Thursday, October 30, 2014

From Ashes, Arise: a Brief History of Self-Immolation

Thich Quang Duc burned himself alive in 1963 in protest of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem's anti-Buddhist policies. This photo was taken by American journalist Malcolm Browne.


Much like our pathetic lives, fire is a fucked up, beautiful thing. Throughout history, people have used fire to do all sorts of stuff: cook, smoke weed, become warm, set cotton balls ablaze and throw them across the room because who needs an entire bag of eighty cotton balls (cotton fairies?). While I'm not nearly as familiar with prehistory as I would like to be, Wikipedia tells me that the earliest definitive evidence of human control of fire dates to the early Middle Paleolithic age (400,000 to 200,000 BCE), specifically at a site called Swartkrans about 20 miles away from Johannesburg in present-day South Africa. Definitely have to drop by there one day and say sup.

One of the more interesting ways humans have decided to use fire is in the practice of self-immolation. Most people are familiar with self-immolation as a protest method, particularly as practiced by certain Buddhist monks and especially as employed in the famous example of Thích Quảng Đức in 1960s Vietnam. Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, whose self-immolation was the impetus for the Arab Spring, also comes to mind.

Of course, these types of incidents raise an important question: why the fuck would anyone light themselves on fire? Seriously, when people talk about the worst ways to die, being burned alive and drowning to death routinely top the list (sidenote: I always feel bad for people accused of witchcraft because being burned at the stake sounds fucking awful). But why, then, would someone deliberately light themselves on fire as a form of suicide, as a form of protest? Why not do something less unbearably agonizing that accomplishes the same goal? Who thought this was a good idea? Is self-immolation popular simply because it gets people's attention, because its so extreme, so visceral?

Partially, yes. But there's much more to it. While the word self-immolation today is associated with lighting oneself aflame, that's mostly because Western and English media were introduced to the term after the Thích Quảng Đức incident in 1963. It's actual definition is simply killing oneself as sacrifice, either through starvation, jumping off a cliff, seppuku, or whatever you're into (just do you, dude). It generally had the connotation of martyrdom, and it is rooted in the Latin word “immolare”, which means – astonishingly enough – “to sacrifice”.

Suicide in Hindu and Buddhist Doctrine:

The history of self-immolation is long and rich, and seems heavily rooted in various Indian and Chinese doctrines. Hinduism in general frowns upon suicide, and many consider it a violation of the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence. Killing oneself through violent means is considered as equally sinful as violently killing another person. Some even believe that death by suicide results in an individual becoming a sort of ghost-spirit, wandering the earth until the time when one would have otherwise died. Suicide is only accepted under the practice of prayopavesa, or fasting until death, as this is non-violent and therefore does not violate ahimsa. Even then, people prefer that prayopavesa be limited to the elderly who no longer have any ambition or responsibilities. Similar, dying in battle to save one's honor is also an acceptable form of suicide.

The spooky ghost you become if you kill yourself.
Buddhism's attitudes toward suicide are more open-ended. Similar to Hinduism, Buddhism views suicide as a form of violence, as destruction of life, something forbidden under the Five Precepts of basic Buddhist ethics (i.e. do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not imbibe alcohol). However, Buddhism only condemns suicide done for negative reasons, such as out of anger or depression, believing that if you kill yourself at a point of such negative spiritual energy, you'll be reborn into a very sad, very unpleasant realm that reflects your final, negative thoughts. But when suicide is an act of positivity, such as self-sacrifice or as a means to otherwise achieve non-attachment to the realm of physical things, then it can actually place one closer to enlightenment. It can represent the rejection/acceptance of the temporal nature of the physical body.

Self-Immolation in India:

In fact, suicide by self-immolation pops up periodically in Buddhist mythology (note: “mythology” used here in the same sense as one would use Christian mythology or Islamic mythology; just because it's a dharmic religion doesn't mean Buddhist beliefs, stories, etc. should be regarded as somehow less valid or believable, on the same level as Greek or Norse myths or whatever; get dat orientalism outta here). In the Jatakas, a body of Buddhist literature that concerns the past lives of the Buddha, there are several tales of princes, kings, and what-have-you sacrificing themselves (i.e. self-immolation) to save their loved ones or even a relatively insignificant creature such as a dove, only to be rewarded for their sacrifice with blessed reincarnation (or sometimes they just stayed dead and it was whatever). Likewise, Bhaishajyaraja, the “Medicine King” is described in the Lotus Sutra as drinking oils, wrapping his body in oil-soaked cloth, and lighting himself on fire as an offering to Buddha. He burned for 1,200 years, and was reincarnated numerous times over the following centuries. By the end, his flesh miraculously healed, representing the healing power of the Buddha and enlightenment.

