From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Thích Quảng Đức protesting the persecution of Buddhists by self-immolation on 11 June 1963.

Self-immolation is the act of setting oneself on fire. It is mostly done for political or religious reasons, often as a form of protest or in acts of martyrdom. Due to its disturbing and violent nature, it is considered one of the most extreme methods of protest.[1]


The English word immolation originally meant (1534) "killing a sacrificial victim; sacrifice" and came to figuratively mean (1690) "destruction, especially by fire". Its etymology was from Latin immolare "to sprinkle with sacrificial meal (mola salsa); to sacrifice" in ancient Roman religion.[2][3] In the Mewar region of India, women practiced a form of self-immolation called Jauhar to avoid being raped by invading armies.[citation needed]


Self-immolators frequently use accelerants before igniting themselves. This, combined with the self-immolators' refusal to protect themselves, can produce hotter flames and deeper, more extensive burns.[4] Self-immolation has been described as excruciatingly painful. Later the burns become severe, nerves are burnt and the self-immolator loses sensation at the burnt areas. Some self-immolators can die during the act from inhalation of toxic combustion products, hot air, and flames.[5]

The human body has an inflammatory response to burnt skin, which happens after 25% is burnt in adults. This response leads to blood and body fluid loss. If the self-immolator is not taken to a burn centre in less than four hours, they are more likely to die from shock. If no more than 80% of their body area is burnt and the self-immolator is younger than 40 years old, there is a survival chance of 50%. If the self-immolator has over 80% burns, the survival rate drops to 20%.[6]


The self-immolation (jauhar) of the Rajput women, during the Siege of Chittorgarh in 1568

Self-immolation is tolerated by some elements of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India, for various reasons, including jauhar, political protest, devotion, and renouncement. An example from mythology includes the practice of Sati when the Hindu goddess Parvati's incarnation of the same name (see also Daksayani) legendarily set herself on fire after her father insulted her in Daksha Yajna for having married Shiva, the ascetic god. Shiva, Parvati and their army of ghosts attacked Daksha's Yajna and destroyed the sacrifice and Shiva beheaded Daksha and killed Daksha. Later, Daksha was revived by him and Daksha Yajna was completed when Daksha apologized. Certain warrior cultures, such as those of the Charans and Rajputs, also practiced self-immolation.[citation needed]

There are several well-known examples from antiquity to modern times. Kalanos, also spelled Calanus (Ancient Greek: Καλανὸς)[7] (c. 398 – 323 BCE), was an ancient Indian gymnosophist,[8][9][10][11] and philosopher from Taxila[12] who accompanied Alexander the Great to Persis and later, after falling ill, self-immolated by entering into a pyre, in front of Alexander and his army. Diodorus Siculus called him Caranus (Ancient Greek: Κάρανος).[13]

Zarmanochegas was a monk of the Sramana tradition (possibly, but not necessarily a Buddhist) who, according to ancient historians such as Strabo and Dio Cassius, met Nicholas of Damascus in Antioch around 22 BC and burnt himself to death in Athens shortly thereafter.[14][15]

The monk Fayu (Chinese: 法羽) (d. 396) carried out the earliest recorded Chinese self-immolation.[16] He first informed the "illegitimate" prince Yao Xu (Chinese: 姚緒)—brother of Yao Chang who founded the non-Chinese Qiang state Later Qin (384–417)—that he intended to burn himself alive. Yao tried to dissuade Fayu, but he publicly swallowed incense chips, wrapped his body in oiled cloth, and chanted while setting fire to himself. The religious and lay witnesses were described as being "full of grief and admiration".

