Untouchability & the Caste System of India

5159CFEB50L._AA240_.jpgThe Indian caste system is a structure of social segregation that is deeply ingrained in both Indian political history and the religion of Hinduism.

 According to Hindu tradition, the god Brahma created man from clay, and four castes arose from his body parts. Brahmans (priests) arose from his mouth, Kshatriyas (rulers & warriors) arose from his arms, Vaishyas (landowners & merchants) arose from his thighs, and Sudras (artisans & servants) arose from his feet. Years later a fifth caste known as Dalit, “downtrodden”, emerged who were charged with, among other things, cleaning human waste.

Membership in the castes is determined by birth and based on the concept of Karma. If one does good deeds during his life, he will be reincarnated into a higher caste. On the other hand, bad deeds lead to lower castes. Once in a caste, a member can not change and the hardships that are endured by the lower castes are seen as divinely ordained. 

There is a loose correlation between caste and skin color. Traditionally, lighter skinned Indians were believed to be of a higher caste than those with darker skin. However, this is less true today. In addition to these five overarching castes, there are hundreds of sub-castes throughout India that are broken down based on more specific occupation, physical location, and genealogy. Although many castes live in the same cities and are economically dependant on one another, some of the more remotely located castes are roughly equivalent to isolated ethnic groups. Regardless of the distinctions, intermarriage between castes is traditionally rare, although in recent years there has been some increase as the caste system comes under pressure from outside cultures and thoughts on equality.

(Westerners generally consider the caste system to be inherently unethical. The exportation of economic empowerment and culture from western democracies to India poses the largest threat to the caste system as Indians gain more individual freedom and power.)

Castes have a number of other social and religious implications. While the first four castes are considered to be clean, the Dalit are ‘unclean’. This has led to rules such as forcing the Dalit to ring a bell wherever they go to warn others of their approach.

Higher castes—the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishya—are seen as twice-born. Between the ages of eight and twelve, depending upon caste, members come of age and are considered to have a rebirth. This rebirth allows them to fully practice the Hindu faith.

In order to compensate for past inequalities, the Indian government has instituted a program know as reservations which is somewhat similar to affirmative action in the United States but is much more explicitly codified. Jobs that have been ‘reserved’ require a certain of each caste to fill the open positions.

  • Nepal, the only country where the state religion is Hinduism, also has a caste system that originated in 1854 with the authorizing document Muluki Ain.
  • Dalit, the fifth caste, are commonly known in the West as untouchables but the term is considered to be derogatory in India today. 

Pablo Picasso's Guernica


Pablo Picasso’s Guernica—a powerful and shocking image of modernwarefare—depicts the chaos wrought by German bombers on a small town during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernica is considered to be one of the visual art worlds greatest anti-war works and Picasso’s greatest masterpiece. Despite the enormous interest the painting generated in his lifetime, Picasso obstinately refused to explain Guernica’s imagery. Guernica has been the subject of more books than any other work in modern art and it is often described as…”the most important work of art of the twentieth century”, yet its meanings have to this day eluded some of the most renowned scholars.

In the first aerial assault on a strictly civilian target in history, German bombers commanded by fascist authorities, bombed and destroyed the Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso, dismayed at the event and sympathetic to the Republicans, made the attack the subject of a huge mural (eleven by twenty-five feet), hoping to draw international attention to the war. Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress at the time, documented his progress in a series of photographs.

The composition of Gurenica consists of a central triangle flanked by two rectangles. A the apex of the triangle, the starkly illuminated head of an injured horse conveys the suffering of all the innocent victims. To the left is a bull that, according to Picasso, represents brutality and darkness. Below the bull, a lamenting woman holds her dead child in a pose evocative of Christian images of the Virgin Mary holding her crucified son. Sprawled at the foot of the picture is a fallen figure clutching a broken sword with which he had hoped to combat the fighter planes. On the right are three more figures in agony. The painting is executed in as style reminiscent of synthetic cubism. Although Picasso did not use collage, some of the figures appear as though they were cut out of newsprint and pasted on to the canvas.

