About Brahmin Privilege: Education, Brits and Chitpavans

This post is result of some comments in the Open thread in response to Razib’s piece in Unherd. While i agree with core of Razib’s argument & and some comments, i feel there isnt enough nuance about Brahmin privilege that comes out in discussion these days. Some assertions of comparing Brahmins to White slave-owners  are too simplistic and even terribly wrong. (I dont imply Razib or others on BP made those)

The problem with simplistic narrative of Brahmin “privilege” is that it focuses on caste as a privilege while not focusing on concrete privileges which are often correlated with Varna in India. Following are the salient privileges of Indian public life

  • WEALTH including Lands – Moderately correlated with caste but with some mismatch. Most Brahmins who had lands, lost them in the Land reforms of 20th century though. (even though one supports the land reforms in principle the confiscation of land cannot be brushed aside)
  • EDUCATION – highly correlated with caste ; Brahmins score considerably higher on educational parameters for centuries. This post focuses on Education as a historic and inherited privilege.
  • CONNECTIONS – related to politics – here ordinary Brahmins aren’t necessary up in the top percentile.
  • URBAN BACKGROUND – (more Brahmins/UC are urban dweller though some continue living in rural backgrounds).

This post focuses on Educational attainments of Brahmins (particularly Chitpavans) in Pune region. The quotes and tables are from a booklet A survey of the Chitpavan Community in the pre colonial state

For the British, Education was an instrument of efficient colonization as seen from the words of Sir Erskine Perry,  the Governor of Bombay Province subsequent to Lord Elphinstone. He maintained

“Only the higher castes should be educated because of the limited facilities, therefore only limited members could be educated. These higher castes through their natural influence would affect an elevation of mental and moral condition of the masses. Four groups were identified under this category of high castes the military and administrative class of Landowners, Jagirdars, Chieftains, petty nobility and feudatories, wealthy traders and other commercial men; government employees; and Brahmins and other
higher writer castes”.’

The Maratha empire employed a number of upper castes (Brahmins, Kayasthas and some Marathas) in positions of administration and accounting. On arrival, the Brits picked these up as administrators, teachers, clerks etc. The literacy of the males of these subcastes in Bombay presidency was extremely high. Chitapavan males in a Pune Taluka are reported to have 90% literacy in late 19th century as compared to 11.9% in average males. This extreme bias cannot be explained without the Peshwai & the privileges the Chitpavans enjoyed because of it. 

A variety of education institutes like Maharashtra education society, Deccan Education society started in Pune in the 19th century. Brahmins were the prime movers as well as the overwhelming beneficiaries of these institutions. Lets see a few examples:

Reports of the Poona Native Institution published from 1881 to 1933.

The data from Deccan Education society started by Tilak and Agarkar isnt much different. The report quotes

The annual report published in 1883 acknowledges the preponderence of brahmins amongst the students as well. “The characteristic feature of the school is that the largest number of boys belong to the higher and intelligent classes of the community.’When deposing before the Hunter Commission Annual Report of 1883,Deccan Education Society,Poona,1884 on Education, the representative of the society acknowledged that only 17 out of 582
students were nonbrahmin.

Lokmanya Tilak, the freedom fighter and founder of DES had this to say

Englishmen are and were averse to imparting any knowledge of a practical nature to subject races, they found that philosophy and theoretical science were  the safest subjects. It is hopeless to expect the artisan or the agriculturist to evince an interest in a form of education so far removed from his way of life, i.e is profession decided on the basis of caste for thousands of years. It is we think beyond the power of a dozen Educational Directors of the type of Mr. Lee Warner with all the encouragement by way of free studentships and scholarships which they can command, to infuse a love of western learning into the hearts of men who find themselves better off without knowing anything that our schools and colleges teach, than with it. If the brahmin under all kinds of difficulties strives to surpass his brethren of lower castes in intellectual attainments and tries to take up all the advantages and honours and emoluments to which these attainments qualify him, it is owing to the fact that the very traditions and obligations of his caste and the predispositions and capacities of his mind lead him in that direction. The very spirit of the caste system, the precarious conditions of life under a foreign rule, the indolent characteristic of the tropical world and the spirit of contentment infused into the heart of the Hindu by his religious faith all contribute towards the position of the Brahmin

My Two Cents:

Its fair to say that being born a Brahmin in India distinguishes you as a recipient of certain privileges. However we cant firmly gauge today how much those privileges

  • are the indirect result of ChaturVarna
  • are the result of amplification by the British (for their own colonial ends)
  • are direct result of active oppression of the subalterns
  • or something else entirely

While granting that these privileges exist and shape Indian life considerably, one mustn’t fall into the trap of seeing Brahmin privilege as the overwhelming or even the most consequential privilege of Indian society. Instances like the 1948 Anti Brahmin riots – typically underplayed in the Brahmin privilege narratives are still fresh in mind of thousands. Anti Brahmin rhetoric by political parties like NCP, DMK though not as viscous as rhetoric against some other communities is nonetheless non trivial.