Following Fayu's example, many Buddhist monks and nuns have used self-immolation for political purposes. While some monks did offer their bodies in periods of relative prosperity and peace, there is a "marked coincidence" between acts of self-immolation and times of crisis, especially when secular powers were hostile towards Buddhism.[17] For example, Daoxuan's (c. 667) Xu Gaoseng Zhuan (Chinese: 續高僧傳; lit. 'Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks') records five monastics who self-immolated on the Zhongnan Mountains in response to the 574–577 persecution of Buddhism by Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou (known as the "Second Disaster of Wu").[18]

A Hindu widow burning herself with the corpse of her husband (sati), 1657

For many monks and laypeople in Chinese history, self-immolation was a form of Buddhist practice that modeled and expressed a particular path that led towards Buddhahood.[17]

Historian Jimmy Yu has stated that self-immolation cannot be interpreted based on Buddhist doctrine and beliefs alone but the practice must be understood in the larger context of the Chinese religious landscape. He examines many primary sources from the 16th and 17th century and demonstrates that bodily practices of self-harm, including self-immolation, were ritually performed not only by Buddhists but also by Daoists and literati officials who either exposed their naked body to the sun in a prolonged period of time as a form of self-sacrifice or burned themselves as a method of procuring rain.[19]

During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as "fire baptism" (self-burners: samosozhigateli).[20] A 1973 study by a prison doctor suggested that people who choose self-immolation as a form of suicide are more likely to be in a "disturbed state of consciousness", such as epilepsy.[21]

Political protest[edit]

Regarding self-immolation as a form of political protest, the 14th Dalai Lama said in 2013 and 2015:

I think the self-burning itself [is a] practice of non-violence. These people, you see, they [could instead] easily use bomb explosive, [causing more casualties]. But they didn't do that. Only sacrifice their own life. So this also is part of practice of non-violence.[22][23]

Self-immolations are often public and political statements that are often reported by the news media. They can be seen by others as a type of altruistic suicide for a collective cause, and are not intended to inflict physical harm on others or cause material damage.[24]

South Vietnam Buddhist crisis[edit]

The Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam saw the persecution of the country's majority religion under the administration of Catholic president Ngô Đình Diệm. Several Buddhist monks, including the most famous case of Thích Quảng Đức, immolated themselves in protest.[citation needed]

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War[edit]

The example set by self-immolators in the mid 20th century sparked similar acts between 1963 and 1971, most of which occurred in Asia and the United States in conjunction with protests opposing the Vietnam War. Researchers counted almost 1000 self-immolations covered by The New York Times and The Times.[25]

On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, an anti-war activist, doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire below the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, to protest United States involvement in the Vietnam War.[26]

Soviet bloc[edit]

The memorial to Romas Kalanta in Kaunas in the place of his self-immolation. The inscription reads Romas Kalanta 1972.

In 1968, the practice spread to the Soviet bloc with the self-immolation of Polish accountant and Armia Krajowa veteran Ryszard Siwiec, as well as those of two Czech students, Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, and of toolmaker Evžen Plocek, in protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In 1972, Romas Kalanta, a 19-year-old Lithuanian student self-immolated to protest against the Soviet regime in Lithuania, sparking the 1972 unrest in Lithuania; another 13 people self-immolated in that same year.[27]

In 1978, Ukrainian dissident and former political prisoner Oleksa Hirnyk burnt himself near the tomb of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko protesting against the russification of Ukraine under Soviet rule. On 2 March 1989, Liviu Cornel Babeș set himself on fire on the Bradu ski slope at Poiana Brașov as a sign of protest against the communist regime.[citation needed]

India and Sri Lanka[edit]

In India, as many as 1,451 and 1,584 self-immolations were reported in 2000 and 2001, respectively.[28] A particularly high wave of self-immolation was recorded during the Mandal Commission protests of 1990 against the caste-based system of reservation.[24] Tamil Nadu has the highest number of self-immolators in India to date, although not all of them were politically motivated.[29] Tamils in Indian and Sri Lanka have protested against the imposition of the Hindi language, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and their mistreatment by the Sri Lankan government.[30][31][32]

Tibetans in China[edit]

As of April 2022, there were 161 confirmed self-immolations in Tibet and 10 others made in solidarity outside of Tibet.[33][34][35] The 14th Dalai Lama has spoken with respect and compassion for those who engage in self-immolation and has placed the blame on "cultural genocide" by the Chinese.[36] The Chinese government claims that he and the exiled Tibetan government are inciting these acts.[37] In 2013, the Dalai Lama questioned the effectiveness of self-immolation but also expressed that the Tibetans were doing so of their own free will and could not be influenced by him to stop.[38]

Arab Spring[edit]

A wave of self-immolation suicides occurred in conjunction with the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and North Africa, with at least 14 recorded incidents. The 2010–2011 Tunisian revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi.[39] Other cases followed during the 2011 Algerian protests and the 2011 Egyptian revolution.[40][41]

Israel/Palestine Conflict[edit]

A vigil to Aaron Bushnell held outside of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.

