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Who is a Brahmin?

I receivedan interesting email from a relative today about the VajraSuchika Upanishad. A major theme of this Upanishad ie Varnashrama, is summarized by Shri Vishal Agarwalin terms of who can and who cannot be a Brahmin.

It does appear that Varna is owned through merit and not bestowed on birth. An illustration of my statement would be if a sweeper trains to be a soldier, he would be a Kshatriya and it would have to be in order to recognize him as such.

What can be more logical than that?

You may reach Shri Vishal Agarwal at vishalsagarwal@yahoo.com

– Namaste


The ideology and institutions of Varna (= caste) and Asrama(=stages of life) are so deeply ingrained in classical Hinduism that our Dharma is often termed as ‘Varnashrama Dharma’. This website revolves around the Vajrasuchika Upanishad, which discusses the true basis of one’s caste. 

The word ‘Vajrasuchi’ is a compound of two words: 

  1. Vajra = diamond, hard, thunderbolt
  2. Suchi/Suchika = needle 

The word ‘Vajrasuchika’ therefore means “A needle that is as hard as a rock/diamond.” In other words, the name indicates that the text expounds a very precious, and a potent doctrine that can lead one to moksha(=salvation). The Upanishad concludes that it is spiritual realization and good conduct alone that determine one’s caste.

The Upanishad is often ascribed to the Brahmin Buddhist scholar Asvaghosa, the celebrated author of the ‘Buddhacharita’- a biography on Lord Buddha. Sometimes, it is also ascribed to Bhagvatpada Shankaracharya, the great Advaitin teacher. These ascriptions are impossible to prove. The text has been very popular amongst certain Buddhist circles in the past. However, it also betrays a clear Hindu ambience throughout and is among the 108 Upanishads enumerated in the list given in the Muktika Upanishad. Although the text is not counted amongst the major Upanishads and is of uncertain date, it is important nevertheless because it expounds certain tenets of other recondite Hindu texts in a lucid manner. All Upanishads are classified under one of the four Vedas, and this Upanishad belongs to the Samaveda. Numerous versions of the text exist, and the shorter one has been adopted here. In future, I propose to add the translation of the extra sections of the longer version as well.

I have added an appendix that collects other passages from the Hindu scriptures that agree with this central tenet of the text under consideration. Another appendix lists the deities, saints and sages who were not born in Brahmin families. A detailed discussion on the origin of the caste system, its transformation with time, and its justifiability (or the opposite) are all beyond the scope of this website.

Translation and Notes


 “I expound the ‘Vajrasuchi’ which is a doctrine that dispels ignorance,

Brings disrepute to those who are devoid of (spiritual) knowledge

And is an ornament to those who see with the eye of (spiritual) knowledge”. || 1 ||

Exegetical notes: The opening lines indicate that the esoteric doctrine of this text is potent and precious and should be granted only to the select few who are spiritually inclined. If this doctrine is debased by bestowal to an unworthy, the recipient comes to harm and is not able to derive any benefit from it. 

The Central Question 

“Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (soldiers and kings), Vaishya (merchants and agriculturists) and Shudras (artisans and farmers)- these are the four castes.

Amongst these castes, Brahmins indeed are the supreme (pradhana)- this accords with the statements of the Vedas and is stated by the Smritis also.

In this regard, the following enquiry is made:

Who indeed has the designation ‘Brahmin’? Is he the individual soul (jiva)? Is he the body? Is it the class based on birth or one’s lineage (that is responsible for Brahminhood)? Is it the (spiritual) knowledge (that is responsible for Brahminhood)? Is it the ritualistic karma or fruits thereof (that is responsible for Brahminhood)? Is he the performer of meritorious acts (dharmika)?” || 2 ||

 Exegetical notes: The text is clear.

 Is Jiva the Brahmin?

Of these options, if the first i.e. ‘the designation Brahmin applies to the Jiva’ is considered, then no (i.e., this cannot be true) because the nature (rupa) of the Jiva remains the same in the bodies it assumed in previous lives and also in the future bodies.

