Category Archives: Intellectual, Religious, or Cultural Tradition

(1926- )

from Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire: In Search of the Enemy of Man


Thich Nhat Hanh, a scholar in the field of philosophy of religion and an internationally revered figure of Zen Buddhism, was born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo in Vietnam in 1926. (The word “Thich” [pronounced tick] is not a title, but a name that, for Buddhist monks and nuns, replaces the family name to which they were born.) Thich Nhat Hanh became a Zen monk at the age of 16 and was ordained in 1949. He founded the School of Youth for Social Services, a neutral relief corps, and the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Vietnam in 1957. In 1969, Nhat Hanh was the representative for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War; when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, he was officially denied reentry into Vietnam. He has been a student at Princeton and a professor at Columbia. Having lived in exile since 1966 (he has been allowed to visit Vietnam regularly since negotiations in 2005), he now lives in Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat center he cofounded in southwestern France, and conducts mindfulness retreats in Europe and North America.

To protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, during the Vietnam War, in June 1963, an elderly Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to the crossroads at Phan-Dinh-Phung Street in Saigon, sat in the lotus position, poured gasoline on himself, and set himself on fire in order to call attention to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under Diem’s oppressive regime. As he burned to death, a disciple read his last words to the press. Other Buddhist monks and nuns followed Quang Duc’s example: six burned themselves to death within a short period. Unimpressed, Madame Nhu, Diem’s sister-in-law, described these self-immolations as a “barbecue.”

It is the self-immolations of Thich Quang Duc, Thich Giac Thanh (mentioned in the selection presented here), and the other Buddhist monks and nuns that Nhat Hanh is attempting to explain to a sceptical world in the letter reprinted here. The letter is intended particularly for Westerners who see these acts as suicides, acts of self-destruction stemming from lack of courage, loss of hope, or the desire for nonexistence. . . . Although Giac Thanh was young at the time of his death, Quang Duc was over 70. Nhat Hanh had lived with the older monk for nearly a year at Long-Vinh pagoda before he set himself on fire, and describes him as “a very kind and lucid person . . . calm and in full possession of his mental faculties when he burned himself.” Nhat Hanh insists that these acts of self-immolation are not suicide, which, he says, is one of Buddhism’s “most serious crimes.” Nhat Hanh’s letter “In Search of the Enemy of Man” is addressed to Martin Luther King, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, foreword by Thomas Merton (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 106-108.  Quotations in introduction also from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, foreword by Daniel Berrigan (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1993).



From a letter by Thich Nhat Hanh addressed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., June 1, 1965

The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for Western Christian conscience to understand. The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one or more small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment, and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence (abhaya).

This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself: he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives—as told in a story of Jataka—who gave himself to a hungry lioness which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all of my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama, is not really aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred, and discrimination. These are real enemies of man—not man himself. In our unfortunate fatherland we are trying to plead desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.

Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their heart, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too—to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life. And Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists and many more, are not going to favor the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war—and you know that war is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien, was about to sacrifice herself in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is the war for, then? And whose is the war?

Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: “Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance.” In writing to you, I profess my faith in Love, in Communion, and in the World’s Humanists, whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all humankind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.

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The Martyr: On Jihad, Suicide, and Martyrdom


Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahhari (also spelled Morteza Motahhari or Motah-hary), a traditional Shi’ite mujtahid and scholar influential in the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1978–79), was born in a small town in the province of Khorasan, Iran, and studied at the Madrasah-e Fayziyah in Qom, later famous as a center of revolutionary students of theology. Mutahhari studied Islamic jurisprudence under Ayatollah Khomeini, whom he found impressive for his knowledge of philosophy and ethics, and was his devoted student for 12 years. At 23, Mutahhari began the formal study of philosophy; at 25, he discovered communist literature; and at 29, he began to study the works of the 10th-century Islamic thinker Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Mutahhari wrote works in philosophy, jurisprudence, and theology; he taught philosophy at the University of Tehran. Despite his comparatively scholastic and traditional scholarship, he voiced strong social concerns, and played both a philosophical and a political role in the leadership of the Iranian Revolution. In 1978, at Khomeini’s request, Mutahhari founded the Council of the Islamic Revolution, which continued to organize revolutionary forces even after the Shah was deposed. Mutahhari was assassinated in 1979 as he left a meeting and is now regarded as a martyr of the Islamic Revolution.

In the lecture presented here, Mutahhari examines the notions of jihad and shahadat. The Arabic term jihad, which means struggle, exertion, or expenditure of effort, and may include personal strivings for one’s own purity of motive and commitment, as well as armed struggle with the enemies of Islam, does not coincide precisely with the notion of holy war, though it is often used that way in the West; the Arabic shahadat may mean martyrdom or witnessing. In his lecture, Mutahhari argues that war intended to spread Islam by force among disbelievers is not allowed, but at the same time, one must fight to resist persecution and oppression, thus both helping the weak and simultaneously preparing the ground for the spread of Islam by peaceful means. Islam is to be defended by violent means if necessary—this is jihad, and the shahid (i.e., witness, martyr) who commits himself to this cause is one who “infuses new blood into an otherwise anaemic society.” Mutahhari distinguishes sharply between suicide or self-murder, “the worst kind of death,” and shahadat, the conscious, elective sacrifice of life for the sake of a sacred cause: This is “the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.”

Morteza Motah-hary [Mutahhari], The Martyr (Houston, TX:  Free Islamic Literatures, Inc., 1980), pp.  3-28.  Quotations in introductory material from Mehdi Abedi and Gary Legenhaus, eds., Jihad and Shahadat: Struggle and Martyrdom in Islam (Houston, TX: Institute for Research and Islamic Studies, 1986), pp. v-vii, 2, 12, 35-38, 128.





There are certain words and expressions to which, in general use or particularly in Islamic terminology, a certain sense of dignity, and sometimes even, sanctity is attached.

Student, teacher, scholar, inventor, hero, reformer, philosopher, zakir (preacher), momin (faithful), zahid (pious), mujahid (soldier), siddique (truthful), wali (saint), mujahid, Imam, and Prophet are some of the words of this category.  A sense of dignity or even of sanctity is attached to them in general use and especially in Islamic terminology.

It is evident that a word, as such, has no sanctity. It becomes sacred because of the sense which it conveys. The sanctity of a sense depends on a particular mental outlook, and the values which are cherished generally or by a particular section of people.

In Islamic terminology, there is a word which has a special sanctity. When anyone familiar with the Islamic modes of expressions hears this word, he feels it to be invested with a special glory. This word is shaheed or martyr. A sense of grandeur and sanctity is associated with it, in its use by all the people.  Of course the standards and the criteria vary. At present we are only concerned with the Islamic usage of it.

From the Islamic point of view, only that person is regarded to have secured the status of a martyr whom Islam recognizes as having acted according to it’s own standard. Only he, who is killed in an effort to achieve the highest Islamic objectives and is really motivated by a desire of safeguarding true human values, attains this position, which is one of the highest a man can aspire for. From what the Holy Qur’an and the hadith say about the martyrs, it is possible to infer, why so much sanctity is attached to this word by the Muslims and what the logic behind it is.

