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This is the blog of Jeff Barson. I'm currently running HireVue Labs, former Director at Sendside, founder of Surface Medical, Nimble, Medspa MD, Freelance MD, Frontdesk, Uncommon, and Wild Blue... angel investor and startup advisor. Oh, and I'm a artist. More >>


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    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”.)