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Religion & Culture: Saved by suicide! - Can the taking of one’s life ever be justified?

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
A Sri Lankan Buddhist monk walks after setting himself on fire outside the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, to protest the slaughter of cattle for meat.

There is reticence, shame a taboo surrounding suicide. It is a subject that evokes pain, longing and guilt.

Orthodox religions have long held that suicide is reviled by God. There is also a misplaced sentiment that victims are psychologically weak and unable to cope with onerous challenges. Medical research has proven otherwise.

There are chemical, physiological, even genetic, factors at play (Science Daily, October 7, 2011) and enough proof that no God will smite individuals who are innately hamstrung.

Surely, the sin factor is ludicrous, at best. The study of suicide is a complex one as sociologist Emile Durkheim proved. He identified and grappled with four patterns of this act: anomic (caused by dramatic social and economic upheaval); egoistic (caused by weak or little social bonds); fatalistic (a result of oppressive social conditions); and altruistic (an act committed to protect or benefit others).

Here, I explore suicide as a deliberate, intentional and wilful act that is perceived as inherently noble. While sharing some features of Durkheim's altruistic suicide, it goes further.

It can be called revolutionary because the very act can change the course of history. It is also revolutionary because it redefines the meaning of human dignity and the purpose of life.

The right to life is called inalienable and said to be a spiritual gift that transcends every other right inscribed under temporal law. The safeguarding and procurement of life is instinctive.

Life is precious. All religions find consensus on this subject. The taking of life is held as a violation of God's commandment, hence, the stigma or stain associated with murder and suicide.

Ironically, many commit suicide because of their unflinching belief in life's sanctity. History is littered with cases of individuals who have ended their lives when faced with existential crises that threatened to violate, immolate and desecrate their bodies, and essentially their being. In a paradoxical way, they "destroyed" their lives to protect it.

Many African slaves committed suicide and infanticide rather than succumb to the most egregious crime in history. In a review of Terri L. Snyder's groundbreaking book, The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America, we learn that the history of slavery in early America is a history of suicide.

On ships crossing the Atlantic, enslaved men and women refused to eat or leaped in to the ocean. They strangled or hanged themselves. They tore open their own throats. In America, they jumped into rivers or out of windows, or even ran into burning buildings. Faced with the reality of enslavement, countless Africans chose death instead.

In 73 CE, roughly 967 Jews facing imminent death at the hands of the Romans killed themselves during the siege of Masada (the eastern edge of the Judaean Desert that overlooks the Red Sea).

Contemporary Jews revere the event as a testament a symbol of resistance, heroism, faith, and steadfastness.

In World War 2, German civilians in Demmin committed mass suicide as the Red Army, thirsty for revenge, advanced on the defenceless town. The fear of wanton slaughter and mass rape, trademarks of Russian atrocities in captured territories, no doubt spurred this action.

And in a different theatre of that war, thousands of Japanese civilians in Saipan heeded the counsel of Emperor Hirohito, whose order "promised civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat".




In a searing excerpt from In Agony of Women during the Partition of India in 1947 (published October 19, 2013 in the Express Tribune), we read this harrowing eyewitness account of women choosing the most extreme measure to resist mass rape; in other words, to preserve their dignity:

"They sobbed desperately as they jumped into the well. In about half an hour, the well was full of bodies. I went closer and realised that those who were on top were trying to submerge their heads. No space remained. A few came up and jumped again. It was a terrible scene. They were determined to die rather than sacrifice their honour."

Sometimes, revolutionary suicide is used in a selfless way, that is, to highlight an injustice, to make a statement on inhumanity. In the 1960s, the Vietnam War polarised America, triggering mass protests and incarceration, pitting the United States government against nations and its own people.

Indiscriminate bombing runs, and the My Lai massacre, in particular, tore into the conscience of Americans. The self-immolation (suicide) of a Buddhist monk to protest an unconscionable war was catalytic, arguably the pivotal moment in an emerging global struggle against imperialism.

This act became the anti-war symbol; a revolutionary stand that proved transformational, and moreover, altruistic and selfless.

In exchange for his life, he might have saved thousands in the process. While this suicidal act could be easier to fathom, even embrace, some still balk at the far more radical decision to kill the body to protect its sanctity as women facing genocidal rape amid war and utter destruction have done.

But if for a moment we peer deeper into the meaning of human dignity, this action is nothing short of an exercise in reverence for God, self, heritage, and progeny.

It is a profound understanding of the divine properties of body, spirit and soul. Indeed, in their defencelessness, these women have waged the most formidable, if not spiritual, resistance against evil.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity now available as an audiobook at Amazon. Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby