The Plight of Brahmins

Meenakshi Jain


The author is a historian and professor at Delhi University. This article is from The Indian Express of September 18, 1990 and has a sequel titled “Pre-British India: The Myth of Caste Tyranny.


The Mandal Commission report marks the culmination of the attempt at social engineering that began with the Christian missionary (followed by British governmental) campaigns against the Brahmin community in the early part of the 19th century. It was not accidental that Brahmins emerged as the principal target of British attacks. Britishers of all pursuits, missionaries, administrators and orientalists, were quick to grasp; their pivotal role in the Indian social arrangement. They were all agreed that religious ideas and practices underlay the entire social structure and that, as custodians of the sacred tradition, Brahmins were the principal integrating force. This made them the natural target of those seeking to fragment, indeed atomise, Indian Society. This was as true of the British conquerors as it was of Muslim rulers in the preceding centuries. Mandal takes off from where the British left.

The British were not wrong in their distrust of educated Brahmins in whom they saw a potential threat to their supremacy in India. For instance, in 1879 the Collector of Tanjore in a communication to Sir James Caird, member of the Famine Commission, stated that “there was no class (except Brahmins) which was so hostile to the English.” The predominance of the Brahmins in the freedom movement confirmed the worst British suspicions of the community. Innumerable CID reports of the period commented on Brahmin participation at all levels of the nationalist movement. In the words of an observer, “If any community could claim credit for driving the British out of the country, it was the Brahmin community. Seventy per cent of those who were felled by British bullets were Brahmins.”

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Role slighted

To counter what they perceived, a Brahminical challenge, the British launched on the one hand a major ideological attack on the Brahmins and, on the other incited non-Brahmin caste Hindus to press for preferential treatment, a ploy that was to prove equally successful vis-à-vis the Muslims.

In the attempt to rewrite Indian history, Brahmins began to be portrayed as oppressors and tyrants who wilfully kept down the rest of the populace. Their role in the development of Indian society was deliberately slighted. In ancient times, for example, Brahmins played a major part in the spread of new methods of cultivation (especially the use of the plough and manure) in backward and aboriginal areas. The Krsi-parasara, compiled during this period, is testimony to their contribution in this field.

But far more important was the Brahmin contribution to the integration of society. So influenced are we by the British view of our past that we completely ignore the fact that the principle by which the Brahmins achieved the integration of various tribes and communities was unique in world history. This was perhaps the only case where all incoming groups were accommodated on their own terms. All aspects of their beliefs and behaviour patterns were accepted as legitimate and no attempt was made to compel them to surrender or change their distinctive lifestyles. Each group was left to evolve and change according to its internal rhythm. What a contrast to the Christian method of conversion by the sword and their efforts to obliterate all traces of the previous history of all converts.

Apart from misrepresenting the Indian past, the British actively encouraged anti-Brahmin sentiments. A number of scholars have commented on their involvement in the anti-Brahmin movement in South India. As a result of their machinations non-Brahmins turned on the Brahmins with a ferocity that has few parallels in Indian history. This was all the more surprising in that for centuries Brahmins and non-Brahmins had been active partners and collaborators in the task of political and social management.

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Some British observers themselves conceded that the picture of the Brahmin as oppressor was overdrawn and that in reality there was little difference in the condition of the Brahmin and the rest of the native population. H. T. Colebrooke, one of the early Sanskrit scholars wrote, “Daily observation shows even the Brahmin exercising the menial profession of a Sudra … It may be received as a general maxim, that the occupation, appointed for each tribe, is entitled merely to a preference. Every profession, with few exceptions, is open to every description of persons; and the discouragement, arising from religious prejudices, is not greater than what exists in Great Britain from the effects of Municipal and Corporation laws.”

The British census operations that began in the latter part of the 19th century produced further distortions in the Indian system. The British sought to interpret the caste system in the light of their own pet theories. H. H. Risley who directed the 1901 census operations was, for example, determined to demonstrate that “race sentiment” formed the basis of the caste system and that social precedence was based on the scale of racial purity. The same race theory played havoc in Europe in the form of Nazism and has now been fully repudiated.

The British, unmindful of the complexities and intricacies of the social arrangement, sought to achieve standardisation by placing all jatis in the four varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines. As a result they destroyed the flexibility that was so vital for the proper functioning of the system. The census operations raised caste consciousness to a feverish pitch, incited caste animosities and led to an all-round hardening of the system. They led to frantic efforts at Sanskritization and upward mobility, so very different from the flexibility of earlier times. When the system was made rigid everyone wanted to be a member of a higher varna. Caste consequently became a tool in the political, religious and cultural battles that the Hindus fought amongst themselves.

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Downward mobility

It is significant that the census operations coincided with the attempt to reorganise the army on the basis of the martial race theory. At about that time the British were also beginning to raise questions about the relative balance of Hindus and Muslims in the public services and about the “monopoly” of certain castes in the new education. There was also talk of the conspiracy of certain castes to overthrow their rule.

The forces unleashed by the British continued to gather momentum. Them myth of the omnipotent Brahmin had been so successfully sold that most Indians missed the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In recent years, however, a number of studies have appeared that detail the downward mobility that has been the chief characteristic of the Brahmin community particularly since independence.

Financially, the Brahmins have been very hard hit. State laws combined with fragmentation of land have had the effect of substantially reducing the size of family holdings so much so that most Brahmins today find it difficult to eke out a living from land. Traditional occupations like family and temple priesthood, recitation of the Vedas and practice of Ayurvedic medicine no longer prove remunerative nor command respect.

A study of the Brahmin community in a district in Andhra Pradesh (Brahmins of India by J. Radhakrishna, published by Chugh Publications) reveals that all purohits today live below the poverty line. Eighty per cent of those surveyed stated that their poverty and traditional style of dress and hair (tuft) had made them the butt of ridicule. Financial constraints coupled with the existing system of reservations for the “backward classes” prevented them from providing secular education to their children.

In fact according to this study there has been an overall decline in the number of Brahmin students. The average income of Brahmins being less than that of non-Brahmins, a high percentage of Brahmin students drop out at the intermediate level.

In the 5-18 year age group, 44 per cent Brahmin students stopped education at the primary level and 36 per cent at the pre-matriculation level. The study also found that 55 per cent of all Brahmins lived below the poverty line that is below a per capita income of Rs.65 a month. Since 45 per cent of the total population of India is officially stated to be below the poverty line it follows that the percentage of destitute Brahmins is 10 per cent higher than the all-India figure. There is no reason to believe that the condition of Brahmins in other parts of the country is different.

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Appalling poverty

In this connection it would be revealing to quote the per capita income of various communities as stated by the Karnataka Finance Minister in the State Assembly on July 1, 1978: Christian Rs.1562, Vokkaligas Rs.914, Muslims Rs.794, Scheduled caste Rs.680, Scheduled Tribes Rs.577 and Brahmins Rs.537.

Appalling poverty compelled many Brahmins to migrate to towns leading to spatial dispersal and consequent decline in their local influence and institutions. Brahmins initially turned to government jobs and modern occupations such as law and medicine. But preferential policies for the non-Brahmins have forced the Brahmins to retreat in these spheres as well. According to the Andhra Pradesh study, the largest percentage of Brahmins today are employed as domestic servants. The unemployment rate among them is as high as 75 per cent.

Clearly it is time to sit up and see reality as it is before we complete the task the British began — the atomization of Indian society and annihilation of Indian civilization.


© Meenakshi Jain

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