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SUICIDE . The topic of religiously motivated suicide is a complex one. Several of the major religious traditions reject suicide as a religiously justifiable act but commend martyrdom; among them are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These religions distinguish between actively willing to end one's life in suicide and passively accepting one's death as the divine will by means of martyrdom at the hands of another. Nonetheless, the actions of some of the early Christian martyrs and the deaths of the Jews at Masada in 74 ce blur this distinction.

In contrast to religiously motivated suicide one may speak of heroic and altruistic suicide, the act of a person who decides that he or she has an ethical responsibility to die for the sake of community or honor. One must also differentiate between religiously motivated suicide and suicide that may be virtually forced upon an individual by the norms of society and may constitute either a duty or a punishment. One thinks of satī, widow burning in India, and of seppuku, self-disembowelment, when it occurred as a punishment in Japan. In these cases too, however, no simple distinction holds true. Satī became an accepted practice within medieval Hinduism, upheld by the brahmans, and accounts indicate that even into modern times it was often a voluntary practice. By her self-sacrifice the widow both achieved an honored status for herself and atoned for the sins and misdeeds of herself and her husband. Seppuku was often the voluntary last act of a defeated warrior who chose to demonstrate both his fealty to his lord and his mastery over himself.

Like the major Western traditions, both Buddhism and Confucianism condemn suicide, but there are examples of self-immolation by Buddhist monks and of the seeking of honorable death by Confucian gentlemen. In contrast to these traditions, Jainism regards favorably the practice of sallekhana, by which a Jain monk or layperson at the end of his lifetime or at the onset of serious illness attains death by gradual starvation.

These few examples demonstrate the complexity of the topic of religiously motivated suicide and the difficulty in distinguishing it from martyrdom or sacrifice, on the one hand, and from heroic or altruistic suicide, on the other. In addition, the occurrence in 1978 of the mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, raises the question of the relation between religious motivations for suicide and general fear of persecution, combined with mass paranoia. This question applies equally well to the mass suicide of Jews faced with persecution in York, England, in 1190 and to the mass suicides of Old Believers in Russia in the late seventeenth century.

On the whole, what may be termed religiously motivated suicides constitute but a small proportion of the total number of suicides. In his classic work Le suicide, Émile Durkheim discussed the social causes for egoistic, altruistic, and anomic suicides. His work and that of many other scholars demonstrate that suicide has most often occurred for reasons other than religious ones. These include the desire to avoid shame, to effect revenge, to demonstrate one's disappointment in love, and to escape senility and the infirmities of old age. Suicide as a means of avoiding shame and upholding one's honor was considered a creditable act in societies as different as those on the Melanesian island of Tikopia, among the Plains and Kwakiutl Indians of North America, and in ancient Rome.

Scholars have argued that the incidence of and attitude toward suicide are largely dependent on the individual's and society's view of the afterlife. Where death is perceived as a happy existence, scholars such as Jacques Choron believe, there is an inducement to suicide. In the first known document that apparently reflects on suicide, the Egyptian text entitled The Dialogue of a Misanthrope with His Own Soul, death is seen as attractive because it will lead to another and better existence. The tendency toward suicide is strengthened when suicide is regarded either as a neutral act or as one worthy of reward. Suicide rates also increase when this life is regarded as no longer acceptable or worthwhile. For example, Jim Jones, the founder of the Peoples' Temple, urged his followers in Guyana to commit suicide in order to enter directly into a new and better world, where they would be free of persecution and would enjoy the rewards of the elect. In the Jonestown community, suicide on a mass scale was appreciated as a religiously justifiable act that would be rewarded in the afterlife.

