Kandy, Politics and Governance, Religion and faith

Burning for (Sinhala) Buddhism?


Image from Sunday Leader

First, I want to convey my deepest sympathies to the family and friends of late Venerable Bōwatte Indrarathana (VBI) for the shocking and untimely way he embraced his death on the most venerable day of the Buddhist calendar. No amount of academic analysis will bring a life back. However, we must move on and learn from this how to avoid such tragedies. Such learning cannot come without preliminary analyses of the reasons and backgrounds. Suicides are at least three major types: Suicide for personal reasons of shame or pain, Suicide as a military attack and Suicide as a political protest. Irrespective of the doubts if that was a pre-arranged publicity tactic, I consider the suicide of VBI as a political act embedded in the Buddhist tradition. This essay is a brief reflection on his death and the politics of it.

Politics of Suicide

The act of suicide is historical, supra cultural and could be reviewed from a moral, political or  psychological angle (William 1997). While the morality and psychology of a suicide are largely private and personal, a suicide with political motive is indeed public that demands a discourse. Such political acts of suicide become even more complex when it is wrapped in a religious ethos. Religio-political suicide has had an explicit and a long history. The argument of brainwash, unbalance psychology, impact of personal conditions and blind loyalty are carrying far lesser weight because a politically motivated suicide is a public statement to the immediate society aiming to alter its consciousness (or lack of it). In term of the religiously motivated suicides, there is a distinctly different appreciation in the West as against in the East. In the West, analyzed from a Judeo–Christian theological standpoint, suicide is considered a work against true spirituality or an act of the devil. While Islam has the same Abrahamic roots in its theology, modern interpretations of the ḥadīth seems to have justified suicide under certain jihadi conditions (Ineichena 1998, Lestera 2006).

In the East, dominant by the Vedic religious principles and practices, there is relatively positive appreciation or even adoration of a suicide on religious grounds. Here again self-immolation is given a kind of an ultimate position of devotion. Green and Viluri (1990) have argued that self- immolation was wider spread in the Indus Valley and continued to dominate the South Indian spirituality in some form of devotion: devotion to God or loved ones. It is for this reason that practices such as Sati was embedded into epics of  Rāmāyana and Mahābharatham. This background readily supplies the justification for self-immolation to express devotion to gods, politicians, film stars or to make a propound public statement on a socio-political issues. In India, it is not rare to read news of self-immolation at events such as the death of a film star/politician like M. G. Ramachandran or the Tamil Eelam issue.

Self-immolation came under serious reserach in the golden days of psychiatric studies of 1960s . (Bostic 1973; Crosby, Rhee, and Holland 1977). Later in post-Cold War analysis Pacifists saw this as a normative political position (King 2000; Ryan 1994). Studies on Self-immolation as political act is continuing (Sun 2013). Nevertheless, in general, political science does not view suicide as a rationale engagement with any agency or structure. Instead, suicide- whether limited to self-harming or aimed at a military/economic/political target, is considered and named as an extreme move discontinuing the accepted and reasonable engagement. Self-immolation especially when  linked with specific political contexts, is in contrast with suicide attacks. Self-immolation aims to articulate disagreement and exerts pressure, rather than inflict damage directly on the opponents or their interests (Biggs 2005). It is for this reason that hundreds of Saṅgha who burn themselves in Tibet are not considered terrorists while Jihadists and  LTTE cadres are.

Suicide has been a tool of political power exchange between victors and defeated as well as ruler and the ruled. The choice made by Socrates was political when he opted to drink the poison than to leave Athens or pay a fine.  Later around 44 BEC Caesar agonized ‘‘Cato, I grudge your death as you have grudged me my power to keep you alive,’’ (Holland 2003) when he learned on his rival that Cato committed suicide through a painful process than to surrender. At both these historical occasions, we find the victims wanted their death as a statement of power, free will and more of a ‘new beginning’. Rightly, we know that few years later, Caesar was murdered by the same men who once followed Cato but surrendered and received pardon.   Cato could not defeat Caser in the battle but he by his death, but robbed Caesar his power and all what he had conquered. These men committed suicide not as an end of negotiation but as a process of empowering the negotiation at a higher level.

