Brahmanas in India – an introduction
Evidence as to whether all the present day Hindus were migrants , possibly from Asia minor and whether they were were Aryans is both confusing and conflicting. But the fact that they were a major part of the great religion called “Sanathana Dharma” or “eternal truth” is very strong. The invading hoards from outside of the later years starting from Hunas classified this group of people as Hindus. This religious group did not have any founder prophet. They followed the tenets of religion as enunciated by very many sages, kings, heroes in their four holy books called Vedas. When these books were evolved, there was no script to write and preserve them. So this group decided to entrust the job of learning all these Vedas by rote and teaching it to the next generation be left to a very specialized group of people called “Brahmanas”. Initially it looks as if these were only the selected people of the community who had the intellectual capacity to do this very tedious job and also prepared to lead a simple life without any vocation to earn their livelihood.. Preservation of Vedas was of paramount importance and the Hindu community must have decided that to do this these scholars who were dedicating their life for such a noble venture must be taken care of by the other members of the society engaged in war, cattle rearing and commerce.
It is not clear when the process of selecting the intellectuals and putting them in one group stopped and when Brahmanas became Brahmanas because of their birth. But this has already happened in the late puranic period and definitely in the early historic period of India. As per the religious tenets that they were taught, all groups gave munificent support to all Brahmanas , who lead a scholarly life devoted entirely to learning and teaching. Most of these early developments must have happened in the Indo gangetic plain and the valleys of great rivers like Narmada, for by that time the pastoral nomadic Hindus have become a thriving agricultural community. .When population started exploding and when new religious teachers converted the kings to new way of thinking and when enemy hoards threatened the very survival of their religion , some of these Brahmanas must have decided to migrate to the south and settle down in the shores of the great river Cauvery. .
A.A peep in to ancient and medieval history
According to reputed historians , in the hoary past Tamil Nadu was occupied by a very cultured people whose religion was perhaps different from Hinduism. They did not have the Chaturvarnyam among them but had different caste groups. To this country the Brahmanas of North India migrated. This according to historians took place when the Maurya Kings were ruling India, the reason being the new religious revolutions in the north started by Gautama the Buddha and Mahavira Vardhamana which found favour with the kings. The Brahmana migration was in waves and many of them settled down in present telugu country and some of them reached Tamil Nadu.The first groups to migrate to Tamil Nadu were the pro-Shukra Brahmanas who were followers of Lord Shiva and the last few waves were the Pro-Brihaspati Brahmanas who were mainly followers of Lord Vishnu. Historians believe that at that time there were differences between Saivites and Vaishnavites but was very minimal.
Tamil Nadu (i.e the three great kingdoms of Chozha, Pandya and Chera) welcomed these new migrants with open hands. The stories of the migration of Agasthya(a Brahmin saint of North India) and his being the founder of the river Cauvery are chronicled in ancient Tamil myth. His disciple Tholkappiyar , who is definitely a historical figure wrote the first book in Tamil viz. Tholkappiyam.This book clearly mentions the existence of Brahmanas in Tamil Nadu. There is some evidence pointing out to Tholkappiyar himself being a Brahmin. They were initially called Anthanars or Parpaars or aravor or vediyars. Tholkappiyam also mentions the word Aiyar in one place.
The kings of Tamil Nadu were attracted by these learned pundits and made them their Asans or teachers. They also gave these teachers several powers. Apart from this several villages were given to them as grants free of cost and free of tax .These were called Brahmodayams or Chadurvedimangalams. Possibly in a much later period they were renamed Agraharams.Though new to the culture and language these new migrants learned the language of the country and the ancient books mention many great poets among them in the courts of some very famous kings. These early migrants also brought the concept of Gothras. Bharadwaja, Koundinya, Kasyapa, Kaushika and Atreya Gothras are mentioned in the early sangam literature. They initially did not name themselves as they do in modern times after the Gods they worship but tended to use their Gothra in their names. Some of the examples of the early names were Kauniyan Vinnantayan (Kaundinya), Palai Gautamanar (Gautama), Ilankausikanar (Kausika) ,Kallil Athreyanar(Atreya) , Bharadwaji Nachinarkiniyanar (Bharadwaja) and so on.
They were strict vegetarians, teetotalers and spoke a specialized dialect of Tamil among themselves. Their houses had a “well-washed-scrubbed-courtyard” and mostly a cow and a calf were tied to a post in front of their houses and dog and fowls were assiduously kept out. The Brahmin of those times had six fold duties viz. learning of Vedic texts, teaching of Vedas, performing yagnas(called velvi in Tamil) , helping others perform yagnas, giving of gifts and taking of gifts. Among the earliest schools of Vedas started by them were the Ghatika in Kanchi and the Vedic School in a village called Ennayiram near present day Pondycheri.. The sangam literature mentions about a famous Brahmana named Punjarurkavunian Vinnandayan who is supposed to have performed many Vedic sacrifices during those times.
