Sunday, January 31, 2016

Facts about Zoroastrianism:The World's Oldest Monotheist Religion

Faraharhar, the Winged Symbol of Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is one the oldest religions in the world. It is also one of the first monotheist religions. It was founded by Zoroaster and it believes in one God, Ahura Mazda. There are very few Zoroastrians in the world today but it still holds an important place in religious thought and in religion history. Most Zoroastrians live in either Iran or in India. The Zoroastrians who live in India are called Parsis.

Many scholars believe that Zoroastrianism had a major influence on the religions of Christianity and Judaism who may have borrowed the ideas of heaven and hell from this religion. Also, Zoroastrianism believes in the purity and goodness of all of God’s creations and thus they are very careful not to pollute and destroy river and trees. Thus, it is often called the first ecological religion.

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It is uncertain when the religion was first founded but sources say that it could be dated as far back as 1200 BCE. A priest named Zarathustra or Zoroaster, as the Greeks called him, founded the religion. He was born in Iran at a time when the Stone Age was gradually moving into the Bronze Age. The Iranians then, believed in a polytheistic religion. Zoroaster convinced and converted them into monotheists. Early Iranians practiced many rituals, which necessitated sacrifices of animals and the use of the hallucinogenic plant, Haoma. Zoroaster condemned such practices and persuaded the Iranians to shift allegiance to the new faith that he propounded. 

Zoroaster (aka: Zarathustra)

Zoroaster had a vision in which Ahura Mazda taught him the new faith. Zoroaster struggled to get people to accept his religion but finally found acceptance in Bactria (northern part of Afghanistan). The king of the land was impressed by his teachings and soon made it into the state religion. 

Little is known about the religion and its history before 549 BCE when the Persians led by Cyrus the Great of the Archaemenian family conquered Western Iran and founded the first Persian Empire. The Archaemenians were a pious Zoroastrian family and they ruled their kingdom justly and efficiently. He tolerated all religions and allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. Prompted by Cyrus’s goodwill and favour, the Jews incorporated and assimilated many Zoroastrians beliefs and practices. 

Alexander the Great in 331 BCE overthrew the Archaemenied Empire. Under Alexander’s oppressive rule, many priests were murdered and sacred texts were burned. Fortunately, the Gathas, the core of the religion, said to have been written by Zoroaster himself, survived. 

Alexander was followed by the reign of the Seleucids in 311 BCE who were followed by the Arcasids. The Arcasids were good and just rulers and Zoroastrianism was revived under their reign. But they were soon overthrown by the Sasanian, Ardashir. The Sasanians introduced several changes into the religion. A central Zoroastrian Church was built which was solely under the control of the Sasanians. People were not allowed to worship images and fire temples were promoted. Also, religious tolerance was abandoned. Under the rule of the Church, Zoroastrianism became oppressive and highly ritualized. 

Zoroastrianism continued suffering with the conquest of the Arabs. The Arabs burnt libraries and tried to eradicate this religion. Zoroastrians were subjected to greater taxes and were slowly forced to convert to Islam. Eventually, Zoroastrianism became a minority religion in Iran. Several thousands of people fled to India and settled in various parts of the country. They formed their own community and called themselves Parsis.

Zoroastrian Priests

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Zoroastrianism believes in one god, Ahura Mazda, who is: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, unchanging, impossible for a normal human being to conceive, the creator of everything, and the source of all the goodness and happiness in the world.

This supreme God is worshipped and his prophet is Zoroaster. Zoroaster is not worshipped but is followed as his directed path of truth and righteousness; Asha will lead men and women to God.

Along with Ahura Mazda are his retinue of immortals; Amesha Spentas who are also his divine attributes. By knowing them, man can know God. They are: Vohu Manah (good mind and good purpose), Asha Vahishta (truth and righteousness), Spenta Ameraiti (holy devotion, serenity and loving kindness), Khashathra Vairya (power and just rule), Hauravatat (wholeness and health and Ameretat (long life and immortality).

