There are a few religious groups in South Asia that have practitioners that will self-immolate themselves for various reasons. Buddhism and Hinduism are well known for two specific instances where their followers committed themselves to the flames. Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist, set himself a-flame to help others by bringing awareness to the Catholic Diem regime that was tormenting Buddhists in South Vietnam during the 1960s. Roop Kanwar, a Rajput Hindu woman, sat upon her husband’s funeral pyre to become a sati in hopes of bringing better fortune to her husband’s family and community along with maintaining her husband’s good stature in the community. Both of these religious practitioners allowed themselves to be burned for the sake of others so that they could gain more from their own lives.
When discussing religion and politics one must be careful with how all information is interpreted. In our case, when discussing Buddhism in Vietnam, we must understand that the current government situation in Vietnam is communist with a Buddhist religious background. In this sense we may hear more concerning the death of the monk Thich Quang Duc as being completely patriotic rather than him going against the Catholic Diem regime that was in control of the city he immolated himself in during 1963. There are many different views on this situation but I have strived to look beyond the political views he was fighting for and discuss the selfless act that he performed so that others could be helped to achieve the same goals that he had, as a monk, to become enlightened.
There is a similar problem in discussing the performance of sati. Knowing that a woman who becomes a sati must enter the fire out of pure devotion is a good cover for those arguing for the practice of sati. It is bad to speak ill of a woman who has performed such an act because what if she was purely devoted and was coaxed to come off of the pyre. Witnesses may see this as her trying to get off of the pyre but her family pushing her back on. ‘So the woman who has taken a sincere vrat of sati quite literally becomes too hot to touch. Therefore, anyone who tries to restrain her will be burned in the process.’  It is also a huge worry that if she is touched there will be dire consequences to the person who does such. Therefore few people would try to stop her from committing herself to the flames in fear that she is a true sati. But all the same, once she is on a pyre she will be helping someone, her husband’s family, community, and her husband, no matter what her previous intentions were.
‘there is the question of the alleged degradation of women in the ideology of sati…These associations went with fears of woman, her power, and her special status in the cosmos. As a carrier of the ultimate principle of nature and the cosmic feminine principle, a woman was conceived to be the natural protector of her man. It was taken for granted that a man could not match her in piety, power, or will.’
There is also the fear, that once the woman becomes the goddess that she will bring wrath down upon those that do not believe in her truth. Knowing that, as a woman, she already had great power to throw down men, that she had protected her husband and became a sati in doing so, and that she now had the powers of a goddess to do her own bidding, she was feared even more and worshiped for her increased strength, power, and wisdom. This causes a problem because no witnesses can truly give an accurate description, knowing that they cannot speak ill of the woman becoming a sati.
There was one huge problem that was noted of the act of self immolation. In sacrificing oneself would one lose karma? The two sides of the argument: ‘if the motivation is selfless and pure, then merit will be gained; on the other hand, one will collect negative karma due to the violence involved and harm caused to others in the community.’ This is a problem in both the Buddhist and Hindu sense. With Buddhism, losing karma would definitely slow the advance to enlightenment as it would with Hinduism, preventing even a woman from moving up in her stature. With a woman performing an act such as sati she would be gaining a lot more than she would be losing by killing herself. Their selflessness, in killing themselves for others, gives them much more power than if they were committing suicide, killing themselves for no reason, losing karma.
‘Many mainstream South Asian religious actors aspire to die by their own hands, as it were, through a voluntary relinquishing of the life force.’ By doing this the idea of death looses the battle, in trying to inspire fear, which every person fights as they age. Death is often considered the reason that religions were first created in each culture.  Each culture used religion as ways to slow, prevent, and even stop death, as a way to know that one’s existence was not just ending but was continuing through reincarnation and on levels including heaven.  Some Buddhists believe that ‘by dying before death, by orchestrating the dissolution of one’s self before someone or something else (Time) does, one may live eternally in an immortal, invulnerable body.’ In some locations this became a common practice, burning portions of the body, so those who could sacrifice themselves could ‘shed light on a benighted world.’ Like with Hindu beliefs, a sacred place is created along with a person becoming sacred at the time of immolation due to the motivation of such a selfless act.
