West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has announced a 1,000 rupees monthly allowance and free housing scheme for 8,000 Brahmin priests. “The Brahmin priests of the Sanatan Dharma, who for years carry out prayers in temples, have never received any help. There is a section among them who are very poor… I had meetings with representatives of the Sanatan Dharma and they had asked for a plot of land, and we gave them land in Kolaghat where a pilgrim site will come up,” she said.
The West Bengal government is not alone in extending such special benefits to Brahmins. Andhra Pradesh (AP) government had set up AP Brahmin Welfare Corporation in 2014 whose stated goal was to “provide support for the upliftment of Poor Brahmins in the society”. The AP government also made the position of the Brahmin priests hereditary in 2019. Karnataka state government followed in the footsteps of the AP government by setting up Karnataka State Brahmin Development Board in 2019.
Brahmins are at the top of the caste hierarchy. They, on average, fare better on socio-economic indicators compared to other caste groups. Then why do Brahmins, a privileged group, continue to get endowments from various governments? The answer to this question can be found if we turn to history.
Dharmashastras—the ancient legal texts written by Brahmin Vedic scholars—proclaim that only Brahmins have the right to receive gifts (Brick 2018). Matsya Purana and Linga Purana give a list of 16 mahadanas (great gifts), which include tulapurusha (the ritual weighing of a king against gold and its distribution among Brahmins), hiranyagarbha (the donation of a golden vessel) and gosahasra (the donation of a thousand cows). This textual evidence cannot be dismissed as Brahmins’ wishful thinking because as Annette Schmiedchen (2006) shows, the gift ceremonies are corroborated in the epigraphic evidence.
Schmiedchen writes, “Most of the sixteen mahadanas are also mentioned in various Indian epigraphs, and the performance of the more important ones among them is registered in inscriptions as well.” She enumerates a number of dynasties who performed the tulapurusha ritual—the focus of her study—in her essay. “Particular weighing rituals have been recorded by inscriptions from the territories of the dynasties of the Rashtrakutas, Pallavas, Cholas, later Chalukyas, Gahadavalas, Senas, Eastern Gangas, and later Pandyas as well as from Vijayanagara” (Schmiedchen 2006). This list shows us how widespread mahadana rituals were. The primary beneficiaries of these rituals were, of course, the Brahmins.
The practice of donating tax-free land to Brahmins is also very old. Eminent historian R S Sharma says that the Satavahanas were the first rulers to make land grants to Brahmins. Sharma writes, “The Satavahanas originally seem to have been a Deccan tribe. They however were so brahmanized that they claimed to be brahmanas. Their most famous king, Gautamiputra Satakarni, described himself as a brahmana and claimed to have established the fourfold varna system which had fallen into disorder. He boasted that he had put an end to the intermixture between the people of different social orders” (Sharma 2009).
He further writes, “Each kingdom favoured the brahmanas with land grants and even invited them from outside, and most kings performed Vedic sacrifices not only for spiritual merit but also for power, prestige, and legitimacy.”
Under the Peshwa rule, Brahmin scholars could present themselves annually to receive dakshina, or sinecure life grants from the court (Tschurenev 2019). Even after the Peshwas were defeated in 1818, the colonial government continued the Dakshina fund to avoid the wrath of the Brahmins. Jana Tschurenev informs, “In 1821, the government used a part of the Dakshina Fund to set up a Sanskrit college in Poona … until 1850, only Brahmin students were admitted to the Sanskrit College.” When voices were raised to open up the Dakshina fund to the non-Brahmins, Brahmins vehemently opposed this proposal.
When the British departed in 1947, India became a democratic nation-state. However, the practice of Brahmin appeasement continued. The only thing that has probably changed is that the governments now evoke the poverty of Brahmins while announcing schemes for them. But the question that the governments never answer is, why do they single out poverty among the Brahmins? What about poverty among other social groups? Also, caste status has never been a reason for the poverty of Brahmins. They actually are relatively more financially well-off as a group because of their very caste status. It is obvious that special benefits granted to Brahmins by governments are less due to their poverty and more because of the group’s power and prestige.
Brick, David (2018): “Gifting: Dana”, Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmashastra, Patrick Olivelle and Donald R Davis, Jr (eds), Oxford University Press.
Schmiedchen, Annette (2006): “The Ceremony of Tulapurusha: The Puranic Concept and the Epigraphical Evidence,” Script and Image: Papers on Art and Epigraphy, Adalbert J. Gail, Gerd J. R. Mevissen, Richard Salomon (eds), Motilal Banarsidass.
Sharma, R S (2009): India’s Ancient Past, Oxford University Press.
Tschurenev, Jana (2019): Empire, Civil Society, and the Beginnings of Colonial Education in India, Cambridge University Press.