After the work was exhibited at the Parisian Exposition, it was sent to Scandinavia and later on to London. After the fascists defeated the Republicans in Spain, Picasso requested that Guernica be sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Picasso was also an avid promoter of his own works.) He specified that the painting should be returned to Spain only after the country had been liberated from fascism. After General Franco’s death in 1981, the painting was sent to Madrid where it is displayed at the Museo Reina Sofia.


Additional Facts
  • A tapestry copy of Guernica was commissioned by Nelson Rockerfeller for the United Nations.
  • Basque nationalists have petitioned to have the painting sent to the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, thirty miles from Guernica. 

The Torah

51DIyzcL58L._AA240_.jpgThe Torah is the name generally given to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or the Five Books of Moses. Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament. The word “Torah” also refer to the entire breadth of Jewish law encompassing several texts as well as oral tradition.

The Five Books of Moses are the basis for the 613 laws that govern the Jewish faith and they are the foundation for the world’s three great monotheistic faiths—-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Five Books of Moses: 

  • Genesis: The story of the creation as well as the history of the Israelites, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their families.
  • Exodus: Recounts the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, including Moses receiving the Ten Commandments.
  • Leviticus: Contains the rules and practices of warship.
  • Numbers: Relates the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness.
  • Deuteronomy: Consists of speeches made by Moses at the end of his life that recount Israelite history and ethical teachings.

The Five Books are traditionally believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Alternative theories claim the beginning of the Torah was given on Mount Sinai but that the revelation continued throughout Moses’s life.

Historically, archaeologists have argued that the Torah was written sometime between the tenth and sixth centuries BC. Proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis (which according to Orthodox Jews is heretical) claim that the original five books came from four sources, eventually compiled into one by a fifth author or redactor. The arguments in favor of this theory are the multiple names used for God, varying writing styles, and the repetition of stories.

From the beginning, the Torah was accompanied by an oral tradition which was seen as a necessary for it’s complete understanding. Although it was thought to be blasphemous to write the oral tradition down, the necessity for doing so eventually became apparent, leading to the creation of the Mishna. As later rabbis discussed and debated these two texts, the Talmud was written in order to compile their arguments.

Jewish tradition uses the text of the Torah to derive innumerable laws and customs. Rabbinic scholars have spent entire lifetimes parsing every word for meaning.

Additional Fact
Torah scrolls, written in Hebrew by hand, contain 304,805 letters and may take more than a year to produce by hand. If a single mistake is made, the entire scroll is invalidated and destroyed. 

The Spread of Islam

61P8AGZ482L._AA240_.jpgAfter the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, Islam spread throughout the Middle East with astonishing speed. Muslim armies carrying Muhammad’s banner conquered the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Syria, Armenia, Egypt, North Africa, and Afghanistan.

In 711 AD, less than a century after the Muhammad’s death, his followers conquered modern-day Spain, bringing Islam to Europe and scaring the hell out of the Europeans.

Stretched over three continents, the Islamic empire, or caliphate, struggled to maintain its fragile unity. The capital was moved from Mecca to the more central location of Damascus, the oldest city on earth where the caliphs built splendid mosques to cement their rule.

But in the middle of the eight century, the caliphate began to fragment. The largest of the rival caliphates, the Abbasid, moved their capital to Baghdad, while the Iberian (Spain) provinces established their own caliphate. Still, during the medieval period, the Muslim world flourished. Scientists, poets, and mathematicians turned Baghdad into a fabled city science and learning.

To Christian Europe in the midst of its Dark Ages, the success of Islam was terrifying. Muslim armies reached France before finally being turned back by the Franks under Charles Martel in 732. Some historians see that battle as a pivotal point in history, one that prevented the spread of Islam in Europe.

The destruction of the caliphate, however, came from the East. In 1258, Baghdad was captured by an invading Mongol army. The Mongols torched the cities great libraries and murdered as many as a million of its inhabitants. The Mongol leader, a grandson of Genghis Kahn, executed the last caliph by rolling him up inside a carpet and having his horses stomp the caliph to death.

