Evolution of Objectives behind Self Immolation

Evolution of Objectives behind Self Immolation

(Not Really an Abstract)

I decided to write about evolution of the purpose of self-immolation. It is specifically related to this Cultural Anthropology course because it takes into account the different cultures around the world that either at one time practiced self-immolation or at present utilizes self-immolation for political struggle. This research paper should impress the professor because the self-immolation aspect of cultural anthropology has evolved throughout the years as has happened to many other aspects of cultural anthropology systems and sub-systems; however, unlike others, self-immolation involves taking one’s own life and this practice has recently gained some attention in modern society. Self-immolation was previously only known for its affiliation with some religion and specific social customs. In the modern years its purpose has changed drastically – to acquire attention to get rid of the political regime in power. It is also interesting how the modern technology of internet and cell phones have come into usage to extend the message of self-immolators to the world.


Self-Immolation – as a Religious and Societal Custom to a Way of Political Protest

Introduction to Self-Immolation

Self-immolation is a process of setting oneself on a fire. Although the practice of self-immolation is considered extreme and dates backs to many centuries ago, it continues to remain in practice. In the recent years, many people from different places around the world have been putting themselves on fire in protest against the ruling government. However, the practice of self-immolation hasn’t always been limited to political motivation; it has also been performed both as a religious as well as a societal custom. In an Indian tradition called Sati, widowed woman used to burn herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. In Russia, the Old Believers and the Soshigateli, or self-burners, self-immolated for the purpose of purification from sins during period of their religious fanaticism. Then about a half-century ago in Vietnam a Buddhist monk put himself on fire for the sake of religious equality. Self-immolation has ignited the Arab Spring, which is considered one of the most important political movements in recent years. It was followed by Tibetan monks burning themselves to protest against Chinese occupation in Tibet. Therefore, the practice of self-immolation has served as religious and social custom over many centuries; however, it has regained momentum in places ruled by oppressive government in the recent years with the increased accessibility and usage of internet and phone technology.

Sati and Ship burial – Religious and Societal Custom

For the recent new generations self-immolation can be mostly linked with political activism, but it has not been always that case in the human cultural anthropology. For example, the Sati practice used to be an Indian religious and societal custom. It is said that there was a goddess named Sati who couldn’t bear the humiliation of her husband by her father and burned herself on fire. The sati practice involves widowed woman immolating herself on her husband’s cremating body. Even though the widows immolated themselves voluntarily, they were also pressured by society and were looked down upon if they didn’t perform it because sati practice was believed to help cast away sins of their husbands and enable husbands to live a happy afterlife. This practice dates as far back as 400 AD as revealed by ancient stones called devli with inscriptions about memorial of the sati. It was eventually abolished by 1829 during which India was controlled by British Empire. There are accounts of similar practice in the Europe during the 10th century, known as ship burial where Volga Vikings people called Rus burned female slaves with their masters. A Greek historian during the expedition of Alexander the Great believed that the sati practice was instituted to discourage wives from poisoning their old husbands, whereas other historians believe it stemmed from the vows of loyalty. It is also popularly theorized that the reason sati was introduced in India was due to the caste system strictly enforcing the endogamy, and the sati practice would prevent surplus of either men or women in one particular caste. The prevalence of sati is very rare now days, but it continues to exist once every few years in India; in the last decade it was performed in year 2002 by a 65 year old woman, 2006 of 35 years old woman, and 75 years old woman in 2008 (Ahmad, 2008).

Part of Religious Practice in Russian Old Believers and French Jesuits

However, self-immolation as a religious custom wasn’t limited to Indian Hindu tradition. There were also well-documented instances in both the Russian Old Believers as well as the French Jesuits in the early 17th century. During the period of the Schism of the Old Believers, also known as Raskol, there were protests against the ecclesiastical reforms introduced by the Patriarch Nikon of the Russian Church, which resulted in the formation of a different group called Old Believers. They refused to obey the authority from the main church. However, the most dramatic and different view they carried was that the world was coming to an end. Therefore, they started a radical element in their practice called ognenniye kreshcheniya, which is a baptism by fire. There were known as Soshigateli, or self-burners. Similarly, Jesuits in France self-immolated during the same time period, although with different reason and extent. The Jesuits priests in France would burn parts of their body to signify the suffering Jesus endured while on the cross. Although the schism of Raskol and Jesuits of France still practice their beliefs and rituals, the practice of self-immolation is not in existence anymore as they too changed alongside people from other cultural and religious beliefs (Coleman, 2004).

