According to Lord Krishna, no one is born a brahmana; the title must be earned.
samo damas tapah saucam
ksantir arjavam eva ca
jnanam vijnanam astikyam
brahma-karma svabhava-jam

“Peacefulness, self control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, knowledge, wisdom, and religiousness these are the natural qualities by which brahmanas work.” Bhagavad-gita 18.42
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People who study the history of India, its culture and traditions, know of its caste system. In the last chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna distinguishes occupations as those of the intellectual, the administrator, the farmer or merchant, and the laborer (brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra respectively). This classification enables people to work according to their natures. Unfortunately, it is misunderstood and misapplied in India in the so-called caste system.

Lord Sri Krishna introduces the priestly or intellectual class of people as brahmanas, characterized by the inherent qualities given in the text quoted above. Just as a judge’s son is not a judge unless he qualifies himself as a judge, a brahmana’s son is not a brahmana unless he possesses the brahminical qualities. The same principle applies to kshatriyas, vaishyas, and shudras, unlike in the hereditary caste system.

Natural occupational divisions exist in every country. For example, every religion has a priestly class akin to the brahmanas. To highlight their importance in society, in this article we shall consider the members of the priestly class in any religion to be brahmanas. From that point of view, the instructions of the Bhagavad-gita are universal, even though they originated in India. To lead people to the correct path, where they will live a pious life that gradually leads them towards God, the priestly class is required.

Every society, all over the world, has the intelligent or priestly class, the administrative class, the mercantile class, and the worker class. One can easily classify people in every country into such four classifications based on their inherent nature (svabhava) or occupation. The member of the intelligent group of human beings need not be hereditary brahmanas. To honestly determine who is a real brahmana, it is best to understand clearly the brahminical qualities.

The Vedic literature tells us that there are three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. These modes influence all aspects of the material energy, including people’s natures, and are the basis of the four classifications of society. As Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita (4.13): caturvarn yam maya srstam guna-karmavibhagasah: “According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions are created by Me.”

Srila Prabhupada in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 14.6 describes the brahmana as a person in the mode of goodness, wiser than others, not affected by material miseries, having a sense of advancement in material knowledge, and therefore having a greater sense of happiness.

All other members of society should treat a qualified brahmana as a spiritual guide. The brahmana’s qualities and instruction lead people to a pious life and God consciousness.

Let us discuss the qualities listed by Lord Sri Krishna.

Peacefulness (Samah)

A real brahmana is peaceful in all circumstances, calm even when provoked. Convinced that the Lord is always protecting him, he is fearless. In executing his duties, he is not impulsive in reacting to criticism.

Bhagavad-gita (2.71) states, “A person who has given up all desires for sense gratification, who lives free from desires, who has given up all sense of proprietorship and is devoid of false ego he alone can attain real peace.” Srila Prabhupada comments that “desire for becoming Krishna conscious is actually desirelessness” and that “a materially desireless person knows that everything belongs to Krishna (isavasyam idam sarvam), and therefore he does not falsely claim proprietorship over anything.”

A real brahmana is peaceful in all circumstances because, having surrendered to Krishna, He is assured of Krishna’s protection. In Bhagavadgita, Chapter Five (Karma-yoga Action in Krishna Consciousness) Krishna gives the formula for peace:

bhoktaram yajna-tapasam 
suhrdam sarva-bhutanam
jnatva mam santim rcchati

“A person in full consciousness of Me, knowing Me to be the ultiultimate beneficiary of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods, and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attains peace from the pangs of material miseries.” A brahmana who understands the purpose of this text is not only peaceful himself but also spreads peace all around him. He teaches the essence of peacefulness from Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and other bona fide scriptures.

Self-control (Dama)

A brahmana exhibits self-control in his attitude, behavior, and talks with others. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Self-control means that one should not accept anything which is detrimental to the path of spiritual progress. One should get accustomed to this and reject anything which is against the path of spiritual progress.” (Bhagavad-gita 13.8, Purport)

Self-control as applied to a married brahmana also refers to his following the scriptural restrictions on sex.