Additional facts:
  • During the European Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were more scientifically advanced than their European counterparts and many English words related to science and math including ‘algebra’ and ‘chemistry’ are derived from Arabic.
  • During a war in Central Asia in the eighth century, the calliph’s army discovered the secret of how to make paper from a Chinese prisoner of war.

Cogito, Ergo Sum: Why you think you are?

blogito.jpgCogito, Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I am.

Cogito ergo sum” is a translation of Descartes’ original French statement: “Je pense, donc je suis”. Philosophers love to translate everything into Latin to make it just a little bit cooler sounding.

(Pronounced: Kog-e-toe, Air-go Sum)

Certainly the most famous sentence in philosophy, Rene Descartes’s ‘cogito, ergo sum - I think, therefore I am - appears in his work Discourse on Method.

Descartes’s famous conclusion came at the end of a self imposed project to subject all of his beliefs to radical doubt and reject any belief that he could not know for certain to be true. (He gave himself one pass since he still believed that his mother loved him even though she named him Rene.)

He rejected his belief in the world of sensory experience because he believed his senses could be deceived knowing for a fact that everything could not possibly taste like chicken. However, he found one belief he could not doubt - that he was thinking. Descartes found it to be impossible to doubt that he was thinking, because in doubting it, he would be thinking. Exactly the same kind of logic that thirteen year olds use on each other to prove that they didn’t do it.

Descartes declared that if he knew for certain that he was thinking, he also knew for certain that he existed. Thus, he had discovered one unquestionable belief - that he existed.

Philosophers have used Descartes as a jumping off point for what is called the Problem of Self-Knowledge: What is unique about our awareness of ourselves from the inside? That is, in what ways is it different to think about our own thoughts, feelings, and desires as opposed to anything else? Again, just like a thirteen year old.

Some people think one difference is that we cannot be mistaken when we honestly report what we are thinking or feeling. Thus, If you feel that you are in pain, it seems impossible that you could be wrong in believing you are in pain. It works equally well for hunger.

Descartes believed that he had provided a proof of the existence of God that was so strong it could not possibly be doubted. 

Parodies and pop-cultural references
  • In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen the King of the Moon, claiming that he is the creator of everything, says “Cogito ergo es” translating it himself as “I think, therefore you is.” (The actual translation being “I think, therefore you are”.)

Who is Beowulf & why is Grendel dead?

41EKR6G1DXL._AA240_.jpgThe eighth-century story Beowulf, whose author remains in hiding since this became mandatory reading in many high school English classes, is the great heroic epic of Old English and reflects the mix of pagan traditions and Christianity that characterized northern Europe during the Middle Ages. It also boasts lots of sexually repressed and aggressive blonds.

The saga opens in the mead hall of the Danish king Hrothgar who has been hiding under his bed as the monster Grendel breaks into his castle every night and chews the heads off of all of Hrothgar’s best mead-drinkers. (This may have been caused by a vitamin deficiency due to Grendel’s previous diet that consisted exclusively of his own toe-jam.)

So everyone in Hrothgar’s kingdom is pleased as punch when Beowulf and his jolly band of leather wearing lackeys show up fresh off the boat from Geatland (a region in southern Sweden where all the Geats used to be.)

You can see that troubles brewing and Grendel hasn’t a chance. Beowulf’s soon wearing poor Grendel’s guts for garters and starts parading around like he thinks he’s the Head Geat. (At one point he supposedly point his thumb at his chest and spouts, ‘Here’s the beef’.)

Now this doesn’t make Grendels Mother to happy to have her little head-munching boy ‘off-ed’ by a band of sword-wielding blonds from a Nordic boy band. Grendels Mom proves to be just as nasty as Grendel and Beowulf has to track her down to her lair (a cozy lair with a really nice view) and pokes her with sharp objects until she stops moving.

This makes everyone happy and Beowulf rules for another fifty years until a dragon makes dental floss out of him.