It is logical to assume that VBI also expected some amount of impact and continuation of his agitation if possible at an advanced level. Like many Jāthika Hela Urumaya ideologues, VBI would have envisaged a new and even more dramatic reentry to the ethnoreligious Sinhala political memory, which is now dominant by newer and more militant competitors such the Bodu Bala Sēnā. In (marketing) communication, we learn that one needs to have a wider and shocking voice to recapture a lost market share. This is proven by the immediate reactions of two key figures of JHU- cabinet minister Champika Ranawaka and Venerable Athuraliyē Rathana who endorsed the death and while a certain section of the electronic media portrayed VBI as a ‘yugapurusha’. Both- JHU leadership and the media backed off and changed their positions when they did not receive the expected ‘wave of support’ (as happened after the death of late Venerable Gaṅgoḍawila Sōma).

Suicide in Buddhism

Like all other religions Buddhism (at one level) condemns and discourage self-harm or suicide. Particularly, the ethic of Ahiṃsā will not permit such harm. Yet at another level Buddhist texts and tradition have without reservation encouraged self-immolation by fire, drawing, feeding one’s body to animal or surrendering to death as an act of compassion (Ben 2007). Buddhism is both a philosophy that deals with the metaphysical reality at the same time a specific set of teaching on individual and societal ethics. Out of all such teaching comes the ‘PañchaŚēla’ the core conduct of every Buddhist and ‘Pānātiāptā Veramaņī’ – the refrain of taking another’s life is its first percept. The aim of all such Śēla is to understand the reasons for suffering and to reduce them. However, reduction of sufferings cannot come by inflict death or suicide. Buddha warned of any Saṅgha who tempts and encourage suicide to be expelled from the order (Havery 2000 Keown 1996, 1995).

This being said, Jātaka Kathās are full of instances where Buddha himself as a Bodhisattva several times gave his body as a sacrifice out of extreme compassion. In  Mahāsatva Jātaka, Bodhisattva offered his body to a hungry tigress so that she may survive and feed her cubs. There are several versions of this story. In one such, the Bodhisattva first offered his body but the tigress refuses to kill and eat. Then Bodhisattva climbs a tree with sharp bamboo split, slits his throat so that his blood dripped in front of the tigress. After shedding large amount blood, he falls dead in front of the animal, which eats the body and regains strength to feed its cubs. In the more famous Vessantara Jātaka, the Bodhisattva after giving all his belonging, including his children offers his head to a seeker so that he may win a reward. In Mahākapi Jātaka when Bodhisattva was a  monkey king willingly offered his body to rescue his clang hanging on a branch of a mango tree. After eight thousand monkeys used him as a stepping stone, the last one who plots to be the next king, makes such impact killing the Bodhisattva. In all these stories, the fundamental is compassion towards others not for a particular society, its members or for a political belief. Above all these stories is the Śasa Jātaka that directly narrate a self–immolation as an act of compassion for collective good. In this, the Bodhisattva was a hare that offered its body to god Sakka as a burnt food by jumping into a raging fire.

Theravāda tradition further adores several Arahaths who knowing that they will not be born again desired to end their life before the natural death. In Udāna Pāli texts, one finds that Buddha permits the self-immolation of Arahaths Dabba,  Bakkula and Arahath nun Mahāa Pajaāpati Gōtamiī. Similar narratives are given of others who in fact by committing a suicide become Arahaths. Monk Channa who suffered from an incurable decease and the story of monk Vakkali in Saṃyutta Nikāya who again with extreme illness commits suicide are such instance. Buddha declared Vakkali’s death was Apāpika – without sin. Another monk Godhika who suffers stagnation in his spiritual progress takes his life away. However, is it clear like in the case of the Bodhisattva, all these suicides are of spiritual nature not political.

Suicide in Lanka

WHO puts Lanka at the fifth place in suicide per 100,000 worldwide and at second to Japan/South Korea (sharing same rate) in Asia. Male suicide higher comparatively to the female. Various socio-economic and religious-psychological factors are given as reasons for this. Almost all of these suicides are individual and private. However, since their first suicide mission on 5th July 1987, a culture of political suicide was introduced by the Tamil Tigers. Records show their first such attack on the Nelliaddy army camp killed some 40 soldiers. In the recent history, Lanka made shocking world headline news for LTTE’s brutal suicide missions on the Daladā, Central Bank, serving president in R. Premadasa and many hundred other human, economic and military targets. Pape (2003) argued that LTTE easily became the world leader of suicide missions until the full scale of conflict melted in Iraq. All LTTE suicides, beyond doubt, were political in aim and maximum terror in tactic.

