Rigvedic Brahmans and their Social Status


Mar 14, MINSK, BELARUS (SUN) — Since the early Rigvedic stage, brahmans, undoubtedly, had already fixed ritual status: they were the priests, who had a wide circle of duties during soma sacrifices. They were also considered as the assistants of the demigods at creation of the world, as the duty of “delivery” of the living entity to the gods had been assigned to them. In time, the ritual duties of brahmans became more and more detail, their universality and the cosmogonic abilities were moved gradually to the second plane in favour of their knowledge of the technical aspects of ritual.

By the end of Rigvedic period this process had resulted in rather precise codification of particular brahmanic qualities and duties, which were based on their personal abilities and skills. Because of that process, brahmans gradually became an independent social class inside the Rigvedic society. Brahmans did not form the triad with Arya- and dasa-/dasyu- nor regarding the recognizable set of ritual and religious attributes, neither as the opposition of each varna at the Cosmic level. It means that they were not considered to be in a separate varna. However, already during the Rigvedic period the special social status of brahmans had been realized de facto. It confirms that the Rigvedic society knew some sort of social structure which had been parallel to the varna one for some time.

It is very well known that brahmans were the supreme varna of Ancient Indian society since at least late Rigvedic period. However, most of the modern researchers consider that Rigvedic brahmans, like other Rigvedic realities, may not be characterized on the basis of more recent sources, as the former may be of very big time difference from the latter. This is why we consider that the most productive way of researching the brahman subject is to define it with the help of each source as detailed as possible, and then to compare the results. So, this paper is the Brahman descriptions as they were inside Rigveda.

Of course, this subject has been already researched by scholars and it has brought forward several points of view.

    1. Initially brahman was one of the four priests (together with hotar, udgatar and adhvaryu), who had supervised over the ceremonies, doing nothing else. This position comes from two issues: a) there are many words for priests in Rigveda, b) there are Rigvedic passages that mention brahmans as connected to “the way of ration” but not with “the way of speech”.

    2. Initially brahman was the priest who had read hymns to Indra during soma sacrifice, but later his functions had been enlarged and he became the chief of the entire process of sacrifice and also of all the cult procedures. This position is based on some Rigvedic passages which describe the brahman as a functional priest during soma sacrifice.

    3. Since Rigvedic times, brahmans formed a separate social group or strata, different from ksatriya and vaisya. They were very honoured, read hymns and drank soma. The very word of “brahman” meant “class of priests-sacrificers”. This comes mostly from some passages of non-family Rigvedic hymns (f. e. RV I 108,7).

    4. The social meaning of brahman passed three stages inside the Rigvedic society. Initially they were poets who had created hymns, and also wise men, then, it had been any functional priest, and after that brahmans had formed their own social class. That vision was put ahead by J. Gonda in early 1970s, and was based on detailed analysis of a considerable number of Rigvedic texts of different mandalas.

Smrta Brahmanas

Except for historians, the subject of “brahman” was researched also by linguists, who had created their own theories. We marked only two main ones here

    1. Brahmans formed separate social class since the time of the Indo-European unity, and they preserved their position inside all the historical Indo-European societies, including the Rigvedic one. The theory was based on results of comparative mythology, put ahead in 1950s, and has been under serious critics since that time.

    2. Brahmans were those, who followed strictly formulated rituals. The concept runs from comparative linguistic studies, mostly of Iranian and Indian languages. It is now the most accepted definition.

So, all those positions we consider to be too fragmented or subjective, as the former come from language data only, and the latter, from too few Rigvedic texts without real consideration of the correlation of the mentioned concepts inside Rigveda.

To overcome this situation, we consider to research the “brahman” subject as the Rigvedic one only (i. e., as a sphere of Rigvedic society). Only in this way being covered can one determine their place and role inside the social structure of Rigvedic society. Here are the results of that vision.