”I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” –David Halberstam
On June 11, 1963, the 67 year old monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, named Thich Quang Duc, sat at a street corner in Saigon, the common day Ho Chi Minh City, and lit a match, causing him and his gasoline soaked robes to go up in flames. This act was planned for many weeks as the monk used meditative preparation so that he could calmly burn for his cause, so that he could bring attention to the policies of the Catholic Diem regime that had been controlling the South Vietnamese government. The Catholic Diem regime, at one particular demonstration, ‘had banned the use of Buddhist flags despite Vietnam’s Buddhist population, ordered the flags torn down, and the crowd dispersed. Government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing seven children and one woman.’ There were over 300 monks that came in protest along with Duc and prevented emergency crews from reaching the scene and from stopping him from his immolation.  Very little of the world knew that this was happening and Duc awakened the world to the problems that were occurring in Vietnam.
Some scholars believe that Duc’s self-immolation was just a suicide act. Others think that he was just following the Buddhist scriptures from the Lotus Sutra. In the Lotus Sutra, the bodhisattva Medicine King makes the offering of his own body to the Buddha by performing various acts of self-mutilation, including burning his body: “Anointing his body with fragrant oil….and calling on his transcendental powers, [he] set fire to his body…The Buddhas in these worlds simultaneously spoke out in praise, saying: ‘Excellent, excellent, good man! This is true diligence.’” A bodhisattva is “an enlightened being – one on the path to awakening who vows to forego complete enlightenment until he or she helps all other beings attain enlightenment.” Many Buddhists would follow the practice of mutilation and immolation but not to one’s whole body. It was a common practice in medieval Chinese Buddhism for one to terminate one’s own life by sacrificing the body in methods including fire.  Being a bodhisattva, Duc believed it was his duty to help others before he helped himself to achieve enlightenment, showing ‘great acts of selflessness.’  ‘Thich Quang Duc self-immolated [himself] because he couldn’t stand the way the monks were treated…His self-immolation tried to show how much he loved Vietnam to be as a whole. People worshiped him as a ‘god.’ There is a little temple at the corner of that intersection where he died, so people can go and worship him.’ This makes it odd to hear that some called Duc’s actions suicide. He did a great thing for the country of Vietnam as a whole. He sacrificed himself so that others would have a better chance at life so that they would become closer to enlightenment through his practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh view on the monk’s death proves how he knew what he was doing and how much he wanted to help others.
“Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence….. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others…. I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of their oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.”–Thich Nhat Hanh
Duc hoped to achieve a freedom for the Buddhist community through his actions, or at least bring a larger awareness to the problem at hand. Luckily he achieved this through his actions. He did a truly great thing for the world as a whole, not just Vietnam, putting others needs and wellbeing ahead of his own life.
A Buddha or Buddhist that decides to cremate himself chooses to do so because it is either his time to leave the earth, because he has completed all he has to do, or to make a statement to the region to help others in their search for enlightenment by delaying his own achievement of enlightenment. A woman performing sati does such to remain a loyal wife to her husband, proving her chastity and assuring her husbands good name by preventing the future harm of herself by the means of others, or because she has been forced to commit herself to the fire so that her family may reap the fortunes from the site of her sati and the benefits of being related to a sati goddess, bringing both good and bad fortune. ‘Not only is the death of the sati descried as a self-willed act, but the pyres of truly virtuous widows are often said to spontaneously ignite.’ In the case of Buddhist auto cremation, the individual also is acting by self-will and lights his own fire, as Thich Quang Duc did. When the fire of a widow’s pyre spontaneously lights it is, in a way, saying that it is the will of the widow sitting upon it showing how her death was voluntary.  This was the view Roop Kanwar’s relatives, who I will later discuss, used to prove their innocence. Many witnesses did state that the pyre she was atop of did light spontaneously even though her husband’s youngest brother held the flame to the pyre.
Sati originally came from the goddess who was Siva’s first wife. She committed suicide because of an insult to her husband from her father. Sati’s death brought Siva down to the earth so that others would be able to worship him on earth. She sacrifices her body for the good of others just as when a Buddha performs self-immolation for the good of others to prove a point or bring attention to a cause. Now a ‘Sati can refer to the action or even whereby a woman is immolated on her husband’s pyre, to the woman who is at the center of this spectacle, or to Sati as a goddess. 