It is difficult but not impossible to trace a non-LTTE political suicide in Lanka. This makes VBI’s self-immolation one such rare event because this suicide while having all the signs of a religious act (the person, place and the timing) comes with the intrinsically interwoven political context. Such sentiment promoted some of his sympathizers to protest demanding a ‘state funeral’. The most noteworthy recent Saṅgha suicide for personal religious advancement happened in Lanka with the Cambridge educated British intelligent officer (Harold Edward Musson) who ordained in to the Amarapura chapter as Venerable Ñaņavīra in 1950 at the Vajirārāma monastery. Venerable Ñaņavīra soon became a prolific writer and constructed some complex discourses, which remains to date[1]. However, in 1965 he ended his life. In a suicide note, he explained that the severity of amoebiasis and satyriasis condition are a hindrance to his spiritual path.

Collective Cause

If a suicide is an extreme form of resignation or renouncing, then Saṅgha self-immolation is surely the ultimate form of religious-political protest.

James Benn (2007) in his complex research text explains the history and tradition of Saṅgha immolation as a political spirituality. Benn shows the multi-faceted and dialectical reasoning within the (non-Theravādian) Buddhist tradition of ‘leaving the body’ as part of the process of continued renouncing to bring relief to self or fellow human. The thesis argues this as a mixed development between Buddhist teaching of advancing the mind and Chinese ideology of disciplining the body.

In modern times self-immolation amongst the Saṅgha was historicized by the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc. On June 11 1963, Venerable Duc seated in a lotus mediated position burnt himself at a busy traffic intersection opposite Cambodian Embassy in Saigon. In a pre- internet era, American photojournalist Malcolm Browne’s picture of the burning monk made photographic shocks around the world.  Scholars on Vietnam studies agree that this was one single act that brought unprecedented international pressure on Vietnam, which resulted in the release of some 20,000 monks and nuns who had been imprisoned for political reasons. From then on wards the voice and opinion of the Maha Saṅgha has become a formidable factor in the political and institutional affairs.  Venerable Duc is considered a Bodhisattva amongst the Vietnamese Buddhists. Venerable Duc’s example became transnational. In a study on immolation in Buddhist states between1963 and 2003, Biggs (2005) concludes Venerable Duc was the single most inspiration for some 3000 such acts and attempts. Fatefully the very first such following comes from Sri Lanka.  Biggs records:

“In fact, the very first imitation of Quang Duc occurred not in Vietnam but in Sri Lanka. Nurse aides were on hunger strike, refusing to clean the hospital wards. Vidanage Vinitha jumped to her death from the building, which housed the Ministry of Health. Although she did not adopt the signature method of burning, her inspiration was clear. ‘Thousands weep over the fate of a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam’, she wrote, ‘but nobody cares about 400 Singhalese girls in our own land’ (The Times, 16 July 1963).” (2005:181)

Unlike in Vietnam and Tibet this individual self-destroying did not become a weapon of protect in Lanka instead Lank produced and reproduced collective arms straggles and suicide mission within an organized political process in 1971, 1988/89 in the south and from 1980 to 2009 in the north.


Within a political deconstruction, self-immolation is simple in its process, (a lighter and a can of petrol) single (one individual) in organization and structure less  ( limits to a personal planning). This is in complete contrast to that of a suicide attack or armed rebellion. Such, there is a non-elitist (negative) democratic empowerment at the level every man/woman. This is a kind of democratic decentralization of power of political negotiation taking the body as the only and ultimate weapon. Further, a self-immolations while minimizing the physical damage on the opponent, it undermines the target by ethical paradigms and immortalize their (in)action. A suicide attack or rebellion in opposite always seeks maximum damage resulting justifying further intransigency in the opponent. Therefore dying without killing could bring two direct results 1) It shames the opponent 2) It draws attention and sympathy from the greater society. Self-immolation is a paradoxical paradigm, It aims to relief greater suffering by undertaking self-suffering. It demands something greater by renouncing something basic.

