On December 17, 2010 a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouaziz set himself on fire, just weeks later the country’s government was toppled.
Seeing a human body erupt in flames is just as disturbing today as it was in 1963 when Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc sat still in Saigon while fellow monks doused him in gasoline and set him ablaze, an event which inspired copy-cat self-immolators around the world. But the practice by no means began there.
The first incidence of self-immolation can be traced to first century China, when an official trying to induce rain during a drought set himself ablaze. The practice appears more prominently with the story of Sati, a Hindu goddess of marital felicity and longevity. Sati’s father was a powerful king named Daksha, who had grand designs for his daughter. But Sati had become utterly devoted to the Hindu God Shiva. As she grew older marriage proposals rained down from rich and valiant kings but Sati pined for nobody but Shiva. To win his regard she fled her father’s palace and hid in the forest, where she lived an austere life, eating only one bilva leaf a day. Eventually she even gave that up.
Noticing her incredible resolve, Shiva agreed to marry her. Sati returned home elated but her father was furious. The wedding was held but Sati’s father cut her off from the family. He hosted a party and invited all the Gods but Sati and Shiva. She went anyway, thinking his omission a mistake, but she was received coldly by the king. Enraged and humiliated, Sati recited a prayer, requesting that sometime in the future she be born to a father she would be able to respect. Invoking her yogic powers, she then set herself on fire.
Just as happened in Tunisia, revolt was the result. The maddened Shiva created a pair of ferocious creatures that murdered virtually everyone who had been present at the party, Sati’s father was decapitated. And as has happened with Mohamed Bouaziz, Sati’s actions were imitated. References to self-immolation are peppered throughout Hindi and Buddhist texts, but one of the most interesting examples actually comes from Christianity.
The Soshigateli, or self-burners, were devout Russian Christians who regarded death by fire as “the only means of purification from the sins and pollution of the world.” Between 1855 and 1875 groups of soshigateli numbering 15 to 100 burned themselves in large pits or dry buildings filled with brushwood. “About the year 1867 no less than seventeen hundred are reported to have voluntarily chosen death by fire near Tumen, in the Eastern Ural Mountains,” says Charles William Heckethorn, in his book, The secret societies of all ages and countries. These Christians were actually mimicking a form of self-immolation called “fire baptism” practiced by a 17th century Russian sect of Christianity known as the Old Believers.
A year after Quang Duc’s self-immolation, a Tamil laborer named Chinnaswami set himself ablaze in India to protest against the encroachment of the Hindi language. A year later, with Hindi set to replace English as the official language of India, five more Tamils followed in his footsteps. In 1965, an elderly American Quaker woman set herself on fire to protest America’s occupation of Vietnam and several months later a Quaker man, disturbed by the war, set himself on fire outside the Pentagon. Just days afterward a Catholic man who had once trained for monastic life assumed the lotus position and set himself on fire in front of the United Nations—North Vietnam celebrated the event, issuing a stamp in his honor. Over the next few years cases of self-immolation followed in Malaysia, Japan and Czechoslovakia. Recently, a gruesome wave of self-immolation has spread among women in Afghanistan, often committed in response to spousal abuse.
And what is it like to watch one burn? Perhaps the most poignant words come from award-winning American journalist David Halberstam, who watched Quang Duc burn in Saigon: “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 flesh…Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gat