I am a Brahmin. There, I said it.
For those of you who are not Indians, Brahmins are one of the so-called upper castes in the Hindu caste system. In fact, many people almost exclusively refer to Brahmins when they use the term upper caste, although there are other communities that are also considered to be upper caste.
Traditionally, Brahmins were highly educated folk, known for being religious and orthodox. They learned Sanskrit, studied the Vedas, and were responsible for taking care of temples. Brahmins are vegetarian and most of them have never tasted meat in their lives. The men are initiated into the study of Vedas when they “came of age” in a bar mitzvah-like ceremony called Upanayam. They wear a sacred white thread around their bodies and a namam or pattai (a mark like the Hindu dot) on their forehead. Married Brahmin women dressed in the traditional Madisar fashioned from a single piece of 9-yard fabric.
Wikipedia defines Brahmin (also called Brahmana) as a varna in Vedic Hinduism and also a caste of people who are members of it. But the word “Brahmin” has power a certain power attached to it and for a long time, I considered it a bad word.
“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
In older times, Brahmins have been known to discriminate against other castes, especially the so-called lower castes. People talk about them practicing ‘untouchability’ and withholding education from others. These acts of injustice have led Brahmins to be one of the most hated communities, especially in South India.
I realized my identity as a Brahmin only in my early teens. Until then I did not know that I belonged to one of the minority communities in Chennai. I went to a school that had a large Brahmin population and non-Brahmins were more the exception than the rule. When I first learned of the history of my caste I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. Shame that my ancestors were these terrible bigots who rode roughshod over so many people. I would never admit to anyone that I was born a Brahmin.
When I started college, I experienced somewhat of a culture-shock in terms of my caste. I was only one of 2 Brahmins in my class. All of a sudden, I was really in the minority. That’s when my shame turned to fear. The fact is, Brahmins of today experience a sort of reverse-discrimination in the hands of society. Reservation programs (akin to Affirmative action in the US) in colleges and jobs tend to discriminate against Brahmins. We are quite simply blamed for the actions of our ancestors and categorically judged as supremacists.
Every Brahmin will probably relate an incident from their lives when their non-Brahmin friends made fun of their vegetarianism. They would have either been hounded to give it up or repeatedly asked explain their religious reasons for it (we believe that eating meat is against ahimsa/non-violence and also that it upsets the purity of our body and soul). Then there is the cruelest trick of fooling a Brahmin into believing that he/she has just consumed meat by accident. There are many derogatory terms used to depict Brahmins from the more hurtful “pappan/pappathi” to the somewhat less offensive “namam/pattai” and the almost-forgivable, more innocent “thayir sadam”. Besides our dietary preferences, our dialect is also used to ridicule us, especially in movies. A Brahmin would never volunteer information or even mention on his caste, lest he be arrested and sued for caste discrimination. They know that if that happened, public opinion will largely side with the non-Brahmins.
And so in college, I actively distanced myself from my Brahmin identity. I would ensure that I talked like the non-Brahmins. Occasionally, I would slip up and use a term that was uniquely Brahmin and my non-Brahmins would immediately jump on it to make fun of me. I also faced another challenge in hiding my identity – my name. My first/given name is an old-fashioned and exclusively Brahmin name. Strangers only needed to hear my name to realize that I am a Brahmin and I would have to face the judgment that came with it. I distinctly remember arguing with my mother for having burdened me with such an obviously-Brahmin name.
I don’t think I am alone in having experienced this sense of shame and fear. Many Brahmins carry with them a sense of “Brahmin-shame” and you often find many popular Brahmin actors deriding their own heritage on the stage and in movies. Most Brahmins work to keep their caste identity secret and do much to ensure that they do not stand out.
The government reservation policies started a mass migration of Brahmins to the United States and other countries in the 1970s, as they sought educational opportunities that did not discriminate against them. Eventually, my brother and I joined these migrants. A few weeks after moving to the US, my brother remarked that for once in his life he felt comfortable going out in public wearing his namam. During my years in the USA, I slowly outgrew my hatred for my name. It didn’t single me out anymore. It was just another hard-to-pronounce Indian name. My background as a Brahmin ceased to matter. More so when I married an American Christian. Although I remained a vegetarian and a Hindu, I never gave my Brahmin heritage much thought. This changed when I became a parent. I felt a powerful need to pass on my culture to my children and it served as a turning point in my attitude towards my caste.
After 12 years away, I moved back to India in 2012. I had missed India so much and I was thrilled to be back. I soaked up everything Indian and rejoiced in immersing myself in my culture, language and religion. For the first time in my life, I wanted to learn everything about my Brahmin background. I understood the meanings behind routine “Brahmin” rituals and developed a new appreciated for them. I realized how wrong I was to feel shame for something that I never did. The fact is most Brahmins are gentle, timid folk who do not like confrontations. Even in the past, not all Brahmins were bigots. There were many great, kind, and compassionate people who were Brahmins.
The Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi wrote,
“Jathigal elai adi papa. Kulam thazhthi uyarthi solal pavam”
(Translation: There are no castes, little one. It is a sin to discriminate against a person based on his clan/family)
… and he was a Brahmin.
I realize that the change is not just within me. The society is also slowly changing. I find that the Brahmin youth of today embrace their heritage more openly. They do not hide from it. Even though some discrimination remains (on both sides, in isolated pockets), today’s Brahmins are more assertive. They neither possess the arrogance of Brahmins of a bygone era, nor do they suffer from the Brahmin-shame of my generation. The very fact that people openly refer to themselves as TamBram (Tamil Brahmin) speaks of this change.
So yes, I am a Brahmin, a TamBram and proud of it. I now use my gotra (Brahmin clan) name “Bharadwaj” as a pseudonym when I write. It indicates that I am a descendent of Rishi Bhardwaja, a great Hindu sage.
Today, I am only a Brahmin by birth. But every day, I try to become a real Brahmin as described by Lord Krishna. He said that “the Brahmanas would eschew wealth and arms and focus only on the The Brahman (the Great, or the Absolute). They would see Him or That in everything and would therefore never harm themselves or others and be above the duality of like and dislike”.