The Modern Age Brahmin - 1 - On Divisions

30-April-2009 / 23-May-2009

"So, you eat chicken?” people ask.

"Yes, I do", I reply.

"But aren't you a Brahmin?” they ask me incredulously.

"Yes I am a Brahmin", I reply.

"So are all Bengali Brahmins like you?"

"I cannot comment about others, but yes it's true that Bengalis normally are and have been very liberal by nature."

This is one conversation that I've had numerous times with many Indians, both within as well as outside India. These culinary inquiries are directed to me mostly by folks from Gujarat, Maharashtra and the southern Indian states - especially Brahmins from these regions. And invariably after such conversation, all my actions get judged by the food I eat.

But the point is, does it really matter what I eat?

I, for one, firmly believe that Brahmanism is a state of mind - about achieving an advanced level of evolution, knowledge, enlightenment, refinement and culture. It should not have anything to do with last names or gotra or religious practices or food habits. Just as I eat meat, in the same way I have survived on just rice and curd for long stretches of time. Irrespective of what I eat my mental state and spiritual priorities have remain quite fixed.

By birth I am a Hindu and yes I am a follower of Hindu World View, but I do not subscribe to rituals and ceremonies and so I avoid the mandira, the churche, the gurdvArA as well as the mosque. Organized religion stifles my sense of freedom and does not provide answers to the questions I pose. But again, please do not for one moment think that I am a communist, which some people are wont to, given that I am a Bengali from West Bengal, the so-called "seat" of communism.

I am, and always have been a firm believer in advaita vedAnta - as a kid without knowing it and now as a grown individual consciously aware of its tenets and its intuitive appeal.

I believe in spiritual development but feel that spirituality should be treated as something distinct from religious practices, rituals and ceremonies. As Swami Vivekananda has said – any religion is a combination of three elements - the core philosophy, the mythologies and the rituals.

In that respect, there are two different definitions of a brAhamana (Brahmin) - the spiritual Brahmin and the religious Brahmin, and these sets need not always intersect. A priest (a common Brahmin profession) spends his entire life devoting himself to various practices, but whether he evolves spiritually is a separate matter. A spiritual Brahmin, on the other hand, is one who tries to evolve as an individual and attain the highest level of mental perfection - with or without the performance of religious ceremonies. I for that matter, consider myself an ongoing Work-in-Progress Spiritual brahmin.

In, verse 13 of chapter 4 of the Bhagawad Gita, we find the Lord saying the following:

chAtur-varnyaM mayA sRRiShtaM guNa-karma-vibhAgashaH

The fourfold division (of human society) was created by me, based on guNa (the three modes of material nature – sattva or purity/ control, rajas or passion/motion, tamas or ignorance/inertia) and karma (work/ action).

As Sri Aurobindo says, the four-fold division of the human society and the corresponding works of each group of people, is a natural outcome of the guNas. To quote him, “The works of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, says the Gita, are divided according to the qualities (gunas) born of their own inner nature, spiritual temperament, essential character (svabhava).”

"Calm, self-control, askesis, purity, long suffering, candour, knowledge, acceptance of spiritual truth are the work of the Brahmin, born of his swabhava."

"Heroism, high spirit, resolution, ability, not fleeing in the battle, giving, lordship (ishvarabhava, the temperament of the ruler and leader) are the natural work of the Kshatriya."

In short, the Bhagavad Gita does not make any mention of what a Brahmin or Khastriya is supposed to do. It instead points out what characteristics are expected in people with a "Brahmin nature" or people with "Kshatriya nature". Their professions should and would follow naturally from the qualities (guNa) inherent in their nature. And most importantly, anybody is invited to be a spiritual Brahmin as long as he or she has the qualities mentioned above - irrespective of surname or gotra.

I do not think that what I eat should matter at all. I am merely a Brahmin by birth (if there is such a thing) attempting to transcend religious boundaries, who is trying to perform his "swadharma" (natural duty or work) as per his inherent "swabhava” (inherent nature).

Unfortunately, there are thousands of vegetarian "Brahmins by birth" as well as “non-brahmins” spread all across India, who have neither read the ancient Hindu scriptures nor appreciated the purport and significance of the four-fold division as described in these texts and end up judging others simply on the basis of the food the other person eats. In fact, they are the least qualified set of people to judge Brahminism and the four-fold varna system (either through praise or through criticism), as they simply do not have any idea of what being a Brahmin means or what it entails.

The day I become a true Brahmin, if at all such a day comes, I shall automatically stop eating chicken. My basic nature shall, at that time, prevent me from eating chicken - in fact food would be of no consequence at that time. However till then, I shall eat anything I like and to my heart’s content.

And in my journey of Truth, any student of spiritual knowledge from any part of the world with absolutely any kind of food habit is welcome to join me.

I am sure that the Lord wouldn't mind.