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The Present Reality of Brahmins in India

January 9, 2008
By Eric Bellman

Brahmins, as Hinduism's priestly and scholarly caste, have traditionally occupied a place of privilege in India.

Brahmins have been advisers to Maharajas, Mughals and military rulers. Under British rule, they served as administrators, a position they kept after Indian independence in 1947.

But in today's India, high-caste privileges are dwindling, and with the government giving extensive preferences to the lower-caste majority, many Brahmins are feeling left out of the economy's rapid expansion.

R. Parameswaran has suffered that reversal of fortune. The 29-year-old starts every day with a prayer to the Hindu god Shiva, marking his forehead with red and white powder to let the world know he is a Brahmin. In his home village, his caste's mark brought him respect, but since he moved to Chennai, a sprawling high-tech city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, in the late 1990s, he has found his status a liability.

In Tamil Nadu, nearly 70% of government jobs and public-college slots are reserved for people from lower castes and other historically disadvantaged groups. Although he says he graduated near the top of his high-school class and had strong test scores, Mr. Parameswaran couldn't get into any of the state engineering colleges. His family had to borrow from friends to send him to a second-rate private college.

He now teaches English at a small vocational school. On a salary of $100 a month, Mr. Parameswaran can't afford an apartment, so he sleeps in the classroom at night. "I am suffering," says the intense young man, using the exaggerated enunciation of an English teacher. "Unfortunately, I was born as a Brahmin."

Although the role of Brahmins has never been synonymous with accumulating wealth, many are affluent enough to educate their children in the better private schools. On average, members of the caste, who make up about 5% of India's population of 1.1 billion, are better educated and better paid than the rest of Indian people.

The term Brahmin has come to be used globally to describe those at the top of the heap with an attitude to match, as in Boston Brahmins. Yet close to half of Brahmin households earn less than $100 a month, according to the Center for a Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi think tank. For these Brahmins, the array of state-mandated preferences for other groups present a high hurdle.

The reverse discrimination is rooted in Indian history and politics. For decades, Brahmins were resented for their dominance of the government, economy and culture. Indeed, political parties in Tamil Nadu sprang from anti-Brahmin feelings. "If you see a Brahmin and a snake, kill the Brahmin first" was an old slogan.

A national constitution adopted in 1950 reserved more than 20% of government jobs for lower castes. In 1990, an additional 27% were set aside for what were called "other backward castes." Some states set higher quotas, including Tamil Nadu, which reserves 69% of government jobs for lower castes and other needy groups.

The ugliest Brahmin bashing in India ended years ago, but Mr. Parameswaran says that in college in the late 1990s, he still faced ridicule as a Brahmin. He says one student tried to break his sacred thread, a simple circle of twine Brahmins wear under their clothes.

After college, he had an internship in a state-owned chemical company, but says he was told he wouldn't be hired, as there were openings only for lower-caste applicants. He says he took exams to join national railways, state banks and other government agencies, such as the immigration department, but found most posts closed to all Brahmins except the most brilliant.

From his makeshift home where he sleeps with a blanket on a desk most nights, Mr. Parameswaran still applies for government jobs. He pulls out his latest application form and shows a visitor where he always gets stuck: the three squares where he has to write the abbreviation indicating his caste. "I want government work," he says, shaking the application, "but they have no jobs for Brahmins."

Mr. Parameswaran has tried to adapt to the lessening of caste distinctions taking place in many parts of India today, especially in cities. The changes are less in villages such as the one where he grew up some 200 miles away. There, his grandfather, who is 101 years old, still won't wear Western clothes and won't eat outside of his home for fear of mixing with lower castes.

Mr. Parameswaran's father has a job with the state telephone company and is more liberal. He dresses in shirts and pants, doesn't mind eating at restaurants and doesn't expect lower-caste neighbors to take off their sandals in his presence.

Mr. Parameswaran has had good friends from lower castes all his life, many of whom have used their communities to grab good government jobs, he says. He won't eat meat but has no qualms sharing a meal with people of any caste or creed. His 22-year-old sister, R. Dharmambal, is even more liberal, he says. "She will take non-vegetarian food," he exclaims, using the common Indian term for eating meat.

Mr. Parameswaran often visits the sister in the Brahmin enclave of Mylapore. On a recent day there, dozens of shirtless priests in the traditional Brahmin uniform of a white dhoti and partially shaved head were standing around at a Hindu-scriptures school, hoping for work. For as little as 100 rupees, about $2.50, they offered to perform complicated rituals and blessings required when any Hindu has a baby, a wedding or a new home.

"My sons can't support me, so I have to survive by performing Hindu rituals," says K. Narayana, an 81-year-old scholar. "If we had been from another community, we would have had better opportunities."

Nearby stands the Kapaleeshwara Temple, with towering gates of colorful carvings from Hindu mythology. It is one of the most important places for worship for followers of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. The temple used to be surrounded by rows of simple single-story homes, each with its own courtyard and well so the Brahmin families wouldn't have to share water with other castes. Most houses have been replaced by concrete apartment blocks and small stores.

At the temple's back gate, Brahmins beg for spare change or look for odd jobs as cooks or even bearers of bodies to funeral pyres, normally a lower-caste pursuit.

"I see so many Brahmins begging" in Mylapore, Mr. Parameswaran says. "It's very difficult to see. It makes me totally upset."


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Comments (6)

Ravi, India (Bharat)
03 Apr 2014, 23:24
Congress party is the not enemy of Brahmina but also of whole country it has made brahamins useless comunity of india
srinivasa prasad, United States of America
01 Mar 2013, 03:23
I watched a recent neeya-naana show in which they support notion of reservation, as a sacrifice being made by other caste people to uplift lower caste people. People of that show should think rationally before conveying any wrong message to society. If today's brahmins have to go on sacrifice just to give the lower caste a chance, it is atrocious. People are being apartheid. If a lower caste guy get medicine seat bcoz of caste, what good of a doctor can he be???why should government spend tax-payers money on dull student??? This reservation will bring more hatred towards lower caste. There is no guy who could explain why reservation should exist in a rational way??? political shit!!!!
pandu, India (Bharat)
17 Aug 2012, 21:35
Brahmins should not beg.   Inspire and dont loose your heart. 
y udupa, India (Bharat)
29 May 2012, 10:32
the reason behind India failing is this caste reservation.the people who have just passed will get a teacher job due to reservation please think how he may teach.i had to correct my children's birth certificate thrice due to the spelling mistake even after giving the written document. this is the face of new India. to parameswaran i say please search job in private sector as all others in our community doing .
Manjunath, India (Bharat)
18 Apr 2012, 22:58
We should be unite for our community, apart from devotional programs we have to concentrate on community development programmes.Then only we can build our community strong and successful
Vishal Purohit, United States of America
06 Feb 2012, 11:14
Stop complaining. I am the son of a farmer. We grew up poor but that did not stop me from being at the top. Being second is not an option for a brahmin in india.
I made my way thru small village to USA. Treacherous path and there were many tribulations but you have to do what you have to do. Its your life wont you do anything it takes to make it better. Whethere Dalit or Brahmin it all depends if you have insatiable zeal in you to SUCCEED...Although I do agree reservation system in india is most unfair system I have ever heard of..You promote based on qualifications and intelligence not based on what caste that person belongs to...xxxx Indira Gandhi..Congress party really brought india dow
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