They also took lot of interest in developing Tamil Literature. Among the well known Brahmana poets of that time were Nakkerar, Kapilar, Nachinarkiniyar, Tayam Kannanar and so on. Though representatives of the Vedic learning they also took very active part in the Bhakti movement of the ancient Tamil Nadu. Among the great saints were Nambi andar Nambi , Nadamuni, Sambandar, Sundarar, Kungilyakalayanar, and many others.
Divisions and Groups
It is very important to note here that they were both Shaivites and Vaishnavites among them since their known history but they preferred to live as one major group with several sub groups.The Bhakthi movement of spearheaded by Azhwars and Nayanmars was followed by the great philosophical awakening of India strangely from the Brahmanas of Tamil Nadu.The first was Sankara Bhagawat Pada who was born in a Namboodiri family and came out with the concept of Advaitha or non dualism. He interpreted the holy books of India and came to the conclusion that , essentially there is no difference between God and the beings he created.All of them were a single ultimate truth called Brahma. Then came Sage Ramanuja from a tamil brahmana family who did not agree with Adhi Sankara. He conclusively argued that , the beings and God are different but the beings can merge with God by realization. The royal path for realization was through Saranagathi or absoulute surrender.His philosophy was called Visishtadvaitham or “specialized non dualism”. His disciples reinterpreted the concept of surrender according to the mode of saranagathi and there were two schools of his followers viz. Vadakalai and Thenkalai. The last great doyen of this great philosophers was sage Madhwa who was born in the coastal area of the present Karnataka who disagreed with both of them and gave rise to the philosophy of dualism.
The historians who have traced the migration of Brahmanas to Tamil Nadu believe that the first group to migrate were the BrihatCharanams and Ashtasaharam Brahmanas. The Brihatcharanams loosely translated as Big foot or Great migrations were the first wave of settlers who settled in places like Mangudi, Satyamangalam, Thiruvannamalai ,Palamaneri, Kandarmanikkam, Milagasur and so on. The next migrants were possibly were the Ashtasahasrams who settled down in a place called Ennayiram near Pondicherry. The next big wave of migrants were the Vadamas , so called by others who have already settled as Northerners. There were other smaller sub groups like Vathimas also. Many of these migrants whose main occupation was learning Vedas and performing Yagnas took to Temple worship in Tamil Nadu by gaining proficiency in agama Sastras. These were called Kurukkal in general and some of these prominent groups were again grouped in to Sholiyars. Since the initial migrants felt that these people have committed a big mistake by taking up Temple Worship , they were looked down by the other groups. Another prominent and well recognized group of learned Brahmanas were the Chidambaram Dikshitars. The Mukkani Brahmanas who assist in Pujas in the Tiruchendur Temples were a later addition to these groups The Vadamas themselves were again split in to Then desathu Vadamas and Vada desathu vadamas.
It is not clear when the Vaishnavites became a separate group and started calling themselves as Iyengars. They definitely did it after the advent of Sage Ramanujachariar who systematized Srivaishnavism After him his followers again split in to Vadakalai Iyengars and Thenkalai Iyengars. There is also some evidence to prove that most of the Vadakalai Iyengars were from Vadamas and most of the Thenkalai Iyengars were from the Sholiyars.
There were also minor sects like Kesis and Kaniyalars. There is another very small group called Prathamasakhis who are confined to few villages like Seddanipuram near Nannilam of Tanjore district who believe that they turn in to untouchables at mid day everyday. They go out of the house at mid day and reenter the house after a purificatory bath.
From those migrants who occupied the present Karnataka state rose another great sage called Madhwa.He preached a different cult of Vaishnavism with slightly different philosophy. His followers were called Madhwas.In later days reverse migration took place and many of them settled back in Tamil Nadu.Among them was the great Sage Raghavendra.
There also seems to be a big group of Telugu speaking brahmanas settled during the rule of Krishna Deva Raya and Marathi speaking brahmanas settled during the later Maratha rule in Tanjore.
The ancient Brahmanas of Tamil Nadu took up to professions such as Land Holders, musicians and domestic priests . Of these Silappadikaram mentions that those who took to music were frowned up on. They normally took to surnames like Sarma, Bhattar, Somayaji, Jadavallabhar, Dikshitar etcThey belonged to Gothras like Maudgalya, Srivatsa, Kaundinya, Kasyapa, Bharadwaja, Vadula, Atreya, Vasishta, Gautama, Haritha, Kaushika, Sandilya, Garga, Paurukutsa, Sankrityayana, Samkrithi, Viswamitra and so on. Most of the Rig Vedis followed the Aswalayana Sutra, the Shukla Yajurvedis followed either the Apasthambha or Bodhayana sutra , the Krishna Yajurvedis followed the Katyayana Sutra and Samavedis followed Drahyayana Sutra.
