Brahmanism Versus Brahminism

By The Emissary 15 Comments

Yes – read the title twice.

Was inspired to write this due to Gaurav’s interesting post on Brahmanical Patriarchy. Note – I am a non-Brahmin Hindu.

I’ve always been pretty aware of the difference between Brahman – a word for the metaphysical supreme Godhead/substance in Hinduism and brāhmin – the priestly caste in the varna system. But many times, I see people using the 2 interchangeably as if they are one and the same. Ditto for Brahmanism and Brahminism.

Now if you’ve followed my writing, you know I’m pretty critical of academic takes on Hinduism and academia in general. I generally think both Brahmanism and Brahminism are frankly bullshit IYI terms coined by outsiders and unfortunately adopted widely nowadays.

However, Gaurav’s take on “Brahmanism” (all Hindu practices & rituals which have a basis in scriptures like the Vedic Canon, Puranas/Itihasa, Sutras/Shastras as Brahmanism) is a fair description to me of core Vedic or Hindu thought. A Hinduism rooted to the Upanishadic Brahman that contrasts (but more or less doesn’t clash with) many local or Agamic traditions. A tradition that really does bind the diversity of Hinduism together by common roots and cause. I’d prefer to call it Vedic Dharma or Vedic religion (because I don’t like the Brahman/brahmin casual mixing) but that’s beyond the point.

Onto Brahminism – now this is a term I loathe. To my knowledge, this term was coined by Jesuit missionaries visiting India to convert heathens to the one true faith. These days, the term is honestly just a cover for Brahmin bashing and even more so Hinduism bashing. Brahminism = Brahmanism = standard and core Hindu faith and customs. Basically, the shtick is, all of Hinduism is for and by Brahmins and is solely used as a tool for oppression. If that core description of Vedic (or according to them – Brāhmin) thought and ritual is scrapped away, the link of diverse Hindu traditions is gone and an ideological balkanization occurs. This is a very pretty picture if you’re in opposition to Hinduism. See the monstrosity that is Dravidianism for an example today.

A casual scroll through social media will have people criticizing innocent/non-harmful Hindu rituals and customs such as doing puja for a puppy or vegetarianism and label them as “Brahminical/Brāhmin OPPRESSION!” Yet many of these practices have nothing to do with Brāhmins in this day and age or even in the past (depending on time and geography of course).

While I agree that ending caste discrimination should be a paramount cause of Hindu sampradays and Hinduism in the present, the “Brāhmin Boogeyman” is increasingly just a cover for criticizing Hinduism as a whole and removing agency/tradition/history from non-Brahmin Hindus.

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15 Replies to “Brahmanism Versus Brahminism”

  1. But many times, I see people using the 2 interchangeably as if they are one and the same

    People confuse, Brahmin (varna), Brahman (the god head), Brahma (hindu creator diety), and the cow breed Brahman.

    Brahmin (trained priest) who can do rituals. And some secular ‘Brahmin’ from a Brahmin (jati), one of many, that were classified to be a part of the Brahmin varna.

    Confusingly there are also jatis that consider themselves to be ‘Brahmins’ but aren’t accepted as part of the Brahmin varna by others.

    I cut people, esp. non-Hindus slack, its pretty confusing stuff.

      1. India’s naming its missiles targeted 2wards Pakistan as Brahmos (Brahmins).

        Isn’t that regressive Hindutva Brahmin-ism targeting muslims in action. Where is Arundhati’s Roy when u need her

  2. I feel there is a tendency to overcomplicate things on the H-side and a great deal of unease around the term “brahminical”

    I know most ppl on H-Right dislike the term. I don’t.
    To me it is simple. It can mean two things –

    1. Simply relating to the “brAhmaNa” varNa
    2. The higher register of Indian religion which relies on interpretations of texts in the Vedic tradition + Dharmasastras (again historically driven by individuals who belonged to the brAhmaNa varNa and percolating down)

    So to give an example of when I will use the term “brahminical” –

    Would I use it to describe the Shankara maThas? Yes
    Would I use it to describe Sri-Vaishnavism? Yes
    Would I use it to describe Varkaris? Maybe not
    Lingayats? No
    It is straightforward

    1. How would you classify something like ‘Yoga’ I wonder ?

      What about Madhyamaka (buddhist darshana, attributed to a Brahmin from Virdhaba)?