Combating the goodness is God’s adversary, Angra Mainyu who resides in hell. This dualism is twofold – cosmic and moral. There is the cosmic dualism between god and the Angra Mainyu who is the destructive spirit that introduces the evils of death, sickness, etc into God’s pure and beautiful world. There is also a moral duality that points towards the inherent good and evil sides of a human being.

Zoroastrian Priests at Prayer
Their white robes are a symbol of purity.

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Zoroastrians are not fire worshippers as is generally believed. Fire is an important symbol in their faith. Fire or light represents the divine light of the Ahura Mazda. Therefore, when a Zoroastrian prays, he prays in the direction of fire or light. Zoroastrians also are not very ritualistic but are more concerned with ethics of ‘Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds’. To represent these, a Zoroastrian will wear around him a cord, called a kusti that has been knotted thrice. 

Zoroastrians also promote communal worship, which may be conducted during seasonal festivals or social functions such as marriage or navjote, the initiation ceremony of a young child into Zoroastrianism. It also does not promote temple worship and believers are allowed to pray at home. 

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There are ever dwindling numbers of Zoroastrians left in the world. They primarily reside in India and Iran. There are only about 200,000 Zoroastrians left and their population continues to decline steadily. It is often observed in the Zoroastrian community that they tend to marry late and often do not bear children. These are one of the main reasons why their population is decreasing. Furthermore, since Zoroastrianism does not accept children of mixed marriage and inter-religious marriages, they lose several new inclusions into their faith. 

Modern Zoroastrian Temple

Ancient Zoroastrian Temple in Azerbaijan

 Zoroastrianism has flourished in the modern age. They were quick to accept the new changes. Parsis are the frontrunners of many fields in India. Some influential and notable Parsis are J.R.D Tata, a business tycoon and a remarkable philanthropist, Pherozshah Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji, two very important early freedom fighters in India against the imperialist powers, the conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, Freddie Mercury of the rock band ‘Queen’ and the popular and critically acclaimed writer, Rohinton Mistry.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Facts about The Himalayas

If you are not afraid of heights or scaling mountains, maybe you should head for the final frontier of height on planet Earth, the Himalayas. Majestic and intimidating, the Himalayas that perennially stay draped in snow have enchanted the ancients and the modern men alike. They have been, over time, embedded in religions and cultures like no other mountain range in this world. They are epic and enigmatic, they are harsh and pristine, they are young and dynamic.

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Facts about the Himalayas

Himalayas refer to a mountain range and not a single mountain.

The Himalayan mountain range is the youngest on this planet.

Though they are the youngest, they are pretty old. They were formed 70 million years ago and were an outcome of same geological activities that have tore apart our continents over billions of years.

The Himalayas were formed when the Eurasian tectonic plate collided with the Indo-Australian tectonic plate (which has now broken down into the Australian plate and the Indian plate). The collision between these two massive tectonic plates gave birth to the majestic Himalayan ranges.

The Himalayan range is geologically active. Within next 10 million years, the Indian subcontinent will move nearly 1500 kilometers further into Asia because the Indian plate is moving at a speed of 67 millimeters a year.

As India and Asia are converging, the southern front of the Himalayas is absorbing a portion of this convergence. Precisely 20 mm per year of convergence is getting absorbed there. As a result of this, the Himalayan ranges are still gaining height at a rate of 5 mm per year.

After Antarctica and Arctic, the Himalayan ranges is the home to third-largest deposit of snow and ice on this planet.

The valley sitting between the two ranges is the home to westward flowing Sutlej and Indus rivers and eastward flowing Brahmaputra river.

The northern range of the two parallel ranges goes by the name Trans-Himalayas. The southern range of the two however has in turn has three parallel running zones which are Great Himalayas, Lesser Himalayas and the Outer Himalayas.

The Great Himalayas is the northernmost zone of the southern range system. This is where the highest peaks of Himalayan mountain system are found.

The Lower Himalayas form the middle zone while the Outer Himalayas form the southern most zone of the Himalayas.

