Self-immolation refers to setting oneself on fire
Fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Slower oxidative processes like rusting or digestion are not included by this definition....

, often as a form of protest or for the purposes of martyrdom or suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

. It has centuries-long traditions in some cultures, while in modern times it has become a type of radical political protest. Michael Biggs compiled a list of 533 "self-immolations" reported by Western media from the 1960s to 2002, though in this work his definition does not only include self-immolation by fire.


The word "immolate" is used in the English language when denoting consumption by fire, whether autonomously or imposed. The Latin-based English word immolate, which for centuries was rarely used, means sacrifice ones self, without any reference to burning, so more generally self-immolation means suicide without specifying the method. The word itself comes from the Latin "immolare", to sprinkle with meal, in reference to the ritual sprinkling of the heads of sacrificial victims with wine and fragments of mola salsa
Mola salsa
In ancient Roman religion, mola salsa was a mixture of coarse-ground, toasted emmer flour and salt prepared by the Vestal Virgins and used in every official sacrifice. It was sprinkled on the forehead and between the horns of animal victims before they were sacrificed, as well as on the altar and...


It was Western media coverage of Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest of the South Vietnam
South Vietnam
South Vietnam was a state which governed southern Vietnam until 1975. It received international recognition in 1950 as the "State of Vietnam" and later as the "Republic of Vietnam" . Its capital was Saigon...

ese regime in 1963 that introduced the word "self-immolation" to a wide English-speaking audience and gave it a strong association with fire. The alternative name bonzo comes from the same era, because the Buddhist monks
A Bhikkhu or Bhikṣu is an ordained male Buddhist monastic. A female monastic is called a Bhikkhuni Nepali: ). The life of Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis is governed by a set of rules called the patimokkha within the vinaya's framework of monastic discipline...

 who immolated themselves were often referred to by the term bonze in English literature prior to the mid-20th century, particularly when describing monks from East Asia and French Indochina. This term is derived via Portuguese
Portuguese language
Portuguese is a Romance language that arose in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia, nowadays Galicia and Northern Portugal. The southern part of the Kingdom of Galicia became independent as the County of Portugal in 1095...

 and French
French language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

 from the Japanese
Japanese language
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...

 word bonsō for a priest or monk, and has become less common in modern literature.


Self-immolation is tolerated by some elements of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism
Hinduism is the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of the Indian Subcontinent. Hinduism is known to its followers as , amongst many other expressions...

, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, for various reasons, including Sati
Sati (practice)
For other uses, see Sati .Satī was a religious funeral practice among some Indian communities in which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion would have immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre...

, political protest, devotion, and renouncement. Certain warrior cultures, such as in the Charan
Chāraṇ is the term for a caste living in the Gujarat and Rajasthan states of India. According to Shrimada Bhagwata Skand Charans were created along with other divine forms such as Yaksha, Gandharvas, Kinnara, Sidhdhas, Apsara, etc. and lived with them in Heaven...

s and Rajput
A Rajput is a member of one of the patrilineal clans of western, central, northern India and in some parts of Pakistan. Rajputs are descendants of one of the major ruling warrior classes in the Indian subcontinent, particularly North India...

s, also practiced self-immolation. An article entitled History of Religions, written by Jan Yiin-Hua, investigates the medieval Chinese Buddhist precedents for self-immolation.
During the Great Schism of the Russian Church
Raskol |schism]]') was the event of splitting of the Russian Orthodox Church into an official church and the Old Believers movement in mid-17th century, triggered by the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in 1653, aiming to establish uniformity between the Greek and Russian church practices.-The Raskol:...

, entire villages of Old Believers
Old Believers
In the context of Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers separated after 1666 from the official Russian Orthodox Church as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon between 1652–66...

 burned themselves to death in an act known as "fire baptism". Scattered instances of self-immolation have also been recorded by the Jesuit priests of France in the early 17th century. However, their practice of this was not intended to be fatal: they would burn certain parts of their bodies (limbs
Limb (anatomy)
A limb is a jointed, or prehensile , appendage of the human or other animal body....

 such as the forearm or the thigh) to symbolise the pain Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

 endured while upon the cross
A crucifix is an independent image of Jesus on the cross with a representation of Jesus' body, referred to in English as the corpus , as distinct from a cross with no body....

. 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
Epilepsy is a common chronic neurological disorder characterized by seizures. These seizures are transient signs and/or symptoms of abnormal, excessive or hypersynchronous neuronal activity in the brain.About 50 million people worldwide have epilepsy, and nearly two out of every three new cases...