The Martyr

Martyr’s Proximity to Allah
The Holy Qur’an in respect of the Martyr’s proximity to Allah says: “Think not of those who were slain in the way of Allah, as dead.  Nay, they are alive, finding their sustenance with their Lord.

In Islam, when a meritorious person or deed is to be exalted, it is said that particular person has the status of a martyr, or a particular act merits the reward of martyrdom. For example, with regards to a student, who seeks knowledge with the motive of finding out the truth and gaining the favour of Allah, it is said, that if he dies while learning, he dies the death of a martyr. This expression denotes the high status and sanctity of a student. Similarly, with regards to a person who takes pain and labours strenuously for the support of his family, it is said that he is like a fighter in the way of Allah. It may be noted that Islam is severely opposed to lethargy and parasitism, and regards hard work as a duty.

Martyr’s Prerogative
All those who have served humanity in one way or the other, whether as scholars, philosophers, inventors or as teachers, deserve the gratitude of mankind. But no one deserves it, to the extent the martyrs do, and that is why all sections of the people have a sentimental attachment to them. The reason is, that all other servants of humanity are indebted to the martyrs; whereas the martyrs are not indebted to them. A scholar, a philosopher, an inventor and a teacher require a congenial and conducive atmosphere to render their services, and it is the martyr, who with his supreme sacrifice provides that atmosphere.

He can be compared to a candle, whose job is to burn out and get extinguished, in order to shed light for the benefit of others. The martyrs are the candles of society. They burn themselves out and illuminate society. If they do not shed their light, no organization can shine.

A man who works in the light of the sun during the day, and in the light of a lamp or a candle at night, pays heed to everything, but his attention is not drawn to the source of light, while it goes without saying, that without that light he can accomplish nothing.  The martyrs are the illuminators of society.  Had they not shed their light, on the darkness of despotism and suppression, humanity would have made no progress.

The Holy Qur’an has used a delightful expression about the Holy Prophet. It has compared him to an illuminating lamp.  This expression combines the sense of burning and enlightening.  The Holy Qur’an says: “O Prophet! Surely We have sent you as a witness, a bearer of good news and a warner; and as a guide to Allah, by His permission and as an illuminating lamp.”

There is no doubt that according to the Islamic terminology, the martyr is a sacred word and for those who use an Islamic vocabulary, it conveys a sense, higher than that of any other word.

Islam is a juridical religion. Every Islamic law is based on a social consideration. According to an Islamic law, the dead body of every Muslim has to be washed ceremoniously, and shrouded in neat and clean sheets. Thereafter prayers have to be performed and only then it is buried. There are good reasons for doing all this, but we need not discuss them in the present context.

Anyhow, there is an exception to this general rule. The body of a martyr is neither to be washed, nor is it to be shrouded in fresh sheets. He is to be buried in those very clothes, which he had on his body, at the time of his death.

This exception has a deep significance. It shows that the spirit and the personality of a martyr are so thoroughly purified that his body, his blood and his garments are also affected by this purification. The body of martyr is spiritualized, in the sense that certain rules applicable to his spirit, are applied to them. The body and the garments of a martyr, acquire respectability because of his spirit, virtue and sacrifice. One who falls martyr on a battle-field is buried with his blood-stained body and blood-soaked clothes without being washed.

These rules of the Islamic law are a sign of the sanctity of a martyr.

Reasons of Sanctity
What is the basis of the sanctity of martyrdom? It is evident that merely being killed can have no sanctity. It is not always a matter of pride. Many a death may even be a matter of disgrace.

Let us elucidate this point a bit further. We know that there are several kinds of death:

1) Natural Death: If a man dies a natural death, after completing his normal span of life, his death is considered to be an ordinary event. It is neither a matter of pride nor of shame. It is not even a matter of much sorrow.

2) Accidental Death: Death as the result of accidents or an epidemic disease like small-pox, plague, or due to such natural disasters, as an earthquake or a flood, is considered to be premature, and hence is regarded as regrettable.

3) Criminal Death: In this case, a person kills another in cold blood simply to satisfy his own passion or because he considered the victim to be his opponent or rival. There are many instances of such murders. We often read in the daily newspapers that a particular woman killed the small child of her husband because the father loved the child while the woman wanted to monopolize his attention, or that a particular man murdered the woman who refused to accept his love. Similarly, we read in history, that a particular ruler massacred all the children of another ruler, to foil the chances of any future rivalry.

In such cases, the action of the murderer is considered to be atrociously criminal and heinous, and the person killed is regarded as a victim of aggression and tyranny, whose life has been taken in vain. The reaction which such a murder creates, is one of horror and pity. It is evident that such a death is shocking and pitiable, but it is neither praise-worthy nor a matter of pride. The victim loses his life unnecessarily, because of malice, enmity and hatred.

4) Self-murder: In this case, the death itself constitutes a crime, and hence, it is the worst kind of death. Suicidal deaths and the deaths of those who are killed in motor accidents because of their own fault, come under this category. The same is the case of the death, of those who are killed while committing a crime.

5) Martyrdom: Martyrdom is the death of a person who, in spite of being fully conscious of the risks involved, willingly faces them for the sake of a sacred cause, or, as the Holy Qur’an says, in the way of Allah.

It has two basic elements: a) The life is sacrificed for a cause; and b) the sacrifice is made consciously. Usually in the case of martyrdom, an element of crime is involved.  As far as the victim is concerned, his death is sacred, but as far as his killers are concerned, their action is a heinous crime.

Martyrdom is heroic and admirable, because it results from a voluntary, conscious and selfless action. It is the only type of death which is higher, greater and holier than life itself.

It is regrettable that most of the zakirs who narrate the story of Karbala, call Imam Husain, the Doyen of the Martyrs, although they have little analytical insight into the question of martyrdom. They describe the events in such a way, as though he lost his life in vain.

Many of our people mourn Imam Husain for his innocence. They regret that he was a victim of the selfishness of a power-hungry man, who shed his blood, through no fault of his. Had the fact been really so simple, Imam Husain would have been regarded, only as an innocent person whom great injustice was done, but he could not have been called a martyr, let alone his being the Doyen of the Martyrs.

It is not the whole story, that Imam Husain was a victim of selfish designs. No doubt the perpetrators of the tragedy, committed the crime out of their selfishness, but the Imam consciously made the supreme sacrifice. His opponents wanted him to pledge his allegiance, but he, knowing fully well the consequences, chose to resist their demand. He regarded it as a great sin to remain quiet at the juncture. The history of his martyrdom, and especially his statements, bear witness to this fact.

Jihad or Martyr’s Responsibility
The sacred cause that leads to martyrdom or the giving of one’s life, has become a law in Islam. It is called Jihad. This is not the occasion to discuss its nature in detail, nor to say whether it is always defensive or offensive, and, if it is only defensive, whether it is confined to the defence of the individual or at the most, of national rights, or that its scope is so wide as to include the defence of all human rights such as freedom and justice. There are other relevant questions also, such as whether the faith in the Divine Unity is or is not a part of human rights, and whether jihad is or is not basically repugnant to the right of freedom.  The discussion of these questions can be both interesting and instructive, but in its proper place.