Two Israelis self-immolated in protest of the Israeli military and forced civilian evacuation of the Gaza strip.[42][43]

On 1 December 2023, a protester self-immolated in front of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta while draped in a Palestinian flag in response to the Israel–Hamas war.[44]

On 25 February 2024, Aaron Bushnell,[45] an active-duty U.S. Air Force service member, self-immolated outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., in protest against the United States' ongoing support for Israel. He lit himself on fire while shouting "Free Palestine".[46][47] It was filmed and livestreamed on Twitch.[48] Bushnell died of his injuries on 26 February.[49]

At the trial of Donald Trump[edit]

On 19 April 2024, a man named Maxwell Azzarello self-immolated in front of the Manhattan courthouse where Donald Trump is currently being tried for falsifying business records.[50] Azzarello would die soon afterward.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dvorak, Petula (30 May 2019). "Self-immolation can be a form of protest. Or a cry for help. Are we listening?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 30 May 2019. Retrieved 29 August 2021.
  2. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary, 2009, 2nd ed., v. 4.0, Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ "immolate", Oxford Dictionaries.
  4. ^ Santa Maria, Cara (9 April 2012). "Burn Care, Self-Immolation: Pain And Progress". Huffington Post. Retrieved 22 January 2021.
  5. ^ Tvaruzkova, Lucie (26 April 2003). "What does death by burning mean?". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 January 2021.
  6. ^ Alpert, Emily (15 February 2012). "What happens after people set themselves on fire?". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 22 January 2021.
  7. ^ Plutarch, Life of Alexander, §8
  8. ^ Wheeler, James Talboys (1973). The History of India: India from the earliest ages: Hindu, Buddhist, and Brahmanical revival. Cosmo Publications. pp. 171–72. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  9. ^ Hunter, W.W. (2005). The Indian empire : its people, history, and products (1886). New Delhi: Asian Educational Services. p. 169. ISBN 9788120615816.
  10. ^ Hunter, William Wilson (1887). The Imperial Gazetteer of India. Trübner & Company. p. 173. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  11. ^ Classica Et Mediaevalia. Librairie Gyldendal. 1975. pp. 271–76. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  12. ^ Halkias, Georgios (2015). "The Self-immolation of Kalanos and other Luminous Encounters Among Greeks and Indian Buddhists in the Hellenistic World". Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 8: 163–186. Retrieved 30 May 2015.
  13. ^ Diodorus Siculus, Library, 17.107.1
  14. ^ Strabo, xv, 1, on the immolation of the Sramana in Athens (Paragraph 73).
  15. ^ Dio Cassius, liv, 9; see also Halkias, Georgios "The Self-immolation of Kalanos and other Luminous Encounters among Greeks and Indian Buddhists in the Hellenistic world". Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, Vol. VIII, 2015: 163–186 [1]
  16. ^ Benn (2007), 33–34.
  17. ^ a b (2007), 199.
  18. ^ Benn (2007), 80–82.
  19. ^ Yu, Jimmy (2012), Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500–1700, Oxford University Press, 115–130.
  20. ^ Coleman, Loren (2004). The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. New York: Paraview Pocket-Simon and Schuster. p. 46. ISBN 0-7434-8223-9.
  21. ^ Prins, Herschel (2010). Offenders, Deviants or Patients?: Explorations in Clinical Criminology. Taylor & Francis. p. 291. Topp ... suggested that such individuals ... have some capacity for splitting off feelings from consciousness. ... One imagines that shock and asphyxiation would probably occur within a very short space of time so that the severe pain ... would not have to be endured for too long.
  22. ^ "Dalai Lama shares wisdom on dissent, death and politicians". ABC News (Australia). 13 June 2013. Archived from the original on 22 October 2013.
  23. ^ Thomas Kauffmann (2015). The Agendas of Tibetan Refugees: Survival Strategies of a Government-in-Exile in a World of Transnational Organizations. Berghahn Books. pp. 70–. ISBN 978-1-78238-283-6.
