“Brahmin, Ritual, and Renouncer”

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The development of brahmanical theory, set off by the individualization of the ritual, did not stop at the point where the host-guest, protagonist-antagonist complementary was fused into one single unit of yajamāna and officiants. It had to advance to its logical conclusion, that is, the interiorization of the ritual, which makes the officiants’ services superfluous. Thus, it would seem that here we touch the principle of world renunciation, the emergence of which has been of crucial importance in the development of Indian religious thinking.

It is often thought that the institution of renunciation emerged as a protest against brahmanical orthodoxy or that it originated in non-brahmanical or even non-Aryan circles. The theory of the four āśramas, or stages of life, would then have been an attempt at legitimizing the renunciatory modes of life and drawing them within the orbit of brahmanical orthodoxy. There is of course full scope for recognizing the influence of extraneous beliefs and practices, for instance, in the matter of various forms of asceticism. But the important point is that these influences do not seem to have made a decisive irruption in the development of religious thought. They seem rather to have fitted themselves into the orthogenetic, internal development of Vedic thought. Or one might say that these extraneous beliefs and practices were not in principle dissimilar from those that obtained among the adherents of the preclassical ritual.

The point to be stressed is that the institution of renunciation is already implied in classical ritual thinking. The difference between classical ritualism and renunciation seems to be a matter rather of degree than of principle. The principle is the individualization of the ritual, which could not but lead to its interiorization. Renunciation is therefore not necessarily anti-brahmanical. Moreover, it should also be taken into consideration that interiorization meant real fusion into one person of patron and officiant. Consequently, it not only emancipated the patron from the bond with the officiants, it also set the brahmin free.

Thus there seems to be a close relationship between ritualistic and renunciatory thought and practice. The question that occupies religious thought does not appear to concern the affirmation or rejection of sacrifice, but rather what is the true sacrifice, the latter being, of course, the interiorized sacrifice. Nor does the question turn on brahman superiority or its rejection, but on the point of who is the true brahmin. One these points, both orthodox and heterodox thinkers seem to agree to a great extent.

It would seem that it is the renunciatory ideology that opens a way for the brahmin to enter into relation with the world without losing his purity. Having emancipated himself from the world, the renouncer can from his sphere of independence reenter into relation with the world, where he now enjoys unequalled prestige. Indeed, the renouncer can, and to the present day often does, exert considerable influence on the sphere of worldly life. The secret of his ascendency over life-in-the-world seems to lie in his impartiality. He is no longer a party to the affairs of the world because he is independent from it.

Thus being self-contained and independent, the true brahmin does not take part in pure-impure complementarity and exchange. His purity is not dependent on his partners, it is absolute. On this basis he can dispense religious merit by accepting food and presents without staking his purity. But the condition is that he holds on to his independence and does not engage himself in the world. As a specialist of religious merit, he can be called a priest. But in this sense, he can only be a priest by virtue of renunciation. Thus the preeminence of the brahmin is, therefore, as precarious as it is eminent. His monopoly of Vedic knowledge should enable him to hold this position without falling for the temptation either of worldly involvement or of total abandonment. But in the end, it is all by himself that he must bridge the gap that separates renunciation from the householder’s world. The brahmin, then, is the exemplar of the irresolvable tension that is at the heart of Indian civilization.


Reference: J.C. Heesterman (1985), The Inner Conflict of Tradition, Chapter 2, Brahmin, Ritual, and Renouncer, p. 26–44.

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