For the present, suffice it to say, that Islam is not a religion directing that should some one slap your right cheek, offer the left one to him, nor does it say: pay unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God. Similarly, it is not a religion which may have no sacred social ideal, or may not consider it necessary to defend it.

The Holy Qur’an in many of its passages, has mentioned three sacred concepts, side by side. They are faith, hijrat and jihad. The man of the Qur’an is a being attached to faith and detached from everything else. To save his own faith, he migrates, and to save society he carries out jihad.  It will take much of the space, if we reproduce all the verses and the hadiths on this subject. Hence we will content ourselves by quoting a few sentences from the Nahj al Balagha: “No doubt jihad is an entrance to Paradise, which Allah has opened for His chosen friends. It is the garment of piety, Allah’s impenetrable armour and trust-worthy shield. He who refrains from it because he dislikes it, Allah will clothe him in a garment of humiliation and a cloak of disaster.”

Jihad is a door to Paradise, but it is not open to all and sundry. Everyone is not worthy of it; Everyone is not elected to become a mujahid. Allah has opened this door for his chosen friends only. A mujahid’s position is so high that we cannot call him simply Allah’s friend.  He is Allah’s chosen friend.  The Holy Qur’an says that paradise has eight doors. Evidently, it does not have so many doors to avoid over-crowding, for there is no question of it in the next world. As Allah can check the accounts of all people instantly. (The Holy Qur’an says: “He is quick at reckoning.”) He can also arrange their entry into Paradise through one door. There is no question of entering in turn or forming a queue there. Similarly, these doors cannot be for different classes of people for there is no class distinction in the next world. There, the people will not be classified according to their social status or profession.

There, the people will be graded and grouped together on the basis of the degree of their faith, good deeds and piety only, and a door analogous to its spiritual development in this world, will be opened to each group, for the next world is only a heavenly embodiment of this world. The door through which the mujahids and the martyrs will enter, and the portion of Paradise set aside for them, is the one which is reserved for Allah’s chosen friends, who will be graced with His special favour.

Jihad is the garment of piety. The expression, garment of piety has been used by the Holy Qur’an in the Sura al A’raf. Imam Ali says that Jihad is the garment of piety. Piety consists of true purity, that is, freedom from spiritual and moral pollutions which are rooted in selfishness, vanity and aliveness, merely for personal profit and pleasure. On this basis, a real mujahid is the most pious. He is pure because he is free from jealously, free from vanity, free from avarice and free from stinginess. A mujahid is the purest of all the pure. He exercises complete self-negation and self-sacrifice. The door which is opened to him, is different from the doors opened to others morally undefiled. That piety has various grades, can be deduced from the Holy Qur’an itself, which says: “On those who believe and do good deeds there is no blame for what they eat, as long as they keep their duty and believe, and do good deeds then again they keep their duty and believe, and keep their duty and do good to others. And Allah loves the good.”

This verse implies two valuable points of the Qur’anic knowledge.  The first point is that, there are various degrees on faith and piety.  This is the point under discussion at present.  The other point concerns the philosophy of life and human rights.  The Holy Qur’an wants to say that all good things have been created for the people of faith, piety and good deeds.  Man is entitled to utilize the bounties of Allah only when he marches forward on the path of evolution prescribed for him by nature.  That is the path of faith, piety and worthy deeds.

Muslim scholars inspired by this verse, and by what has been explicitly or implicitly stated in other Islamic texts, have classified piety into three degrees:
(a)    average piety;
(b)   above average piety; and
(c)    outstanding piety.

The piety of the mujahids, is one of supreme self-sacrifice. They sincerely renounce all they possess, and surrender themselves to Allah. Thus, they put on a garment of piety.

Jihad is an impenetrable armour of Allah. A Muslim community equipped with the spirit of Jihad, cannot be vulnerable to the enemy’s assaults. Jihad is a reliable shield of Allah. The armour is the defensive covering worn during fighting, but the shield is a tool taken in hand, to foil the enemy’s strokes and thrusts. A shield is meant to prevent a blow, and an armour is meant to neutralize its effect.  Apparently, Imam Ali has compared jihad to both an armour and a shield, because some forms of it have a preventive nature and prevent the onslaught of the enemy, and other forms of it have a resistive nature and render his attacks ineffective.

Allah will clothe with a garment of humiliation, a person who refrains from Jihad because he dislikes it. The people who lose the spirit of fighting and resisting the forces of evil, are doomed to humiliation, disgrace, bad-luck and helplessness. The Holy Prophet has said: “All good lies in the sword and under the shadow of the sword.” He has also said: “Allah has honoured my followers, because of the hoofs of their horses, and the position of their arrows. This means that the Muslim community is the community of power and force. Islam is the religion of power. It produces mujahids. Will Durant in his book, “History of Civilization,” says that no religion has called its followers to power to the extent that Islam has.

According to another hadith, the Holy Prophet has been quoted as having said: “He who did not fight and did not even think of fighting, will die the death of a sort of hypocrite.” Jihad, or at least a desire to take part in it, is an integral part of the doctrine of Islam. One’s fidelity to Islam is judged by it. Another hadith reports the Holy Prophet as having said, that a martyr would not be interrogated in his grave.  The Holy Prophet said that the flash of the sword over his head, was enough of a test. A martyr’s fidelity, having once been proved, has no need of any further interrogation.

Longing for Martyrdom
In the early days of Islam, many Muslims had a special spirit, which may be called the spirit of longing for martyrdom. Imam Ali was the most prominent of such people. He, himself says: “When the verse ‘Do men feel that they will be let off, because they say we believe and will not be tried by an ordeal’, was revealed, I asked the Holy Prophet about it. I knew that so long as he was alive, the Muslims would not be subject to an ordeal. The Holy Prophet said that after him, a civil strife would break out among the Muslims. Then I reminded him, that on the occasion of the Battle of Ohad, when I was dejected because a number of Muslims had been killed, and I had been deprived of martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom, he consoled me, saying that I would attain martyrdom in future. The Holy Prophet affirmed it, and asked me whether I would observe patience, at that time. I said that, that would be an occasion of being thankful to Allah, and not that of merely being patient. Then the Holy Prophet gave me some details of the events to come.” This is what we mean by the longing for martyrdom.  Had Imam Ali lost the hope of attaining martyrdom, life would have become meaningless for him.

We always have Imam Ali’s name on our lips, and claim to be devoted to him. If, mere verbal professions could do, no one would be better Shia than we are. But, true Shia’ism requires us to follow in his footsteps, too. We have given just one example of his conduct above.

Apart from Imam Ali, we know of many other people who longed for martyrdom. In the early days of Islam, every Muslim prayed to Allah for it, as is evident from the supplications which have come down to us from the Imams.

In the supplication, which is offered during the nights of the holy month of Ramazan, we say: “O Allah! Let us be killed in your way, in the company of your friend (Imam) and attain martyrdom.”

We find that during the early days of Islam everyone, whether young or old, high or low had this longing. Sometimes the people came to the Holy Prophet and expressed this desire. Islam does not allow suicide. They wanted to take part in jihad, and to be killed while doing their duty. They requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant them martyrdom.

