The Brahmans are a sacerdotal elite found everywhere in Hindu Asia, even as far east as Bali and Lombok in Indonesia. While in any one area they may be identified as the highest caste, there are in fact some hundreds of endogamous Brahman castes throughout South Asia; and so the Brahmans should more correctly be seen as a caste block, or in Sanskrit terms a varna. They have always been the highestranking of the four varnas or categories that make up Hindu society. Brahmans have traditionally been priests, either in temples or to particular families ( purohita ). Nevertheless, many Brahmans still follow other traditional occupations such as teacher, scribe or government clerk, and landowner.
The essential attributed character that all Brahmans share depends on: (a) their supreme level of purity, which is usually expressed in a vegetarian diet (though there are fish-eating Brahmans in Bengal) ; and (b) their literacy in Sanskrit and other languages, combined with their knowledge of Hindu liturgy. The various Brahman castes are distinguished from each other first in terms of mother tongue (e.g., Tamil Brahmans, Konkani Brahmans). Then they are distinguished in terms of philosophical sect (e.g., Smarta Brahmans, Madhava Brahmans, Sri Vaishnava Brahmans). Thirdly, they may be distinguished in terms of the precise locality that was their homeland (e.g. Kongudesa Brahmans, those who came from the old Kongu territory, which is now Coimbatore District, in Tamil Nadu).
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