What story do Hindus tell to explain castes?
The caste system dates back to ancient India when the division of labor was organized such that each group did specialized jobs. All castes were independent and all were seen as necessary to the society as a whole. In India, the word "varna" is used to designate the four divisions of society. This word means "color" and each caste was given its own color. Members of each caste are believed to inherit the traits needed to fulfill their assigned job. Since the idea of purity is central in India, people felt that intermarriages between members of different castes would result in biological confusion as to the duty of the children and a diluting of the traits they needed. Therefore, mixed marriages were forbidden. Maintaining the strict separation of the castes was considered essential to the overall well-being of society. The four groups are the Brahmans, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Sudras. There were also the "untouchables" or those who have been cast off from society for various reasons.
According the the Rigveda, an ancient Indian text, the caste system originates in the story of Brahma, the creator of the universe and one of three main Hindu gods. Brahma is a god with four heads and four hands. One version says that the members of the castes came from different parts of Brahma . The priests and teachers (Brahmans) came from his mouth, rulers and warriors (Kshatriyas) from his arms, merchants and traders (Vaishyas) from his thighs, and workers and peasants (Sudras) from his feet. A similar version talks of a sacrifice of the first man, Purush, who was divided the same as above to create the different groups. In both, the hierarchy is determined by the descending order of the body parts.