Ancient Greek and Roman Civilization

While the ancient Greek writers and philosophers did not consider suicide an action that would lead to a better existence, they did see it as an appropriate response to certain circumstances. The fact that Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, chose to commit suicide upon learning of her incestuous relationship with her son was understood and appreciated by the ancients as an appropriate response to a disastrous situation. Heroic suicide in the face of a superior enemy and the choice of death to avoid dishonor or the agony of a lengthy terminal illness were accepted as justifiable actions. Through the voice of Socrates, Plato in his Phaedo did much to form the classical attitude toward suicide. Socrates himself chose to drink the hemlock, but he also affirmed the Orphic notions that humans are placed in a prison from which they may not release themselves and that they are a possession of the gods. The decision to commit suicide is thus an act against the gods, depriving them of their prerogative to end or to sustain human life. The key word for both Plato and Socrates is necessity. A person may appropriately end his life only when the gods send the necessity to do so upon him, as in fact they did to Socrates. Plato's disciple, Aristotle, argued even more strongly against suicide. He regarded it as an offense against the state, since by such an act a person fails to perform his obligations as a citizen. Thus it became a social outragea view that has continued to dominate thought in the West until the most recent times.

Whereas the Pythagoreans and Epicureans opposed suicide, the Stoics regarded it favorably under certain circumstances. The Stoic was obliged to make a decision that properly addressed the demands of the situation; at times the decision might be to commit suicide. Both Zeno and his successor, Cleanthes, are reported to have done so.

Heroic suicide and suicide to avoid dishonor or suffering became frequent within the society of the Roman empire. Seneca, in particular, moved beyond the insistence on a divine call or necessity for suicide to the assertion that suicide at the appropriate time is a basic individual right. For Seneca, the central issue was freedom, and he affirmed that the divine had offered humankind a number of exits from life; he himself chose to exercise the right to suicide. His successor, Epictetus, placed more limits on suicide, stressing again the belief that one must wait for the divine command before acting: The suffering that is a normal part of daily life for much of humanity does not of itself constitute a sufficient reason for suicidealthough exceptional pain and suffering offer justifiable cause. For Epictetus, Socrates was the best model and guide in deciding when one might legitimately choose to end one's life.


Whereas suicide was at the very least tolerated, and often applauded, among the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Hebrew people disapproved of it. Judaism draws a clear distinction between suicide, which it defines as self-murder, and martyrdom, which it defines as death on behalf of one's faith and religious convictions. Nonetheless, the Hebrew scriptures, which contain few references to dying by one's own hand, do describe several instances of heroic suicide. The king Abimelech, gravely wounded by a woman, called upon his armor-bearer to kill him (Jgs. 9:5254). Although he did not literally kill himself, his command to his aide may be regarded as effecting what he could not perform himself, so that he might not die in dishonor. The death of Samson (Jgs. 16:2831) may certainly be judged a heroic suicide, since by his act he brought about the demise of a large number of the enemy Philistines. The gravely injured Saul fell upon his own sword in order to avoid a disgraceful death at the hands of his enemies (1 Sm. 31:4), and his armor-bearer, who had failed his master's request to kill him, then fell upon his own sword. The death of Ahithophel, the counselor to David and then to David's son Absalom, would appear to be a suicide motivated by disgrace. When Absalom refused to follow the advice Ahithophel gave him regarding his battle with David, Ahithophel returned home, set his affairs in order, and hanged himself (2 Sm. 17:23). The last suicide recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, the death of the king Zimri, occurred because of the loss of a decisive battle (1 Kgs. 16:18).

Although Hebrew scriptures do not explicitly forbid suicide, the Judaic tradition came to prohibit it, partly in the belief that God alone gives life and takes it away, and partly on the basis of the sixth commandment, which forbids unjustified homicide. However, rabbinic law regards persons committing suicide as most frequently being of unsound mind and thus not responsible for their actions. Under these circumstances, they may still receive normal Jewish burial rites. Furthermore, suicides committed under duress, as for example to avoid murder, idolatry, or adultery, were considered blameless and indeed even praiseworthy. The mass suicide at Masada in 74 ce and other mass suicides in Europe during the Middle Ages were considered in this light.

Concerning Masada, the historian Josephus Flavius recounts, on the basis of the report of a few survivors, that on the eve of the Roman assault on that hill the leader of the vastly outnumbered Jewish resistance, Elʿazar ben Yaʾir, called the community together and reminded them of their vow not to become the slaves of the Romans. That night many of the soldiers killed their families and committed suicide. Others drew lots to decide who would kill his fellows and then die by his own hand. It is impossible to say how many of the more than nine hundred defenders allowed themselves to be killed and how many ended their lives by suicide. In spite of the Jewish prohibition against suicide, Masada came to be regarded as a heroic sacrifice, and it remains a living symbol of a people's response to oppression.

