1. RELIGIOUS SUICIDES
Only a small number of suicides are committed for religious reasons. Starving oneself to death, self-immolation, hara-kiri (self-killing by belly-cutting or self-disembowelment), and mass suicide to escape persecution or to seek a glorious afterlife are some of the most popular forms of religiously motivated suicide. There is also another category, martyrdom, that may be considered a religiously motivated suicide. However, I will deal with this category in my next article.
Religiously motivated suicide functions both at the purely individual level as a purely spiritual pursuit, and at the political level. Religiously motivated suicide has become a dangerous political weapon in the hands of terrorists throughout the world. The distinction between the spiritual and the secular is very thin in these suicides.
There is a long tradition of religious and secular suicide in India committed for the welfare of others, or as devotion to certain authorities such as a king. For example, we read in the history of the Tamils that the Later Chola kings (tenth century onward) had suicide squads to accomplish matters relating to State. The suicides committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam from Sri Lanka, or the self-immolations committed by the Tamil zealots in india in mid 1960s against the imposition of Hindi as the only official language of India, easily fit the historical pattern, although such suicides came as a rude shock to the Tamil psyche. In 1960s, South Korean Buddhist monks burned themselves alive. In my earlier article, Counseling Against Suicide, I referred to the incidents described in ancient Tamil classics, when the poets, kings, sages, et al. would commit their lives to death on their own.
Without going into much detail, I'd like to present briefly, in this article, the worldviews of a few major world religions regarding suicide. I believe that this information will be very helpful to professional counselors as well as to the peers and friends of those who may show some signs of suicidal tendencies in counseling people against suicide.
2. THE JEWISH AND CHRISTIAN POSITIONS REGARDING SUICIDE
The Old Testament records only a few incidents of suicide. King Abimelech asked his bodyguard/armor-bearer to kill him rather than to be killed by a woman, "he called to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can't say, 'A woman killed him.' So his servant ran him through, and he died" (Judges 9:54).
Samson, on the other hand, was a tragic hero. By his physical force he killed many and, finally, to execute vengeance against those who blinded him, he killed still more people. He himself died with them (Judges 16:29-30):
Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.
An analysis of the character of Samson clearly shows that Samson's acts were more selfish in nature than truly altruistic. God used a selfish character to destroy evil, thus helping good people. However, as the Eerdman's Bible Dictionary (p. 908) points out, "Samson's aims were personal and not national . . .. he prayed to God only for the preservation of his own honor and for personal revenge, not with any sense of the importance of Israel nor from any sense of obligation to God." Self-killing is not glorified here. It serves a purpose, however.
The third suicide mentioned in the Old Testament, the writings shared both by the Jews and the Christians as the revealed Word of God, is that of king Saul. Saul is not portrayed as a faithful servant of God in the Old Testament. And his suicide is not portrayed as honorable either.
Saul said to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me." But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. (1 Samuel 31:4).
The fourth suicide portrayed in the Old Testament is that of a wily and wise character Ahitophel, who was originally an adviser and counselor of King David. Ahitophel joined King David's misguided son Absalom as his advisor and counseled him against King David. Once Absalom declined to follow Ahitophel's advice regarding a battle against King David, and this prompted Ahitophel to commit suicide. Ahitophel's decision to commit suicide was a well thought out and deliberate plan. Lack of humility, egotistic personality, dependence on the correctness of own wisdom, and focus only on the goals to be achieved appear to be the motive for this suicide. It is also possible that Ahitophel as a clever person might have realized that Absalom was in any case losing the battle with no room for Ahitophel to maneuver his future. Before his suicide Ahitophel "put his household in order, and hanged himself, and died."
Zimri committed suicide because he lost the battle, the winning of which would have made him a king. Zimri usurped the throne from king Elah by killing him, and remained a king only for seven days. "Zimri's name became an epithet for one who murders his own master" (Eerdman's Bible Dictionary).
The New Testament records only one suicide. Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus and helped Roman soldiers to catch him. This led to Jesus' ultimate death on the cross. Judas' death is portrayed as a suicide driven by remorse.
3. RESPECT AND SANCTITY OF LIFE
Respect and sanctity of life is a common thread in the Bible. Jesus is considered Lord of life, not the lord of death. The New Testament declares that Jesus is life:
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." (John 11:25-26.)
"In him was life, and that life was the light of men." (John 1:4.)
Note that in all these references the Bible shows suicide as an act committed by individuals who were not virtuous or who, like the armor-bearer of Saul, committed suicide because they knew that they were going to be killed by would-be captors. Nothing that would show any appreciation for any of these incidents is recorded in the Bible. However, the paucity of reference to suicide does not mean that there were no suicides or only very few suicides committed in the society of the Bible. What is significant is that the Bible does not view committing suicide as a worthy act.
