I have received an email from a reader asking about caste and preference for certain deities. Before I answer it I should point out that I don’t believe that hereditary caste is part of Hinduism. I wrote a post “The Caste System” where I discussed this issue . The Hindu American Foundation’s statement “Not Cast in Caste” also makes it clear that caste and Hinduism are not necessarily linked.
The pertinent part of the email I received is as follows:
My name is Jason and I am a student at Western Michigan University studying Religions of The World. My explorations in religions of India have lead me to the following question about Hinduism:
Preference for certain deities is somewhat caste and profession-linked among Hindus. When matching up the deities with the Indian social divisions, which deities do might go with which groups, and why?
Mainly I am concerned with the Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Kali, and Lakshmi.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read and respond to my message. I look forward to hearing your response.
I decided to respond to this email in a post because though I can give a reasonable theological answer I am sure that some of you reading this know a lot more about the day-to-day practices than I do. Any comments will be most welcome.
Firstly I would say to Jason that the vast majority of Hindus believe in one God and a number of created celestial beings. Very simply, the largest sect of Hinduism is the Vishnava sect, who’s followers see Vishnu as the ultimate God, the next largest Saivas, who see Shiva as God. These two sects cover at least 80% of Hindus (Figures from Encyclopaedia Britannica, quoted on adherents.com makes it 95%). The belief in the ultimate God is irrespective of caste. For this reason I would say that caste has very little or nothing to do with the devotion to Shiva or Vishnu. There will be devotees of these major deities across all castes and occupations. I think the same can be said of Kali, who has a strong regional following in some places, especially Kolkata.
However Hindus also have a great devotion to the Devas (celestial beings) as well as God. Some of these have a particular role that might mean that they receive more regular devotion from people of certain occupations. Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth) may be invoked more frequently by a shop keeper than a farmer, though this is by no means exclusive. Though India is moving away from traditional caste-based occupations, particularly in the cities, these occupations still have more members from their traditional castes.
One area that I know little about are the traditional family deities. Family deities are particular deities that are worshiped and seen as protecting an extended family. I know that there is a Shree Prajapati Association Temple in Bradford, that caters for the Prajapati community, who were originally artisans from Gujurat. I think it is possible that there are family deities that are associated with caste. If so they will be devas rather than the mahadevas. Can any readers tell me more?