As was necessary the Brahmanas could not stick on to the profession of Vedic learning and eke out a living. Initially they were supposed to perform Yagnas (Velvi in Tamil) but they convinced the kings of Tamil Nadu that they should take over the maintenance of temples according to the Agama Sasthras. Because of this except for the temples of Goddesses like Kali, Ayyanar etc they were appointed as the Archakas.Here again there were two major groups , the Kurukkal doing worship in Shaivaite temples and Azhwars doing worship in Vaishnavaite temples. Another profession in which they shined was administration. They were the only community in Tamil Nadu who established Sabhas for administration of their agraharams. The king gave a sort of autonomy to such Sabhas. Details of many Sabhas are available in several stone inscriptions. Possibly due to the simple life they lead, the Kings also started appointing them as ministers and chief administrators. One of the greats was Ulagalanda Chola Brahmarayan who surveyed the lands for the king Rajadiraja. Many of them took to Tamil writing like Kalamegha Pulavar, Arulnandi Sivacharya, Periyachan Pillai, , Nathamunigal and so on. They also produced Appayya Dikshidar who was possibly a great contributor to the philosophical writings on Advaita founded by Sankaracharya.Other great writers were Govinda Dikshitar the author of Sangita Sudha, Yagnanarayana Dikshitar the author of Sahitya Ratnakaram, Ramabhadra Dikshitar the author of Janaki Parinayam, Sridhra Venkatesa Aiyaval who wrote a biography of Shaji the brother of Shivaji, Sadashiva Brahmendrar who authored many religious tomes and so on. Another very important but patently unnatural profession for the Brahmanas of this period was that of the warrior. There were Brahmanas like Rajaraja Brahma Maharaja in the kingdom of Vengi, Kannan who was a general of Kulothunga I , Ramappiyan the famous general of Thirumalai Nayakkan of Madurai...
Music was another profession they shined. They systematized the musical rules , composed thousands of pieces and also became experts in singing.Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Deekshidar and Shyama Shastry were the all time greats.
Migration from Tamil Nadu
Another very important event that happened to Brahmanas , was their migration to neighboring states. The Palakkad Brahmanas of Kerala, the Dravida Brahmanas of Guntur, and The Sankethis of Karnataka all were Tamil Brahmin migrants. They might have migrated due to the rule of Maharatha and Vijayanagar dynasties when they lost their pre-eminent position in society. Also saint Ramanuja was forced by politics of those times to spend some part of life in Karnataka and he had several followers there.
Impression of ancient foreign visitors
Many foreign visitors during that period have left several comments on the life of a Tamil Brahmanas of those times .Marco Polo wrote that:” It is their practice of everyone, male and female, do wash the whole body thrice everyday …..you must know that in eating they use the right hand only and would on no account touch their food with left hand …..
So also they drink only from drinking vessels; and everyone hath his own;nor will anyone drink from another’s vessel. And when they drink they do not put the vessel to their lips, but hold it aloft and let the drink sprout in to their mouth…” He also says that they never tell lies and they abhor robbery. He also mentions” They are distinguished by a certain badge consisting of a thick cotton thread which passes over the shoulder and tied under their breast. Domingo Paes , a Portuguese visitor wrote about the king using their services to ask questions to the idol in the temples.
It was during this period that the Brahmanas of Tamil Nadu started concentrating on education. They established several schools called Ghatikas where they could learn Sanskrit and Vedas. There were famous Ghatikas in Kanjeevaram, Nagapattinam and Ennayiram. The subjects taught in these schools were Kavya, Vyakarana, Sastra etc. The kings made sumptuous grants for running of these schools. With the coming of Vijayanagar kings and that of Maratha kings Brahmanas easily picked up the language of kings and got employment in their courts. But most of the Brahmanas were not having facilities to come and join these Ghatikas. They instead continued with the Guru Kula style of ancient in India by living in the houses of their teachers. The art of music was somehow taught only like this.
B: Modern Times
The Brahmanas evolved much further in the eighteenth and nineteenth centaury. This period also saw their rise and fall in Tamil Nadu.The groups’ rise was due to their early interaction with the English. The English wanted to communicate with the locals. And they easily identified the Tamil Brahmin for this job. They first taught him English and employed him to help them talk with the locals. Identifying their administrative genius as well as devotion to their masters, they employed them in all sort of jobs. This was perhaps the main reason , why we find the Brahmanas of today a very educated lot. They made a mark in whichever field they got interested. If a list of all time greats in Tamil nadu were compiled about 50% of them would be brahmanas. Recently the Tamil Nadu Brahmin association has compiled to who is who among Tamil Brahmanas and this 1000 paged volume has not even covered 50% of those eminent people. A feeble attempt is made here to indicate some great people here and possibly represent .001% of the great Tamil Brahmanas.