There are and have been many other forces of nature and economy at work for centuries though it is fair to assume that these forces interacted with caste & varna.


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22 thoughts on “About Brahmin Privilege: Education, Brits and Chitpavans”

  1. Hi Gauravl
    Is the headgear those gentlemen are wearing, when it become famous fashionable? Is it from a log cloth like sikh turban or a cap? Does anyone wear it nowadays?

    1. VijayVan

      Sorry, not part of this discussion.

      Could you please tell me what does “Irumarapuntuyya” mean. It was title of one of my ancestors.

      lived in a house “anugrahapathi” (Lord of Blessings in sanskrit).

      VijayVan Thank you very much. No one has been able to tell me the meaning of “anugraha” or anukkra like we spell it in English.

      Makes so much sense, Anugraha is a Sinhalese word too meaning welcome, hosting. Pathi obviously leader.

      My middle name (as is my uncles) is Anukkranayagam. I guess Leader/Head of Blessings.

      Thanks, learnt a lot.

      1. Hi Sereno
        Re “Irumarapuntuyya” . An old book about VIP clans of Indian subcontinent
        Online Library → Roper Lethbridge → The golden book of India; a genealogical and biograhical dictionary of the ruling princes, chiefs, nobles, and other personages, titled or decorated, of the Indian empire, with an appendix for Ceylon → online text (page 61 of 63)
        KUMARAKULASINGHA, Kanakanayakam Charles Barr, Mudaliydr of the Governor’s Gate; b. February 2,1862.Belongs to the Kumarakulasingha family of Jaffna. One of his ancestors received the title ” Irumarapuntuyya Kumarakulasingha Mudaliydr” from the Dutch Government in 1756, in recognition of his position as a direct descendant of the ancient kings of Jaffna. Residence: Dehiwala.
        A Tamil book “yAzpANa vaibhava kaumudi”
        refers to 2 peoplle aroung mid 19th C as Irumarapuntuyya ( இருமரபுந்துய்ய ).
        இருமரபு means Two traditions (perhaps Tamil and Sinhalese ?). It may mean someone who stands on 2 traditions. It does refer to some Jaffna family names. I don’t have any info on connection with Jaffna kings as thought by the Dutch in mid 18th Century. More research is needed for that

        1. VijayVan
          Thanks for the reference and the meaning. Wonder how Irumarapuntuyya can be title.

          Irumarapuntuyya ( இருமரபுந்துய்ய ).
          இருமரபு means Two traditions (perhaps Tamil and Sinhalese ?).

          More likely Catholic and Tamil. This particular guy was Catholic, Don Juan Kumarakulasinghe to save his neck from his ancestors half brother Cankili I.

          The Kumarakulasinghes are supposed be descendants of Paranirupasingham. Cankili I was the son of a concubine. Recorded in Yalpana Vaipava Malai.

          What surprises me is the Jaffna Tamil maintenance of genealogy, after being taken over by the Portuguese. The Sinhalese lost that, even though they kept records for at least 2K years.


          1. Upholder of two Traditions as a title sounds good, much like Commander of Faithful for Sultans OR True Defender if Faith for English sovereign.

          2. Thanks Again VijayVan.
            Defender of Two Traditions does seem cool.

            With Dutch ousting the Portuguese descendants of Don Juan, went back to being Hindu, with names like Thilliampalam Sangarapillai. Two generations later around 1825 converted to Protestantism, and back to using the Kumarakulasinghe name (really a title). Stuck a Barr in front, the name of the American sponsor when converting to Christianity.

    2. That’s what called Peshwa Pagdi or Puneri Pagadi. It seems to have come in vogue with the Maratha Empire and especially during the rules of Peshwas.
      No one wears it apart from marriages and events.
      Side story. – Sharad Pawar refused to wear this (calling it Brahminical symbol) at an event ५ years ago not unlike Mr Modi – who had refused to wear the skull cap once. Thought this Pagadi has no religious significance unlike the Janeu – but that’s how politics n Ideology r especially in modern MH

  2. Plenty of Brahmins are poor in India. This was debated on the recent BP podcast episode, where the guest mentioned that where you stood in the ‘ritualistic ladder’ wasn’t necessarily the same as the economic one. Some groups which were “lower” than Brahmin in the ritualistic/religious sense were still doing better economically even during the British Raj. I don’t remember the exact names, but it was middle-castes in Karnataka that the guest compared with UP brahmins.

    While Brahmins are overrepresented in the Indian-American community, I feel it is better to focus on class even among Indian-Americans, too. In other words, the rest are highly privileged as well, regardless which community they came from.
    Finally, just because someone came from a place of privilege does *not* mean that they cannot nor should not speak of injustice. There’s nothing wrong with Indian-Americans taking a strong moral/social stance.

    But the unstated question here is how many of them are genuine and how many are opportunistically and cynically using this rhetoric to advance their own careers. Building on privilege to gain even more privilege for their offspring. That, I think, is the central question this discussion brings to bear.

