern virtuously, and extend peace and happiness to all their subjects, and they would take counsel in matters of territorial sovereignty and ethical dilemmas from their Brahmin gurus. They were allowed to marry a woman of all Varnas with mutual consent. Although a Kshatriya or a Brahmin woman would be the first choice, Shudra women were not barred from marrying a Kshatriya.
Kshatriya women, like their male counterparts, were equipped with masculine disciplines, fully acquainted with warfare, rights to discharge duties in the king’s absence, and versed in the affairs of the kingdom. Contrary to popular belief, a Kshatriya woman was equally capable of defending a kingdom in times of distress and imparting warfare skills to her descendants. The lineage of a Kshatriya king was kept pure to ensure continuity on the throne and claim sovereignty over territories.
Vaishya is the third Varna represented by agriculturalists, traders, money lenders, and those involved in commerce. Vaishyas are also the twice-born and go to the Brahmins’ ashram to learn the rules of a virtuous life and to refrain from intentional or accidental misconduct. Cattle rearing was one of the most esteemed occupations of the Vaishyas, as the possession and quality of a kingdom’s cows, elephants, horses, and their upkeep affected the quality of life and the associated prosperity of the citizens. Vaishyas would work in close coordination with the administrators of the kingdom to discuss, implement, and constantly upgrade the living standards by providing profitable economic prospects. Because their life conduct exposes them to objects of immediate gratification, their tendency to overlook the law and despise the weak is perceived as probable. Hence, the Kshatriya king would be most busy with resolving disputes originating of conflicts among Vaishyas.
Vaishya women, too, supported their husbands in business, cattle rearing, and agriculture, and shared the burden of work. They were equally free to choose a spouse of their choice from the four Varnas, albeit selecting a Shudra was earnestly resisted. Vaishya women enjoyed protection under the law, and remarriage was undoubtedly normal, just as in the other three Varnas. A Vaishya woman had equal rights over ancestral properties in case of the untimely death of her husband, and she would be equally liable for the upbringing of her children with support from her husband.
The last Varna represents the backbone of a prosperous economy, in which they are revered for their dutiful conduct toward life duties set out for them. Scholarly views on Shudras are the most varied since there seemingly are more restrictions on their conduct. However, Atharva Veda allows Shudras to hear and learn the Vedas by heart, and the Mahabharata, too, supports the inclusion of Shudras in ashrams and their learning the Vedas. Becoming officiating priests in sacrifices organised by kings was, however, to a large extent restricted. Shudras are not the twice-born, hence not required to wear the sacred thread like the other Varnas. A Shudra man was only allowed to marry a Shudra woman, but a Shudra woman was allowed to marry from any of the four Varnas.
Shudras would serve the Brahmins in their ashrams, Kshatriyas in their palaces and princely camps, and Vaishyas in their commercial activities. Although they are the feet of the primordial being, learned citizens of higher Varnas would always regard them as a crucial segment of society, for an orderly society would be easily compromised if the feet are weak. Shudras, on the other hand, obeyed the orders of their masters, because their knowledge of attaining moksha by embracing their prescribed duties encouraged them to remain loyal. Shudra women, too, worked as attendants and close companions of the queen and would go with her after marriage to other kingdoms. Many Shudras were also allowed to be agriculturalists, traders, and enter occupations of Vaishyas. These detours of life duties would, however, be under special circumstances, on perceiving deteriorating economic situations. The Shudras’ selflessness makes them worthy of unprecedented regard and respect.
GRADUAL WITHDRAWAL FROM THE ANCIENT VARNA DUTIES
Despite the life order being arranged for all kinds of people, by the end of the Vedic period, many began to deflect and disobey their primary duties. Brahmins started to feel the authoritarian nature of their occupation and status, because of which arrogance seeped in. Many gurus, citing their advice-imparting position to Kshatriya kings, became unholy and deceitful by practising Shudra qualities. Although Brahmins are required only to live on alms and not seek more than their minimal subsistence, capitalising on their superior status and unquestioned hierarchical outreach, they began to demand more for conducting sacrifices.
Kshatriyas contested with other kings often to display their prowess and possessions. Many kings found it acceptable to reject their Brahmin guru’s advice and hence became self-regulating, taking unrighteous decisions, leading to loss of kingship, territory, and the confidence of the Vaishyas and Shudras. Vaishyas started to see themselves as powerful in their ownership of land and subjection of Shudras. Infighting, deceit, cheating influenced the conduct of Vaishyas. Shudras were repeatedly oppressed by the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas at will, which made them disown their duties and instead opt for stealing, lying, avariciousness, and spreading misinformation.
INDIA IS NOW HOME TO A REPOSITORY OF THE PRIMARY FOUR VARNAS & HUNDREDS OF SUB-VARNAS, MAKING THE ORIGINAL FOUR VARNAS MERELY ‘UMBRELLA TERMS’ & PERPETUALLY AMBIGUOUS.
Thus, all Varnas fell from their virtuosity, and unrighteous acts of one continued to inspire and justify similar acts of others. Mixing of castes was also considered a part of the declining interest in Varna system. Most of these changes took place between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE when constant social and economic complexities emerged as new challenges for Varna-based allocation of duties. Population increased, and so did the disunity of citizens in their collective belief in the sanctity of the original Varna system. Religious conversions played a significant part in subsuming large societies into the tenets of humanism and a single large society.
The period between 300 CE to 700 CE marked the intersection of multiple religions. As a large Varna populace became difficult to handle, the emergence of Jainism propounded the ideology of one single human Varna and nothing besides. Many followed the original Varna rules, but many others, disapproving opposing beliefs, formed modified sub-Varnas within the primary four Varnas. This process, occurring between 700 CE and 1500 CE, continues to this day, as India is now home to a repository of the primary four Varnas and hundreds of sub-Varnas, making the original four Varnas merely ‘umbrella terms’ and perpetually ambiguous.
The subsequent rise of Islam, Christianity, and other religions also left their mark on the original Varna system in India. Converted generations reformed their notion of Hinduismin ways that were compatible with the conditions of those times. The rise of Buddhism, too, left its significant footprint on the Varna system’s legitimate continuance in renewed conditions of life. Thus, soulful adherence to Varna duties from the peak of Vedic period eventually diminished to subjective makeshift adherence, owing partly to the discomfort in practising Varna duties and partly to external influence.
While the above impacts were gradual, expeditious withdrawal from Varna rules was made possible by the large-scale influence of western notions of liberty, equality, and freedom. These changes can be observed from 1500 CE right through the present. For Western nations, rooted in their own cultural background, it made little sense to approve of this in their eyes antiquated Varna system. Intercepting the Moghul invasion and the near-end sovereignty of multiple Hindu dynasties, British invasion brought with it a fresh worldview based on equality and freedom, incompatible with the Varna system. Massive colonisation, impact of ‘cultural imperialism’ enforced significant alterations on Varna duties. Trade and liberalisation, exchange of culture dented the tiny bit of belief left in continuing the Varna system.
Despite this perpetual decline, the descendants of all four Varnas in contemporary India are trying to reinvent their roots in search of ancestral wisdom. Although the four Varnas have encroached upon each other’s life duties, a sense of order and peace is sought and recalled in discourses, community gatherings, and engagement between different generations. Varna system in contemporary terms is followed either with earnest commitment without reservations and doubt or with ambiguity and resistance arising out of unprecedented external influence and issues of subjective incompatibility. While many citizens practice a diluted version of Varna system, extending its limitations and rigidness to a broader context of Hindu religion, staunch believers still strive and promote the importance of reclaiming the system.
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