In the book, Safinat al Bihar there is a story of a man named Khaythumah (or Khathimah). At the time of the Battle of Badr, he and his son were both keen to take part in the fighting and to get killed. They argued with each other. In the end they drew lots. The son won, and accordingly went to the battle-field where he laid down his life. Some time later, the father had a dream in which he saw his son living a very happy life, and who told him that Allah’s promise had come true. The old father came to the Holy Prophet and narrated the dream. He told the Holy Prophet, that though he was too old and too weak to fight, he was desirous of taking part in the fighting and falling a martyr. He requested the Holy Prophet, to pray to Allah to grant him, his desire. The Holy Prophet prayed accordingly. Within less than a year the old man had, not only the good fortune of taking part in the Battle of Ohad, but also of achieving martyrdom.

There was another man, whose name was Amr ibn Jamuh. He had several sons. He was lame in one leg and so according to the Islamic law, exempt from taking part in the fighting.  The Holy Qur’an says: “The lame are not under constraint.” On the occasion of the Battle of Ohad all his sons equipped themselves with arms. He said, that he must also go into battle and lay down his life. His sons objected to his decision and asked him to stay behind, as he was not under any obligation to go to battle. But, still he insisted. His sons brought the senior member of their family, to exert pressure on him, but the old man would not change his mind. He went, instead to the Holy Prophet, and said: “Prophet to Allah, who do not the children let me become a martyr? If martyrdom is good for others, it is good for me too.” The Holy Prophet, then, asked his sons, not to restrain him. He said: “This man longs for martyrdom. If he is under no obligation to fight, neither is he forbidden from it. You should have no objection.” The old man was pleased. He immediately armed himself. On the battle-field, one of his sons was watching him. He saw his father, in spite of being aged and weak, fought recklessly and zealously. At last he was killed. One of his sons was also killed.

Ohad is situated near Medina. There, the Muslims suffered heavy losses and their position became critical. In the meantime, a report reached Medina that the Muslims had been defeated. The men and women of Medina hurried to Ohad. One of the women was the wife of this Amr ibn Jamuh. She went to Ohad, found out the dead bodies of her husband, son and brother. She loaded them onto a strong camel, and set out for Medina with the intention of burying them in the cemetery of Baqi. On the way, she noticed that her camel moved very haltingly and slowly towards Medina and turned constantly towards Ohad. Meanwhile, other women including some of the wives of the Holy Prophet, were coming towards Ohad.

One of the wives of the Holy Prophet asked her where she was coming from. She replied that she was coming from Ohad.

“What are you carrying on your camel?”
“Nothing.  Only the dead bodies of my husband, son and brother.  I want to take them to Medina.”
“How is the Prophet?”
“Thank Allah!  Everything is all right.  The Prophet is safe.  The designs of the infidels have been frustrated by Allah.  So long as the Holy Prophet is safe, everything else is immaterial.”

Then, the woman said that there was something queer about her camel. It appeared that it did not want to go to Medina. It should have been going towards his manger eagerly, but it wanted to go back to Ohad. The Prophet’s wife proposed that they should go together to the Holy Prophet and tell him about that. When they met the Holy Prophet, the woman said: “I have a strange story. This animal goes on to Medina with difficulty, but comes to Ohad easily.” The Holy Prophet said: “Did your husband say anything when he came out of his house?” “Yes, when he came out of the house, he raised his hands in prayer and said: ‘O Allah, grant me, that I don’t come back to this house,” said the woman. “That’s it. Your husband’s prayer has been granted. Now let him be buried at Ohad along with the other martyrs,” advised the Holy Prophet.

The Commander of Faithful Imam Ali used to say: “I prefer a thousand strokes of the sword to dying in bed.” Imam Husain on his way to Karbala, used to recite certain lines of poetry. His father is also reported to have recited these verses occasionally.  We give a translation of them below:

Though worldly things are fine and charming,
The recompense of the Hereafter is far better,
If all the possessions and wealth are to be left behind,
Why should one be stingy about them?
If our bodies are meant to die and decay,
Is it not better that they are cut to pieces in the way of Allah?

Martyr’s Motivation
A martyr’s motivation is different from that of ordinary people. His logic is the blind logic of a reformer, and the logic of a Gnostic lover. If the two logics, namely the logic of an earnest reformer, and the logic of a zealous and Gnostic lover are put together, the result will be the motivation of a martyr. Let us elucidate this point further.

When Imam Husain decided to leave for Kufa, some prudent members of his family tried to dissuade him. Their argument was that his action was not logical. They were right in their own way. It was not in conformity with their logic, which was the logic of worldly wise man. But Imam Husain had a higher logic. His logic was that of a martyr, which is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people.

Abd Allah ibn Abbas was no small a person. Muhammad ibn Hanafiyyah was not an ordinary man. But their logic was based on the consideration of personal interests and political gains. From their point of view, Imam Husain’s action was not discreet at all. Ibn Abbas made a proposal, which was politically very sound. It is the usual practice of clever people to use others as their tools. They push others forward and remain behind themselves. If others succeed, they take full advantages of their success. Otherwise, they lose nothing. Ibn Abbas said to Imam Hussain, “The people of Kufa have written to tell you, that they were ready to fight for your cause. You should write back asking them to expell Yazid’s officials from there. They would either do what you suggest or they won’t. If they do, you can go there safely. If they are unable to do so, your position is not affected.”

The Imam did not listen to this advice. He made it plain that he was determined to proceed. Ibn Abbas said:

“You will be killed.”
“So what?” said the Imam.
“A man who goes knowing he may be killed, does not take his wife and children along with him.”
“But I must.”

A martyr’s logic is unique. It is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. That is why the word martyr is encircled with a halo of sanctity. It occupies a remarkable position in the vocabulary of sacred and highly glorious words. It connotes something higher, than the sense of a hero and a reformer. It cannot be replaced by any other word.

Martyr’s Blood
What does a martyr do? His function is not confined to resisting the enemy, and in the process, either giving him a blow or receiving a blow from him. Had that been the case, we could say, that when his blood is shed, it goes waste. But at no time is a martyr’s blood wasted.  It does not flow on the ground. Every drip of it is turned into hundreds and thousands of drops, nay into tons of blood, and is transfused into the body of his society. That is why the Holy Prophet has said: “Allah does not like any drop, more than the drop of blood shed, in His way.” Martyrdom means transfusion of blood into a society, especially a society suffering from anemia.  t is the martyr who infuses fresh blood into the veins of the society.

Martyr’s Courage and Zeal
The distinctive characteristic of a martyr, is that he charges the atmosphere with courage and zeal. He revives the spirit of valour and fortitude, courage and zeal, especially divine zeal, among the people who have lost it. That is why Islam is always in need of martyrs. The revival of courage and zeal is essential for the revival of a nation.

Martyr’s Immortality
A scholar serves the society through his knowledge. It is on account of his knowledge that his personality is amalgamated with the society, just as a drop of water is amalgamated with the sea. As the result of this amalgamation a part of personality, namely his thoughts and ideas, become immortal. An inventor is amalgamated with the society through his inventions. He serves the society, by making himself immortal, by virtue of his skill and inventions. A poet makes himself immortal through his poetic art, and a moral teacher through his wise sayings.