4. SUICIDE IN ISLAM
Islam means submission to the will of Allah. Since Allah has willed a lifespan for a Muslim, it is wrong for a Muslim to take his own life. A Muslim is expected to accept the life he is placed in as divine appointment. Allah has pre-ordained the time and manner of death for every individual. Although there is no explicit verse against suicide in the Qur'an, there are verses that clearly speak against killing. For example, Sura 3, verse 139 says that "it is not for any soul to die, except by Allah's permission written down for an appointed time." In Sura 4, verse 93, we are told that "it is not for a believer to kill a believer except by mistake." We also read, "whosoever kills a believer purposely, his reward is hell, to dwell therein for aye; and All will be wroth with him, and curse him, and prepare for him a mighty woe" (Sura 4:95). "Allah respites them until a stated time; and when their time comes they cannot put it off an hour, nor can they bring it on" (Sura 16:63). Taking one's own life amounts to disobedience to Allah. In the Hadith, which records the acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet is reported to have said, "Whosoever shall kill himself shall suffer in the fire of hell, and shall be excluded from heaven for ever." Since in the day-to-day life of a devout Muslim, modeling the Prophet becomes the most dominant way of Muslim life, we may easily conclude that there is no religious sanction for suicide in Islam.
The question of martyrdom, however, is treated on a separate plane altogether in Islam. We shall discuss this aspect of suicide in our next article, along with issues relating to martyrdom and suicide in general in various religions.
Statistics show that the suicide rate in Muslim communities around the world is lower than the same in the communities of other religions.
5. INDIAN SHRAMANA TRADITIONS: JAINISM AND BUDDHISM
The modern Indian political weapon "fast unto death" is indeed an old method used for spiritual purposes, especially for purification of sin. This was fine-tuned by Mahatma Gandhi, who said that he undertook fasts for indefinite lengths of time only for his own purification. However, when transferred to the political arena, it served the purpose of arousing the conscience of the people, both the oppressor and the oppressed, so to say. Jainism condemned the methods of suicide that were rapid or violent. For example, if some one commits suicide by throwing himself down from a cliff, it is believed that this person would be re-born as a demon. The highly approved method is to starve oneself to death in a slow process. But this starvation should be divorced from one's desire for death. The person renounces all food and drink, and waits patiently for death to arrive. He does not seek death, nor does he desire death. The process is deliberate and is not escapist, according to the teaching in Jainism. Suicide by starvation is an ascetic act, done at a specific time of maturity, highest perfection, in the life of the ascetic.
On the other hand, Buddhism takes the view that suicide is condemnable. This view flows from several angles. First of all, Gautama claimed that he would follow the Middle Way, a way between self-mortification and indulgence. Secondly, the first of the ten prohibitions that Gautama's original teaching advocated was "Kill not any living organism." From this it follows then that a human being should not kill himself. If this present condition from which a person wishes to escape by committing suicide is a consequence of one's own past life, any attempt to take one's life to escape from the present condition would be a vain attempt to negate the consequence of karma. There are other ways of seeking realization, and suicide is a condemnable act. No one should commit suicide in order to reach nirvana faster and easier. A person seeking nirvana does not care to live, or to die. He does not care for life, nor does he seek death. An early Buddhist text states, "If a monk should intentionally take the life of a human being or of one like a human being, with his own hand, or with a knife, or by having him assassinated, then he has fallen into an offence which deserves expulsion. And this applies also to a monk who incites others to self-destruction, and who speaks to them in praise of death, with such words as, 'O man, what is the use to you of this miserable life? It is better for you to die than be alive!' (One of the 250 rules of monastic restraint, Pratimoksha Rules, Conze 1959. p. 74. Buddhist Scriptures. Penguin Books. Baltimore).
Buddhism does not accept suicide as an ascetic instrument to obtain nirvana. However, there are instances narrated in the Buddhist texts in which some individuals tried to commit suicide because they were not able to concentrate on their progress towards nirvana. These individuals are said to have attained nirvana while in the process of committing suicide. They did not actually commit suicide, but they attempted it because of frustration. Yet in the very process these individuals were shown to attain their nirvana or Arhat status. We read also that Gautama Buddha decided to enter into final rest himself when the appropriate time arrived for this. The general understanding is that Living Buddhas have the right and inclination to cease when they realize that they have done what they had to do. They can abandon life in a quiet way just as Gautama did. In other words, illustrious individuals can choose to leave this world as they deem fit. Voluntary death, thus, is not despised at another level of Buddhism.
6. HINDU SACRED TEXTS
It appears that early Hindu Vedic texts did not encourage or praise suicide as a religious or sacred ritual. Some scholars have suggested that certain sayings in the Brahmanas which state that the proper sacrifice is the sacrifice of man's self might have led to the later acceptance of suicide as a legitimate form of sacrifice. This interpretation is perhaps far-fetched. It is also argued in certain quarters that the ritual of leaving one's possession behind and entering or wandering into the forest was an attempt at early voluntary death. This interpretation also minimizes the importance of the spiritual quest that the ancients might have pursued in India. However, we do read in later texts, for example, in Kanthashruti Upanishads and various Dharmasutras that a fully mature sanyasin or ascetic might choose to die using various methods such as starvation, jumping from a higher ground, drowning, or self-immolation.
