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  • Self-Immolation Duc-Style May 20, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    When Beachcombing first courted Mrs B he used to play elaborate ‘wind-ups’, trying to convince his darling of the impossible. Perhaps his favourite was the time he ‘explained’ how the widow of an Indian immigrant in Britain had decided to burn herself suttee-style on the funeral pyre of her husband, in Parliament Square. There had, it was true Beach reported, been many arguments, but, in the end, it had been decided that, in the interests of integration and cultural harmony permits were given. Unfortunately Mrs B has slowly wised-up and is now almost impossible to trick. There are only so many times you can call ‘wolf’ and expect the village militia to arrive sprouting pitch forks and shotguns.

    In any case, in nostalgia for these happy times Beach has spent the last hour or so researching the post-war history of self-immolation. The contemporary locus classicus, of course, for going up in flames is Thich Quang Duc, who in 1963 appeared in front of a group of journalists on a busy road in Saigon and, after taking up the lotus posture, and being dowsed with gasoline, set himself on fire with a match. It was an extraordinary act, not least because the monk – according to witnesses – remained perfectly immobile as he disintegrated: something communicated in the prize-winning photograph above.

    Self-immolation and other suicidal acts have a minor place in the Buddhist tradition, but are despised by most other religions. And yet so powerful was the message that TQD sent that non-Buddhists around the world began to imitate him and many of these had the US government in their crosshairs: TQD had been protesting against the anti-Buddhist policies of the Vietnamese government. The most important study on this question (Biggs) estimated that there were between 800 and 3000 self-burnings, in the forty years after 1967. There was, for example, the case of two Quakers who burnt themselves to death in 1965: Alice Herz and Norman Morrison. NM ended his life outside the Pentagon. Whereas Roger LaPorte, a Roman Catholic, who committed suicide a few days after NM, chose the United Nations. All were protesting, of course, against American foreign policy in Vietnam.

    There have been many cases of self-immolation since. The most influential in terms of the geo-political changes the act wrought was, without any question, the death of Mohamed Bouazizi. MB kicked the first domino that led to the collapse of four mostly unpleasant regimes and possibly five if justice prevails in Syria. But the greatest number of self-immolations took place in India in 1990, c. 200. The cause? Caste protests against quota-systems for untouchables… Any other curiosities from the history of self immolation? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    23/5/2012: Sword&Beast writes: ‘Suicides are nothing new, not even in order to pass a message to someone else. Just think of a lover who takes his/her own life to make a point or a hunger strike taken to the last consequences.  Self-immolation, though, seemed to be linked to religions that used fire in their funerary ceremonies. With the expansion of the international media, it enetered the general public’s immagination to the point of leading to suicides for all kinds perceived unjustices, like an ecologist in Brazil who set himself ablaze during a demonstration in 2005, or protests against Court family decisions, be in in front of a New Hampshire’s Courtroom, be it in front of a Romanian government building, without, I would say, any concern about the child’s psyche.’ Judith of Zenobia fame writes: It’s not like you to neglect the distant past (clicking of tongue). The true locus classicus for Buddhist self immolation must be the case reported by Strabo (15,73): [Nicolas of Damascus] states that at Antioch, near Daphne, he met with ambassadors from the Indians, who were sent to Augustus Caesar. It appeared from the letter that several persons were mentioned in it, but three only survived, whom he says he saw. The rest had died chiefly in consequence of the length of the journey. The letter was written in Greek upon a [parchment]; the import of it was, that Porus was the writer, that although he was sovereign of six hundred kings, yet that he highly esteemed the friendship of Caasar; that he was willing to allow him a passage through his country, in whatever part he pleased, and to assist him in any undertaking that was just. Eight naked servants, with girdles round their waists, and fragrant with perfumes, presented the gifts which were brought. The presents were a Hermes (i. e. a man) born without, arms, whom I have seen, large snakes, a serpent ten cubits in length, a river tortoise of three cubits in length, and a partridge (?) larger than a vulture. They were accompanied by the person, it is said, who burnt himself to death at Athens. This is the practice with persons in distress, who seek escape from existing calamities, and with others in prosperous circumstances, as was the case with this man. For as everything hitherto had succeeded with him, he thought it necessary to depart, lest some unexpected calamity should happen to him by continuing to live; with a smile, therefore, naked, anointed, and with the girdle round his waist, he leaped upon the pyre. On his tomb was this inscription, ZARMANOCHEGAS, AN INDIAN, A NATIVE OF BARGOSA, HAVING IMMORTALIZED HIMSELF ACCORDING TO THE CUSTOM OF HIS COUNTRY, HERE LIES. / In Greek, “ΖΑΡΜΑΝΟΧΗΓΑΣ ΙΝΔΟΣ ΑΠΟ ΒΑΡΓΟΣΗΣ” = “The sramana master from Barygaza in India”. /Sramana/ being a Buddhist religious group, and /acharya/ a spiritual guide or priest. Yes, I know you did say a contemporary locus classicus, but who can resist quoting Strabo?’ Thanks S&B and Judith for this burning gold!

    9 June 2012: Invisible writes in ‘ Loren Coleman has written extensively on self-immolation of various kinds. Here’s a round up from his blog. While perhaps best known for his work in cryptozoology and other fortean topics, Coleman has degrees in psychiatric social work and sociology. He was a senior reseacher at the Edmund S Muskie School of Public Policy from 1983-1996. He has written and consulted extensively on the patterns of mass shootings, suicides, and clusters of these events. (See his book The Copycat Effect).’ Thanks, Invisible!