Similarly, a martyr immortalizes himself in his own way. He gives invaluable fresh blood to the society. In other words, a scholar immortalizes his thoughts, an artist his art, an inventor his inventions, and a moral teacher his teachings. But a martyr, through his blood, immortalizes his entire being. His blood for ever flows in the veins of the society. Every other group of people can make only a part of its faculties immortal, but a martyr immortalizes all his faculties. That is why, the Holy Prophet said: “Above every virtue, there is another virtue, but there is no virtue higher than being killed in the way of Allah.”

Martyr’s Intercession
There is a hadith which says, that there are three classes of people who will be allowed to intercede with Allah on the Day of Judgement. They are the prophets, ulema and martyrs. In this hadith, the Imams have not been mentioned expressly, but as the report comes down from our Imams, it is obvious that the term, ‘Ulema” stands for the true divines, who par excellence include the Imams themselves.

The intercession of the prophets is quite apparent. It is the intercession of the martyr’s, which we have to comprehend. The martyrs secure this privilege of intercession because they lead the people onto the right path. Their intercession will be portrayal of the events which took place in this world.

The Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali says: “Allah will bring forward the martyrs, on the Day of Judgement, with such pomp and splendour, that even the prophets if mounted, will dismount to show their respect for them.” With such grandeur, will a martyr appear on the Day of Judgement.”

Lamenting Over the Martyr
Among the martyrs of the early days of Islam, the name of the most brilliant martyr was, Hamzah ibn Abd al Muttalib. He was given the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs. He was an uncle of the Holy Prophet, and was present at the Battle of Ohad. Those who have had the good luck of visitingMedina, must have paid a visit to his grave.

When Hamzah migrated from Mecca, he was alone, for nobody lived with him in his house. When the Holy Prophet returned from Ohad, he found women weeping in the houses of all the martyrs, except that of Hamzah. He uttered just one sentence “Hamzah has no one to weep for him.” The companions of the Holy Prophet went to their houses and told their womenfolk that the Holy Prophet had said that Hamzah had no body to weep for him. All the women who were weeping for their sons, husbands and brothers immediately, set out for the house of Hamzah and wept there, out of respect for the wish of the Holy Prophet. Thereafter, it became a tradition, that whenever anybody wanted to weep for any martyr, he or she first went to the house of Hamzah and wept there. This incident shows, that though Islam does not encourage lamenting the death of an ordinary man, it tends to want the people to weep for a martyr. A martyr creates the spirit of valour, and weeping for him, means participation in his valour and in conformity with his longing for martyrdom.

The title of the Doyen of the Martyrs was first applied to Hamzah. After the tragedy of the 10th Muharram and the martyrdom of Imam Husain which overshadowed all other cases of martyrdom, it was transferred to him. No doubt this epithet is still applied to Hamzah but he was the Doyen of the Martyrs of his own time, whereas Imam Husain in the Doyen of the martyrs of all times, just as the Virgin Mary was the Doyen of the Virgins in her time, and the lady of light Fatima is the Doyen of wives of all times.

Prior to the martyrdom of Imam Husain it was Hamzah who was regarded as the symbol of lamentation over the martyrs. Weeping for him, meant participation in a martyr’s valour, in conformity with his spirit, and in harmony with his longing.  Since his martyrdom, Imam Husain occupies this position.

We deem it necessary at this juncture to refer briefly to the philosophy of lamentation over a martyr. Nowadays, many people object to the weeping for Imam Husain. Some of them assert that this custom, is the result of incorrect thinking and a wrong conception of martyrdom. Moreover, it has had bad repercussions, and is responsible for the backwardness and decline of the people who have adopted it.

The present writer remembers, that when a student at Qum, he read a book by Muhammad Masud, a well-known writer of those days. In it he drew comparison between the Shia custom of weeping for Imam Husain and the Christian practice of celebrating the crucifixion (according to their own belief) of Jesus Christ with festivities.

The author wrote: “It is to be noticed that one nation weeps for its martyr because it regards martyrdom as something undesirable and regrettable, whereas another nation rejoices at the death of its martyr, because it regards his martyrdom as a great achievement and a matter of pride. A nation which weeps and mourns for a thousand years, naturally loses its vitality and becomes weak and cowardly, whereas the nation which celebrates the martyrdom of its hero becomes powerful, courageous and self-sacrificing. For one nation martyrdom means failure. Its reaction is weeping and lamenting which lead to weakness, helplessness and submissiveness. But for the other nation, martyrdom means triumph, and hence, its reaction is joy and rejoicing which bolsters up its morale.”

This is the gist of the criticism made by this author. The same arguments are advanced by other critics also. We would like to analyse this question and prove that the festive celebration of martyrdom by the Christians stems from their individualistic approach, and the weeping for the martyrs by the Muslims, from their social approach.

Of course, we cannot justify the attitude of those of our masses who look at Imam Husain only as a person to whom great injustice was done, and who was killed just for nothing. They express profound regret at his death, but pay little attention to his heroic and praise-worthy performance. We have already denounced this attitude. We intend to explain why the Imams have exhorted weeping for a martyr, and what the real philosophy of this exhortation is.

We do not know since when and by whom the festive celebration of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ was initiated. But we know, that weeping for the martyrs has been recommended by Islam, and it is an indisputable doctrine of the Shiite School of Islam. Now to analyse the main point, let us first discuss the individual aspect of death and martyrdom.

  • Is death an achievement on the part of the individual or something undesirable?
  • Should others regard it as a heroic deed on the part of the individual concerned?

We know that in this world there have been schools of thought, and they may still be existing, which believed that the relationship between man and the world, or in other words, between the soul and the body, was similar to the relationship between a prisoner and a prison, between a man who falls into a well and the well or between a bird and it’s cage. Naturally, according to these schools, death is equivalent to liberation and emancipation. Therefore, they allow suicide. It is said that the famous false prophet, Manikhaios held the same view. According to this theory, death has a positive value and is desirable for everyone. No one’s death is regrettable. A release from prison, getting out of a well, and the breaking of a cage, is a matter of joy and not of sorrow.

Another theory holds that death means nonexistence, complete annihilation and utter destruction, whereas life means to be and to persevere. Obviously, existence is better than nonexistence. It is a matter of instinct that life, whatever its form may be, is preferable to death.

The famous mystic poet, Mawlavi, quotes the Greek physician Galen, as having said, that in all circumstances he preferred to live rather than to die, no matter what form life took. He preferred life, even if it meant living in the belly of a mule, with only the head protruding out for breathing. According to this theory, death has only a negative value.

There is another theory, according to which death does not mean annihilation. It means only shifting from one world to another. The relationship between man and the world, and between the soul and the body, is not similar to that between a prisoner and the prison, between a fellow in a well and the well, and between a bird and the cage. It is similar to the relationship between a student and his school, and between a farmer and his farm.

It is true, that occasionally a student has to live away from his home and roost, where he misses the company of his friends, and has to pursue his studies within the limited atmosphere of his school, but the only way to lead a happy life in a society is to complete his course of studies successfully. It is also true that a farmer has to leave his house and family life, to work on his farm, but that provides him a good means of livelihood, and enables him to pass a happy family life, throughout the year.