  24. ^ a b Biggs, Michael (2005). "Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963–2002" (PDF). In Diego Gambetta (ed.). Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929797-9.
  25. ^ Maris, Ronald W.; Alan Lee Berman; Morton M. Silverman; Bruce Michael Bongar (2000). Comprehensive textbook of suicidology. Guilford Press. p. 306. ISBN 978-1-57230-541-0.
  26. ^ "The Pacifists", Time Magazine, November 12, 1965; accessed July 23, 2007.
  27. ^ Anušauskas, Arvydas. "KGB reakcija į 1972 m. įvykius". Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. Retrieved 10 August 2023.
  28. ^ Coleman, Loren (2004). The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. New York: Paraview Pocket-Simon and Schuster. p. 66. ISBN 0-7434-8223-9.
  29. ^ "Self-immolation cases in Tamil Nadu much above national average". Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  30. ^ "DMK MP video controversy: How 1965 anti-Hindi protests changed Tamil Nadu's political landscape". Hindustan Times. 27 December 2023. Retrieved 17 April 2024.
  31. ^ "Man self-immolates protesting 'move to impose Hindi on Tamil Nadu'". The Times of India. 26 November 2022. ISSN 0971-8257. Retrieved 17 April 2024.
  32. ^ "Self-immolation entwined in Dravidian movement". The Times of India. 30 January 2009. ISSN 0971-8257. Retrieved 17 April 2024.
  33. ^ Marie Simon, interview of Katia Buffetrille, "Se sacrifier par le feu pour que le Tibet reste tibétain", first published 29/03/2012
  34. ^ Free Tibet. "Tibetan Monk Dies After Self-Immolating in Eastern Tibet". Retrieved 20 May 2017.
  35. ^ "Tibetan dies after self-immolation, reports say". Fox News. 21 July 2013.
  36. ^ "Teenage Tibetan monk self-immolates, dies: rights group". Reuters. 19 February 2012. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  37. ^ "Teenage monk sets himself on fire on 53rd anniversary of failed Tibetan uprising". The Telegraph. London. 13 March 2012. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  38. ^ "Dalai Lama doubts effect of Tibetan self-immolations". The Daily Telegraph. London. 13 June 2013. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022.
  39. ^ Lageman, Thessa. "Remembering Mohamed Bouazizi: The man who sparked the Arab Spring". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 27 February 2024.
  40. ^ "Self-immolation spreads across Mideast inspiring protest". The Jerusalem Post | 25 January 2011. Retrieved 17 March 2023.
  41. ^ "Second Algerian dies from self-immolation: official". Retrieved 17 March 2023.
  42. ^ "For the Land She Loved to Death". Haaretz. Retrieved 5 March 2024.
  43. ^ וייס, אפרת (6 September 2005). "מת מפצעיו הצעיר שהצית עצמו בגלל ההתנתקות". Ynet (in Hebrew). Retrieved 5 March 2024.
  44. ^ Fiallo, Josh (1 December 2023). "Pro-Palestine Protester Sets Herself Ablaze Outside Atlanta Consulate". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 13 January 2024.
  45. ^ Gannon, Casey; Hansler, Jennifer; Rose, Rashard (26 February 2024). "US airman dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli Embassy in Washington". CNN. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  46. ^ Kavi, Aishvarya (25 February 2024). "Man Dies After Setting Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington, Police Say". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  47. ^ Robertson, Nick (25 February 2024). "Man sets himself on fire outside Israeli Embassy in DC". The Hill. Retrieved 25 February 2024.
  48. ^ Nieto, Phillip (25 February 2024). "Air Force Service Member Sets Himself On Fire Outside Israeli Embassy". Mediaite. Archived from the original on 26 February 2024. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  49. ^ Geoghegan, Tom; Epstein, Kayla (26 February 2024). "Aaron Bushnell: US airman dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli embassy in Washington". BBC News. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  50. ^ "Man sets himself on fire outside Trump trial court". The Telegraph. 19 April 2024. Retrieved 19 April 2024.
  51. ^ [= "Man who set himself on fire outside Trump trial dies of injuries, police say"]. Associated Press. 20 April 2024. Retrieved 20 April 2024. {{cite news}}: Check |url= value (help)


External links[edit]