Let us start from the etymology. brahman related to Old Pers. "barzman “prescribed form (of cult)”, “ritual”, Mid. Pers. brahm “form”, “phenomenon”, “external view”, “style”, “syllable”; correlates to Old Island. bragr m. “poetry, poetics, composition”; New Island. bragur “melody, tune”, “sound”, “custom”, “kind, sort”, “manner, way”, “poem”, “wise man”; Irish bricht “language of witchcraft”; transformed to Gr. [], Lat. bragmani, bracmani, then from Greek and Latin to East Slavic: Oldrus. [], Rus. [], Ukr. [], Belarus. []. Brahman goes, probably, to the verb root barh-/bRh-, which forms two semantic fields:

    1. barh-/bRh- “to grew”, “to encrease”, “to strengthen”. This variant has been put ahead, for instance, by A. Macdonell and M. Mayrhofer.

    2. barh-/bRh- “to speak”. This version of brahman formation adherents O. Boehtlingk and R. Roth.

We consider that both these variants form the same semantic field. The reasons for this admittance are: a) goddess vac possessed cosmological (creative) functions, b) in spite of the recognition of brahman origin from two semantically different verb roots, both sides give the same semantics for the very brahman. Let us overlook this more detail.

It is well known, that the word brahman occurs as of neutral so of masculine gender. It was the stress that had probably made that difference: bráhman (n.) and brahman (m.). In Vedic language, semantically that stress moving meant formation of actor (m.) from action (n.), i. e. action “praying”, “life power”, “form of religious ceremony” gives actor “poet, singer, form creator”, “ritual performer, priest”, “the one, who performs the ritual in strictly fixed form”.

So, according to the etymology there is no doubt that the Vedic concept of brahman was the act of verbally putting in order the strength; and according to semantics to define the meaning of brahman as the name of an actor one should primarily outcome from bráhman as the name of action.

And one more thing. It is known that there are few words of the same root in Rigveda beside brahman. brahma, which one can find in family mandala, is formally the same as brahman. This paper regards brahmana as the derivatives of brahman (m.), the brahmana and brahma - as the derivative of brahman (n.), and the author does not differ those ones from the base form during the analysis.

Let us look now to Rigvedic texts. According to the researches done, brahman forms the following field of concept.

4. Brahman in context.

    a) Facility to call Indra: - to soma sacrifice (RV I 15; II 18);- for help (RV IV 16; VI 17).
    b) Facility to praise Indra, Vishnu, Varuna, Ashvins, Ribhu, Adityas, Rudras, Vasu.
    c) Facility to bring the sacrifice to its address (RV II 1).
    d) Structural element or “brick” to compose the Cosmos (RV II 1).
    e) Facility, with which Brahmanaspati won Vala and created the Cosmos (RV II 24).
    f) Source of life (RV II 24).
    g) Facility to defeat the darkness (RV V 40).
    h) Facility to increase an effect of sacrifice considerably (RV III 18).
    i) The one who protects Aryan genus and who is protected by Indra and Maruts (RV III 53).
    k) The one that forms the harness of Indra’s horses, when the god goes upon the call of the hymn authors (RV VIII 17).
    l) A verbal-rhythmic construction, which its composer uses to call Maruts to himself (RV I 165).n)
    Connection between the sacrificer, the sacrifice and its container (RV X 13).o) Connected to sacral speech (vAc) (RV VII 103).

Brahman in context:

    - sitting at the most important place during the sacrifice ceremony (RV IV 9);
    - participating in the ritual of soma making and sacrifice together with some other priests (RV II 1);
    - connected to performance of arka (“hymn”) to Indra (RV V 31);
    - binding (harnessing) stones (grAvan) (RV V 40);- praising the gods with his songs (kIrin) (RV V 40);
    - installing the Sun (RV V 40);
    - taking the witchcraft (mAyA) off (RV V 40);
    - connected to sacral speech (vAc) or pronouncing metric speech (chandasya vAc) (RV IX 113);
    - connected to soma drinking, with which he had created support (vardhana) to Indra and influenced on gods somehow (RV I 80);
    - the one, whom Indra searched the cows for (RV I 101);
    - a possessor or definite social status, different form the king, which had been not available to other Aryans (RV I 108);
    - reaching the truth by invisible way after his testing (RV I 158);
    - an element of sacrifice procedure together with altar (vedi), the particular subject of sacrifice (yajNa) and soma (RV I 164);
    - the only group of people, who know all the elements of sacral speech (vAc) (RV I 164);
    - the one, who is «the facility for delivery» of the sacrifice together with a priest (Rtvij) (RV VIII 58);- the one, who drinks soma and eats sacrificial meal (anna) (RV X 28);
    - the priest, who performs sacrifice together with hotar and adhvaryu (RV X 52);
    - the one, who seats closer to the sacrifice, than anybody else, and going to the fire performs the sacrifice (RV X 88);
    - the one, who participates in the ritual together with rishi (RSi) and the priest, who sings hymns of Samaveda (RV X 107);
    - the one, who performed a speech transmitting of sacrifice to gods (RV X 107);
    - the one, who follows the present time (arvAk) and the past (paras) (RV X 71);
    - the one, who knows true soma, hidden from all the rest (RV X 85);
    - the one, who knows the Sun and the Moon (RV X 85);- the one, who knows year circle (RV X 85);
    - the one, who recognizes Surya and clarifies his transformations (RV X 85);
    - a name for a social class of people (RV X 90).