      1. Yoga – I am a tad ambivalent to use the term “brahminical”
        I think it has pre-Aryan roots. And many of its practitioners were not necessarily Astikas let alone brahmin

        Having said that, it is likely the Yoga Sutras were authored by a theistic brahmana (Ishvara pranidhana features in YS). Also much of its modern ascent has been driven by the enterprise of orthodox brAhmaNas (be it T Krishnamacharya or BKS Iyengar)

        So it is a mixed bag. I personally don’t like to characterize Yoga as brahminical. Though it is definitely Hindu

        1. @Srikanth

          Your last talk on Hinduism revolved around vednatic philosophies and schools. I would think other legs of Hinduism would be Yoga/Tantra , Little traditions. Sramana Traditions and their preoccupations And the interactions betweeen the 4. I am not positiing ‘Hindu’ as contrast between vaidika and sramana , but in an older sense which included them. That is why many Buddhist and Jain teachers were also brahmins

          1. Agree..

            It’s a fallacy to equate Hinduism with Vedanta. Was sort of guilty of that in the podcast

            But that happens so naturally for so many of us because modern Hinduism is so heavily Vedanta-centric. Other philosophical traditions have ceased to be as vibrant, and hence discussed less

  3. The fact that Vedic adhyayana was for most of Indian history a brahmin pre-occupation with ideas percolating down from that varNa to the rest of society, cannot be denied.

    Now the challenge is –
    What was traditionally a “brahmin” preserve, is no longer so. And this creates unease around the term’s usage.

    So in the last 200 years, we have had great teachers / AcAryas who have studied texts in the Vedic tradition despite not being brahmin at all
    E.g. Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and several others

    One welcomes that.

    So that’s why we now feel uneasy about the association of the brahmana varna with this “higher register” in Indian religion. Which is understandable.

  4. A casual scroll through social media will have people criticizing innocent/non-harmful Hindu rituals and customs such as doing puja for a puppy or vegetarianism and label them as “Brahminical/Brāhmin OPPRESSION!”

    Haven’t seen anything as stupid as that in a while; Personally i like a lot of rituals and their symbolic meaning though i dont believe in them. The puppy thing was so nasty.

    I sort of agree with Srikant on the semantics issue though. Brahmanism is the term I use cause it has better-defined meaning internally and externally – but i get there is a huge amount of confusion. Being born in a Brahmin family and at least slightly partial to Hindutva I own both these terms as my identity though i don’t always associate with them all the time. I don’t think Hinduism would ve survived the Islamic and Christian attack without Brahmanism as the core binding it and serving as High culture with remarkable similarities across the geography. Razib made this point in his post on Hinduism not being inchoate paganism.
    So I am personally happy to own up to both these terms as a part of my identity – but I don’t shy from calling our practices/customs/ideology in it which I find problematic or unpalatable for my sensibilities.
    Having read Sramana literature, Abrahamic literature, Neo Atheism I am partial towards Brahmanical philosophical achievements despite lack of personal belief in Reincarnation and the Supernatural.

  5. Isn’t this a silly script difference confined to the English Alphabet? AFAIK it’s not possible to write Brahmin or Brahman as different words in any of the Indian languages. Certainly not in South Indian languages. Knowledgeable ppl, please confirm.

    1. Brahmin = ब्राह्मण = Brāhmaṇa = One of the Varnas.
      Brahman = ब्रह्मन् = Brahman (first a is short here, ends in dental n as opposed to retroflex n and vowel a in Brāhmaṇa) = The supreme principle in Upanishads etc.

  6. @Emissary

    Are these terms “Brahmanism” and “Brahminism”, with their different spellings and different meanings as expounded by you, prevalent in media/literature? Or is it just your take on this “ism”.

    When is earliest record of use of any of these terms?

    Also, what are the corresponding terms in native Indian languages, say Hindi?

    Genuine questions. I really want to go to the source of this confusion.

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