Although accounts of individual suicide within Judaism are rare, there are examples of mass suicides during times of persecution. During the First Crusade, in 1096, Jews who had obtained sanctuary in the bishop's castle at Worms chose mass suicide over baptism; similar instances of suicide to avoid baptism occurred in various Rhineland towns, such as Mayence, and in York, England, where in 1190 some 150 Jews set fire to the building in which they had sought safety and then consigned themselves to the flames. Yet other instances of mass suicide occurred during the Black Death, when popular superstition blamed the outbreak of the plague on the Jews. Although abuse and persecution were certainly major motivating factors during the periods of the Crusades and the Black Death, these mass or multiple suicides appear to have arisen from a deep religious desire to remain true to the faith. They point again to the difficulty in distinguishing between, on the one hand, suicides motivated by fear of persecution and, on the other, suicides motivated by religious convictions and ideals, deaths that in the latter case the tradition judges to be acts of martyrdom. Certainly the deaths at Masada must be regarded as both faithful obedience to religious affiliation and identity and the culmination of a desire to give the Jews' enemies a hollow victory.


Christianity repudiates suicide on much the same biblical grounds as does Judaism. The only suicide recorded in the New Testament is that of Jesus' betrayer, Judas Iscariot; it is described in such a way as to indicate that it was a sign of repentance for his deed (Mt. 27:35). The church father Tertullian referred even to Jesus' death as voluntarya description approximating that of suicide, since clearly a divine being controls his own life. In his book Conversion (1962), Arthur Darby Nock points to the "theatricality" present in some of the actions of the early martyrs, as in "the frequent tendency of Christians in times of persecution to force themselves on the notice of the magistrates by tearing down images or by other demonstrations" (p. 197). Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, writing to his fellow Christians in Rome, pleaded that they do nothing to hinder his martyrdom but allow him to be consumed entirely by the beasts. But whereas Tertullian asserted that only martyrs would reach paradise before the Parousia, Clement of Alexandria sought to stem the tide of those rushing to martyrdom by differentiating between self-motivated suicide and genuine martyrdom for the faith.

In his City of God, which appeared in 428 ce, the church father Augustine wrote against suicide in a way that became determinative for the tradition. He discussed various situations in which a Christian might find himself or herself, and concluded that suicide is not a legitimate act even in such desperate circumstances as those of a virgin seeking to protect her virtue. Augustine argued that suicide is a form of homicide, and thus prohibited by the sixth commandment; that a suicide committed in order to avoid sin is in reality the commission of a greater sin to avoid a lesser; and that one who commits suicide forfeits the possibility of repentance. Subsequent church councils, as well as such eminent theologians as Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, sided with Augustine. Suicide, in contrast to martyrdom, came to be regarded as both a sin and a crime. Dante placed suicides in the seventh circle of the inferno in his Divine Comedy, and popular opinion throughout Christian Europe regarded suicides in the same light as witches and warlocks. Indeed, their corpses were treated in a similar manner: Suicides were frequently buried at crossroads with stakes driven through their hearts to prevent their ghosts from causing harm. The last recorded instance of such a burial in England occurred in 1823, and the law mandating confiscation of the property of a convicted suicide remained on the books until 1870.

In spite of ecclesiastical censure, religious impulse did lead to suicides, sometimes on a mass scale. Some thirteenth-century Cathari or Albigensians may have chosen suicide by starvation. Even more dramatic are the accounts of the Old Believers (raskolʾniki) in late-seventeenth-century Russia who chose death by fire over obedience to liturgical changes introduced by the archbishop Nikon, with the subsequent backing of the tsars. According to tradition, on several occasions one to two thousand people who had been besieged by government troops, as at Paleostrovskii monastery in 1688, locked themselves within chapels or monasteries and burned them to the ground, consigning their own bodies to the flames.