    1. My pt is not about financial privileges. They weren’t the strong pt of most Brahmins २ centuries ago. But the system the Brits started favoured the Brahmins (and other literate castes) overwhelming which can be seen as translating into concrete privilege. The skew in education was so profound in the late 19th and 20th century.

  3. The one thing that marked out the colonial state was a shortage of money. Taxation as a share of GDP in the 1920s was only 5%. Once they paid for the military, justice and administration there simply wasn’t very much money left for mass education. In those conditions educating prominent members of society doesn’t sound like such a silly idea.

    Indeed from a state security pov, the Brits had a terrible education policy: few practical and scientific subjects, but a lot of political philosophy and politics! A breeding ground for “sedition”.

    Most people did not demand much education – farmers knew more about farming than did state officials so they didn’t have much to learn about their own profession. Local schools were managed and funded locally but never really took off.

    Interestingly during WW2 the Britishers came up with a plan to reach mass literacy in fourty years. Congress et al. laughed at them at the time and said that was too long but failed to reach the target in time! And this was despite having a lot more money to spend.

  4. I remember Anan’s interesting writing why brahmins, past and present, should be poor. Simplified, they are a spiritual category. One of recent comments touched the insufficiently explored topic about the transition period when Aryans arrived in SA. Actually, this interesting period needs to be explored (a challenge for young guns) because all subsequent changes did not happen overnight, they probably took several generations.

    I am in anticipation that VV changes his hat for the fashionable headgear from the picture.

    1. Milan , that headgear is very popular nowadays for weddings and other functions but not beyond that.

    2. Milan, Not a bad idea .

      Only Sikhs continue to wear traditional India turban and it has become their marker

      1. btw Marathi Feta is also xtremely popular and worn more regularly especially in villages – its so important in Marathi messaging that even Asad Owaisi wore it when addressing crowds before last years assembly elections.
        Apart from that marathi ppl also wear white Gandhi/Nehru topi very regularly (check mumbai dabewales headwears)

    3. @milan
      Hi Milan, I have read your comments on BP and aware of your argument.

      I have travelled in the countryside of Serbia and Bulgaria recently and found so many similarities between the culture and social conduct. Also, how they look, facial features of people of the region and many Indians (obviously except skin tone)

      What do you think is the complete picture of Vinca civilisation and Indo-Aryan migration.

  5. In the late 19th century, the British budget for education for all of India was equal to the budget spent on education in the state of New York. Food for thought.

    I wonder how CKPs in Maharashtra fared in terms of education and economically compared to Brahmins? How did they do under the British. I can’t find much information. I know Chitpavans had it in for CKPs.

    1. CKP and other Kayasthas, richer Marathas and Deshshashtha, Sarasvat and Karhade Brahmins followed suite with education quickly after Chitpavanas.
      CKP Brahmin conflict was a thing till Early 20th century. You can see it in Prabhodhankar Thackeraus writings (Bal Thackeray father) who was very anti caste (anti Brahminism) but also Hindutvavadi (unlike folks like Pawar) .
      But those faultlines had disappeared by 60s 70s especially with Bal Thackeray – who remains unique insofar as he never indulged any caste politics. He even went against pragmatic advices for ticket distribution wrt caste. As a result Shivsena is (Was) the least casteist party in India IMO – only one who had balls to critique the Maratha reservation.

  6. “Brahmin “privilege” is that it focuses on caste as a privilege ”
    Totally agree with this statement only on “Caste” as privilege but not for Brahman as privilege.
    Brahmin privilege applied only to Marathi Brahmin and maybe Tamil Brahmin from my standpoint view (Because I can only give my regional knowledge cannot generalize to all).
    As far Caturveda is considered both of Marathi and Tamil Brahmins (eg Sourashtri/ Brahmins came from Lata/Gujarat could not stand different theology denigrated others, lata didnot follow casteism till 10th CE ) both of the groups reinvented their own false interpretation what caste-ism stood.
    Open Journal Of Asiatic Society of Bombay, read on Chitpavan Brahmin (Blonde hair/colored eyes) to Jambu Brahmin (dark colored living like peasant). Since your ancestors were buttering the British (I would love throw genetics of their faces compared to Chitpavan) you will find bias view on Jambu. You will get your answer for buttering.
    After Peshwas(respect to the fallen leaders) fall to British(since rest all folded like deck of cards/opportunistic), reinvented Hinduism term.
    Maybe Chitpavan and Tamil Brahmin are not good representative for Brahmanas community(it is not political community). Please don’t endorse their views.
    Talking about land, whole Lata/South Gujarat is considered Tribal.

    1. Wonder Woman-
      Didn’t fully get what u are implying.

      That Chitapavans TamBrahms r not representive of all Brahmins in India – yes probably they’re at one end. I presented the data I had recently read to make pt of educational and cultural privilege and the Brit role in it.

      But the data also has similar skew for other Brahmins/ caste MH wrt bahujans.

      But yeah Chitapavans n TamBrahms r not representive

  7. @Razib
    Your post was realistic towards privilege South Asian group. I agree we are not traumatized but we are just ignorant of reality of our own country.

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