Impelled by the fruit of its actions, the Jiva attains numerous bodies (in different births) and in all these bodies, the nature of the Jiva remains the same.

Therefore, the designation ‘Brahmin’ cannot apply to the Jiva.” || 3 ||

Exegetical notes:The passage does not consider the possibility that the nature of the Jiva itself changes from one life to another because it is a fundamental dogma of the Vedic philosophies that the Jiva or the individual soul is immutable and changeless. In fact, it is the non-Vedic philosophies that often hold the opposite teaching about the Jiva.

Is Body the Brahmin? 

Then, if it is said that the body has the designation ‘Brahmin’, then no (i.e., this cannot be true),

Because the bodies of all human beings down to the chandalas (=outcastes) have the same nature since they are composed of the same 5 elements;

Because features like death, birth, vice and virtue are seen in all bodies;

Because of the absence of the rule that Brahmins are white, Kshatriyas are red, Vaishyas are yellow and Shudras are black.

Because upon cremating the corpses of their fathers/elders and others , one would get tainted with the sin of Brahminicide.

Because of these reasons, the body cannot bear the designation ‘Brahmin’.”  || 4 ||

Exegetical notes:Murder of a Brahmin is considered one of the greatest sins in Hindu scriptures. The author therefore argues that if it is the body that is the Brahmin, then cremation of that ‘Brahmin’ body upon the death of the person will be akin to the sin of killing a Brahmin. 

Familial Lineage and Caste: 

Then, if is said that the class by birth (or familial lineage or genus) bears the designation ‘Brahmin’, then no (i.e., this cannot be true), because there are several non-human species from whom numerous great Sages emerged.

We hear from the sacred texts that

– Sage Rsyasrnga was born of a deer,

– Sage Kausika of the Kusa grass,

– Sage Jambuka from a jackal,

– Sage Valmiki from white termite hill,

– Sage Vyasa from a fisher woman,

– Sage Gautama from the back of a hare,

– Sage Vasishtha from Urvashi- the celestial nymph

– Sage Agastya from a pitcher.

Amongst these, there have been many Sages who have been amongst the foremost of men that  have demonstrated spiritual realization.

Therefore, it is not one’s class by birth that can be taken as (the determinant of the designation) ‘Brahmin’.” || 5 ||

Exegetical notes: The passage takes recourse to several unscientific, popular fables about the origin of Sages but its logic is not untenable. Many of Hinduism’s greatest sages have had humble origins. See Appendix B.

Spiritual Knowledge and Brahminhood

“Then, if it be said that spiritual knowledge is (the cause of) Brahminhood, no (i.e., this cannot be true), because amongst Kshatriyas and others, there are many who have realized the Supreme Reality and have attained Wisdom. Therefore knowledge does not determine Brahminhood.” || 6 ||

Exegetical notes:An example of Kshatriyas who were spiritually realized sages are King Janaka of Videha. An example of a Vaishya who was a realized Sage is the Rigvedic seer Bhalandana. Likewise, Matanga, the son of a Vaishya father and a Shudra mother became a realized Sage. See Appendix B for more details. 

Religious Rituals (Karma) and Brahminhood 

“Then, if it is said that performance of karma or the fruits thereof (makes one) a Brahmin, no (i.e., this cannot be true), Because association with karma that has been commenced, karma done in the past and karma that will be done, is seen common to all creatures.

(Moreover) good men perform karmas, impelled by (the effects) their past karma.