Because of its length, the Himalayan mountain system stretches across six countries. They are Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

The total area covered by the Himalayas is 612,021 sq. km., which is 0.4% of total land area on Earth.

The Himalayas is the source of many large perennial rivers in the world, which are divided into two river systems, the Indus river system and the Ganges-Brahmaputra river system.

The Indus river system consists of the rivers on the western side of the Himalayas. Of all the rivers on that side, Indus is the largest of all. Indus, along with other western rivers like Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum etc. combine to form the Indus Basin. Indus originates in Tibet, flows southwest to enter India and then moves to Pakistan to finally drains into the Arabian Sea.

The other river system, the Ganges-Brahmaputra system, consists of three main rivers, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Brahmaputra. Brahmaputra's origin is also in Tibet. The Ganga and Brahmaputra merge together in Bangladesh to finally drain through the largest known river delta in world, the Sunderbans into the Bay of Bengal.

The Himalayas is the home of several high peaks. However, it holds the record of having the maximum number of highest peaks among any mountain range in world. Out of fourteen highest peaks in this world, the Himalayas has nine.

Mount Everest of Himalayas is the highest peak in this world above sea level. It stands tall at 8,848 meters or 29,029 feet.

The second highest peak is the K2 which has attained a height of 8,611 meters or 28,251 feet. The third spot is captured by the majestic Kanchenjunga which stands at 8,586 meters or 28,169 feet.

Makalu, Nanga Parbat, Masherbrum (aka: K1), Rakaposhi, Kamet, Gurla Mandhata, Kongur Tagh, Kailash, etc. are some other peaks in the mountain system. Makalua and Nanga Parbat are both above 8,000 meters in height.

Because the Himalayas are geologically active, the region is prone to natural phenomena such as tremors, earthquakes and landslides.

The Great Himalayas zone of the Himalayan range is where the Mount Everest sits. The Great Himalayas remain covered in snow perpetually. This means that the snow never melts there.

The Himalayas go by the name Giri-raj in Hindu religion. This literally translates into 'King of Mountains'. According to Hindu religion, Himalayas is the home of gods, most notable of them being Lord Shiva. Himalayas have been extensively mentioned in Hindu texts and epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, Skanda Purana, Rig Veda etc.

Nepalese people call the Mount Everest by the name 'Sagarmatha' which literally translates into 'Goddess of the Universe'. Tibetans call the Mount Everest as 'Chomolungma'. The name Mount Everest is named after British Army officer Colonel Sir George Everest who was India's surveyor General for 13 years from 1830 to 1843. 
The Himalayas are the home to some of the most exotic wildlife in the world. Most notable among them are the snow leopard, musk deer, Tibetan sheep, wild goat, red panda etc. Technically, the giant pandas also live in the Himalayas. Some exotic birds also call the Himalayas as home. Some of the most notable exotic birds are gray bushchat, brown rock chat, verditer flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, hill patridge and black rumped flameback woodpecker.

The Himalayas are known for extremely erratic climates. At higher altitudes, it is cold, which keeps getting colder with gain in altitude. At lower altitudes, it is wetter. Climatic changes in the Himalayas take place unpredictably. Summers are salubrious but winters are bone-chilling with extreme snowfall.

Yet another feature that makes the Himalayas is so unique is that it houses multiple ecological systems. At low altitudes there are tropic rainforests. At middle altitudes, there are sub-tropical forests with broad-leafed trees. At higher altitudes there are coniferous forests and grasslands. At the highest altitudes, there are no signs of vegetation because of extreme cold and the high speed winds.

The name Himalaya is compound word in Sanskrit. It is formed of the words Hima and Alaya. Hima means Snow and Alaya means Adobe. So, the name Himalaya literally translates into Adobe of Snow. This is a perfect name because in Great Himalayas, the snow never melts.

Seventy-five percent of Nepal is covered by the Himalayas.

The Nepalese name Sagarmatha also means ‘Forehead of the Sky’.

Mount Everest sits at the Nepal-Tibet border.