Objective Transitioning from Religious to Political Movement

The transition point of self-immolation for the purpose of religious purpose and the political revolt seemed to be the one that occurred in Vietnam during the Roman Catholic administration of South Vietnam in 1960s. A Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself in protest against persecution of Buddhist monks by the government. On the one hand, this self-immolation is politically motivated as it is an act of protest against religious persecution and inequality in South Vietnam during that period. But on the other hand, it is said that even though Buddhism strongly prohibits people from burning themselves, there are recounts of self-immolation in their ancient religious sutra about a king who burned himself as a selfless act. Later on, some reforms were put in that part of the country eventually after succession of few more self-immolations by monks in Vietnam. Although the Vietnamese monks performed self-immolation as an altruistic suicide with an objective to deliver religious equality, they were just five years later followed by a Czechoslovakian Ryszard Siwiec who burned himself to protest against invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet Union. That’s how people performing self-immolating acts solely for the purpose of political rights slowly emerged (Kelly, 2012).

Politically motivated self-immolation: burning oneself only or killing other people alongside

Now the self-immolation that is politically motivated can be divided into two different categories based on the number of people harmed – one that is aimed at immolating oneself only, and the other that is done with the objective of killing several other people. The suicidal attacks by using self-detonating bombs, as has been happening in the recent years in Iraq and Afghanistan, can be compared to that latter category of self-immolation.

Sparks Arab Spring to Overthrow the Political Regime

In the recent years, the biggest political uprising has been the Arab Revolution. It began when a Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself on fire in the last month of 2010 to protest against the government in his native country. Immediately afterward, there are reportedly more than 105 people who immolated themselves in Tunisia also. It was very successful as the regime fell and the Tunisian President was successfully ousted and forced out of the power. Therefore, it became catalyst for citizens of other Arab countries such as Libya to protest against their own repressing political regime. Therefore, it became known as Arab Spring. Later on, a wave of self-immolation swept throughout the Arab world of Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Syria to revolt against their present government. This led to eruptions of massive demonstrations in public places and revolts in front of government buildings. Unlike old days, these protesters utilized modern internet technology of social media through cell phones to spread the news around the world and even to organize the protests. However, most of these uprisings were met with harsh violence and killings of innocent peaceful protesters from government military forces and pro-government militias (Bradatan, 2011).

By Tibetan Buddhist Monks Seeking Religious and Political Freedom

Tibet came under attack from Chinese communist regime in 1949. Within a year, Chinese People’s Liberation army defeated the Tibetans. Tibet has always been a Buddhist region. After many years of political tension and religious repression within the country, Tibetan spiritual and then also a political leader Dalai Lama fled to India along with thousands of Tibetans people in 1959. Currently there are about 6 million Tibetan people live within Tibet and close to 130,000 Tibetan live in exile, which includes India, Nepal, Bhutan and rest of the world. Tibetans have always sought non-violence methods to achieve independence from China, but their demand has changed over time – from majority of the population seeking complete independence to majority seeking autonomy while remaining within the political and economic power of China. Close to half of the Tibetan population used to be monk and nuns in Tibet since most families sent one of their children to monastery to study Buddhism; this practice has declined among exiled Tibetan population. Although within China, and especially inside Tibet, there is strong censorship of information and foreign journalism is strictly controlled in an extreme way, recently there have been reports of close to 35 Tibetan immolating themselves in protests of the Chinese regime. The astounding thing has been that more than half of these self-immolators have been monks or nuns. As discussed previously, there is a history of Buddhists monks self-immolating under the Buddhism discipline. However, most of these recent Tibetan monks and nuns’ demand have been that China allows Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. It is said that monasteries in China are strictly monitored by Chinese military and picture of Dalai Lama is prohibited. Most of the information common citizen around the world hear about Tibetans plight in Tibet is either from Tibetans who flee Tibet or from internet and phone technology. But as these medium of information is strictly censored and controlled by Chinese government, most of the world media acquire very little information and citizens of the world don’t hear the news happenings within Tibet that often (Jost, 2007 & “Update: Tibet,” 2008  ).