Although martyrdom as a testimony to one's faith continues to be honored within Christianity, suicide as an individual act undertaken for nonreligious motives is regarded as a sin, and until recently it was regarded as a crime unless done in ignorance of its implications or in a state of lunacy. Few Christian theologians and philosophers challenged this view. John Donne, who served as dean of Saint Paul's in London, was a notable exception. In his book Biathanatos, written in 1608 but not published until 1644, Donne challenged the Augustinian belief that suicides cannot repent; he argued that a totally negative attitude toward suicide places limitations on the mercy and charity of God. New attitudes toward suicide were subsequently expounded by a variety of philosophers such as David Hume, who argued that suicide is not a crime. However, although the Christian attitude toward suicide may now be characterized as more compassionate than during earlier periods, the act of suicide, in contrast to martyrdom, continues to be regarded as a serious sin.


Islam joined Judaism and Christianity in prohibiting suicide (intiār ) while glorifying those who die the death of a martyr (shahīd) or witness to the faith. While scholars debate whether or not the Qurʾān itself specifically forbids suicide, they agree that the adīth, the traditions that preserve the words of the Prophet on a wide variety of issues, prohibit suicide. According to these sources, Muammad proclaimed that a person who commits suicide will be denied Paradise and will spend his time in Hell repeating the deed by which he had ended his life. By the tradition's own standards, religiously motivated suicide is an impossibility, since the taking of one's own life is both a sin and a crime. Nonetheless, as with Judaism and Christianity, the line between suicide and martyrdom is not clear. Since it is believed that the Muslim martyr who dies in defense of the faith is rewarded with immediate entrance into Paradise, where he or she will enjoy great pleasures and rewards, it would not be surprising if some Muslims readily participated in battles even when badly outnumbered, in the hope that they might die while fighting.

Within Islam the Shīʿī sect emphasizes the self-sacrifice and suffering of its imams, the successors to Muammad. The death of usayn, the grandson of the Prophet, and the third imam, was regarded by his followers as an act of voluntary self-sacrifice that could be termed a religiously motivated death. Although he died on the battlefield, his death was subsequently interpreted as a goal he both desired and actively sought; the passion play enacted as the climax of ʿshūrāʾ (tenth of Muarram) depicts his death as actively willed. In a translation of this play (Muhammedan Festivals, edited by G. E. von Grunebaum, New York, 1951) Husayn says: "Dear Grandfather [Muammad], I abhor life; I would rather go visit my dear ones in the next world" (p. 92). Within Shiism, and the Ismāʿīlī sect, asan-i Sabbā in the twelfth century formed the order of the Assassins, which was devoted to establishing its own religious and governmental autonomy, in part by killing both Crusaders and Sunnī Muslims. The death of a member of this order was regarded not as a suicide, even when his mission had been one almost certain to result in his death, but rather as a glorious martyrdom that would earn him both the veneration of society and the delights of Paradise. The tradition cites many accounts of a mother who rejoiced on hearing of the death of her son, only to put on mourning clothes when she learned subsequently that he had not died and thus had not attained the glorious state of martyrdom.

Hinduism and Jainism

In discussing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this article has pointed to the close relationship between suicide and martyrdom and the difficulty frequently encountered in distinguishing between them. Regarding the religions of the East, the difficult issue is the relation between suicide and sacrifice. In Hinduism, the Brāhmaas laid the foundation for religiously motivated suicide by declaring that the fullest and most genuine sacrifice is that of the individual's self. The Śatapatha Brāhmaa outlines the procedure by which one renounces the world, forsaking one's belongings and departing into the forest. Certainly Hinduism affirms that suicide must be a thoughtful decisionas in the resolve of a person to end the sufferings of old ageor that it must be a religiously motivated act. One Upaniad condemns those who attempt suicide without having attained the necessary degree of enlightenment. The Dharmasūtras firmly prohibit any suicide other than one religiously motivated. In ancient and medieval Hinduism a number of methods of committing suicide were regarded favorably, such as drowning oneself in the Ganges, jumping from a cliff, burning oneself, burying oneself in snow, or starving oneself to death. Various places of pilgrimage, such as Prayāga (present-day Allahabad) or Banaras, were seen as particularly auspicious places for ending one's life.