The relationship between this world and the next, and between the soul and the body, is of this very nature. To those who have this outlook on the world, but who fail in practical life because of their lethargy and malpractices, the idea of death naturally appears to be dreadful and terrible. In fact, they are afraid of death because they fear the consequences of their own deeds.

But the attitude of those who are successful in their practical life, is naturally that of the student who has paid his whole-hearted attention to his studies, and of the farmer who has worked hard. Such a student, and such a farmer, yearn for their return home, but do not think of leaving their task incomplete.

The holy men are like the successful students. They long for death, which means going into the next world. Every moment, they impatiently wait for it. Imam Ali has said about them: “If Allah had not fixed the time of death, their soul would not have remained in their body for a moment, because of their desire for recompense and fear of retribution.”

At the same time, they do not run after death, for they know that it is only this life which gives them an opportunity to work and attain spiritual development. They know that the longer they live, the greater is the perfection they achieve.  Hence they resist death, and always ask Allah to grant them a long life. Thus, we know that it not contradictory that the holy men on the one hand consider death to be desirable and on the other, resist it and pray for a long life.

Addressing the Jews who claimed to be the friends of Allah, the Holy Qur’an says, “If you are friends of Allah (as you claim to be) then wish for death.” It further says that they will never wish for death, because they know what deeds they have committed, and what retribution they are to receive in the Hereafter. These people belong to the third category mentioned above.

There are two conditions, in which the holy men refrain from praying for a long life. First, when they are not attaining continuous success in doing virtuous deeds, and they fear that instead of progressing, they may retrogress. Imam Ali ibn al Husain used to say: “O Allah, prolong my life only so long as it is spent in obeying You, but if it becomes the grazing field of the Devil, carry me to Yourself.”

Secondly, the holy men pray for martyrdom unconditionally, for it constitutes a virtuous deed as well as spiritual progress. We have already quoted a prophetic saying to the effect that martyrdom is the highest virtue. Further, martyrdom means going into the next world, which the holy men so much yearn for. That is why we find, that Imam Ali’s, joy knew no bounds when he felt that he was going to die as a martyr.

Many sentences uttered by Imam Ali during the interval between his being wounded and his demise, are recorded in books including the Nahj al Blagha. One sentence has a bearing on the point under discussion. He said: “By Allah, nothing unexpected and undesirable has occurred. What has occurred, is what I had wanted.

I have achieved martyrdom, which I had desired. I am like a man, who was in search of water and suddenly struck upon a well or a spring. I am like the man, who was strenuously looking for something, and got it.”

In the early morning of the 19th Ramazan when his assassin struck him on the head, the first or the second sentence which was heard from him was: “By the Lord of the Ka’ba, I have succeeded.” So, from the Islamic point of view, martyrdom is a great, nay the greatest achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned.

Imam Husain said: “My grandfather told me that I was destined to attain a very high spiritual position, but that could not be attained except through martyrdom.”

So far, we have analysed the individual aspect of death and martyrdom, and have arrived at the conclusion, that death in the form of martyrdom, is really an achievement as far as the martyr himself is concerned. From this angle, no doubt death is a happy event, and that is why, a great scholar, Ibn Tawus has said: “Had we not been given instructions about mourning, I would have preferred to celebrate the days of the martyrdom of the Imams, with festivity.”

On this ground, it may be said that Christianity is right in celebrating the martyrdom of Christ as a festive event. Islam also fully recognizes the martyrdom, to be an achievement of the martyr. But, from the Islamic point of view, the other side of the picture is also to be seen. From the social point of view, martyrdom is a phenomenon which takes place in specific circumstances, and is preceded and followed by events which have to be duly assessed. Similarly, it creates a reaction in society, not depending merely on the success or the defeat of the martyr, but is mainly based on the opinion held by the people, on the respective positions of the martyr and his opponents.

One more aspect of martyrdom is important. It is the martyr’s two-fold relationship with the society: (a) his relationship with those who have been deprived of his presence among them; and (b) his relationship with those, who by their depravity, created an atmosphere in which he had to stand against them and lay down his life. It is evident that from the view point of his followers, a martyr’s death is a great loss. When they express their emotions, they really cry over their own bad luck.

Martyrdom is desirable, if we consider the situation in which it takes place. It is necessitated by an undesirable and ugly situation. In this respect, it is comparable to a surgical operation which becomes necessary, as in the case of appendicitis, duodenal or gastric ulcer and the like.  In the absence of such as situation, the operation will obviously be a mistake.

The moral which the people should draw from martyrdom, is that they should not allow similar situations to develop, in the future. The idea of mourning, is to project the tragedy as an event which should not have happened.  Emotions are expressed, to condemn the villains of oppression and the killers of the martyr, with a view to restrain the members of society from following the example of such criminals. Accordingly, we find that none of those trained in the school of the mourning of Imam Husain would like to have the least resemblance of Yazid, Ibn Ziyad and the like.

Another moral which the society should draw, is that whenever a situation demanding sacrifice arises, the people should have the feelings of a martyr and willingly follow his heroic example. Weeping for the martyr means association with his fervour, harmony with his spirit and conformity with his longing. Now let us see whether festivity, rejoicing, dance and sometimes even mockery, drinking and revelry as witnessed during the religious feasts of the Christians, are more in keeping with the spirit of martyrdom or weeping and mourning are.

Usually a misconception prevails about weeping and it is thought that weeping is caused by pain and distress, and hence it is a bad thing. Weeping and laughter are two peculiar characteristics of human beings. Other animals feel pleasure and pain and get happy and sad, but they neither laugh nor weep. Laughter and weeping are the manifestations of intense emotions, peculiar only to human beings.

Laughter has many varieties, which we do not intend to discuss at present. Weeping also has varieties, but it is always concinnity with a sort of sensitivity and excitement.  We are all aware of tears of love and longing. When one weeps because of the excitement of love, he feels closer to his beloved.  Joy and laughter rather have an introvertive aspect. On the other hand, weeping has an extrovertive aspect, and means self-negation and unification with the object of love.

Because of his noble personality and heroic death Imam Husain evokes the deepest emotions of hundreds of millions of people. The whole world could be reformed, if our preachers could utilize this enormous fund of emotions to bring the spirit of the common man into harmony with the spirit of Imam Husain.

The secret of Imam Husain’s immortality, lies in the fact that on one hand, his movement was logical and rational, and on the other hand it evoked deep emotions. The Imams gave the most judicious direction, when they resorted to weeping for him, for it is weeping that has firmly rooted his movement in the hearts of the people. We again wish that our preachers knew how to utilize this emotional treasure.

When her father gave Fatima Zahra the well-known liturgical formula, which we, also, usually repeat after prayers, or at the time of going to bed (Allahu Akbar 34 times, Al hamdo lillah 33 times and Subhan Allah 33 times), she went to the grave of her grand uncle, Hamzah ibin Abd al-Muttalib, and collected earth from there to make a rosary. What is the significance of her action? The grave of a martyr is sacred. The earth of its vicinity is sacred. She required a rosary for counting the liturgical formula. Actually, it made no difference whether a rosary was made of stone, wood or clay. The earth could be taken from anywhere. But she preferred to take it from the vicinity of the martyr’s grave. Her action meant paying respect to him. After the martyrdom of Imam Husain the epithet of the Doyen of the Martyrs, was taken away from Hamzah and given to the grandson of his brother. Now, if anybody wants to seek the blessing of a martyr’s grave, he should make a rosary of the earth of Imam Husain’s mausoleum.

