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Who is a Brahmana? Part I

[ PROF NISHI KANTA SANYAL M.A.]
The Harmonist (Sree Sajjanatoshani)
August 1930

At present all those persons who are born of Brahmana father and mother claim the exclusive right of being invested with the holy thread of sacrifice at their option and thereby acquiring the status of the twice-born as a matter of course. This is given out by these hereditary caste-Brahmanas as being in accordance with some Grihya Sutras and Dharma Shastras. These caste-Brahmanas affect to regard themselves as the authorised protectors and regulators of society by scriptural authorisation. They also contend that this arrangement has been eternal and has come down intact from the time of the Rig-Veda, our available oldest record. It is necessary to consider the genesis of these claims in the light of actual religious history and scriptural evidence.

These caste Brahmanas profess to take their stand ultimately on Vedic texts. They affect to attach the highest sanctity of the Vedic Samhitas; but, as a matter of fact, they rely specially on the most recent compilations from the later Dharma Shastras. In Bengal the favourite authority for the claims of the seminal Brahmanas is Raghunandan Bhattacharya who was two generations younger than Sri Chaitanya deva. The caste-Brahmanas profess almost exclusive allegiance to the Smritis. But their practices cannot be reconciled with the provisions of the Smritis.

The hereditary position of the Brahmanas is recognised by the Dharma Shastras which were promulgated for the regulation of the worldly affairs of the masses of the people. But the provision of heredity itself is hedged round, even in the Dharma Shastras, by the most elaborate and apparently impossible conditions. The absolute purity of seminal descent is laid down as essential. The ancestors are required to be of the purest Brahmana descent. They must have lived and continue to live the life recommended by the scriptures for a Brahmana. The least deviation from such a course deprives them and their progeny of all privileges of Brahmana birth. These conditions are made light of by the commentators and have been shamelessly discarded by the cynical Smarta Pandits of our day who are shielded by spurious, conflicting interpretations of every text that presents any difficulty in the way of conduct unchecked by salutary principle. I put these facts at the very outset of this discourse for the reason that they alone are likely to be intelligible to the caste-Brahmanas who profess to rely on the letter of the texts and are given to hair-splitting arguments for defending the literal method that is so dear to all lovers of wilful ignorance for safe-guarding their corrupt vested interests.

The scriptures recognise the hereditary principle for the purpose of the regulation of secular society but make ample provision for the prevention of its abuse. The hereditary principle is nowhere allowed any place in the higher, properly spiritual, concerns. The hereditary social arrangements are placed definitely under the absolute guidance of the spiritual group. Every care is taken to clearly distinguish between the two divisions. These safe-guards are embodied in the regulations themselves. But the spiritual Dharma Shastras impose these rules on the community by the arguments of custom, antiquity and prospect of rewards, the argument of covetable material result being alone to the taste of the unthinking masses. The hereditary principle has to the limited mind an ostensible value in the promotion of material prosperity. It holds out the prospect of orderly progress. But it also provides an excellent preliminary training for the higher spiritual life. It does so in a negative way. It is not itself the spiritual life. It can, however, be successfully worked only if the leaders are prepared to eschew all motives of selfish worldly aggrandisement for themselves and their followers. Its leaders are not, therefore, the products of the system. It derives all its value from the higher life of its regulators, who must themselves be above the apparent worldliness that they impose upon their charge. The system escapes the defects of mechanical, lifeless contrivance by the exercise of constant and autocratic interference from above by the leaders who are endowed with the spiritual vision.

It is easy for most persons to be satisfied by an arrangement that is so so well calculated to secure the real well-being of society better than any other system. Even the most ambitious and turbulent have to submit to a curtailment of their freedom to be mischievous by pressure of convinced and alert general opinion. But if the general opinion itself declares against higher guidance and tries to set up for itself, then chaos is let loose, as it is never possible to maintain salutary order for long by those who do not possess the higher life.

The Indian mind early grasped the all-important and categorical difference between material and spiritual living. This was due to the fact that speculative philosophy in India could be compelled from the earliest times to admit its inability to attain the knowledge of the Absolute by its own resources. Empiric knowledge in India wisely applied itself to the subordinate task of trying to ameliorate the material conditions of life within the scope allowed by the Scriptures without aspiring to dictate to religion. It had a due sense of its limitations and of the trivial nature of its achievements in comparison with the problems tackled by the spiritual Scriptures. It did not refuse to accept a subordinate position and to try to employ itself in the loyal service of the Truth.

