Thursday, March 15, 2012

Understanding the Bengali Kulin Brahmin Caste

I am posting this so that someday Tara and Kaya have somewhere to look up their maternal heritage. Of course being only half Kulin Brahmin makes you not Kulin (pun intended) at all, nevertheless. Also after having this explained to me I now begin to understand those old bengali movies where a pretty young thing of a girl is forced into marriage to an old doddering man with one foot in the grave, promptly to be followed by the torturous life of a widow at age 15 on! Of course, re-marriage was never allowed for women. Joys of being s Kulin Brahmin girl must have been few other than the prestige and education made available at a younger age which was equal by few others.

I do want to make clear my stand on all of this since many people comment on this post: people are people. Brahmins are no better than non-Brahmins, Hindus are no better than non-Hindus or agnostics or atheists. The only true determinant of humanity and goodness is how we treat people, especially people different than ourselves, people with no power over us. This post is not about celebrating a caste, its about knowing about myself and the things that have shaped my family history. Both good and bad.

I am told I am of Sanyal (Vatsav/Vatsya) decent on my father's side whose last name is Chakraborty and on my mothers paternal side I am a Maitra (Kashyap) from Bangladesh and on her maternal side I am a Roy, so a Rarhi Brahmin.

Since we are paternalistic society that makes me a Rarhi Brahmin (east Bengal) of Vatsya (pronounced Bot-so) Gotra. Well thank god for modernity, no one cares that I married a Canadian!

so here it is, the Kulin Brahmin system explained...

Tara and Kaya my beautiful and fortunate little half breeds!
They are hiding out under the couch in this picture as Kaya learns to scooch backwards.

Kulin Brahmins

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kulin Brahmins are those Brahmins in Bengal who can trace themselves to the five families of Kanauj (Kanyakubja), Uttar Pradesh who migrated to Bengal. They were given immense power during the reign of the Sena/Sen kings who were staunch Hindus and did not encourage the practice of any other religion. The five brahmin families were differentiated by their gotras. The Kanaujiya/kanyakubj brahmins who settled in Bengal had the following gotras: (Shandilya, Bhardwaj, Kashyap, Swavarna and Vatsav/Vatsya); these gotras denote the Rishis whose followers the brahmins were.

Some of these kuleen families settled in Barendrabhoom and some in Rarhbhoom in what is present day Bangladesh. The descendants of these families became known as Rarhi and Barendra brahmins as per their settlement.

The common surnames of Rarhi brahmin family are (ranked equally):

• Mukherjee / Mukhopadhyay (Bharadwaja)

• Banerjee / Bandyopadhyay (Shandilya)

• Chatterjee / Chattopadhyay (Kashyap)

• Ganguly / Gangopadhyay(Shavarna)

• Khanna / (khan)

The common surnames of Barendra brahmin family are (ranked equally):

• Sanyal (Vatsav/Vatsya)

• Lahiri (Shandilya)

• Bagchi (Shandilya)

• Moitra (Kashyap)

Apart from these many others like Chakroborty, Bhattacharya, Ray/Roy, Roy Choudhury, Majumdar, etc., which are, indeed, titles conferred on certain privileged families from among the above mentioned surnames, could also be Kulin if they are Rarhi Brahmins. Khan and Chowdhury are titles awarded to many kuleen brahmin families because of their ancestral rule or profession.

The connection between the saraswat brahmins and kanaujiya/kanyakubj brahmins is this that during the Aryan migration the saraswat brahmins, called thus because they lived along the banks of the river saraswati, which began to disappear underground during Parushurama's time. These brahmins migrated to south, north and northwestern parts of the subcontinent.

Gaud Saraswat Brahmins The kashmiri pandits are of the same lineage as these saraswats and consider themselves to be pure Aryan because their descendants didn't mingle with the indigenous people. Those that settled in north India also went to what is present day Uttar Pradesh, where Kannauj is located From here they migrated to Gaud or Gour. From Gour, a small community comprising about seven families migrated to the South of the subcontinent.They were known as Gaud Saraswat Brahmins.

Kulin Pratha (Kulin System) was initiated by the Sena kings in Bengal whereby the kings gave land and power to the Brahmins to promote vedic principles in the society, leading to a strict and disciplined lifestyle. Simultaneously they also enforced strict rules on family and marriage rules on Brahmins, leading to the birth of Kulin Brahmins, an apex section/class/caste of the society. It was said that a person is Kulin if and only if all the 14 generations on his father's and mother's side were Kulin. This created a very problematic divide in the society. This was also opposed by many Brahmins. Yet it became a norm, probably because the kulin Brahmins got lured by the newly acquired power in the society.

Kulin Pratha was a very strict practice leading to many problems in Bengali society. If a daughter of a Kulin family doesn't wed in a Kulin family then the parent family loses their Kulin identity. These led to several problems like young girls getting married to old Kulin married men out of desperation of finding a Kulin groom. It was not uncommon for Kulin grooms to have several wives, most of which stayed at their parents home, just to be wed (for the sake of the ritual) to a Kulin and hence maintain their Kulin status.

Nowadays many Brahmins have shunned their Kulin identity and have mixed equally with all the Brahmins and non Brahmins in Bengal and other parts of India. It is hard to state the current stand of these families on Kulin Pratha. It may surface during the marriage process, but the young are not concerned.

Marriages and gotras

Marriages within the gotra ("swagotra" marriages) are banned under the rule of exogamy in the traditional matrimonial system. People within the gotra are regarded as kin and marrying such a person would be thought of as incest.

A much more common characteristic of south Indian Hindu society is permission for marriage between cross-cousins (children of brother and sister). Thus, a man is allowed to marry his maternal uncle's daughter or his paternal aunt's daughter, but is not allowed to marry his father's brother's daughter. She would be considered a parallel cousin who is treated as a sister.

According to strict Hindu tradition, the term gotra is used only for the lineages of Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya varnas. Brahminical Gotra relates directly to the original seven "saptarishis" Rishis of the Vedas. Later, the term "gotra" was associated with broader meanings of any lineage, Brahmin or otherwise.

A common mistake is to consider gotra to be synonymous with clan or kula. A kula is basically a set of people following similar cultural rituals, often worshipping the same God (the Kula-Devata - the God of the clan). Kula has nothing to do with lineage or caste. In fact, it is possible to change one's kula, based on one's faith or Ishta-deva.

It is common practice in preparation for Hindu marriage to inquire about the Kula-Gotra (meaning Clan-Lineage) of the bride and bridegroom before approving the marriage. In almost all Hindu families, marriages within the same gotra are prohibited, since people with same gotra are considered to be siblings. But marriage within the kula is allowed and even preferred.

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About Me

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Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
I am a forty something mom of two girls, an architect by profession and an avid sci-fi and My Little Pony fan. I love to cook, but only occasionally and am in the middle of rediscovering my heritage through food.