Two types of suicide in Hinduism, very different in form and intention, are worthy of special examination. The first is the death by suicide of the enlightened person, the world renouncer. Such a person, in his or her quest for release from sasāra, has been devoted to increasingly difficult acts of penance and to a thorough study of the Upaniads. Once this person has attained the goal of freedom from all desires, he or she may begin the great journey in the direction of the northeast, consuming nothing other than air and water. According to the lawgiver Manu, a brahman might also follow this procedure when beginning to be overcome by a serious illness.

The second form of suicide in Hinduism that deserves special attention is satī, widow burning. It appears to have been a form of suicide motivated by both social and religious considerations. Although the custom is not unique to India, it nonetheless was practiced there most frequently and over the longest period of time. The practice may go back as far as the fourth century bce, but it began to grow in popularity only after about 400 ce. According to Upendra Thakur in his study The History of Suicide in India, "satī in its latest forms was a mediaeval growth though it had its germs in ancient customs and rituals" (1963, p. 141). The practice of satī might take one of two forms. In one, sahamaraa, the woman ascended the funeral pyre and was burned alongside the corpse of her husband. In the second, anumaraa, when the wife learned that her husband had died and his body had already been cremated, she would ascend the pyre and die alongside his ashes, or with some belonging of his. Certainly, at least in some cases, satī was motivated by genuine feelings of grief and affection on the part of the widow. Although the practice remained voluntary, in some areas social pressure may have made satī more the rule than the exception. No doubt the practice also gained popularity because the life of a widow was both lonely and degrading. On the other hand, the blessing or curse of a woman on her way to perform satī was believed to be very powerful, and her act of sacrifice was believed to purify both herself and her husband. Thus, although the act of satī may not always have been religiously motivated, it did have its religious reward. The British, during their rule of India, made a determined effort to abolish the practice, finally outlawing it as homicide in 1829.

Perhaps the tradition that most explicitly condones religiously motivated suicide is Jainism. Following the teaching of their saint Mahavira, who lived in the sixth century bce, the Jain monk and the Jain layperson lead, in differing degrees, a rigorously ascetic life in order to attain liberation and to free the soul from karma. Members of the laity as well as monks are encouraged to practice sallekhanā (austere penance), in order to attain a holy death through meditation. Jains believe it is their duty to prevent disease or the infirmities of old age from undermining the spiritual progress they have attained through asceticism and meditation. Jainism prescribes strict rules for when sallekhanā is appropriate. As Padmanabh S. Jaini indicated in his book The Jaina Path of Purification, Jainism distinguishes between impure suicide, by which the passions are increased, and pure suicide, the holy death attained with "inner peace or dispassionate mindfulness" (Jaini, 1979, p. 229). Sallekhanā involves gradual fasting, often under the supervision of a monastic teacher, until the stage is reached whereat the individual no longer consumes any food or drink and thus gradually attains death by starvation. Jains perceive sallekhanā to be the climax of a lifetime of spiritual struggle, ascetic practice, and meditation. It allows the individual to control his own destiny so that he will attain full liberation or at the very least reduce the number of future reincarnations that he will undergo.

Buddhism and Confucianism

Turning to Buddhism and Confucianism, one finds that suicide is legislated against in both traditions, but that there are notable exceptions involving religiously motivated suicide. Gautama Buddha, in his personal search for salvation, deliberately chose against the practice of fasting unto death. Nonetheless, under certain extraordinary circumstances, Buddhists see religiously motivated suicide as an act of sacrifice and worship. Indications of this positive attitude toward suicide, or self-sacrifice, are found in some of the accounts of the Buddha's previous lives contained in the Jatakas (Birth Tales). The stories of the Buddha's previous lives as a hare (Śaśa Jātaka) and as a monkey (Mahākapi Jātaka) both describe suicide as an act of self-sacrifice to benefit another, and only in the story of the monkey does this act lead to death. Another famous account is that from the Suvaraprabhāsa, a Mahāyāna sūtra, which describes the suicide or sacrifice of the Buddha, during his life as the prince Mahāsattva, in order to feed a hungry tigress unable to care for herself. Following this model, Buddhism in its various forms affirms that, while suicide as self-sacrifice may be appropriate for the person who is an arhat, one who has attained enlightenment, it is still very much the exception to the rule.