The knowledge of the Scriptures acquired by mere study was declared to be empiric. The sons of Brahmanas on the attainment of the age of eight years were admitted to the study of the Vedas. But they were made above all to lead a life of submission to their teachers. They were admitted to the submissive life of students of the Truth by being imparted the Gayatri mantram which tends to relieve from all aptitude for unguided mental speculation. This is the second birth.

These ‘twice-born’ students received the knowledge of the scriptures from their teachers with minds committed to be free from all empiric prepossession and activities that might stand in the way of receiving the Absolute. As a matter of fact only a very small proportion of these pupils ever actually realised the process of perfect submission.

This is as it should be. No manner of aspiring effort from below can suffice for the attainment of the spiritual life. The attainment of the summum- bonum is not pre-ordained. Even the social institution of Varnasrama under the proper lead of pure devotees, ordained by Godhead Himself for the spiritual welfare of all concerned, can assure only worldly results. This assurance is in keeping with the limiting cosmic principle that joins and separates the jarring elements of the material universe. But no measure of stagnant material harmony can satisfy the needs of the soul. Material well-being is, indeed, a terrible misnomer and its fatal lure is most difficult to detect and to properly valuate. It is not possible to realise its utter uselessness for the soul till the mind is actually lifted to the higher plane. The Varnasrama system owes its value to the possibility of real disillusionment from worldly temptations following from absolute spiritual guidance. This successful result can also befall only the most fortunate individuals and can be by its nature only a very rare event. There is much greater chance of an aspiring soul being led astray from the protecting care of such guidance.

If the student continues to cherish the illusion that his purity of birth entitles him to the spiritual lead and to ultimate success, then this very attitude is sure to lead him away from the right track. It is specially difficult for born candidates to get rid of such prepossessions of the seminal claim. Purity of seminal birth can, at the most, only tend to produce a blinding material result. This is in keeping with the so-called cosmic purpose. But for the same reason it is likely to add to the difficulties of the spiritual quest instead of lessening the same. The small number of those, who can really see through this need not be considered as the product of the system itself.

The second birth that is available by purity of seminal birth merely admits a person provisionally to the privilege of studying the Scriptures by the method of promised submission to the spiritual teacher. The explicit provision of recruitment of students from persons of any lineage by the teachers themselves was found to be imperative as the result of the experience of the actual working of the hereditary system. That system had tended to produce an unduly high estimate of the value of seminal birth and the consequent multiplication of unfit teachers. This led to the clear and definite enunciation of the spiritual principle underlying the whole system. The student was declared to possess only a probationary status to which he could qualify only by his disposition. If the safeguards for ensuring purity of seminal birth did not produce the requisite disposition in an individual the spiritual teacher is to disallow the claim of such individuals. The spiritual teacher is to adopt the test of disposition as the only test and should recruit individuals from all classes by this test alone.

The value of purity of lineage has not been denied by the above provision, neither has it been overestimated. But purity of lineage is not allowed to obscure the fact that the selection by the truly spiritual teacher is the one thing needful and that it alone confers the probationary eligibility for spiritual pupillage. This had always been so. Seminal birth alone was never the admitting test. The Upananaya of persons born of Brahmana parentage was a survival from the pre-varnasrama Age when there was socially only one Varna. The Varnasrama arrangement was intended to produce social well-being by embodying in an institution the necessity of submission to spiritual guidance in all matters. It did not by any means weaken the authority of the spiritual guide.

But society failed to remember this in the days of its delusive material prosperity. It learnt to pin its hope on such prosperity. It was confirmed in this disloyal dispositions by the teachings of the schismatic renegade Brahmanas. The inevitable result was seen in the deterioration of material civilization itself. The decline of society was maliciously attributed by the pseudo teachers to undue emphasis that had been formerly laid on the spiritual principle. Society once loosened from its stable moorings, was thus rapidly pushed on the path of increasing worldliness. The external frame of the Varnasrama system proved an excellent contrivance ready to hand for defeating its saving purpose. The pseudo-Brahmanas have had their unenviable triumph at last but at the cost of everything that really matters.

(To be continued.)