Under the Indian caste system, a Brahmin is a member of the highest caste. Priests and scholars are classified as Brahmins, and members of this caste have traditionally been figures of veneration and respect. The high ranking caste has traditionally held a great deal of power over Indian society, with many laws and social norms being instituted by the Brahmins. This may have been an act of self-preservation on the part of early members of the caste, although it was probably justified by arguing that Brahmins were highly educated and thus able to interpret the will of the gods accurately.
The caste system in India is governed by a series of Hindu texts known as the vedas. According to the vedas, someone's place in society is dictated by his or her varna, or caste. Allegedly, the varnas represent different aspects of God, with each varna being broken up into several jati, or communities. The Brahmins have two main jatis, representing North and South India, along with an assortment of smaller communities. A Brahmin would have been historically expected to marry within his own jati, thus solidifying and maintaining caste power.
Initially, someone's caste was based on their life and religious education. As the caste system evolved, however, caste came to be hereditary. Part of this trend was brought about by members of the Brahmin caste, who encouraged this change in Indian society. Brahmins have traditionally been highly educated, and they have acted as priests, scholars, and teachers, passing down an oral tradition as well as a written one.
The high levels of education among the Brahmin caste led to a natural tendency to respect and honor members of this caste. Although the Brahmins may have been a minority historically, they were a very important part of Hindu society. Priests perform a series of rituals throughout their lives as well as daily, and there are numerous situations in Hindu society in which a priest is required, such as weddings and funerals.
Reforms in India during the 20th century led to a change in the way that the caste system was administered. Modern India allows much more mobility in society and between castes, encouraging a more free and open society. A priest is still referred to as a Brahmin regardless of caste, and many priests are also members of this historical caste, since their families are steeped in religious tradition and culture.