Surendranath Banerjee (1848–1925)

Bon_anniversaire_346Hindus calculate their ages from the date of conception rather than the date of birth.

That is why Banerjee, an early leader in India’s fight for independence from the British, was rejected from the Indian Civil Service.  The British thought he had misrepresented his age.

What an interesting custom!  I wonder if the focus on conception means that Hindus have a different set of beliefs and attitudes toward sex than Christian-dominated cultures.

Photo credit: Photo by Patrick Subotkiewiez from BAZIEGE, FRANCE


American soldier being hazed (1904) by being thrown high in the air.

Have you ever been initiated or even hazed?  If so, was it a good experience, ultimately?

The Banda are an ethnic group in the Central African Republic, and I found that two aspects of their culture raised interesting questions.

Britannica states that “[t]hey used age grades and initiations called semali to assure unity in time of war.”  This made me wonder why military organizations so often have initiations or hazings.  According to Wikipedia (“Initiation”), initiations often act out a ritual death, which helps conquer the fear of a real death.  They help boys become men, and they help people accept spiritual realities.  These purposes do seem appropriate for the military.

Psychologists have this to say about initiations:

In the study of certain social forms of initiation, as hazing in college fraternities and sororities, laboratory experiments in psychology suggest that severe initiations produce cognitive dissonance [conflicting thoughts that need to be reconciled somehow].  Dissonance is then thought to produce feelings of strong group attraction among initiates after the experience, because they want to justify the effort used.  Rewards during initiations have important consequences in that initiates who feel more rewarded express stronger group identity.  As well as group attraction, initiations can also produce conformity among new members [as do uniforms and similar haircuts].  Psychology experiments have also shown that initiations increase feelings of affiliation. (Wikipedia, “Initiation”)

I was also interested in some economic aspects of Banda society.  According to Britannica,  “Marriage traditionally required bride wealth [a payment from grooms to brides’ families], often in iron implements.  Polygamy, while still practiced, has declined with the rise of a money economy.”

I wonder why the rise of a money economy (which I assume is more efficient and prosperous than a barter economy) would lead to less polygamy.  I also wondered whether polygamy is primarily an economic phenomenon or has other causes.

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Avoidance relationship

First, a classic mother-in-law joke: “A man, his wife, and his mother-in-law went on vacation to the Holy Land. While they were there, the mother-in-law passed away. The undertaker told them, ‘You can have her shipped home for £5,000, or you can bury her here in the Holy Land for £150.’ The man thought about it and told him he would just have her shipped home. The undertaker asked, ‘Why would you spend £5,000 to ship your mother-in-law home, when it would be wonderful to have her buried here and spend only £150?’ The man replied, ‘A man died here 2,000 years ago, was buried here, and three days later he rose from the dead. I just can’t take that chance.'” (

An avoidance relationship is the “institutionalized, formal avoidance of one individual by another”:

A classic example—and one found in numerous and diverse societies—is the mutual avoidance of a mother-in-law and her sons-in-law. In some societies the ideal traditional marriage might join a bride with a groom who is 10–15 years her senior—and often much older than that. In such situations, mothers-in-law and sons-in-law are likely to be of approximately the same age and therefore to be potential (if illicit) sexual partners. The avoidance relationship circumvents such liaisons, at least notionally, by proscribing contact between these individuals. Similar patterns of avoidance have been noted in brother-sister, father-daughter, and father-in-law–daughter-in-law relations.

I thought it was interesting that centuries-old mother-in-law jokes and stories have an anthropological basis.  (Also, why does EB list a father/daughter avoidance relationship but no mother/son one?)

The EB continues: “Many (but not all) cultures that have avoidance relationships also have institutionalized joking relationships, a complementary practice in which specific relatives may tease one another or even engage in ribald exchanges.”  I have always found it interesting to observe the use of humor in my own family.  Our use of humor is usually a form of aggression, though, and I wonder what anthropologists and psychologists would say about that.  (How do your friends and relatives use humor?  Comment below.)


For this Indian people of northern Colombia, “[p]uberty rites are observed for both sexes, and formerly both boys and girls were initiated sexually by older persons at the conclusion of such rites.  Now only boys are so initiated.  Married couples also observe a taboo against sexual intercourse indoors.”

There have been many books and articles written about whether American children have or should have initiation rites.  Some have suggested that obtaining a driver’s license or going on a first date or having one’s first period are the closest we have to a rite of passage.This raises a couple of questions for me:

1)  Should there be a clear demarcation between childhood and adulthood?  Do rites of passage serve a legitimate purpose even in modern societies?

2)  Should such rites be sexual in nature?  I can imagine anthropologists arguing that without such rites, sex is cheapened in our culture, with a cascade of consequences.  Perhaps our birth of sexuality is too significant to ignore or to relegate to happenstance, and sexuality should be elevated above other bodily functions as eating, drinking and like eliminating waste.  Like most people, however, I find the idea of adults sexually initiating children to be repulsive.  There should be some other way to restore sexuality to something like sacredness.

3)  If we had rites of passage, would we have fewer people in their 20’s living at home with their parents?  Would we have fewer adults playing video games?

I certainly get a sense that Americans are infantilized far beyond their childhood years.  If you don’t think so, contrast what 14-years do today versus what they did in other times and places.  Throughout most of world history, it was very common for people to be married at around the age of 14 .  (A prominent example of this would be Joseph and Mary in the Bible.)  Another 8th grader doing significant things was John Quincy Adams.  “By age 14, John Quincy was receiving ‘on-the-job’ training in the diplomatic corps and going to school. In 1781, he accompanied diplomat Francis Dana to Russia, serving as his secretary and translator (”  I have a hard time imagining any junior high school students doing such responsible things as establishing a household or learning to be a diplomat.

The other interesting thing in this article was the taboo against indoor sex.  I wonder if outdoor sex ensures a good year for hunting or crops.

Antyesti (Hindu funeral rites)

Antyesti rites are the final sacraments in a series that ideally begins at the moment of conception and is performed at each important stage of a man’s life.

Imagine how Western sex would change if the moment of conception were treated as a holy event and celebrated with a ceremony!  What would such a ceremony look like?

Imagine being so aware of death that one performs a ceremony centered around death at every milestone of one’s life.  Can you imagine the college graduation ceremonies?

It appears from the article that the oldest son may participate in the cremation. Is there an awful, even Freudian, symbolism in a son setting fire to the body of a dead father?  At least the death duties are performed hands-on by family members rather than delegated to a mortician.

With such an everyday awareness of death in the East, why is life so cheap there?

The Antlion (aka the doodlebug)


What if humans only ate until the age of 6–and then never ate again?

The antlion larva digs a funnel-shaped pit (a pitfall) and then buries itself so that only its jaws are visible.  Any small insect that ventures over the edge of the sandy pit slips to the bottom and is seized.

What caught me: Since the adult does not feed, the larva must consume enough food to sustain the adult.

What if humans were the same way?

Would the weight-loss industry exist?

(And if there were no fat people, what would the standard of beauty be?)

Would our lifespans be short? If so, would people value the right things in life, in time?

More importantly, would all the customs associated with eating not exist?  Think of a world where

1)  We don’t take a date out to dinner or break bread with an enemy

2)  We don’t have holidays centered around eating, like Thanksgiving or Christmas.  In fact, there is no “family meal.”

3)  We have no idea what aphrodisiacs are.

Food for thought?

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