The first two people to ever reach Mount Everest were Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. They made it to the summit in 1953.

The Himalayas are said to be the home of the legendary Yeti, an ape-like creature said to inhabit the areas of the Himalayan range where no mortal dares to tread. At times, it is said to shows up from nowhere and then disappear in thin air. Some tell stories of face-to-face encounters while others tell stories of only seeing the creature at a distance. Some claim of being helped and nursed by Yeti while other speak out horror stories of being attacked by the creature. 

It is also believe that the mythical Gyanganj (aka: Shambala or Shangri-La) which is supposedly the land of the immortals is located somewhere in the Himalayas. In fact, there are some accounts where people claim to have encountered immortal Indian saints of Gyanganj.

The Himalayas are known for having profound impact on Tibetan and Indian Subcontinent climates. 

Dry and frigid winds are prevented from entering Indian Subcontinent by the Himalayan mountain system, keeping South Asia far warmer in comparison to other continents’ temperate regions.

It is also believed that one of the primary reasons for the formation of Gobi and Taklamakan deserts of Central Asia is the Himalayas.

The Himalayas fact are the world’s second-most untouched, undisturbed and virgin places on earth. The first spot is taken by Antarctica. It simply means that these are the two least visited places on earth.

The Himalayas has third largest snow and ice deposit in world after Antarctica and Arctic.

The Himalayas are the home of many medical herbs with the highest degree of purity. Many of these herbs have been extensively used in Ayurveda, one of the oldest know medical systems in world which originated in India.

In Hinduism, the Himalayas in known as God Himavat, who according to Hindu religion is the father of Parvati (goddess of devotion, love and fertility in Hindu religion) and Ganga (the holy river goddess).

Facts about Tsunamis

In Japanese, tsunami means 'harbor wave'. In the Japanese language tsu means harbor and nami means wave.

Tsunamis were once referred to as tidal waves but that was wrong because tsunamis have nothing to do with tides.

Usually an earthquake is responsible for a tsunami; however, it can also be caused rapid and erratic changes in atmospheric pressure and even by volcanic eruptions. Thus, a tsunami is not a stand-alone phenomenon. It is usually a by-product of some other natural force.

While some people think that tsunami is a single big wave of water, it is not true. In fact, tsunami is composed of a series of waves which is referred to as a tsunami.

Low-lying coastal areas are usually the worst hit areas when a tsunami strikes. Damage is usually contained within 250 km or 160 miles from the point of origin of a tsunami. Destruction befalls within 30 minutes from the time when the tsunami originates. If an earthquake is felt in a coastal area, it should be taken as a sign of incoming tsunami.

Apart from volcanoes, earthquakes and changes in atmospheric pressure, tsunamis can also be caused by meteor impact on oceans. Meteor impacts can lead to some of the most deadliest tsunamis with waves as high as 100 feet. Sometimes massive landslides can cause tsunamis.

The Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean is the most active zone for tsunamis. The Ring of Fire is the name given to a horse-shoe shaped path that begins in New Zealand and includes Indonesia, Papau New Giunea, the Asian coastline and ends along the western north American coastline. Although tsunamis have occurred in every ocean in the world, nearly 80% of all tsunamis are from that region.

Nearly 99% of tsunami fatalities take place within 160 miles from the point of tsunami origin.

Underwater earthquakes will not always cause tsunamis. There are two types of underwater earthquakes. First is when two tectonic plates either slide against each other or split apart and the second one is when a lighter tectonic plate is forced above a heavier tectonic plate. The zone where this second type of tectonic plates movement takes place is known as subduction zone. This second type of tectonic plates movement leads to tsunami.

 When a heavier tectonic plate moves underneath a lighter plate, the entire water column right above the subduction zone is displaced and causes tsunami.

Tsunamis are very frequent in the deepest parts of the oceans. However, those deep ocean tsunami waves are usually 1-3 feet tall and usually go unnoticed. Sailors may not even realize that tsunami waves are traveling beneath them.

The idea that tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes was first proposed by Thucydides in his book, History of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was a Greek historian who lived ca. 460-395 BCE.

