Religious Suicides

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Religious Suicides  (1900) 
From Popular Science Monthly Volume 56, April 1901 Fragments of Science


Religious Suicides.—Suicides from religious fanaticism, which are still prescribed by some sects, are compared, as having a common origin, with propitiatory or expiatory human sacrifices, by Herr Lasch, in an article of which we find a review in the Rivista Italiana di Sociologia. Voluntary sacrifices, which abound in the history of ancient peoples, had nearly always in view the removal of perils or the cessation of public calamities by appeasing the anger of the divinity through the offering of a human victim. Thus Macaria, the daughter of Hercules, at Athens during the Peloponnesian war, and Codrus and the Athenian youth Cratinus voluntarily offered their lives to aid their country by the sacrifice. The consul Decius gave himself up to assure victory to his legions, and Adrian's favorite Antinous to save his imperial protector. Spontaneous offerings of human victims to appease offended divinities are mentioned in the traditions of the ancient Germans, and it was usually their chief or king who suffered for the good of the people. Offerings of this sort are far from infrequent among barbarous and half-civilized peoples. Among some tribes in China a man is sacrificed every year for the public welfare. Such voluntary renunciations of life to acquire merit with the divinity, to gain favors, to atone for sins, and fulfill vows are very common in India, particularly where Brahamanism is most influential. Special methods were pointed out in the Hindu laws for performing such sacrifices as would be sinful for a Brahman, but not for a Sutra, who, before abandoning life, should make gifts to the Brahmans. A favorite method was to drown one's self in the Ganges, and particular spots in the river were designated for this act. The sacred books mention five methods of performing sacrifice to assure a better fortune in the next life: Starving to death, being burned alive, burial in snow, being eaten by a crocodile, and cutting the throat or being drowned at a particular spot in the Ganges. In fulfillment of vows, sons would sacrifice themselves for their mothers by jumping from a rock. To keep up the courage of the victim, the Sivaitic rituals promised many beatitudes to him who courageously met death for his sins, and threatened eternal punishment to one who performed the sacrifice in a base manner. And when the suicide had been decided upon they allowed no retreat or repentance, but forced its consummation. A special apparatus for suicide formerly existed in some of the villages in central India, consisting of a guillotine which the victim himself set in action. Casting one's self under the wheels of the car of Juggernaut was another method of religious suicide. Some philosophical schools prescribed subjection of the body to various pains for the purification of the soul; and the books of Manu, which also impose the destruction of human sensibility, have contributed much to preserve this idea in India and spread abroad, especially in the Malay Archipelago, the usage of voluntary sacrifice to the divinity. The aborigines of the Canary Islands have employed voluntary sacrifices on the coming of an epidemic, and the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians observed them in honor of the divinity.