We have to offer our prayers. At the same time, we do not regard it, permissible to perform sajdah (prostration) on rugs, carpet or anything which is eatable or wearable. Hence, we keep with us a piece of stone or clay. But the Imams have said, that it is better to perform sajdah on the earth of martyr’s grave. If possible the earth of Karbala should be obtained, for it emits the smell of the martyrs. While offering your prayers, you can put your head on any earth, but if for this purpose you use the earth which has had some sort of contact with the martyrs, your reward will be enhanced a hundred times.

And Imam has said: “Perform sajdah on the grave of my grandfather, Husain ibin Ali. When a person offering prayers, performs sajdah on that sacred earth, he pierces seven veils.” The idea is to urge the people to realize the importance of the martyr, and to caress the earth of his grave.

Martyr’s Night
It is the usual practice in the modern world, to dedicate a day every year to a certain group or class of people, to pay homage to them. Mother’s Day, Teacher’s Day, are the examples of such days. But we do not find any day, being dedicated to the martyrs by any people, except the Muslims. It is the day of Ashura (10th Muharram). Its night may be regarded as the Martyrs’ Night.

We have already said, that a martyr’s logic is a combination of the logic of a lover and that of a reformer. If the personalities of a reformer and a Gnostic lover are combined a martyr comes into existence. A Muslim ibn Awsajah, a Hibib ibn Muzahir and a Zuhayr ibn Qayn comes into being. Anyhow, it must be remembered that all martyrs do not hold the same status.

Evidence of the Doyen of the Martyrs
Imam Husain has offered a testimony concerning the martyrs of Ashura which indicates their high status. It is known that the martyrs occupy a prominent position among the pious and the virtuous, and the companions of Imam Husain occupy a prominent position among the martyrs. Do you know what Imam Husain’s testimony was? Though his companions had been screened previously and those found unfit had been asked to leave, on the night of Ashura, he tested them finally. This time, not a single person was rejected.

There are two versions of the report. According to the first version, Imam Husain had a tent where the water was placed. He is reported to have assembled all his companions in the evening. Why he chose that tent, we do not know exactly. Probably he did so because that night there were no water-skins there. The only water which might have been available was that which was brought by Imam Husain’s son, Ali Akbar from the watering place of theEuphrates.

It is reported by the authentic chroniclers, of the Battle of Karbala that on the night of 10th Muharram, Imam Husain, sent his son with a small contingent to fetch water. The mission was successfully accomplished. All drank from the water he brought. Later Imam Husain asked them to take a bath and wash themselves. He told them, that it was the last supply of the water of this world, that they were getting. Whatever be the case, he assembled together all his companions and permitted everyone to leave, should they wish to do so. He delivered and eloquent and forceful sermon to them, in which he referred to the development of that afternoon.

You must have heard that the enemy had delivered his last ultimatum, on the evening of 9th Muharram, according to which the Imam had make his final decision by the morning of the 10th Muharram. Imam Zayn al-Abidin, who was present on that occasion, related that Imam Husain assembled his companions in a tent, adjacent to the tent in which he (Imam Zayn al Abidin) was confined to bed, and delivered a sermon. He began saying: “I praise Allah with the best praise. I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.”

For a person who takes a step, in the pursuit of truth and righteousness, all that happens is good. A righteous man, consciously performs his duty in all circumstances, irrespective of the consequences. In this connection, Imam Husain gave a very interesting reply to the celebrated poet Farazdaq, who met him while he was on his way to Karbala. Farazdaq explained the dangerous situation of Iraq. In reply the Imam said: “If things develop as we want, we will praise Allah and seek His help for being thankful to Him, but if anything untoward happens, we won’t be the losers, because our intentions are good and our conscience is clear.  Hence whatever comes about is good, not bad.”

“I am thankful to Him in all circumstances, whether pleasant or otherwise.” What he meant to say, was that he had seen good days and bad days in his life. The good days were when, in childhood, he sat on the lap of the Holy Prophet and when he rode on his shoulder. There was a time when he was the most favourite child in the Muslim world. He was grateful to Allah for those days. He was grateful to Him for the present hardships also, for all that came about, was good to him. He was thankful to Allah, who chose his family for Prophethood and who enabled his family to understand the Holy Qur’an fully and to have a true insight into the religion.

After stating that the Imam produced his historic testimony in respect of his companions and the members of his family, he said: “I do not know of any companions better or more faithful than my own companions, nor do I know of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than my own.”

Thus, he accorded to his own companions, a status higher than that of those companions of the Holy Prophet who were killed fighting in his company, and of those companions of his own father, Imam Ali, who were killed in the battles of Jamal, Siffin and Nahrawan. He said that he was not aware of any kinsmen more virtuous and more dutiful than his own. Thus, he accorded recognition to their high position and expressed his gratitude to them.  Then he went on to say: “Gentlemen! I would like to tell you all, my companions and my kinsmen both, that these people are not concerned with anybody except me.  They regard me to be their sole adversary. They want me to take the oath of allegiance. If they could eliminate me, they would have nothing to do with you.  The enemy is not concerned with you. You have pledged your allegiance to me.  Now I release you from your commitment.  You are under no obligation to stay here.  You are compelled by no friend or foe.  You are absolutely free.  Whosoever wants to go, may go.” Then addressing his companions, he said: “Let each one of you take hold of the hand of one of my kinsmen, and leave.”

The members of Imam Husain’s family included both adults and minors. Moreover, they were all strangers there. The Imam did not want them all to leave together.  So he asked each of his companions to hold the hand of one of them and leave the battlefield.

This incident throws light on the high character of Imam Husain’s companions. They were under no compulsion from any side. The enemy was not concerned with them.  The Imam had set them free from their obligation. In these circumstances, the heart warming reply, that each of the companions and relatives of the Imam gave, was remarkable.

Events that Satisified the Imam
On the 10th of Muharram, and during the night preceding it, it was a matter of great satisfaction for the Imam to see that all his relatives from the smallest child to the most aged person, were following in his footsteps.

Another matter of satisfaction for him was that none of his companions showed the slightest sign of weakness. None of them joined the enemy. On the other hand, they brought a number of hostile personnel over to their side. Such people joined them, both on the day of Ashura and the night preceding it. Hur ibn Yazid was one of them.

In all, 30 people joined him during the night of Ashura. These were the gratifying events for the Imam. One by one, Imam Husain’s companions said to him: “Sir! Do you permit us to go away and leave you alone? That can not be. Life has no value, in comparison with you.” One said: “I wish that process were repeated 70 times. To be killed only once, means nothing.” Another said: “I wish I were killed a thousand times consecutively. I wish I had a thousand lives, all to be sacrificed for you.”

Each One of Them Talked in the Same Vein
The first one to speak, was his conscientious brother, Abu al Fazl al Abbas. Others repeated what he said.