Though Beowulf’s influence on the development of English literature is often overstated (The poem was largely forgotten until the 1800’s) it gained renewed prominence in he twentieth century by inspiring the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Why do we have baby teeth?

Image from iStock Photo

“Baby teeth (also known as deciduous or milk teeth or nipple nashers) are widely found in the animal kingdom.

While fish and reptiles continuously renew their teeth and go through many generations of them in a lifetime, mammals have followed an evolutionary trend toward suppression of tooth replacement since we love our teeth more than fish love theirs.

The reason is not known, but because the cusp pattern on mammalian teeth leads to complex patterns of occlusion (that is, the way the upper and lower teeth fit together = biting), it’s likely that subtle differences in tooth shape that might occur with frequent tooth replacement could lead to malocclusion, a dangerous situation where food couldn’t be chewed properly and you talk funny which would make mammals look more ridiculous than we already are. It could increase cavities as well so it may be that mammals will do just about anything to avoid going to the dentist.

In humans and other mammals, development has been restricted to just two sets of teeth. Young mammals’ skulls are small, and it’s impossible for them to accommodate a full array of adult choppers so juveniles have cute little temporary teeth to fit in their immature, backtalking jaws. Once the bones of the cranium have developed to adult size the Tooth Fairy starts wiggling them at night and they fall out to the great satisfaction of parents and money hungry kids alike.

The process for initiating the formation of permanent teeth in humans is not completely understood. Normally, permanent teeth come in at about age six in humans and this appears to be part of a genetic development program whose temporal trigger is not yet known but may be the teeth jumping ship after being made to chew all sorts of stuff off the floor for the last five years.

There may be a few other factors as well, particularly expression of a protein called Pax-9, which is part of the paired box family of transcription factors. (Pax-9 should not be confused with K-Pax, that movie where Kevin Spacy thinks he’s an alien.)

(Transcription factors are proteins that bind to DNA and activate gene expression. The paired box family is a special class of transcription factors that govern pattern formation during organogenesis. These transcription factors were first discovered in fruit flies (love fruit, not gay). However, paired box genes are strongly conserved throughout evolution. In vertebrates they are implicated in the development of several tissues and organs, including the brain, limb muscles, kidney, eye, nose, and ear.)

Loss of Pax-9 function in humans is an extremely rare genetic disorder—known in just one family in the United States—but it results in the failure to produce adult molars and in the increased incidence of loss of the second premolars. This genetic link tells us that the switch for making adult teeth must involve inducing cells to make Pax-9.

A second genetic cascade, which occurs after Pax-9 expression, leads to the loss of milk teeth. The baby teeth start to get ‘wiggly’ because bone-remodeling cells dissolve the bony root and periodontal ligament by secreting digestive enzymes. It’s not know if these cells need this as food, or just like the taste.

As the enzymes break down the tooth root and surrounding connective tissue, the tooth loosens until it’s time for the old ‘dad and a string ploy’ to provide space for the adult tooth.

You'll need to take care of your teeth whitening on your on.

The Black Plague

515J6TR281L._AA240_.jpgOriginating in Asia long before bird flu, the Plague, or Black Death, killed one-third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1350. In the squalid cities of medieval Europe, victims typically lived only a few days after the symptoms - vomiting, diarrhea, and black boils on the skin - first appeared.

The song ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ refers to the plague with the Rosie being a victim.

In many cities the Black Death not only killed huge numbers but totally destroyed law and order, pushing an entire civilization to the brink of collapse.

The consequences of the plague in European society were profound. Enraged Christians blamed Jews for the disease and the pogroms that followed the Black Death were among the worst anti-Semitic purges in history.

The plague cause many European Christians to question the Catholic Church and the existing political order. How could God permit such a cruel disease? Some disillusioned Europeans turned to fringe sects like the flagellants, named for the practice of whipping themselves. Respect for church authority declined and according to historians, the plague destroyed the feudal order of the Middle Ages and cleared the way for the Renaissance.