Before independence most of great geniuses in administration who held posting under the British were Brahmanas. Some of the greatest were Sri Seshaia sasthri, Sri.T,.Muthuswami Iyer, Sri.P.S.Sivaswamy Iyer, Rt.Hon.Sreenivasa sastry, Sri.C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer,Sri.Bhashyam Ayyangar etc In the post independence period they mostly moved away from the spheres of administration but the notable among them was Sri.T.N.Seshan.
The Brahmanas though by nature not interested in politics fought side by side with others for making our nation free.Possibly the greatest among them was Sri.N.C.Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) who also became the first governor general of India, He was also a very great writer as well as social reformer. Some of the other notables were , Va.Ve.Su.Iyer, Mahakavi Bharathi, Vanchi who killed the collector of Tirnelveli, Sri.Santhanam who was our first railway minister ,SriSathya murthy and Sri.Bhashyam iyengar,Sri Ananthasayanam Ayyangar who was the first adorn the chair of speaker in the Indian parliament laid great foundations of parliamentary practice.
The Brahmanas simply dominated the writing scene of Tamil Nadu for a very long time. The first novelist , Vadavur Dorai Samy Iyengar, The great lady writer who wrote for creating social awakening Smt.Vai.Mu .Kothainayagei ammal, Sri.U.Ve .Swaminatha iyer who wandered all over Tamil nadu and collected folk and ancient Tamil literature(called Tamil Thatha), Kalki the greatest writer of historic fiction, Maha Kavi Subramanya Bharathi who is acknowledged as the greatest poet of modern times, Nadodi,Chavi, Gomathy Sunbramanyam, Ki.Va Jagannatham Chandilyan, are some of the few all time greats.
Among the savants who contributed to Sanskrit literature were Ganapathi shastri, Gopala shastri, Thethiyur Subramanya sastri, Prathivathi bhayangaram Annangaracharyar and so on.
In journalism also they made very significant contributions. The Hindu, Dhinamani, Swadesha mithran, Kalki, Ananda vikatan, were all started by brahmanas and managed by them.
This is an area that they took least interest. But the great mathematical genius Sri,Srinivasa Ramanhjam, The first Nobel prize winning scientist, Sir.C.V.Raman. the scientist responsible for feeding modern India.Dr.Rangachari possibly one of the greatest physicians Tamil nadu has produced,Dr.Ramamurthy the great neuro surgeon Dr.M.S.Swaminathan, Dr.Chandra Shekar , an authority on astrophysics who won Nobel Prize, Dr,Seshadri one of the greatest chemists that India has produced, Dr.Kasthuri Rangan of the ISRO were all brahmanas.
This was another field dominated by the Brahmanas. The music trinity who started it all,Pattanam Subramanya Iyer,Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Gopalakrishna Bharathi, Kothamangalam Subbu, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyenger, Maharajhapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Maharajhapuram Santhanam,Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathatr, Sri.M.S.Gopalakrishnan, Tiger Varadhacharyar, Madurai Mani Flute Ramani, Kunnakudi Vaidyanatan,Veenai Balachander, Smt.Pattammal,Brinda –Muktha, Bombay sisters, Kavitha Krishnamurthy, Hariharan, Shankar Subramanyan the great music critic Subbudu are only the beginning of the list.
Another music related vocation in which they excelled was Pravachanas and Hari Katha.Two of the greats were Sengalipuram Anantha Rama Deekshidar and Thoopul Lakshmi Narasimhan,.Pudukootai Gopalakrishna Bhagavathar was an eminent musician who systematized the bhajana sampradayam.
This orthodox community also took interest in development of drama and Cinema in Tamil Nadu.Some of the all time greats were SriBalachander, the doyen among film directors and actors like , Gemini Ganesan, Kamala Hasan, Cho, Vishu, Vyjayanthi mala, Rekha, Jaya Laitha ,Hema malini, Saharanamam, Jayaraman, Priya Mani, Vidhya Balan and so on.
The reservation system introduced after independence, the land reform bills and the Dravidian movement put this small vibrant community in to great strain. They were simply thrown out of their moorings and were forced to migrate all over the country as well as the world in search of jobs. Though earning a bread has become their priority, they still act as the repository of Hindu religious knowledge and are the corner stones on which future Hindu religion will stand..They also would essentially provide intellectual input in all walks of life for all the time to come.