As the practice of self-immolation continues to remain in existence, so has the importance of spreading message to the world about the objective of the individuals committing it. Self-immolation used to be just limited to a small community and religious beliefs, with no intention of doing so to get attention. Now the use of self-immolation has evolved from just solely for one’s own religious purpose to free other people living under the same tyrant political regime. There have always been different non-violent ways to revolt against the government; but the effectiveness of most of these methods become questionable when living under an oppressive government. This could be the reason why some citizens take drastic actions such as taking one’s own life as a public display by self-immolating to show their civil disobedience. Self-immolation may be considered non-violent as long as it is not meant to harm other people as in suicidal attacks. With the increased use and availability of modern technology, these modern self-immolators have been able to achieve their purpose to some extent – that is, get attention to their demand, even if they don’t achieve it fully.


Annotated Bibliography of Source:

Ahmad, Nehaluddin. “Dying For The Dead: A Socio-Legal Examination Of Sati In India.”                                    Asia-Pacific Journal On Human Rights & The Law 9.2 (2008): 1-10. SocINDEX with Full Text.

The article evaluates the practice of sati. It states that this act is unique to Hindu practice where a widowed woman sets herself upon husband’s deceased body. Although the author claims that this practice is a social evil and examines how legislation intended to illegalize the glorification of this practice has failed to curb the act, the practice is still in existence. The author also contends that the social status of the Indian woman needs more improvement and will come as more opportunities for education is provided in rural communities deprived of such opportunities.


Bradatan, Costica. “Why Bouazizi burning set Arab world afire.” Christian Science Monitor 8 Feb. 2011. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 28 Apr. 2012. < http://ic.galegroup.com.mctproxy.mnpals.net/ic/ovic/NewsDetailsPage/NewsDetailsWindow?displayGroupName=News&disableHighlighting=false&prodId=OVIC&action=2&catId=&documentId=GALE%7CA248631999&userGroupName=mnaminncom&jsid=fc1960977bd570e28c69367b42a52594>

This article from Christian Science Monitor   gives a general overview of how the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi sparked an established pattern of followers later on in the Arab world. The massive unrest leads to chain reaction of self-immolators who demanded major political changes. However, there were also reports from different news sources who were reporting that the motivation behind Bouazizi’s gesture was more result of a public humiliation he was subjected to by a female officer who slapped and spit at him, and also slurred against his long-deceased father.



Coleman, Loren (2004). The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the                  Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. New York: Paraview Pocket – Simon and Schuster.            Page 46.

Even though this book is about the modern generation where media influence on children psychosocial needs is lot, in page 46 it describes how and why Russian Old Believers practiced self-immolation. The Old Believers rejected the liturgical reforms. It was a period of religious fanaticism and over 20,000 peasants burned themselves. Soshigateli burned themselves as they saw it as the only means of purification from sins and pollutions of the world.



Jost, Kenneth. “Religious Persecution.” CQ Researcher 21 Nov. 2007: 1009-32. Web. 8 Apr.



This article is about religious persecution around the world, the information of which is gathered from several reliable sources. One of the main reasons Tibetan revolted against Chinese occupation of Tibet was religious persecution. Other religions such as Chinese evangelicals face repression also. It also recollects information from past History before China began attacks to recent developments in China-Tibet relationships. The article cites sources from the same years the article was published. This article also contends that the future of Tibet is uncertain as developments in political power continues to happen around the world in dramatic, often unexpectedly, fashion. It raises question whether foreign powerful nations such as United States should encourage talk between China and Tibet.


Kelly, Brendan D. “Self-Immolation, Suicide And Self-Harm In Buddhist And Western                                                                       Traditions.” Transcultural Psychiatry 48.3 (2011): 299-317.

The author attempts to describe similarity between self-immolation from Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions. In Buddhist tradition, it was noted that even though prohibition of self harm existed there was a rational for self-immolation if done from altruism motivation. Between Western and Buddhist concepts, the convergence was made when self harm was integrated Western psychotherapeutic paradigms.



“Update: Tibet.” Issues & Controversies On File: n. pag. Issues & Controversies. Facts On

File News Services, 11 July 2008. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. <http://www.2facts.com/article/i1300360>.

This article gathers information from multiple sources to describe how Tibet underwent the influence of military attack from China. The communist regime landed in Tibet in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Although tensions started to mount between Chinese militia and Tibetan Buddhist yellow hat, there wasn’t any major fight until 1950 when Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Tibetan army group on Amdo region fought.

| Published on May 24th, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Article of: law, People | |

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