Therefore, karma does not (make) one a Brahmin.” || 7 ||

Exegetical notes:The text means that the performance of karma or rituals in this life does not form the basis of Brahminhood. Why? Because man, or his soul, is associated or tainted not only with the karma performed in this very life, but also with the unseen karmas performed in previous lives. Moreover, who knows what and how many karmas one will perform in future lives. Since man’s net karma is the sum of all the past, present (and future), is it justified to assign him a caste merely on the basis of his present karma? No! Moreover, we see that all men are not inclined equally to the performance of karma. It is stated in the scriptures that inclination to perform good karma in this life itself is a fruit of good karma performed in previous lives. On the other hand, a man who performed good karmas might yet willingly shun them in this life, contrary to his nature. Therefore, when we assign a caste to someone on the basis of his current life’s karma, we are belittling the importance of his past and future karma wrongly. I have not translated ‘karma’ in this passage as ‘virtuous deeds’ and have adopted the rather restricted meaning of the word because the next passage encompasses the broader meanings of karma. Therefore, assuming the broader meaning of karma here itself would result in the fault of useless repetition by the text. 

Meritorious Acts and Brahminhood 

“Then, if it is said that (performance of) meritorious deeds (makes one) a Brahmin, no (i.e., this cannot be true), because there have been many Kshatriyas and others (Vaishyas and Shudras) who have (done meritorious deeds like having) gifted gold (to Brahmins, to religious institutions etc.).

Therefore, the performer of meritorious deeds is not (automatically) the Brahmin.” || 8 ||

Exegetical Notes:The passage clarifies that performance of acts of piety alone does not make one a Brahmin.

Who is a Brahmin?

“Who indeed then bears the designation Brahmin?

He (indeed) who, after having all his desires fulfilled as a result of perceiving (realizing) directly, as an amalaka fruit in one’s hand– The Atman that is One without a second (or is beyond compare), (That is) bereft of (distinctions of) clan and (is not composed of) the constituents of Prakriti (guNa-hInaM), and actionless, (That is) free of all defects like the six infirmities (viz. old age, death, sorrow, delusion, hunger and thirst) and the six states of existence/transformations (viz. birth, existence, growth/development, transformation, waning and perishing), (That is) of the nature of Immutable Reality, of Consciousness, Blissful and Infinite/Eternal, (That is) an Independent Entity (not deriving its existence and properties from anything else), (That is) devoid of determinations, but (itself) the support  of infinite determinations, (That is) present in all living and non-living beings as the immanent Soul, (Who) pervades the interior and envelopes the exterior of everything as ether, (That is) possesses the attribute of perfect and complete (akhanda) Bliss, (That is) incomparable, (That is) known only through one’s own (spiritual) experience (and not through reading of books or teaching by others) and is inferred only indirectly (because of It cannot be perceived by the senses);

Becomes free of the defects of desire, attachment and the like, becomes endowed with the (positive) qualities like tranquility etc., becomes free of (negative) behaviors like jealousy, greed, expectations, delusion etc., and leads a life in which the mind  is not tainted  pretensions, ego and the like. 

He alone, who possesses the aforementioned characteristics, is a Brahmin- such is (indeed) the import of Sruti, Smriti, Itihasa and the Puranas.

There is no other way of attaining Brahminhood.  

Meditate upon Brahman, the Atman, (That is) of the nature of Immutable Reality, of Consciousness, Blissful and One without a second (or is beyond compare! Meditate upon Brahman! 

Such is this Upanishad (secret/exalted) doctrine!” || 9 || 

Exegetical Notes: The concluding section of the Upanishad makes it clear that not until a man has realized the Supreme Being can he be called a Brahmin. This is but logical, because the Brahmin is considered the most exalted caste in human beings, and realization of the Supreme Being is considered the supreme goal of all souls. Therefore, a Brahmin, who has not reached this supreme state an imperfect Brahmin, or is a Brahmin only in name because he has not done justice to the teachings of the scriptures and to the social status that is accorded to him.

The passage, in defining the attributes of a true Brahmin, also lists the attributes of Brahman, or the Supreme Being or God in Hinduism.

The words “as an amalaka fruit in one’s hand” is idiomatic Sanskrit usage meaning “clearly in the front {of oneself}”

The words “Meditate upon Brahman” are repeated to signify the end of the text.