‘When a man died before his wife, it meant that the woman did not have sufficient sat to protect her husband from death. The only option left for a woman to reaffirm her chastity was to burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. She would bedeck herself in bright clothes, distribute her wealth among the poor, and sit on the pile of logs, placing their husband’s head in her lap and then ordering the fire to be lit. Her sat apparently protected her from feeling the pain as flames singed her clothes and burnt her flesh. She then transformed into Sati Maharani, the personification of chastity, the embodiment of wifely virtue, a goddess to be adorned by all women.’
Sati, another form of self-immolation ‘evokes great awe and respect among Hindus.’  A woman that decides to perform a sati is considered a very chaste woman. ‘A chaste woman is considered as holy as a celibate man. She is the foundation of human society, a being who has triumphed over primal urges and thus is worthy of adoration.’ When she stepped into the flames, ‘with the power of chastity, a sati could protect herself from all harm.’ She would not be harmed by the flames, but would release her body to the flames so that she could die in peace with her husband at her side. These flames were also a means of purification and some situations would call for a trial by fire, or agni-pariksah. This is a similar practice and ‘if fire did not harm her, it meant she possessed sat by remaining true to her husband’ proving her chastity. Fire was a way to assure that a woman would remain faithful, in fear that she would be put under trial or that the circumstances she created would cause her husband to die, giving her the need to perform a sati and burn herself.  Buddhists also see fire as a purifying substance, often using it to partially purify themselves through self mutilation practices bringing them closer to enlightenment.
*relief of handprints of women who have performed sati*
‘If she is chaste, her husband is alive, her children healthy, and her household prosperous. She is respected in society as an auspicious suhagan and invited to all weddings and birth ceremonies. If she is unchaste, her household collapses and her husband dies. She becomes an inauspicious widow, shunned by all.’
After her husbands death she had a few choices. The problem with not performing sati was that the woman would be a danger to society; being a temptation of men and in such she would not be safe with the possibility of being raped. By committing sati she would be protecting her husband’s reputation, even more, by not allowing others to rape her, which would show less upon her husband’s image. Performing a sati also reaffirms their marital bonds, showing how she was a faithful wife in all situations. 
‘From the point of view of its partisans, sati is a means of avoiding widowhood. Since the husband is not considered really to have died until he is cremated (or, occasionally, buried), his wife has the brief time separating his physical death and his ritual one to avoid this undesirable state by joining him on his pyre. To adherents of ‘the religion of sati, ‘then, sati and widow are mutually exclusive categories; as one text says, a sati is a ‘nonwidow woman’ (avidhava nari).’
This practice keeps the woman safe while also protecting the community’s image of her and her husband. The image of a burning woman ‘usually expresses the notion that the woman is undergoing her death out of a sense of duty, even love, and in the belief that her self-sacrifice will bring great reward in a future incarnation.’ These thoughts bring good fortune to the families affected, knowing that there was a woman in the community that was capable of such self-sacrifice that she would immolate herself. In doing this she becomes a goddess worthy of worship by many people.
A woman’s entire life is dictated by the men around her. As a daughter she is told what to do by her father. She is then given to a husband of her fathers choosing, who she then follows the instruction of until his death. When her husband has died it is her duty to perform a sati, following her husband’s needs, and killing herself. This question to commit sati, or not, is not really her question to answer. The family of her husband would be pushing her to remain loyal to her husband even in his death. ‘Today, even when a widow independently decides to commit suicide, that independence cannot but be imperfect. For one can never be sure that her family, her village, and her caste, motivated by common greed and the hunt for higher status, have not pushed her into it.’ When you look at a sati to determine whether it was the woman’s own wishes to die by flames it is hard to determine who chose what she would do and why she would do it. There is the possibility that she would choose this of her own free will, but did she choose to do so because it is what was instilled in her mind from all society as a young girl or was it her own idea to continue to be loyal to her husband in his death. There have been many structures put in place to guard against the sati of women who were being pressured into it by others. One system that I consider to be one worth while was put into effect by Mughal emperors. This system required a woman to get permission from the emperor to perform the sati. The emperor would give her gifts of land and wealth to stop her from performing a sati. If she truly wanted to die with her husband she would be persistent and eventually would be allowed to become a sati. The government would use time to weaken those who were being pressured into performing sati thereby stopping the women from killing themselves needlessly. This program is productive in insuring that the only women who perform sati are truly virtuous women who would like to help others through her death, including her husband’s image, his family, and their community.
