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.
- 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.
According to another hypothesis, the term Rarhi (Shreni) is derived from Gaudiya (Saraswat Shreni). Gaud (Malda) was a place of Sanskrit studies later shifting to Nabadwip. Hussain Shah was a patron of Gaudiya pundits and invited Rup, Sanatan and Srijiv Goswami in his royal court. This hypothesis suggests that the term Rarhi is not derived from Rarh region of western Bengal, but from the word ruksha (dry). It is a modern geographic term, whereas Rarhi is a traditional ethnic term.
The Gaudiya pundits established a distinct philosophy and rituals in Bengal. Many followed the path of Gaudiya pundits and came to be known as the Gaudiya (Saraswat Shreni) Brahmans and later Rarhi Brahmans (Gaudiya = Rarhi) by alternative accent. The section established by Sri Chaitanya Dev is called the Gaudiya Vaishnavism and he is often called the Gaud. Some denied the newly originated path of the Gaudiya pundits and claimed to be follower of original Varanasi pundits later known as Vaidik shreni. Later the term Rarhi became popular to distinguish from the Barendra Brahmans. It is to note that Barendras are homogenous but Rarhis are heterogeneous. The Rarhi Brahmans (not all) are presumed to have migrated and come from north India. It is from the Ananda Bazar matrimonial advertisement that the term Rarhi became popular forgetting its origin from Gaudiya: Rarhi—Gaurhiya Gaurh—Rarh.
The Kulin Pratha 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 enforced strict rules on family and marriage rules on Brahmins. 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 and was opposed by many Brahmins. Yet it became a norm, probably because the Kulin Brahmins got lured by the newly acquired power in the society.
It was a very strict practice leading to many problems in Bengali society. If a daughter of a Kulin family didn't wed into a Kulin family then the parent family loses their Kulin identity. These led to several problems like 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.
The Kulin families are further divided into two sections: the Barendra, those families who settled at the north or north east region of the Ganges or Padma river, and the Rarhi, belonging to those families who settled at the south or southwest.
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.
- cf. Some Historical Aspects of the Inscription of Bengal, page xii
- cf. Banger Jatiya Itihash, Brahman Kanda, Vol 1.
- cf. History of Brahmin Clans,page 281
- cf. Banger Jatiya Itihash, Brahman Kanda, Vol 3, Chapter 1
- cf. Hindu Castes and Sects, Jogendranath Bhattacharya, Part III, Chap 1, Pg 35
- cf. Samaj Biplab ba Brahman Andalon, Dinabandhu Acharya Vedashastri
- Vāri+indra, Vāri meant water : cf.A History of Brahmin Clans , page 283.
- cf. Harimishra, कोलांचदेशतः पंचविपरा ज्ञानतपोयुताः । महाराजादिशूरेण समानीताः सपत्नीकाः ॥
- cf. History of Brahmin Clans,page 281-283
- cf. History of Brahmin Clans,page 281 : this book quotes Krishna-Charita by Vidyāsāgar for dating.
- cf. D.D. kosambi, p. 123.
- cf. Rajatarangini, Tarang 4, Verse 421
- Hindu Castes and Sects, Jogendranath Bhattacharya, Thacker, Spink & Company, Calcutta, 1896.
- 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).
- History of the Brahmo Samaj by Sivanath Sastri
- Kanak Chandra Sarkar, "Banglar Samaj O Sanskriti" (Bengali), Published by Ratna Prakashan, Kolkata-75. (www.wetpaint.com)