Tsunamis caused by meteorites have never been witnessed by anyone. However, many scientists believe that 3.5 billion years ago the tsunami that wiped out life from Earth was caused by a giant meteor.

Around 4800 years ago, a giant asteroid had hit the Indian Ocean and resulted in a tsunami. Scientists theorize that the resulting waves reached the height of 600 feet or 180 meters high.

Winds can generate waves that travel at a speed anywhere between 2 and 60 miles an hour. Tsunami waves on other hand are much faster. They can travel at a speed of 600 miles an hour, which is equivalent to the usual speed of a  jet plane.

 The most common words associated with tsunamis are run-up and inundation. Run-up is vertically the highest point water is capable of reaching during a tsunami. Inundation on the other hand the farthest distance inland where water can reach during tsunamis.

On May 22, 1960,  a 9.5 magnitude earthquake shook the earth some 100 miles off the coast of Chile. The resulting tsunami was devastating with 80-foot waves hitting the coast in just 15 minutes after the earthquake. The waves reached Hawaii some 15 hours later. 22 hours later, the waves had traveled 10,000 miles from the point of the earthquake and hit Japan.

Another deadly tsunami took place in Indian Ocean in 2004 and left behind a death toll of 216,000 confirmed. Some sources quoted the death toll to be 283,000. It was a result of Sumatra-Andaman earthquake where the Burma tectonic plate subducted the Indian tectonic plate.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami is dubbed as one of the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history. 14 countries were hit with Indonesia taking the hardest hit of all followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Boxing Day tsunami, Christmas tsunami, Indonesian tsunami, South Asian tsunami are the four other names of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Palm trees are the most tsunami-safe trees on Earth. With their long bare trunks, they are adapted to coastal life and mostly survive tsunamis intact.

There is something called a megatsunami. Megatsunamis are caused by massive landslides and the tsunami waves can grow extremely tall. The last mega-tsunami recorded was in 1958 in Alaska's Lituya Bay with waves touch the record height of 1,700 feet or 534 meters. Weirdly enough, only two people died in that tsunami.

It is the second tsunami wave that kills most. Once the first wave subsides, people often rush back to their homes or to the shores to save stranded animals and people. But, before they can carry others to safety, the second wave hits with greater power and engulfs the rescuers.

When a tsunami crashes on the coastal area, it is not a good idea to swim. It is always good to grab on to a floating object and allow the waves to carry you with the current.

Not always but sometimes about 30 minutes before a tsunami strikes, the ocean water appears to be draining away from the shore. This withdrawal of water from the shore is known as 'drawback'. A drawback implies that tsunami will reach the shoreline.

In the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, most of the casualties were women and children. It is being said that the women were waiting at the shoreline for their husbands to come back from fishing and the children were just too weak to survive the currents.

On one hand the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami brought down massive destruction and on the other hand, it also uncovered Mahabalipuram, a lost city. It was the capital city of a very powerful kingdom some 1500 years ago. Back then the city was involved in trade with Egypt, Roma, Arabia, Greece and China.  
When tsunami waves crash on the shore, the speed of the waves is significantly reduced. The waves close to the shore usually travel at a speed of 22 miles an hour. Once the waves crash, the speed at which the water travels inland depends on several factors like beach slope and shore environment.

The low speed of the tsunami waves near the shallow shores is also the reason why the waves grow tall. The waves behind travel at a high speed but the slower waves on the front eventually restrict the speed of the waves behind and force them to pile up and grow taller.

Once the water from a tsunami travels as far inland as possible, it then backwashes into the ocean. The speed of the backwash may be as fast as the inbound flow of water or may be faster or slower.
The aftermath of a tsunami is even worse. The sea water that comes inland ends up poisoning groundwater and freshwater systems with large amount of salt deposits. The debris and the dead bodies floating around can quickly spread diseases and lead to an epidemic.