Certain non-Buddhist cultural groups in India also practiced self-immolation, most notably the Charan. The Charan are a caste living in Rajasthan and Gujarat, who are often considered divine by greater Indian society. The men are respected for their warrior prowess, while the women are equally as respected as mother goddesses or otherwise holy figures. While it has become uncommon in modern times, the Charan used to be well known for practicing a form of self-immolation called tragu. As far as I can tell, tragu was pretty much the best way to win any argument. When the Charan would get into conflicts they could not win, they would burn themselves alive to humble their adversaries. The assailants, suitably humbled, would then leave the families, loved ones, villages, etc. of the self-sacrificed Charan alone, apparently. However, it is kind of hard to find a lot about Charan tragu, and I can't guarantee the complete accuracy of what I just said. Sorry about that.

Painting of a sati ceremony. The practice was outlawed in British
Raj in 1829, and was not officially outlawed by independent India
until the Sati Prevention Act of 1987.
Related to self-immolation is the less religious, more cultural practice of sati. Here, a widowed woman is expected to throw herself upon the burning funeral pyre of her deceased husband. While most dharmic religions forbade suicide, sati was viewed as a form of honorable self-sacrifice, and was therefore acceptable. Of course, this was generally a pretty horseshit expectation. Women shouldn't be expected to throw themselves into burning flames because the men in their lives are so anazing. Really, no one should be expected to throw themselves into a fire. It's a pretty unreasonable thing to demand of someone. Hinduism, it seems, like most major religions, made exceptions to its rules when the rules enforced institutionalized misogyny. Though more accurately, the practice of sati is a nuanced topic in the history of India and greater Asia. It seems to have come and gone, and taken many forms in many places in many times. Likewise, given that Hinduism is hardly a standardized belief system, and that Asia is home to dozens of different religions, it seems quite misguided to make universal claims about the continent's attitude toward women. Regardless, in her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Gayatri Spivak discusses how sati was one way Hindu law regulated women's role in society in pre-colonial India. I haven't read nearly as much of her work as I would like, but everyone should check out Spivak if they get the chance. Beautiful mind, beautiful woman. Likewise, the Wikipedia page about sati seems to address the topic across a variety of contexts, which is useful/interesting. There's also a loosely related practice among the Rajput clans called jauhar, in which royal women and queens would burn themselves alive after their city had fallen to invaders.

Self-Immolation in China and Beyond:

Self-immolation was prominent in Chinese Buddhism, as well. The definition of self-immolation in China is far more expansive than its Indian counterpart. The Chinese words that relate to self-immolation actually conjure up some beautifully poetic mental images: wangshen (“lose the body”), yishen (“forget the body”), and sheshen (“give up the body”). These terms can refer to a broad range of extreme acts of self-inflicted agony, including feeding your body to insects, slicing off parts of your flesh, burning your fingers or arms, burning incense on your skin, starving yourself, drowning yourself, leaping to your death, feeding your body to wild animals, self-mummification, and – of course – lighting your entire body on fire. Most of these practices have no counterparts in Indian Buddhism, and historians suggest that self-inflicted injury was a feature of medieval Chinese culture as a whole, not just of Buddhism. For example, Taoist officials had been known to burn their flesh through prolonged exposure to the sun.

Luang Pho Daeng, a living Buddha of a Thai monk on
display in southern Thailand. Possibly the most famous
example of a living Buddha. He was so chill, that even
in death he wears sunglasses.
Nonetheless, a distinctly Chinese flavor of Buddhist self-immolation did emerge. Monks would gradually burn off each of their fingers while reciting incantations or textual passages. They would recite incantations while their body burned, resulting in an “unburned tongue”, in which the tongue remained pink and moist while the body was black and charred. It is said that some monks even managed to mummify themselves to death, slowly starving themselves, drying out their flesh, and removing the air from their bodies. While the science behind self-mummification is questionable, mummification was not uncommon in Chinese Buddhism, despite the contradictions that may have arose with Buddhist doctrine vis-à-vis rejection of the physical/temporal realm. In many cases it occurred naturally, by accident, long after the monk in question had passed away. Sadly, many of these so-called Buddhist mummies (also known as living Buddhas) have been destroyed or even stolen over time, which is a little bit weird, because who would steal a shriveled up human carcass? What do you even gain from that? Where would you put that shit? Maybe there is an underground warehouse somewhere filled with centuries-old Buddhist mummies, awaiting discovery by some gaggle of starry-eyed adventurers. We can only hope.

Additionally, self-immolation sometimes occurred elsewhere, usually in a Christian context and to a far lesser extent than in India or China. When Jesuits revived self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh in the 16th and 17th centuries, self-immolation was not uncommon, although death was not the goal. They often chose instead to burn parts of their arms and hands to symbolize the stigmata of Christ. Likewise, after the Raskol schism in the 17th century that split the Russian Orthodox Church into the official church and “Old Believers” who practiced the former doctrine, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as “fire baptism”. Why, I'm entirely not sure, but I imagine it made sense to them at the time. Fuck, even teenagers these days are into self-immolation. The “fire challenge” is the latest incarnation (and by latest I mean literally this year, 2k14, glorious year of our lord) of a semi-classic high school party trick in which you spray Axe or some other flammable liquid on your skin, light it on fire, and watch it burn for a little bit. However, nowadays kids are putting it on Youtube and Vine or whatever. And also a lot of them are dying or being sent to the hospital. So that's not good.

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