The teaching of this section is not novel but is found in numerous Hindu texts. See Appendix A for some parallel passages. 

Appendix A: Parallel Passages

This appendix gives a selected anthology of passages from Hindu scriptures whose intent is similar to the ideas of the Vajrasuchika Upanishad. 

I am a poet, my father is a doctor, my mother a grinder of corn.

Rigveda, 9.112.3 

From the Supreme Being arise the Holy Sages

From the Supreme Being (arise) these Kshatriyas

From the very same Supreme Being are born the Brahmins

From the Supreme Being (arise) the food producing third caste (Vaishyas).”

“The Supreme Being are indeed these Shudras serving the Kshatriyas,

The Supreme Being are all they who perceive (i.e. all living creatures).

The Supreme Being are all these benevolent officials

The Supreme Being are all these members of the assembly.”

“The Supreme Being are the fishermen,

The Supreme Being are the servants,

The Supreme Being indeed are these gamblers.

Man as well as woman originate from the Supreme Being

Women are God and so are men.”

Atharvaveda (Paippalada Samhita) 8.9.8-10 

“I do not know this, Sir, of what family I am. I asked my mother. She answered me: ‘In my youth, when I went about a great deal serving as a maid, I got you. So I do not know this, of what family you are. However, I am Jabala by name; you are Satyakama by name.’ So I am Satyakama Jabala, sir.” To him he then said: “A non-brahmin would not be able to explain thus. Bring the fuel, my dear. I will receive you as a pupil. You have not deviated from the truth.”

Chhandogya Upanishad 4.4.1-5 

“Listen about caste, Yaksa dear, not study, not learning is the cause of the twice-born status. Conduct is the basis, there is no doubt about it.” 

Mahabharata III.312.106  

“O King of Serpents! He in whom are manifest truthfulness, charity, forbearance, good conduct, non-injury, austerity and compassion is a Brahmin according to the sacred tradition.”

Mahabharata III.180.20

“O Serpent! He, in whom this conduct is manifest is a Brahmin, he in whom this is absent treat all such as Sudra.”

Mahabharata III.180.27  

“The gods consider him a Brahmin (a knower of Brahman) who has no desires, who undertakes no work, who does not salute or praise anybody (with a selfish motive), the fruits of whose deeds have exhausted and who maintains equanimity.”

Mahabharata, XII.269.34  

“If one’s birth were to decide one’s caste, then all should be Brahmins because all humans beings have one Father- Prajapati (God, the protector and master of all creatures).”

Shukraniti, Chapter 1 

“Vyasa, born of a dancing girl, became a great Rishi;

Hence, it is tapasthat makes one a Brahmin, and not his birth.

Sakti, born of a Chandala woman, became a great Rishi.

Hence, it is tapasthat makes one a Brahmin, and not his birth.

Parasara, born of SwapAki, became a great Rishi;

Hence, it is tapasthat makes one a Brahmin, and not his birth.

Vyasa, born of a fisherwoman, became a great Rishi;

Hence, it is tapasthat makes one a Brahmin, and not his birth.”

Note:Tapas = performance of austerities, pious deeds, meditation and adherence to truth.

Srimad Bhagvata Purana

Appendix B: Hindu Deities, Sages  and Saints Who were not Brahmins

“The origin of Sages, Truth and Rivers are unkown”—Mahabharata

This appendix lists somenon-Brahmin or mixed caste great Deities, Saints and Sages of Hinduism. It will be apparent that these great men and women are responsible to a great extent for the development of Hinduism and that the title ‘Brahminism’ is rather a misnomer for our Dharma.

