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Kulin Brahmins are the Bengali Brahmins belonging to Hindu religion, who can trace themselves to the five families of Kanauj who migrated to Bengal. The five families were of the five gotras (Shandilya, Bharadwaj, Kashyap, Vatsya and Swavarna). They are widely believed to be at the apex of Bengal's Hindu caste hierarchy. They are mainly classified under two sub-groups — Rādhi and Vārendra.
The word Kulin (Sanskrit: कुलिन्) means 'highborn'.
The earliest historically verifiable presence of Brahmins in Bengal can be ascertained from Dhanaidaha copper-plate inscription of Kumargupta 1 of the Gupta Year 113 (433 C.E.) which records the grant of land to a Brahmin named Varahasvamin of the Samavedi school. A copper-plate grant from the Gupta period found in the vicinity of Somapura mentions a Brahmin donating land to a Jain vihara at Vatagohali. Literary sources like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jain and Buddhist works, however, record the presence of Brahmins in parts of Bengal during earlier periods.
Historical evidence attests significant presence of Brahmins in Bengal during the Maurya period. The Jain Acharya Bhadrabahu, regarded to be the preceptor of Chandragupta Maurya, is said to have been born in Brahmin family of Pundravardhana (or Puṇḍra, the region north of the Ganges and west of Brahmaputra in Bengal, later known as Vārendra). Such evidences suggest Puṇḍra or Vārendra and regions west of Bhagirathi (called Radha in ancient age) to be seats of Brahmins from ancient times; Rādhi and Varendra are still chief branches of Bengali Brahmins settled in these regions. Medium to large scale migrations of Brahmins from parts of India like Kanyakubja region, Kolancha, southern India and Pushkar in Rajasthan, among other places, occurred from time to time, especially during Pala and Sena periods.
Traditionally, Bengali Brahmins are divided into the following categories:
- Rādhi, from the Rarh region southwest of the Ganges
- Barendra, from the Varendra or Puṇḍra region. Vārendra originally meant rain-maker magicians.
- Vaidika (migrants, originally experts of Vedic knowledge)
- Paschatya Vaidika (Vedic Brahmins from west of Bengal)
- Dakshinatya Vaidika (Vedic Brahmins from south of Bengal)
- Madhya Sreni (Brahmins of the midland country)
- Rudraja (Brahmins associated with practice of Yoga)
- Shakdvipi/Grahavipra (migrant Brahmins of Shakdvipa in Central Asia)
The Brahmin communities of Bengal have their own traditional accounts of origin, which are generally found in genealogical texts known as kulagranthas or kulapanjikas. Other details may be obtained from court chronicles of kings of Bengal. Important writers are Harimishra (13th century C.E), Edu Mishra (13th century C.E), Devivara Ghatak (15th century C.E), Dhruvananda Mishra (post 15th century C.E), Vachaspati Mishra, Rajendralal Mitra among others.
The traditional origin of Radhi and Varendra Brahmins has been attributed to a king named Ādiśūra who is said to have invited five Brahmins from Kolancha (as per Edu Mishra and Hari Mishra) and/or from Kanyakubja, (as per Dhruvananda Mishra) so that he could conduct a yajña, because he could not find Vedic experts locally. Some traditional texts mention that Ādiśūra was ancestor of Ballāl Sena from maternal side and five Brahmins had been invited in 1077 C.E. Other texts like Varendrakulapanjika, Vachaspati Mishra's account and Edu Mishra's account attribute a date of 732 C.E for the migration. Additionally, other sources like Sambandhanirnaya, Kulanrava and others attribute other dates like 942 C.E, 932 C.E and others.
Historians have found a ruler named Ādiśūra ruling in north Bihar, but not in Bengal, but Ballāl Sena and his predecessors ruled over Bengal and Mithila (i.e., North Bihar). It is unlikely that the Brahmins from Kānyakubja may have been invited to Mithila for performing a yajña, because Mithila was a strong base of Brahmins since Vedic age. However, some scholars have identified Ādiśūra with Jayanta, a vassal chief of the Gauda king around middle of 8th century C.E. who is referred to as a contemporary of Jayapida (779 to 812 C.E) of Kashmir (grandson of Lalitaditya) in Kalhana's Rajatarangini.
The Brahmo Samaj and Dharma Sabha
From 1822, over 500 Kulin Brahmins of Calcutta organised themselves into a vigilante force under legal experts like Ram Mohan Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore and Prasanna Coomar Tagore known as the Brahmo Samaj to report and prosecute offences such as polygamy and sati, wherein a widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Brahma Sabha to report and prosecute such offences. The Dharma Sabha, an opposing force, was quickly formed by another set of orthodox Hindu Kulins to excommunicate Brahmins of the Brahmo Samaj. Governor General William Bentinck outlawed sati in 1829. The excommunicated Brahmins formed their own religion Brahmoism in 1830 which was codified in 1850 and recognised by the British Government in 1872 and by the Supreme Courts in 1903.
- History of the Bengali-speaking People by Nitish Sengupta
- The Literature of Bengal: a Biographical and Critical History from the Earliest Times, Closing with a Review of Intellectual Progress under British Rule in India. (1877); Calcutta, T. Spink (1895); 3rd ed., Cultural Heritage of Bengal Calcutta, Punthi Pustak (1962).