  • Scientists continue to debate the cause of the Black Death. The leading candidate, the bubonic plague, still exists but can be treated easily with antibiotics.
  • Although almost everyone who was exposed to the plague in the Middle Ages died, about 5 percent of the victims survived and some avoided contracting it entirely. Modern scientists believe the were protected by a rare genetic combination that gave them greater resistance to the germ.
  • After the Black Death, it took 4 centuries for Europe’s population to rebound to its pre-1347 levels. 

The Canterbury Tales

51JDNVB5X9L._AA240_.jpgThe Canterbury Tales, written in the 1390, may have played in establishing English as a literary language to the standard French and Latin and upended the notion that English was inherently inferior to the classical languages, but man, they’re really hard to read. I mean, look a this.

In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.

Well, I guess if you go slow you can get the gist.

Anyway, The Canterbury Tales is a set of twenty four stories told by various pilgrims who are traveling in a group from the London area to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. (The prologue suggests that Chaucer originally intended to include 120 tales but after 24 he stopped. Probably because he couldn’t take it anymore either.)

The pilgrims of Chaucers story are a hodgepodge; the Knights, the Miller, the Pardoner’s, the Prioress, the Wife of Bath, etc. and the stories range wildly from love to hypocrisy to humor.

Chaucer also wrote this stuff in iambic pentameter, the same form that Shakespeare would later use for his plays but which is not intended for common speech so don’t use it as it just makes you look stupid.

Since the Canterbury Tales are the foundation of all English literature and since they cover such a wide variety of topics, you can always use them to impress people since no one you will ever meet has actually read and understood them. Now you can say, ‘That reminds me of the Canterbury Tales’, and everyone will be really impressed and perhaps nod, especially on a college campus.

  • Chaucer was able to obtain his education after his family inherited a fortune from all the extended family members who were killed by The Black Death.

Why do we have wisdom teeth?

wisdomtooth.jpgTucked away at the back of your mouth are the the heavy mashers of the enamel world.

Anthropologists believe that your third set of molars (wisdom teeth), are the evolutionary answer to your ancestor’s early diet of coarse, rough food – like leaves, roots, and the occasional wiry squirrel – which required some major chewing power and resulted those little front teeth being worn down to useless nubbins in no time.

Your current diet with its softer foods and yogurt products (something your distant ancestors would have loved), along with marvels of modern technologies such as forks, knives, and Tom LeLanes new super-quite Juicer have relegated wisdom teeth to the status of just another lowly dental scare tactic. As a result, evolutionary biologists now classify wisdom teeth as vestigial organs, or body parts that have become functionless due to evolution. You know, like your coccyx.

From baby teeth to permanent teeth, tooth development lasts years. While your first molar erupts around the age of six and the second molar pokes it’s head above gum at around the age of 12, wisdom teeth, which begin forming around your tenth birthday usually don’t erupt until you are between the ages of 17 and 25. Because this is the age that you stop putting your body parts inside pencil sharpeners and pulling the ear hair out of feral dogs, the set of third molars has been nicknamed “wisdom teeth.”

Some people never get wisdom teeth, leading to the term ‘non-wisdom teeth people’, but for those who do, they may sprout anywhere from one to four – and, on very rare occasions, more than four. If you’re one of the unfortunates who get these extraneous, or supernumerary, teeth, it can lead to all sorts of problems.

Since human jaws are smaller than they used to be (possibly due to fashion), when wisdom teeth form they often become impacted, or suppressed, by the other teeth around them. (Evidently teeth are imperialist capitalists whose only wish is to subjugate their immediate neighbors.) If the tooth only partially erupts, food gets trapped in the gum tissue surrounding it which creates a perfect little home for bacteria leading to the potential for a serious infection and really bad breath. (Some people have bad breath without this.)

American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons estimates that about 85 percent of wisdom teeth will eventually need to be removed. This dovetails nicely with the fact that Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons are the ones who remove them.

The association recommends that patients remove wisdom teeth around 15 to 18 in order to “prevent future problems and to ensure optimal healing” and because no one cares if teenagers can’t talk for a week.