The Indian Ocean tsunami did not manage to kill many animals. It is reported that hours before the tsunami had hit, flamingos and elephants were seen moving up to higher grounds and that caged zoo animals as well as dogs refused to come out of their shelters.

The reason why tsunami waves are so powerful is that unlike the regular waves caused by wind on the water surface, tsunami is caused by entire water column being displaced. This gives far more power to tsunami compared to normal waves.

Also, looks-wise the tsunami waves are different. They don't curl and break as normal waves. Tsunami moves in form of a fast flood or in form of a bore and looks like a wall of water approaching the shore.

Over last 2000 years, nearly 500,000 people have died because of tsunamis in the Pacific region alone. Compared to this, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami alone killed nearly 280,000 people. No wonder, it was dubbed as the worst tsunami in recorded history.

Many geologists argue that ancient tsunamis have given birth to many legends as we know today. For instance, the great Biblical flood, destruction of Minoan Civilization on island of Crete and the Red Sea's parting during the exodus of Israelites from Egypt.

Japan holds the record of hosting the most devastating tsunamis in world. Japan is also the most tsunami-prone country in this world.

Because of the frequent tsunamis, Japan has deployed world's most advanced tsunami warning system that involves 500 water-level gauges and 1,500 seismometers. Money spent for maintaining the system is worth over 20 million US Dollars every year.

On March 25, 2011, Japan was hit by a massive tsunami caused by an earthquake which was the fifth most powerful earthquake since 1990. Last time an earthquake of that magnitude had struck the tectonic plate at the boundary of Japan was 1,200 years ago.

The 2011 Japan tsunami left behind 10,000 confirmed deaths and 17,440 missing. It was also dubbed as world's most expensive disaster in human history. The tsunami damaged the primary cooling systems as well as the generators of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex of Japan

Japanese Print

There is something known as teletsunami or transoceanic tsunami. This is a tsunami that is capable of traveling thousands of miles across the ocean without losing much of its energy. As opposed to transoceanic tsunami, a local tsunami is capable of reaching only to the nearest coast from point of its origin.

Europe has to date (at least in recorded history) experienced only two large tsunamis. One was in 1530 BCE that had struck Crete and the surrounding Mediterranean coasts and the other was in 1755 CE. In 1755 it was Lisbon in Portugal that was hit.

The 1755 Lisbon tsunami was a classic case of 'drawback' tsunami. After a major earthquake, the terrorized citizens rushed to the shorelines for safety. They saw that the water drained away from the shore and were pretty amazed but only minutes later, a devastating tsunami arrived and claimed the lives of 90,000 people.

The earthquake that cause the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami released an energy equivalent to 23,000 atomic bombs.

In 1963 another megatsunami was recorded which was also caused by a massive landslide from Monte Toc. The landslide went into Italy's Vajont Dam resulting in a wave that overtopped the 860 ft high dam by 820 ft. The water that crossed the dam went on to destroy many towns and leaving trail of 2,000 dead bodies.

Scientists assume that Canary Islands will be the site for next megatsunami and that the megatsunami will travel across Atlantic and destroy many coastal cities of USA which include Miami, Boston and New York
A wave typically has a negative peak (trough) and a positive peak (ridge). For propagating waves like tsunami either trough or a ridge will first reach the shore. If trough reaches first, there will be a drawback and water will appear to drain out. If ridge reaches the shore first, there will be sudden flooding or a massive breaking wave.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Great Thinkers, Great Thoughts, No. 42: Plato

Bust of Plato

One of the greatest thinkers who ever lived was the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. His works have heavily influenced the western culture. All his writings focused on a wide range of subjects including philosophy of language, epistemology, cosmology, theology, discussions on aesthetics, beauty, justice, equality and yes, political philosophy. Whatever information we have today about this great philosopher comes from historians who somehow managed to come up with a detailed construction of his life from his works. The problem was that of the lack of primary and dependable sources to provide an account of Plato's life. The following information may very well be challenged by some historians who may have something different to tell about him.