Political protest

A number of Buddhist monks (including the most famous case of Thích Quảng Đức) immolated themselves in protest of the discriminatory treatment endured by Buddhists under the Roman Catholic administration of President Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam — even though violence against oneself is prohibited by most interpretations of Buddhist doctrine. The twenty-third chapter of the Lotus Sutra
Lotus Sutra
The Lotus Sūtra is one of the most popular and influential Mahāyāna sūtras, and the basis on which the Tiantai and Nichiren sects of Buddhism were established.-Title:...

recounts the life story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King
Bhaiṣajyaguru , formally Bhaiṣajyaguruvaidūryaprabharāja , is the buddha of healing and medicine in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Commonly referred to as the "Medicine Buddha", he is described as a doctor who cures suffering using the medicine of his teachings.-Origin:...

, which served as the main inspiration for the monks and nuns who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War. In the Sutra, the Medicine King demonstrates his insight into the selfless nature of his body by ritualistically setting his body aflame, spreading the "light of the Dharma" for twelve hundred years. Thich Nhat Hanh adds: "The bodhisattva shined his light about him so that everyone could see as he could see, giving them the opportunity to see the deathless nature of the ultimate."

The widespread coverage of the self-immolations of the Buddhist monks in western media established the practice as a type of a political protest. Self-immolations are often public, dramatic, political, and thus newsworthy. They can be seen as a type of altruistic suicide
Altruistic suicide
Altruistic suicide is suicide committed for the benefit of others. Falling on a grenade is one such example. Émile Durkheim notes that tribal people sometimes see it as their duty to commit suicide, as when a wife kills herself after her husband dies, or a man kills himself in old age; but Durkheim...

s for the collective cause. Unlike suicide attack
Suicide attack
A suicide attack is a type of attack in which the attacker expects or intends to die in the process.- Historical :...

s, self-immolations are not intended to inflict physical harm or material damage. They attract attention and become glorified as martyrdom, because of the perception of great pain, but they do not guarantee death for the burned. While the burning of vital tissue can be very painful during self-immolation, shock
Circulatory shock, commonly known simply as shock, is a life-threatening medical condition that occurs due to inadequate substrate for aerobic cellular respiration...

 or asphyxiation quickly make the event painless, as do the onset of third-degree burns which destroy the nerve endings. Suicides by self-immolation have led to numerous copycat suicide
Copycat suicide
A copycat suicide is defined as an emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge or due to accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media....

s: researchers have counted almost 100 self-immolations covered by the New York Times and The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

between 1963 and 1971. Most of these suicides occurred in the United States protesting the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

 and Asia. In 1968 the practice spread to the Soviet bloc with self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach
Jan Palach
Jan Palach was a Czech student who committed suicide by self-immolation as a political protest.- Death :...

. Non-political suicides by fire also became more prevalent. The practice continues with India leading – as many as 1,451 and 1,584 self-immolations have been reported in 2000 and 2001. A particularly high wave of self-immolations in India has been recorded in 1990 protesting the Reservation in India
Reservation in India
Reservation in India is a form of affirmative action designed to improve the well being of socially backward and underrepresented communities of citizens in India. There are laws in place, wherein a certain percentage of total available slots in Jobs and Education are set aside for people from...


A new wave of self-immolation protests is currently ongoing in the Middle East and North Africa, with at least 14 recorded incidents. These actions have helped inspire the Arab Spring
Arab Spring
The Arab Spring , otherwise known as the Arab Awakening, is a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world that began on Saturday, 18 December 2010...

, including the 2010–2011 Tunisian revolution, the main catalyst of which was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi
Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides...

, the 2011 Algerian protests (including many self-immolations in Algeria
2011 Algerian self-immolations
In 2011, as the widely reported protests sparked off by Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in Tunisia began to have a clear impact on the Tunisian government, a wave of self-immolations swept Algeria. These individual acts of protest mostly took place in front of a government building following an...

), and the 2011 Egyptian revolution
2011 Egyptian revolution
The 2011 Egyptian revolution took place following a popular uprising that began on Tuesday, 25 January 2011 and is still continuing as of November 2011. The uprising was mainly a campaign of non-violent civil resistance, which featured a series of demonstrations, marches, acts of civil...

 and there have also been self-immolation protests in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia , commonly known in British English as Saudi Arabia and in Arabic as as-Sa‘ūdiyyah , is the largest state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab World...

, Mauritania
Mauritania is a country in the Maghreb and West Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean in the west, by Western Sahara in the north, by Algeria in the northeast, by Mali in the east and southeast, and by Senegal in the southwest...

, and Syria
Syria , officially the Syrian Arab Republic , is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest....

In 2011 Yenesew Gebre An Ethiopian high school teacher committed suicide from immolation in protest toward the Zenawe regime and its campaigns of oppression against the Ethiopian population.

A number of Tibetan monks have turned to self-immolation to protest the injustices being committed by the Chinese authorities against Tibetan Buddhist institutions.
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