So, according to the description of brAhman ? brahman has been done we can conclude, the following.

    1. In the family mandalas the social meaning of brahman was the one who had taken part in the soma sacrifice together with the other priests; he had pressed soma; had composed and sung strengthening hymns to the gods; had been responsible for the delivery of sacrifice to the address, and had possessed special vision and sacral speech, which he had performed his cosmological actions with. Also brahmans were responsible for the protection of Aryan genus on the cosmic level.

    2. Some time later brahman was the name for the person, who had taken part in the ritual of soma sacrifice, had pressed and drunk it and had been considered himself as part of the sacrifice. Brahman possessed sacral speech, that had been unavailable to any other people. That speech was a special sort of mental-verbal-rhythmic formation, with the help of which, beside all, the chariot of Indra had been harnessed. Brahman was responsible for “the delivery” of sacrifice, had made by other priest(s), to its target (the demigods); he, together with the king, possessed his own recognizable social status.

    3. During the end of Rigvedic period brahman was the person who was seated at the special place during the sacrifice procedure, and that procedure had been also performed by other priests, brahman drank soma and ate sacrificial meal; he performed a verbal transmitting of sacrifice together with rishi and udgAtar, had been considered as the connection link of all the elements of the sacrifice, ?possessed very special mental and emotional skills and sacral knowledge, which had been divided into past and present, and also possessed sacral speech; brahmans formed a special social class, different from rajanya, vaisya and shudra.

All the above demonstrates very clearly that there was a tendency towards transformation of social status of brahmas during the time of Rigveda. Initially they were functional priests, who had wide enough obligations during soma sacrifice.

They also played a role of assistants of the gods during creation of the world, the duty of "the delivery" of sacrifice to gods and of dialogue with them was assigned to them. Eventually brahmanic ritual duties began to be specified more and more, their universality was being lost, and their cosmological abilities gradually began to be fixed for "the former" brahmans. "Present" brahmans turned more and more to narrow specialized experts-professionals of ritual, which became more and more detailed technically. All that became the basis for brahmanic social allocation from Aryan environment. By the end of Rigvedic times that process has led to rather precise codification of particular brahmanic qualities and duties based on their personal abilities and skills. That was, in our opinion, a doubtless attribute of gradual transformation of brahmans to an independent social class inside Rigvedic society.

In spite of all the said above, brahmans did not form their own varna in Rigvedic society before its very end, because they had not formed any opposition with Arya or dasa/dasyu. However, brahman had his special social status since the very beginning of the Rigvedic period, and his functions were very important both for that time in society and for every Aryan. In time, that status was fixed and became formally recognizable by the entire society.

By the end of Rigvedic period Aryans had recognized, that they had had brahmans as the special social class de facto. Their next step was to form new social opposition, which was to become the new basis of cosmological structuring. And it had been done by the time of Purusha sukta, when the new and the most known varna system appeared.

Oleg Perzashkevich, Ph. D. is Assistant Professor of Ancient & Medieval Department, Faculty of History, Belarusian State University, 6 Krasnoarmeyskaya st., Minsk, 220030, Belarus. He can be reached at minskhist@yahoo.com


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