  1. Sri Rama: He was a Kshatriya belonging to the Suryavamsa. His life is the theme of the popular Hindu epic Ramayana. He is considered the 7thincarnation of Lord Vishnu, who in turn represents the ‘Preserver’ aspect of God. He is considered an ideal son, an ideal king and so on. Hindu Utopia is often called ‘Ramarajya’, i.e., ‘the kingdom of Sri Rama’.
  2. Sri Krishna:He to the belonged to the Yadava sub-caste. The Yadavas are currently enumerated amongst the ‘Other Backward Castes’ (OBC’s) in India. He is considered the most popular deity of Hindus, and revealed the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, which is the bedrock of modern Hinduism, and summarizes the philosophical teachings of all Hindu scriptures in a masterful manner. He is considered as the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
  3. Lord Shiva: He is often termed as a ‘Kirata’ in the Puranas. The Kiratas would currently fall in the ‘Scheduled Tribes’ (ST) category in modern India. He is considered as a representation of the ‘Destroyer’ aspect of God and is one of the chief Hindu deities. He is the chief subject of numerous Hindu scriptures like the Shiva Purana, the Kurma Purana and so on.
  4. Maharshi Aitreya Mahidasa: According to tradition, his mother was a maid named ‘Itara’. This Rishi is credited with the compilation of the Aitreya Brahmana and sections 1-3 of the Aitreya Aranyaka (the latter contains the Aitreya Upanishad- one of the 10 canonical Upanishads for Hindus) belonging to the Rigveda.
  5. Rishika Lopamudra: She was a Kshatriya princess from Vidarbha, who married Maharshi Agastya. She is the Seer of some verses of the Rigveda. Several edifying dialogs between her and Sage Agastya are recorded in the Puranas.
  6. Maharshi Vishwamitra: He was originally a Kshatriya named ‘Vishwaratha’. He is credited with revealing the ‘Gayatri Mantra’, the Hindu prayer par-excellence. He was elevated to Brahminhood because of his spiritual luster.
  7. Maharshi Veda Vyasa: He was the son of a fisher-woman named Satyavati, from Rishi Parashara. Considered the greatest Rishi of classical Hinduism, he is believed to have give the 4 Vedas ( = the most authoritative scriptures of Hindus) their present form. He also compiled the Mahabharata and the Puranas, which are the mainstay of popular Hinduism. He also authored the Brahmasutras- a text considered as one of the triple canon of Vedantic Hinduism (the other two being the Gita and the Upanishads). His birthday is celebrated as ‘Guru-Poornima’ by Hindu monks every year. All Hindu monastic orders trace their lineage from him and a popular saying goes: “vyasocchishtam jagatsarvam” meaning that so great was the learning Rishi Veda Vyasa, that even his voluminous writings represent only the periphery of his knowledge.
  8. Maharshi Matanga: He was the son of a Shudra mother and a Vaishya father. In fact, Chandalas are often addressed as ‘Matanga ’in passages like Varaha Purana 1.139.91
  9. Maharshi Valmiki: He was descendant from Sages but had become a chandaala (= an outcaste) named Ratnakara, because he took to murder and highway robbery. He was reformed by Prajapati Brahma and was inspired by the divine Sage Narada to compose the Hindu epic par excellence- the Ramayana.
  10. Rishika Sulabhaa Maitreyi: She was a Kshatriya lady who promulgated the Saulabha Shakha of the Rigveda. She is counted among the revered teachers of Rigveda to whom respects are offered in texts like the Kausitaki Brahmana. The Saulabha Brahmana is now lost but is mentioned in the Kashika- a commentary on the grammatical text named Ashtadhyayi. A dialog of Rishika SulabhA with King Janaka of Videha on spirituality is recorded in the Shanti Parvan (12th book) of the Mahabharata.
  11. Mahatma Vidura: He was the son of Maharshi Veda Vyasa and a maid of King Dhritrashtra (the father of Kauravas in the Mahabharata). He is a wise man in the Mahabharata and counseled many towards truth. His teachings are collected in the ‘Viduraprajagar’ section of the Udyog Parvan (5th book) of Mahabharata.
