If you’re going to do something as extreme, impetuous, and possibly ill-considered as setting yourself on fire, it would at least make sense to do it in the name of some higher cause.
So far this year, eleven Tibetan Buddhists have torched their skinny little yellow Buddhist bodies to protest Chinese restrictions on their religious rights, reportedly leading some Chinese riot police to carry fire extinguishers. The most recent self-immolation happened on Thursday when a Buddhist nun in Sichuan Province went down in self-inflicted flames alongside a public road.
The Tibetan nun’s self-barbecuing comes on the flaming heels of a Pakistani’s red-hot self-extinction in front of the Parliament House in Islamabad on October 25 and a group of a dozen disabled Egyptians who on October 31, despite their disabilities, threatened that they were physically able to set themselves aflame and “ignite a second revolution” if government officials failed to listen to their demands about enabling the disabled’s abilities to have “rights” or something.
It is widely agreed that the flashpoint of this year’s much-ballyhooed Arab Spring was last December’s gasoline-soaked auto-incineration of humble Tunisian fruit-and-veggie vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose bold act inspired copycat politico-Islamic self-immolators in Algeria, Mauritania, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Lighting a fire under one’s own ass for political purposes was a hallowed practice amid Soviet-bloc protesters protesting against the Soviets blocking their ability to protest. The most famous (they’ve named streets after him and written songs about him) was Jan Palach, who in January of 1969 self-cremated in defiance of the Soviets’ Occupy Czechoslovakia movement. It took Palach three days to die in the hospital, during which he cautioned his supporters against self-immolation because if you survive, it’s REALLY PAINFUL. A month later, another Czech ignored his advice and self-incinerated at the precise spot where Palach had. Preceding Palach’s auto-bonfire by four months was the highly public suicide of Polish soldier Ryszard Siwiec, who lit himself ablaze in front of an estimated 100,000 witnesses at a Warsaw stadium, also in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Perhaps history’s most famous incident of political self-immolation was 1963’s pictorially iconic self-oxidation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who soaked himself with petrol and roasted himself like a marshmallow while sitting motionless in the middle of a busy Saigon street. Legend—a very kooky legend—has it that Duc’s heart would not burn and is being kept in a safebox at the Reserve Bank of Vietnam. Although Duc was protesting South Vietnam’s persecution of Buddhists, dozens more Buddhist monks would exit this earthly plane amid self-imposed balls of fire throughout the 1960s to illustrate their opposition to the Vietnam War in what may be the most flagrantly psychotic manner that a human being can illustrate their opposition to something. Multiple starry-eyed American peaceniks in the 1960s followed suit, turning themselves into charcoal to illustrate their belief that the Vietnam War was not groovy at all.
Pacifist protesters have continued to torch themselves in opposition to the First Gulf War as well as the Iraq War. People have used their bodies as ideological kindling to make points about environmental issues, taxes, and even to oppose the Vatican’s stance on homosexuality, giving a vibrant new literal meaning to the term “flaming fag.”
Self-immolation is often more religious than political, with a long tradition centered chiefly in Hinduism and a splinter sect of the Russian Orthodox Church.
As far back as 316 BC, Greek observers noted how certain Indian wives sacrificed themselves atop their husbands’ funeral pyres. Known as sati, the practice was finally made illegal in 1829 by India’s British occupiers. It is estimated that merely in the fifteen years that preceded the British ban, around 8,000 grieving Hindu widows indulged in self-pyromania. Although still illegal in India, it’s estimated that the giant nation of one billion toll-free computer-software support-line operators saw 1,451 self-immolations in 2000 and 1,584 in 2001.
From the late 1600s to the late 1800s, a staggering 20,000 or so members of a Russian Orthodox splinter sect known as the Old Believers toasted themselves to death, often locking themselves in wooden church buildings and committing “fire baptism” en masse. In the mid-1800s, another Russian lunatic sect known as the Soshigateli, AKA the “self-burners,” burned an estimated 1,700 or more of themselves.
We suppose it’s good to believe in something. But is it good to believe in it that much? And is it worth dying for the cause of a better future if you won’t be around to enjoy it? What’s the purpose of “taking one for the team” if you’ll miss being sprayed with champagne in the clubhouse?
There ain’t no mistakin’ it—setting oneself ablaze, especially, say, in Times Square on New Year’s Eve or at the 50-yard-line during the Super Bowl, is a real attention-getter. It’s a very extreme example of what a Certified Social Worker might call “acting-out behavior.”
Way to go, drama queen. We get it. You are NOT bluffing. This convinces us WAY more than if you had only given up donuts for Lent. We may not agree with your cause, but pardon us for questioning your sincerity.
Your sanity is another matter.
Sitting there amid the flames that are licking away at their very existence, has any of these self-immolators ever thought, “Whoa—BAD decision! Should NOT have set myself on fire! What the HELL was I thinking?” And of the ones who survived, how many of them lie wrapped up like a mummy in the ICU thinking, “I am the biggest asshole that ever lived”?
Ultimately, what’s worth more—one’s body or one’s ideas? It’s best to take it on a case-by-case-basis. It depends on the body. And the ideas.
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