As noted in my last post, I’ve been looking into the history of Self-Immolation this week. The findings were quite shocking to say the least. It has a long and rich history stemming from religious texts and practices. Some self-immolations, or “auto-cremations” as a more accurate term, are more personal while some are done to garner international attention or to help and unify a cause. The number of “self-immolaters” in the past thousand years are incalculable. The earliest known examples are from around 100 B.C. in early China by Buddhist monks who believed it to be the ultimate religious sacrifice. This would be a more personal form of sacrifice under the belief that fire is cleansing and as such is pleasing to Buddha. In India up until 1829 when it was outlawed, it was common practice for widows to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their late husbands. They may of course have been coerced into such a thing by the societal expectations of the time or it may have been an honest act of despair. In Roman mythology it is said that Heracles and Dido set themselves aflame together. Heracles as an act of shamed pride and Didos as an act of pure despair. Since then, it has been used as both a religious sacrifice and as a protest. During the Schism of the church in Europe, many “old believers” were said to have self-immolated out of protest in large groups by piling into the churches, locking the door, and setting them ablaze. This was, similar to the Buddhist cleansing, a “second baptism” by fire. One auto-cremation in particular was incredibly shocking for me to discover. During the United States’ occupation of Vietnam, a Quaker by the name of Norman Morrison set himself afire outside of the Pentagon in protest to the war while clutching his young son. It was surprising to me that this news hasn’t echoed into our generation’s common knowledge. In Vietnam, it became a common practice during the war. In one week, as many as thirteen monks were known to have committed self-immolation in protest.
This isn’t located to only these regions. There have been self-immolations in Czechoslovakia, Korea, France, Kurdistan, Iran, Russia, and even Switzerland. In 1990, as many as 200 university students in India committed self-immolation in protest. Even a 13 year old in Pakistan committed self-immolation out of embarrassment that he couldn’t afford a new school uniform. This act is apparently quite universal and ranges from religion to despair and embarrassment. It isn’t solely located to one culture or one time period which to me is astounding. Knowing the history of this has greatly helped me understand the basis for which I want to explore the relevancy today. That is, because it was never irrelevant.