  12. Gautama Buddha: The founder of Buddhism belonged to a marginal Kshatriya tribe called Shakya. He lived and died as a Hindu, although his followers founded a new religion in his name. He advocated the supremacy of good ethics and morality over philosophical speculation and ritualism. He is considered the 9th incarnation of Lord Vishnu by devout Hindus.
  13. Mahavira: The 24thand the last great Teacher of Jainism. He belonged to the Kshatriya Licchivi tribe of Bihar. He advocated vegetarianism and the centrality of compassion in Dharma.
  14. Bhakta Nammalvar: The foremost of the Alvar Vaishnava saints, he was a Shudra by birth. His composition ‘Tiruvayamoli’, which is in the Tamil language, is considered at par with the Vedas by the Sri Vaishnava Hindus.
  15. Sikh Gurus: All the Sikh Gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, were Kshatriyas. The teachings of the first 5 and the 9thGuru are compiled in the Adi Granth- the Sikh scripture. In the face of Islamic persecutions, they revitalized the Hindu community of what is now Pakistan and parts of Northern India and preached the simple path of performance of good deeds, devotion to God by recitations of His names and singing of His glory and sharing of one another’s joys and sorrows without regard to caste.
  16. Saint Kabir: He was brought-up by ‘Julaha’ couple. Julahas are a Muslim caste of weavers. He preached in the language of the masses and many of his verses are common proverbs in North India.
  17. Narsi Mehta: He was born in a Vaishya family is a renowned Vaishnava saint of Gujarat. One of his compositions- “Vaishnava Jana” was a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi. According to some however, he was a Brahmin.
  18. Saint Tukarama: He was a Vaishya who composed touching poems called the ‘Abahngas’ on devotion to God. These compositions are recited with great fervor by numerous Hindus, especially in Maharashtra by the members of the Warakari community.
  19. Saint Ravidas: He was a cobbler, and therefore of Shudra origin. He advocated Bhakti and 16 of his compositions were incorporated in the Adi Granth- the Sikh scripture.
  20. Saint Mira: She was a Rajput Kshatriya princess of Mewar and devoted her life to the service of Lord Krishna. Her beautiful poetical compositions addressed to Lord Krishna are recited with great fervor by Hindus down to this day.
  21. Swami Vivekananda: One of the foremost reformers and teachers of modern Hinduism, he was of Kayastha subcaste of Bengal. He spread the message of Vedanta in the United States and Europe and his writings and speeches are contained in “The Collected Writings of Swami Vivekanand.” He founded the Ramakrishna Mission- a religious organization to propagate the teachings of his Guru Swami Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. In Bengal, Kayasthas are considered as Shudras.
  22. Vatsa,a descendant of Kanva RV 6.1; 8.8 etc; was called a Shudra-putra (Panchavimsha Brahman 14.66).
  23. Kakshivat,a Brahmavadin, was the son of Dirghatamas by a Shudra maid servant (Brihaddevata 4.24-25).
  24. According to Mahabharata (Anushasana Parvan 53.13-19), Sage Kapinjalada was a Chandala and Sage Madanapala was the son of a boatwoman.
  25. According to Mahabharata Shanti Parvan, King Sudas was also a Shudra. Sudas is one of the most celebrated kings of the Rigveda, being the hero of the Dasarajna war.

Bibliography and References

1. S. Radhakrishnan; The Upanisads; Indus (Publishers); New Delhi; 1995 [This text is the major source of this website]

2. Jagdish Lal Shastri; Upanishatsagrahah; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi; 1970 [This book gives the text of the Upanishad in Devanagari script]


Kharaharapriya says:

Nice read. En sir all your other blog items are deleted? Some one hacked your site? Or did some burkha dutt types threaten to sue u

Pala S responds:

Really happy to see you here K’priya! Nope, wasn’t hacked. I did all that damage myself Personally, I thought it was all a bit of a mish mash and felt like a change.

ksquare says:

Very good post. The whole concept of caste system is misunderstood and our politicians take good advantage of this. Hope better sense prevails.

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