Confucianism based its attitude toward suicide on another consideration, that of filial piety and obligation. The person who commits suicide robs his ancestors of the veneration and service due them and demonstrates his ingratitude to his parents for the gift of life. The duty of a gentleman is to guide his life according to li, the code or rules of propriety. In rare cases, suicide was required of the gentleman who failed to uphold these rules. In some instances a gentleman might commit suicide to protest improper government, since above all a gentleman was obliged to uphold the virtue of humaneness. Thus, in these unusual instances suicide was the correct way to demonstrate adherence to the precepts of Confucianism.

Although the Japanese tradition of seppuku, or harakiri, should be regarded in its voluntary form as heroic rather than as religiously motivated suicide, it nonetheless does contain certain religious elements. The standard by which all acts of seppuku (disembowelment) were judged was set by the heroic Minamoto Yorimasa during a desperate battle in 1180. While suicide was usually performed as an individual act by a noble warrior or samurai, there are examples in Japanese history of mass suicides, such as that of the forty-seven ronin who accepted the penalty of seppuku in order to avenge the death of their lord in 1703.

While Christian missionaries in Japan, from the time of the arrival of the first Jesuits, sought to prevent seppuku, the Zen Buddhist tradition continued to regard it as a form of honorable death. The selection of the hara, or belly, as the point at which the sword was plunged into the body reflected the belief that the abdomen is the place where one exercises control over one's breathing and is, indeed, the central point of self-discipline. More generally, as Ivan I. Morris states in his book The Nobility of Failure, the abdomen was considered in the Japanese tradition as "the locus of man's inner being, the place where his will, spirit, generosity, indignation, courage, and other cardinal qualities were concentrated" (Morris, 1975, p. 367). Thus, by committing oneself to the performance of seppuku, which became a clearly defined ritual, one demonstrated in this final act the greatest degree of self-control, discipline, and courage.


This article has focused directly on religiously motivated suicide. It has omitted references to suicide among elderly Inuit (Eskimo) and among young Tikopia islanders, to cite only two examples from a vast number of possibilities. In these cases, as in many others, although the suicides may be heroic or altruistic, they do not demonstrate a clear religious motivation. Suicides by reason of financial failure, or loss of honor or of a loved one, occur among the Kwakiutl and Iroquois Indians, as well as among Bantu-speaking peoples of Africa. Occurrences of suicide are not limited by geography or time, but of the many suicides that have taken place throughout the ages, only a small proportion can be judged to be religiously motivated.

The examples of religiously motivated suicide discussed here demonstrate the wide variety of forms and purposes that the act may take. Many of the examples, from both East and West, illustrate the difficulty in distinguishing between suicide that is religiously motivated and suicide that is motivated by heroism, altruism, or fear of persecution and suffering. The deaths at Jonestown in 1978 raise anew the problem of how to differentiate between religiously motivated suicide and suicide induced by paranoia and terror. There is no simple distinction between suicide and martyrdom, on the one hand, or between suicide and sacrifice, on the other. In formulating these distinctions and in evaluating the morality and religious value of certain acts that result in death, each person brings to bear his or her own religious and ethical values and tradition. Such personal judgment must, however, be conjoined with the awareness that what may be perceived by one observer as needless self-sacrifice or even self-murder may be judged by another as the noblest example of religiously motivated suicide in behalf of beliefs, values, or tradition.

See Also



There is a vast literature on suicide, but relatively little of it focuses on the act as religiously motivated. Any student of the topic must begin with Émile Durkheim's Le suicide, translated by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson as Suicide: A Study in Sociology (New York, 1951). It is the classic work on the varieties of suicide analyzed from a sociological viewpoint. Jacques Choron's chapters on "Suicide in Retrospect" and "Philosophers on Suicide" in his volume Suicide (New York, 1972) are quite helpful in understanding the place of suicide in the West at different times. A volume edited by Frederick H. Holck, Death and Eastern Thought: Understanding Death in Eastern Religions and Philosophies (Nashville, 1974), contains several chapters that refer to suicide. Alfred Alvarez also discusses the themes of religious motivation for suicide and religious prohibition of the act in his book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (London, 1971). He includes personal reflections on his own suicide attempt, and describes his friendship with the poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.

