What did the Brahmins believe?

In the Suttas the Buddha is often portrayed debating with Brahmins, who seem to have been members of the priestly class.
But I have never been clear what the Brahmins believed, or what their religion was. There are references to Brahma, a god, so was theirs basically a theistic religion?
To muddy the water, it appears that in some suttas “brahmin” has the more general meaning of a holy man.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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There is also the supposition that the buddha is against the brahmins about anatta, but there does not seem to have texts with brahmins directly saying that they find a thing that they call a true self. jayarava talks about this here

It is widely accepted that the teachings on anātman must be set against the background of Brahmanical thought of the day. It is further generally accepted that the texts that have come down to us as the Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāranyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya and Aitareya Upaniṣads, reflect the Brahmanical religion at the time. In the the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) we find references to these four for instance [1]. It is often assumed that the Brahmanical faith formed the mainstream of religion at the time and place, though this is now plausibly disputed (see Rethinking Indian History), and it seems likely that Brahmins and their religion were new comers to the North-east of India, and in fact in the process of absorbing ideas from the samaṇa movements. In any case many people have pointed to passages in the Pāli Canon which show that early Buddhists were familiar with the Upaniṣads - and anatta in relation to ātman is one of the key aspects of this theme.

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Thanks, an interesting article by Jayarava, particularly his conclusion.
Having read the Upanishads, I’m not sure a clear case can be made that they were the basis of Brahmin belief, at least according to the suttas. The Brahmins don’t really talk about Atman or Brahman in the suttas.

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That was because the bramins in suttas are just characters, not real people.
In upanishads, bramins are smart and eloquent; but in suttas, they are weak and vacillating, easily be beaten and never strike back.


Gaudapada and Adi Shankara came long after the Buddha.


Advaita was a relatively late development, and not relevant here. My point was that Atman and Brahman are a common theme in the Upanishads, but apparently not for the Brahmins in the suttas.

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Yes, it does at times feel like the Brahmins are charicatures in the suttas, representing a religious orthodoxy that the Buddha was intent on challenging, and proving inadequate.


Here’s a great primer in just 87 pages, by Jamison and Witzel:

Vedic Hinduism

But skip the first 27 pages if you don’t want to get bogged down in philological minutiae.


Can you specify what you mean? Vedic Brahmanism existed for around 1.500 years before the Buddha. Their beliefs have changed a lot during that time.

There are gods, there is brahman. Again, depends on which time you are looking at

That’s correct. There are passages also in the Upanisads and in Jain texts which define what ‘a Brahmin’ is - exactly in the meaning you mention, as a holy man, or rather as an accomplished liberated sage.

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Here I am specifically interested in what the Brahmins believed at the time of the Buddha, since I find it difficult to tell from reading the suttas.

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This is difficult to answer because we have such a mix of early and late suttas. My short answer is: Brahmins in proximity to the Buddha were unusual, they were ritualistic, but probably didn’t do animal sacrifice in Kosala and Magadha. They believed in a liberation which consisted of an immortal rebirth in brahmaloka. Yet, the don’t seem to have been strongly influenced by Upanisadic Brahmanism.

Brahmins further in the west, the Brahmin homeland, were surely different - more traditional, ritualistic, and Upanisadic. But the situation was different in Kosala.