During the last two weeks, on the Internet and in the press, various opinions have surfaced on the act of VBI. While its carries all the symbolic and strategic approaches of a religious sacrifice, it undoubtedly is a political act aimed at political results. VBI was not known as a Buddhist scholar, a great preacher of dhamma or a practitioner of meditation or other similar Theravādin disciplines. He was a politician and active member of a political party and its ideology. VBI’s last words were to stop the conversation of Buddhists (mainly into Christianity) and to stop the slaughter of cattle. These two are religious political demands directly targeted at two minority religious groups in Lanka. First, Christians. In the recent past Christians – especially the protestant/evangelicals have come under severe pressure amounting a level of systemic persecution. Freedom House and other international agencies monitoring religious freedom have documented several 100 incidents of attack and threats against the evangelicals in Lanka. At legislature level, the anti-conversion bill is a brainchild and political agenda item of the JHU- the party of VBI. While Saṅgha in Lanka have come to agitate against Buddhists converting to Christianity many of them have highly appreciated the en-mass conversion of the Dalits into Buddhism in India. Some, led by Venerable Omalpe Sōbitha the leader of JHU have also argued for such Buddhicisation in the Hindu Tamil heartland of northern province of  Lanka where a post-war exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist military is occupying and controlling every aspect civil life.  This makes Saṅgha concern of conversion rather selective and a desired extension of the state backed religious hegemony that undermines the natural rights of freedom of religious choice. Second, the Muslims. Buddhism is concerned with all forms of life not just the cattle- an exceptional religious compassion for cattle is not Buddhism but Brahmanist-Hinduism against which Buddha presented most of is discourses. Beside Lanka’s modern food chain includes more catching of fish, more slaughtering chicken, goats, pigs and few other forms of animal protein. Except for few pocket communities nowhere in the modern world, such total vegetarianism is adopted at national level.  If one takes an unbiased pure Buddhist (in fact more Jain) attitude toward the national food structure, that will make Lanka almost paralyze instantly. VBI was not unaware of these realities. Further, it is a fact that in Lanka almost entirely the commercial trading of cattle for meat is in the hands of the Muslims. Therefore, his anti-cattle slaughter was aimed at the Muslim community in Lanka who comparatively consume more beef than any other form of meat.  These realities makes VBI’s demands lacking a Buddhist approach to both core issues.

Self–immolation is an individual and private action that attempts to break open the attention of the immediate world. Thus, it brings moral and ethical tests demanding responses. It is one’s profound act aiming at radical change with ultimate determination. It is a strategic use of the most natural tool: the body against the institutional construction. However, when such determinations and scarifying falls within a much narrow ethnic or religious ideological boundary, they undermines the ontology of the act. It reduces the universal compassionate narratives of the Jātaka stories to a mere localization. Self- immolation produces two key results: A radical change surrounding the personal or political institutions or it drives the onlookers to a further point of articulation. When self-immolation is aimed at the advancement of one ethnic/religious group at the cost of another, it immediately fails to reach the higher ground of political morality.

I have argued elsewhere (as several other scholars before me), that the modern Sinhala Saṅgha have become more of a brand of political activists with utterly ill prepared and under–discoursed ideologies. It is a serious ethnoreligious development that reshapes the total state and  its social structure creating serious democratic deficit.  During the last century, especially in the post independent era, Sinhala Saṅgha have become more Bhumi Putras than Buddha Putras (Amunugama 1991) this has led to the Betrayal of Buddhism within (Tambiah 1992). They attempt to contribute to the Work of Kings (Seneviratne 1999)   than to advance dhamma, because their Present is always in the Past (Kemper 1991). The Colors of   their Robes (Abeysekara 2002) are more of a symbol of caste, regional and theological divisional identities than the symbol of a renouncer life. Their contribution to the Conflict and Violence in Lanka (Deegalle 2006) only endorsed  in a military solution to the ethnic crisis causing more death and suffering. Because according to them, Redesigning Democracy for Sinhala Buddhism (Rāghavan 2014) is based on their bodily reactions to the ontological insecurities that are present around them.

Instead, a newer approach governed by Buddhist virtues of Upekṣā, and an analytical insight with Vichakshana based on the eternal reality of Duḥkha and Karma to individual as well as the collective changes we face is the need of this society. Such will  bring the life and death of  modern Sinhala Saṅgha,  more towards Buddhist abhidharma  than their current ethnic ideology. Self-Immolation almost always have had distance ripple effect. We wish that will not be the case. However, even if such happens in the future, may it be because of mahakaruņā- Buddhist compassion and not for political parties or their power advancement.


Dr. Suren Rāghavan is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies – Wolfson College University of Oxford. His research interests are in Politics of Sinhala Saṅgha and Liberal Democracy. He is  reachable at [email protected].



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[1] See http://www.nanavira.org/ accessed on 30 May 2013