Are Brahmins ‘priests’?

I do not have a theory of meaning. I do not know which of the many fragmentary theories of meaning I should choose from and why. Even though I acknowledge the importance of the topic, I do not feel called upon to do research on it. So far, I have been able to steer clear of the topic in an interesting way: I am able to show that what appears as translation problem or a meaning problem (how should Sanskrit words be translated or the definition of ‘religion’, etc) is, at least in some instances, actually not that kind of a problem at all. Such an attitude has generated a psychological bonus for me: I do not go around criticizing Jeffrey Kripal for not knowing Bengali well enough, or for Wendy Doniger for not realizing that Dharma is not religion or that Brahmins are not priests, when my knowledge of either Bengali or Sanskrit does not match up to what they know.

Such an attitude also provides a cognitive bonus for my research. I would like to develop a hypothesis (which I have also been developing) why the western culture finds it obvious to translate ‘Brahmins’ as ‘priests’. This research is taking me into the histories of Judaism, the early Christianity, and the western understanding of religions in Egypt and elsewhere, and the Protestant revolution. Such a hypothesis allows me to discuss the issues in India with Indians about the so-called supremacy of the Brahmins, the caste system, the criticisms of the so-called Dalits and so on. It raises further issues too about why Indian intellectuals (whether a Nehru or an Ambedkar) took over such ‘translations’ and what that situation tells us about what I have begun to call “colonial consciousness”.

In other words, the so-called mistakes (or ‘stupidities’) of the western scholars provide me with questions for research because I do not ‘explain’ their errors in terms of their lack of ‘mastery’ of the Indian languages. I do not do this because of certain rules of thumb I have been using for some time (in the beginning, implicitly; and now, explicitly). (A) I do not want to commit the symmetrical mistake of writing the western intellectuals off as idiots and imbeciles (this is what they did with respect to India); (B) The hypothesis about a culture being populated only by idiots is implausible as far as I am concerned; (C) If many intelligent people commit the same kind of mistake, I believe, then there is a genuine issue somewhere; and so on. I try to instill this attitude in my students because it has been both psychologically and cognitively enormously productive for me. I counsel that on this forum as well, but I cannot force it down the throats of people.