The act of sati was first abolished in 1829 with ‘the glorification of sati’ being abolished much later in 1987.  The abolishment of the glorification was done due to the death, murder, suicide, and sati of an 18 year old girl, Roop Kanwar in September of that year, who burned to death on her husband pyre. Her death was first considered to be a ‘dowry death’ in which the in-laws would murder their daughter-in-law due to the little dowry that she brought with her to the marriage. Her death was not a ‘dowry death.’ The dowry that Roop Kanwar came with was very substantial and could even be considered much more than was necessary for a woman of her stature considering the family she was going to. She was even educated having schooling up to 10th grade. The paraphernalia sold at her sati depicts her being a happy bride sitting on her pyre holding her husbands head on her lap, not as a woman struggling to escape torture and death. The paraphernalia suggests that her death was a happy one, not forced upon her by her husband’s family, but a death she welcomed with open arms for the sake of her husband’s memory.
In the case of Roop Kanwar, the government took no action to stop the festivities that went along with her sati even though it was against the law. ‘The state government had virtually abetted the glorification of sati by its silence and inaction.’ This added further troubles to determining if her act was that of a purely devoted wife. There was little investigation into the entire matter though what was found was not very helpful. It is not certain how Mal Singh, Roop Kanwar’s husband, died but it is suspicious. He had just failed his examinations to get into medical school twice and was suffering ‘from shock and depression.’ It was suspected that he possibly could have committed suicide because the evening of his death his doctoral visits were not properly documented and ‘no autopsy was ever performed.’ Roop Kanwar’s parents were not notified of her husband’s death until after she preformed her sati and was burned. It is possible that they were not informed because if they were presented during the sati she may have been more nervous and less likely to perform the act that she supposedly desired. All in all, family and heritage is important in Hindu culture and in Roop’s case her family heritage was very important in understand why she may have performed sati.
Roop Kanwar was a Rajput woman. These women were considered to be the only women who were capable of having the motivation to perform a sati due to their strong warrior culture and because their birth rights allowed them to have the strength necessary.  In some cases it is a predisposed thought, in the Rajput community, that all women must sacrifice themselves at the time of their husband’s death.  ‘In the traditional fashion, it is said she took her husband’s head in her hands as she seated herself on the pyre and submitted calmly to the flames. The force of her inner truth (sat) ignited the pyre, making it plain to profane eyes that she had been transformed from a human being into a goddess, a satimata.’ This shows how she was not forced upon the pyre, nor did she struggle to get off and save her life from the flames. ‘If there have been women who entered the fire out of pure devotion and a compelling confidence in the reality of rebirth and the effectiveness of self-sacrifice, these women must indeed be goddess, worthy to be venerated by the witnessing community.’ This predisposed idea, being a Rajput woman, may have made Roop feel obligated to become a sati even though she would be helping many people. It is unknown as to whether she was influenced or if she really wanted to help others with her act of sati.
By performing self immolation both Buddhists and Hindus hope to help others and they do help others whether they intend to or not. A Buddhist strives to help others through his burning otherwise it is very unlikely that he would perform such an act. Roop Kanwar, a Hindu woman, by performing sati, helped her husband’s image to be maintained and brought wealth and good fortune to her husband’s family and their community by becoming a goddess. Becoming a sati, the woman proves that she was a pure and virtuous wife able to be selfless and help others with her acts. Our bodhisattva, Thich Quang Duc, was also able to be selfless and give his life for his country so that others would be more likely to obtain enlightenment before himself and so that his country could be led out of horrible times to find freedom from the Catholic Diem regime. Both of these people were truly selfless, giving themselves up for the sake of others in their own separate manners, religions, and communities.
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