The last mentioned position is still held valid by the ritual-bound Hindu practitioners. It should, however, be mentioned, that Hinduism, like Jainism and Buddhism, distinguishes between religious suicide and secular suicide. While religious suicide is allowed, secular suicide is always looked down upon with contempt and horror. The religious suicide adumbrated in the texts mentioned above were allowed for individuals who had attained mature ascetic wisdom. It was not for all to follow. However, over the centuries, devotion to sectarian gods came to influence the design of religious suicide. Before this development, union with Paramatman (Universal Soul) was the goal of those who chose to end their lives on their own. When sectarian gods became prominent, people committed suicide to get united with their favorite sectarian gods. Recently in Tamilnadu, an entire family of young people committed suicide in their home while worshipping their favorite goddess, as a sacrifice to the goddess. Suicides committed by the devotees of Puri Jagannath have been reported or in circulation for many years.
7. HINDU FOLK PRACTICES
A. Berrieddale Keith writes, (p. 35)
The wide-spread nature of the custom, and its prevalence both with and without Brahmanical sanction, are attested by H. T. Colebrooke from personal observation just at the opening of the 19th century. In 1802 the legislature intervened to prevent the practice of suicide on the island of Sagar (in Bengal), at the mouth of the Ganges, where, in pursuance of vows, not only were children cast into the sea to be devoured by sharks, but grownup persons voluntarily underwent the same fate. This practice was confined to the lower castes, as was also the custom by which men used annually to hurl themselves from a precipice in the mountains south of the Narmada, sacred to Kalbhairo, in fulfillment of vows undertaken at an earlier period. This rite was carried out by mountaineers; great concourses gathered at the place on the new moon of Phalguna, the day appointed for the ceremony, and it is significant of the passion for public recognition as part of the motive of such suicides that the man meditating this fate was wont to proclaim his intention publicly and, attended by a band of musicians, to promenade in the neighbouring towns collecting alms. On the other hand, not only did the practice of sati flourish under Bharmanical auspices, but the custom of suicide by drowning at the specially holy spot of the junction of the Jumna and the Ganges was approved, while the practice of lepers consenting to burial alive was promoted by the grant of obsequies which were otherwise denied. The Saivas also allowed suicide by cutting the throat before the image of Bhavani in the temple of Vindhyavasini, near Mirzapur. Interference with these rites was gradual, but the final adoption of the principle of treating as a criminal offence participation in a ritual suicide has deprived the act of much of its religious character, though it is, of course, impossible to prevent suicide on the part of those who regard such a fate as a logical outcome of the religious convictions which they hold.
While the incidents narrated above may not be frequent in India now, we do hear about such things now and then.
Study of suicide in lesser known ethnic groups such as the tribal communities is not readily available to me. However, as Professor Mike Leeming points out in a personal communication to me, "there have been strong traditions of allowing oneself to starve to death or (in winter) to freeze to death among the native North Americans, once they believe that they have passed their purpose for living or have simply become too old to be of any value to their tribe or band."
8. COUNSELING AGAINST RELIGIOUS SUICIDE
Do we counsel against religiously motivated suicide? Why should we counsel against religiously motivated suicide? And how do we do it? These are very delicate questions. However, from the point of view of a universal human plane, I believe that we ought to take a position in favor of life, and not death.
It is possible that taking such a position may come into conflict with social traditions and folk beliefs. However, from the short presentation I've made of the various positions from different religions that regulate the life of the average people, regarding giving up one's life, we find that even where giving up one's life voluntarily appears to be sanctioned, such sanctions are allowed to a limited number of people with extra-ordinary attainments, and for purely personal spiritual reasons.
Traditional practices may degenerate into harmful practices, and suicide committed for cult practices by zealots should be viewed in this light. It is possible that even those people who are not religious zealots may justify their suicidal attempts based on their understanding of their religious belief and practices. It is important to point out to them that there is a natural law in all our hearts, and this may be something beyond any specific sectarian religious belief we hold. Preservation of life is part of this natural law ingrained in all our hearts. Through suicide nothing really is achieved. It puts the closely related kith and kin in sorrow and shame, often for no fault of theirs.
What is most important is to help the person who failed in his suicidal attempt to regain zest for life. His or her reasoning would be very weak. So, reasoning alone would not be an adequate method. We need to build in him or her love for himself and others. Loving acts of kindness from people around him or her along with no hint of judgment and condemnation, and patience would be a good beginning. Such expressions of love would make them feel that their desperate act is forgiven graciously. Ultimately it will become very important for these people to review their own understanding of religion.
Holy Bible, New International Version.
Thirumalai, M. S. Counseling Against Suicide. Counseling Against Suicide, in Christian Literature and Living, June 2003. (www. christianliteratureandliving.com).
Eerdman's Bible Dictionary
The Meaning of Holy Qur'an.
Edward Conze, 1959. Buddhist Scriptures. Penguin Books, Baltimore.
A. Berrieddale Keith. "Suicide (Hindu)." In James Hastings (Ed.). Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 12, (pp. 33-35). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955.