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The word Brahmin appeared for the first time in PurushSukta, a section of the Rig Veda. The Purush-Sukta described the divine origin of human beings into the four social groups, or castes, that comprise Hindu society: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. According to the Purush-Sukta, God Brahma gave birth to the divinities associated with each caste: Brahmin was born from the mouth, Kshatriya from the arms, Vaishya from the thighs, and Sudra from the calves of Brahma. Later on this concept of the divine origin of Brahmins and other castes was repeated in numerous religious texts, including the Manusmriti, the famous Hindu religious compendium of customary laws.
The Manusmriti codifies the Hindu social order— that is, the caste system. The caste system assigns rights to each of the four castes. These civil, cultural, and economic rights are divided in an unequal manner; however, Brahmin are placed at the top of the hierarchy of castes and given special privileges over the other castes, while basic rights are denied to other castes.
The Manusmriti makes it clear that Brahmin is the best of all creations on earth. Manu prescribed six main deeds for Brahmins: learning, teaching, performing yajña, getting yajña performed, giving donations, and taking donations. Kshatriyas were assigned the duty of war and defense, Vaishyas were directed to conduct business, and Sudras were enjoined to serve the three other castes.
The Brahmin was treated as the supreme creation based on the concept of purity, whereas other castes, especially the Sudras, were declared impure and hence inferior. This social construct was spread through a variety of subsequent religious texts, such as the Puránas. The mythical concepts underlying caste divisions became so powerfully resonant that even in the early twenty-first century some people carry the notion of the supremacy of Brahmins due to their blind faith in the Puránas.
The concept of Brahmin emerged in ancient India. References to the cultural and religious practices of early Brahmins reveal that they were basically a ritualistic group following a variety of primitive faiths. They invented numerous religious rituals around their philosophy of yajña (a religious ritual to satisfy the god). In the initial stage of their development, yajñas were associated with the sacrificing of animals and a few other rituals. They also became the source of earnings for the Brahmins through the religious concept of daan-dakshina (donation). Over time rituals became associated with more and more aspects of social and cultural life, as Brahmins began to prescribe rituals for every social and individual event, from birth to death. This development made the Brahmin community into a priesthood that also became divine. On the basis of this priesthood, the Brahmins claimed to be mediators between God and humans. Such ideas created the belief that God could be pleased only through Brahmins. Even kings became subservient to Brahmins. In this context it is interesting to note that Brahmins did not assign the office of king to themselves. They believed that kings would never go to heaven, because they have to engage in sinful activity to run the state. For this reason Brahmins chose Kshatriya, the next in the caste hierarchy after them, to become kings. At the same time Brahmins exerted indirect control over kings by acting as their advisers or prime ministers. Through this system, Brahminism became the rule of law not only in terms of religious practice but also in the day-to-day affairs of the state and society.
The divinity attributed to Brahmins and the caste system created huge inequities in society, such as the denial of certain basic rights to other castes and extreme forms of deprivation, particularly for the low-caste Sudras (the former untouchables). In reaction to these circumstances, Gautama Buddha challenged the Brahmin claim to a divinely based supremacy over other people and castes. According to Buddha, no one was born a Brahmin or a Sudra and anyone could become Brahmin or Sudra through his or her actions. He also challenged the infallibility of Vedas that had been declared divine by Brahmins. Buddha propounded the principle of social equality and argued that Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra were all born similarly from the same part of the body as a result of biological union between man and woman. He also denied the existence of God and the soul.
Buddha’s teachings spread among all levels of the Indian population, which ultimately resulted in the rapid deterioration of the Brahminical order and the supremacy of Brahmins. There was, however, a revival of Vedic rituals in the last quarter of the ninth century associated with Adi Shankarcharaya. This led to a corresponding decline in the influence of Buddhism. As Brahminism reemerged, the caste system became more rigidly based on an extreme form of untouchability. B. R. Ambedkar has described this victory of Brahminism over Buddhism as a cultural counterrevolution.
In the early twenty-first century the Indian constitution provides for equal individual rights and does not recognize distinctions based on the caste system and the traditional superiority of Brahmins. However, the residual consequences and effects of caste traditions are still felt in some cultural, social, and religious spheres if not all.
Ambedkar, B. R. 1996. Buddhist Revolution and CounterRevolution in Ancient India. Delhi: B. R. Pub. Corp; New Delhi: Sales Office, D. K. Publishers, Distributors.
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