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Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher who was born somewhere around 428 BCE.
He died somewhere around 348 BCE in the city of Athens.
There is actually a debate about his year of birth. Some modern historians believe that he was born between 424 and 423 BCE.
Another Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, was his teacher and he was in turn, teacher of another great philosopher named Aristotle.
Ariston was Plato's father's name. Ariston descended directly from kings of Messeina and Athens.
Plato's mother, Perictione, is believed to be a descendant of an aristocrat named Solon.
According to historians, Solon was a Greek statesman and law-giver from 6th century BCE.
According to some historians, Plato was actually his nickname and his real name was Aristocles.
Aristocles was Plato's grandfather's name and some historians suggest that Plato was the eldest grandson of Aristocles and that it was customary in Greece during Plato's time to name family's eldest son after his grandfather. Historians do not agree on this. Some argue that there is no definitive proof of Plato being the eldest son in his family.
If we are inclined towards believing that Plato was just a nickname, it makes some sense because 'Plato' actually meant someone who has a broad and strong physical build. Plato indeed had a very broad body structure.
Historians believe that Plato had one sister, two full brothers and one half brother but they are not sure whether he was possibly  the eldest son of the family.
Because Plato belonged to an aristocratic family, he received his education from some of the finest educators who were present in Athens at that time.
During his education, Plato was probably taught about doctrines of Parmenides, Pythagoras and Cratylus. These doctrines possibly molded Plato and laid down the foundations for his study of epistemology (which is actually 'the study of knowledge') and metaphysics ('the study of nature').
His mother married his uncle after his father's death.
When Plato was young, he met Socrates and was so much influenced by him that Plato quickly became a close associate of Socrates.
During Peloponnesian War in which Sparta defeated Athens, Plato served as a soldier between 409 and 404 BCE.
After the Peloponnesian War, an oligarchy was established in Athens but soon democracy was reestablished. It was then that Plato considered getting into politics. However, in 399 BCE  Socrates was executed which left a bad impression about politics on Plato, He then decided to drop the idea of entering politics and instead he turned into philosophy.
Plato traveled across the Mediterranean region for 12 years after his teacher Socrates was executed. During these 12 years, he learned astronomy, geology, geometry, mathematics and religion.
It was during or just after his 12 years of travel, Plato started writing extensively, which is divided into three distinct period. In the early period, Plato attempted to spread the teachings of Socrates through his writing. In the middle period he wrote about his own ideas of wisdom, courage, justice and ideas of moderating society and individuals. In the late period, he took off major focus from Socrates and explored his own metaphysical ideas and even explored architecture, drama, music and dance.
In 385 BCE, Plato founded The Academy in Athens which became one of the first institutions in Western World to offer higher learning.
Plato presided over The Academy until he died but the institution continued to operate till 529 AD.
The students of The Academy were taught philosophy, political theory, mathematics, biology and astronomy.
Plato died in Athens in his early 80s somewhere around 348 BC. According to some historians, Plato died peacefully in his sleep and some others believe that he died while he was attending a wedding.
Plato was known for writing dialogues. He strongly believed that dialogues help to understand an individual in better way.
The Republic is considered his best work.
One of the famous students of Plato was Aristotle. It was Aristotle who gave a whole new direction to Plato's thoughts.
Roman Emperor Justinian I considered The Academy to be a threat to Christianity and closed it.
The Renaissance master Raphael (1483-1520) painted a famous picture known as 'The School of Athens' in which he painted Plato and Aristotle.

The School of Athens by Raphael

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Quotes by Plato
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.
Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.
Courage is knowing what not to fear.
Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.
Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.
Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.
Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.
Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.
The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.
Entire ignorance is not so terrible or extreme an evil, and is far from being the greatest of all; too much cleverness and too much learning, accompanied with ill bringing-up, are far more fatal.
To love rightly is to love what is orderly and beautiful in an educated and disciplined way.
There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.
Excess generally causes reaction, and produces a change in the opposite direction, whether it be in the seasons, or in individuals, or in governments.
The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.
The measure of a man is what he does with power.
The greatest wealth is to live content with little. 
He was a wise man who invented beer.