Austerity (Tapah)

A brahmana is recognized by his austerities in attending to bodily needs, such as eating, sleeping, and family life. He has to perform austerities in bathing, fasting, speaking, and rising early in the morning. Bhagavad-gita (17.15) explains the austerity of speech: “Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.”

Also, the brahmana’s sacrifices must be performed according to the instructions in the scriptures and should always be in the mode of goodness.

Purity (Saucam)

When we take birth in the material world, the three modes of material nature instantly contaminate us. That is, we are “conditioned.” We falsely believe we are a product of material nature and assume we are our body. A brahmana has to practice overcoming the bodily concept of life. To become pure is to remove the contamination of false ego.

Srila Prabhupada in his Introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is writes, “Purified consciousness means acting in accordance with the instructions of the Lord.”

Tolerance (Ksantih)

Caitanya Mahaprabhu has defined tolerance in His Sri Siksastaka (3):

trnad api sunicena
taror api sahisnuna
amanina manadena
kirtaniyah sada harih

“One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all false prestige, and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” A tree tolerates silently even when cut or mishandled.

With various instructions from the scriptures, a brahmana has to constantly practice tolerance when faced with the inevitable criticism, insults, and dishonor experienced in material life.

Honesty (arjavam)

A brahmana must be honest. To speak the truth always and to uphold the facts as they are form his honest character. A brahmana must also avoid giving in to the human propensity to cheat.

Knowledge (Jnanam)

A brahmana should be a repository of spiritual knowledge so that he can guide others in spiritual matters. This knowledge should be from authentic scriptures like Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and others. He should be able to quote from scriptures to present the essence of knowledge. Srila Prabhupada writes that by scriptural knowledge one can remain steady in his convictions but by mere academic knowledge one can be easily deluded and confused by apparent contradictions.

Spiritual knowledge is one of the most essential qualifications of a brahmana. It not only removes illusion from his mind but also enables him to show others how to escape illusion. Such knowledge, called vidya, makes him peaceful, pure, and self-satisfied. Knowledge of the self makes him self-realized.

Wisdom (Vijnanam)

In the spiritual sense, wisdom is the ability to discriminate between matter and spirit. A brahmana has to guide others in brahminical culture and the quest for self-realization.

Religiousness (astikyam)

A brahmana must be religious in following the instructions of Lord Krishna.

Srila Prabhupada in his Introduction to Bhagavad-gita As It Is writes: “The English word religion is a little different from sanatana dharma. Religion conveys the idea of faith, and faith may change. One may have faith in a particular process, and he may change this faith and adopt another, but sanatana dharma refers to the activity which cannot be changed.”

A brahmana has to be aware of the Vedic injunctions and be able to guide others in matters of religion. Simply following the rituals without understanding the significance of religion is of little use.

Brahmanism and Vaisnavism

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura says that Brahmanism is a step towards Vaisnavism because Brahmanism is a stage of qualification of a Vaishnava and because Vaisnavism is the fruit of Brahmanism. Vaishnavas are of a higher class than brahman as, as they have surpassed brahmanas in brahminical qualities. Vaishnavas are of the highest standard of devotional practice and instruction.

The brahminical requirements specified by Lord Krishna seem most difficult to obtain for someone aspiring to be a brahmana today. In spiritual circles it is generally said that in Kali-yuga, our present fallen age, to find a qualified brahmana is very rare. But becoming a brahman a and then a Vaishnava is possible with conscious and constant practice and the Lord’s mercy.

Narasimha Swami Dasa (Dr. S.G.N. Swamy), a disciple of His Holiness Jayapataka Swami, holds a Ph.D. in engineering management. He served at ISKCON Jakarta, Indonesia, for about sixteen years and has served at ISKCON Sri Jagannath Mandir in Bangalore for the past nine years. He lives with his wife, Vatsala Radha Devi Dasi.