(Last Updated on : 29/01/2009)
The real origin of the Brahmins is wrapped in mystery, and one can only hazard conjectures on the subject, or put belief in myths. The story most generally accepted says that they were born from Brahma's head, which accounts for their name. One would suppose that as all castes were born from this same father they would be privileged to bear the same name. But as the Brahmins were the first-born, and issued from the noblest part of the common parent, they claimed special privileges from which all others were rigorously excluded. They have another theory to bear out the accepted belief that no one else is entitled to the illustrious name of Brahmin.
They say that no one knows anything about Brahma's attributes and virtues beyond what they themselves choose to teach mankind, and that this knowledge in itself gives them the right to bear his name. Anyhow, their name is undoubtedly derived from Brahma's. The old writers call them 'Brahmanahas,' or 'Brahmahas,' which some of the Latin authors turned into 'Brachmanes.' The great difference between their caste and all others is that a Brahmin only becomes a Brahmin after the ceremony of the triple cord. Until this essential ceremony has been performed he ranks only as a Sudra. By mere birth he is no different from the rest of his race and it is for this reason that he is called Dvija that means twice-born. His first birth only gives him his manhood, whereas the second raises him to the exalted rank of Brahmin, and this happens by means of the ceremony of the triple cord. Indeed, two out of the seven famous Penitents, who are supposed to have been the original founders of the various sects of Brahmins of the present day, did not originally belong to this caste at all. But by reason of the length and austerity of their term of penance, they were rewarded by having their state of penitent Kshatriyas changed to that of penitent Brahmins by the investiture of the triple cord.
These seven Penitents, or Rishis, or Munis, of Hindu history are the most celebrated personages recognized by the people of India. Their names are Kasyapa, Atri, Bharadwaja, Gautama, Viswamitra, Jamadagni, and Vasishta. The last-named and Viswamitra are those who were considered worthy of being admitted into the high caste of Brahmins. These far-famed Rishis must be of great antiquity, for they existed even before the Vedas, which allude to them in several places. They were the favoured of the gods, and more especially of Vishnu, who at the time of the Deluge made them embark on a vessel which he piloted, and thereby saved them from destruction. Even the gods were called to account for having offended these holy men, who did not hesitate to curse the deities who committed infamies.
The seven Penitents, after setting a virtuous example on earth, were finally translated to heaven, where they occupy a place amongst the most brilliant constellations. They are to be recognized in the seven stars that form the Great Bear, which, according to Hindu tradition, are neither more nor less than the seven famous Rishis themselves. According to Hindu legend they are the ancestors of the Brahmins in reality and not by metamorphosis. It is believed that without ceasing to shine in the firmament they can, and occasionally do, revisit the earth to find out what is occurring there. Astronomy has played an important part in the history of almost all idolatrous nations and of all false creeds it certainly is the least unreasonable, and has survived the longest. The religious and political lawgivers of these races were clever enough to perceive that the worship of the stars had taken a great hold upon mankind. The simplest and most effectual way of perpetuating the memory of their heroes would be to transform them into outward objects that were always before the eyes of the people.
But whatever may have been the claims of Brahmins to a celestial origin, it is a well-authenticated fact that neither their caste nor any other existed in the countries to the north-east of Bengal four or five centuries ago. About that time the inhabitants of those parts, thinking that it might be to their advantage to adopt the customs of their neighbours, began to clamour for Brahmins. Accordingly, some were made to order out of the youths of the country, who, after conforming to the customs and rites of the Brahmins, wore incorporated into their caste by the investiture or the triple cord. The descendants of these ready-made Brahmins have ever since been considered on equality with the rest.
Whatever may be the respective claims with regard to the antiquity of the religions and the differences of doctrine that divide the Buddhists, Jains and Brahmins it appears highly probable that they all sprang originally from the same source. The images they worship bear a great likeness to one another and most of these seem to be merely allegorical emblems invented to help them to remember their original divinities. All their religious establishments are alike composed of priests, monks, and hermits. All their sacrifices, and the ceremonies which accompany them, are nearly identical. And, lastly, there is the resemblance of the languages used by the priests in their religious services; that is to say, the Sanskrit of the Brahmins and Jains on this side of the Ganges, and the Pali, which is evidently derived from the Sanskrit, of the Buddhists beyond the Ganges. All these help to prove incontestably the affinity existing between the three religions.