Among the older studies of the topic, still useful are Suicide: A Social and Historical Study by Henry Romilly Fedden (London, 1938) and To Be or Not to Be: A Study of Suicide by Louis I. Dublin and Bessie Bunzel (New York, 1933).

There are relatively few sources that consider religiously motivated suicide in specific traditions. For the Western religious traditions, the reader should refer to the bibliography of the article Martyrdom as well as to the various primary sources mentioned throughout this article. In addition, for Judaism, the reader will find useful Yigael Yadin's Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (New York, 1966) and Cecil Roth's A History of the Jews in England (Oxford, 1941), which discusses the events at York. On Christianity, particularly informative is Samuel E. Sprott's The English Debate on Suicide from Donne to Hume (La Salle, Ill., 1961). William A. Clebsch has prepared a new edition of John Donne's work, translated as Suicide (Chico, Calif., 1983), with a very helpful introduction. Robert O. Crummey presents a fascinating account of suicides among the Raskolʾniki in his book The Old Believers and the World of Antichrist: The Vyg Community and the Russian State, 16941855 (Madison, Wis., 1970). See especially his chapter entitled "Death by Fire." On Islam, the most useful secondary source remains Franz Rosenthal's "On Suicide in Islam," Journal of the American Oriental Society 66 (1946): 239259. For the Assassins, one should consult the comprehensive historical account by Marshall G. S. Hodgson in The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizârï Ismâʿïlïs against the Islamic World (1955; New York, 1980).

For the Eastern traditions, in addition to the volume edited by Holck and the primary texts mentioned in the article, the following books are useful sources for individual traditions. For Hinduism, see both the older account by Edward Thompson, Suttee: A Historical and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning (London, 1928), and the more comprehensive study by Upendra Thakur, The History of Suicide in India: An Introduction (Delhi, 1963). For Jainism, Padmanabh S. Jaini offers a detailed account of sallekhanā in his book The Jaina Path of Purification (Berkeley, 1979). The Buddhist account entitled "The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress" may be found in the volume edited by Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth, 1959). For the Japanese attitude toward suicide and death, see the fascinating work by Ivan I. Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (New York, 1975), and for the study of seppuku among the warrior class, see The Samurai: A Military History by S. R. Turnbull (New York, 1977).

New Sources


Jan, Yün-Hua. "Buddhist Self-Immolation in Medieval China." History of Religions 4 (1965): 243268. A survey of Chinese Buddhist texts providing justifications of religious suicide.

Lamotte, Etienne. "Le suicide religieux dans le bouddhisme." Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres et des Sciences de l'Académie royale de Belgique 51 (1965). 156168. A monographic study by the foremost scholar of classic Buddhism.

McCutcheon, Russell. Manufacturing Religion. Oxford, 1997. See the pp. 167177 for the self-immolations of the Vietnamese Buddhist monks, providing a non-historical political explanation which is unreliable from the religious-historical point of view.


Bosch, Lourens P. van den. "A Burning Question: Sati and Sati Temples as the Focus of Political Interest." Numen 37 (1990): 174194. The issue is situated in the context of religion's definition.

Weinberger-Thomas, Catherine. Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India. Chicago, 1999. A radically new interpretation of satī based on fieldwork in northern India as well as extensive textual analysis.

New Cults

Introvigne, Massimo. "The Magic of Death: The Suicides of the Solar Temple." In Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence. Historical Cases edited by Catherine Wessinger. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000, pp. 287321.

Kabazzi-Kisiniria, S. Deusdedit, R. K. Nkurunziza, and Gerald Banura. The Kanungu Cult-Saga. Suicide, Murder or Salvation? Kampala, Uganda, 2000.

Mayer, Jean-François. Il Tempio Solare. Turin, Italy, 1997.

Nesci, Domenico Arturo. The Lessons of Jonestown. An Ethnopsychoanalytic Study of Suicidal Communities. Rome, 1999. The author is a professional psychoanalyst and psychiatrist but writes as a humanist

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millenium Comes Violently. From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York and London, 2000.


Cook, David. "Suicide Attacks or 'Martyrdom Operations' in Contemporary Jihad Literature" Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 6, no. 1 (2002): 744.

Marilyn J. Harran (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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