This was their last test. After they had all pronounced their decision, Imam Husain disclosed what was going to happen the next day. He said: “I tell you, that you will all be killed tomorrow.”  hey all thanked Allah for being given an opportunity to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their Holy Prophet’s descendant.

Here, there is good food for thought. Had it not been a question of a martyr’s logic, it could have been argued that the stay of those people, was useless. If Imam Husain was to be killed in any case, what should they sacrifice their lives for?  But still they stayed.

Imam Husain did not compell them to depart. He did not tell anyone that their stay was useless; they would only lose their lives in vain; and hence their stay was forbidden.

Imam Husain did not say any of this. On the other hand, he hailed their willingness to make the supreme sacrifice. This shows that a martyr’s logic is different form that of other people. A martyr often sacrifices his life, to create fervour, to enlighten the society, to revive it and to infuse fresh blood into its body. This was one such occasion.

To defeat the enemy, is not the only object of martyrdom. It aims at creating fervour also. If Imam Husain’s companions had not laid down their lives that day, how could so much fervour have been created? Though Imam Husain was the central figure in this event of martyrdom, his companions added to its lustre, grandeur and dignity. Without their contribution, Imam Husain martyrdom might not have assumed such a significance as to move, educate and encourage people for hundreds, nay thousands of years.

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Filed under Islam, Middle East, Mutahhari, Murtaza, Selections, The Modern Era

(b. 1920s, d. 1944-1945)

Kamikaze Diaries
Last Letters Home


In October 1944, toward the end of World War II, as it was becoming clear to the Japanese command that American aircraft carriers massing at the mouth of Leyte Gulf represented a serious threat, the new commander of Japanese naval air forces in the Philippines, Vice-Admiral Takijiro Ohnishi, arrived in Luzon. Knowing that the Japanese air forces in the entire Philippines area had fewer than 100 planes still in operational condition and that naval forces were not adequate to resist the invasion, Admiral Ohnishi recognized that loss to the Americans would mean loss of the Philippines altogether and with it the end of any real possibility of defending Japan. “In my opinion,” one of his senior staff officers later quoted him as saying, “there is only one way of assuring that our meager strength will be effective to a maximum degree. That is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters armed with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-drive into an enemy carrier. . . . What do you think?”

This moment saw the birth of the Japan Naval Special Attack Force, the tokkotai, known as the Thunder Gods or Kamikaze Corps. “Body-crashing” (tai-atari) tactics had been used in air-to-air combat against enemy bombers, and many pilots had urged the use of the same tactics against enemy carriers, but it was at this moment that the idea of the suicide attack, a strategy devised by Sub-lieutenant Shoichi Ota, began its official translation into reality. The idea was presented to the remaining 23 young men of the 201st Air Group, already reduced to a third of its original size, by the officer who had been their commander during training and who, it was said, “was as deeply attached to these men as a father to his children.” The young pilots embraced Admiral Ohnishi’s idea of crash-dive missions “in a frenzy of emotion and joy.” The operation, shortly to be called kamikaze or “divine wind,” began within days.

As time went on, more planes were added and more pilots trained. Training lasted seven days: two days of take-off practice, two days of formation flying, and three days of approaching and attacking a target. Morale was said to be high in the kamikaze units, and pilots were said to have prayed for a direct hit. Within half a year, kamikaze tactics had proved so effective in damaging enemy surface forces that the Japanese high command grew convinced that kamikaze strategies were the only way to halt the American advance. Midget submarines with one or two pilots were also used in kamikaze naval attacks beginning with Pearl Harbor, and kamikaze strikes eventually became the primary strategy for all the armed forces. The attacks continued even after it became evident that Japan could not win; Admiral Ohnishi insisted that his men would be doomed in conventional combat, and argued that “[i]‌t is important to a commander, as it is to his men, that death be not in vain. I believe that a broad perspective indicates the wisdom of crash-diving” and ordered the suicide operations to continue.

There was both loyal support and intense criticism of kamikaze tactics in Japan and abroad. Although it is often assumed that the pilots were willing volunteers, many critics have claimed that the young recruits were pressured into service, that they were threatened with being sent to the front if they refused, and that coercion was heightened by the use of alcohol and amphetamines. Most navy pilots were between 18 and 20 years of age and most army pilots between 18 and 24. There were about 3,000 “boy pilots”; many of these student soldiers were drawn from the cream of young intellectuals. They left diaries (an important cultural practice in Japan), essays, poems, and letters expressing their true feelings of anguish about the war and their role in it.

Some scholars of Japanese culture claim that the Bushido tradition of samurai military culture [q.v., under Daidoji Yuzan] had always stressed readiness to die at any moment, and the kamikaze strategy would not have been seen as problematic. Further, these young men had been taught to believe that if they died heroically in battle, they would become gods, joining the guardian spirits of the nation at Yasukuni Shrine on Kudan Hill. One of the few kamikaze survivors, Hatsuho Naito, rescued when his final flight ended in a forced landing in a paddy field, wrote: “I do not believe that this so-called suicide mentality is unique to the Japanese. The spirit of self-sacrifice exists in all countries among all people, particularly among the young, who are innocent and free of cynicism when they are in a wartime life-or-death situation.” Many other observers hold that the long Japanese tradition of voluntary death, an honorable act, regarded as owed to one’s lord and preferable to living in shame, was what made the kamikaze program possible.

All in all, some 3,913 Japanese pilots, including both those in kamikaze planes and their escorts, were “expended” in the various theaters of the war, including the Philippine Islands, Formosa, and Okinawa. The “Last Letters Home” presented here, collected by Ichiro Ohmi during a four-and-a-half-year trip after the war to visit the homes of the kamikaze pilots, were the last ones written by these young men, shortly before their final special-attack missions. Among many other concerns, they embody Shinto conceptions of the importance of defending ancestors and family. Ohmi explained, It must be borne in mind that for many hundreds of years while the code of the warrior (Bushido), which stressed as necessary a willingness to die at any moment, governed the conduct of the samurai, similar principles were concurrently adopted by merchants, farmers, and artisans, stressing the value of unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor, other superiors, and the people of Japan. Thus, the introduction of the kamikaze principle was not so shocking to these Japanese as it would be to their Western enemies. In addition, the belief that one continues to live, in close association with both the living and the dead, after death, generally causes their concept of death to be less final and unpleasant in its implications.”

Other observers saw the situation differently. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney assembled the diaries of tokkøtai pilots from their families after the war; she sees in these writings, far more revealing than the expected “last letters home,” evidence of the kamikaze pilots’ “desperate struggles to find meaning in a fate they could not avoid [and that] bear no resemblance to those of anyone seeking martyrdom. This is so despite the Japanese government’s sustained propaganda campaign to apotheosize those fallen soldiers into symbols of martyrdom for the imperial nation.”

The United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, on Nagasaki three days later, and Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15. That night, Admiral Ohnishi committed hara-kiri. Alone, he disemboweled himself with a traditional Japanese sword but was unable to slit his own throat, and when he was discovered still conscious by his aide the next morning, he refused both medical aid and the second’s traditional coup de grace. Captain Inoguchi, his senior staff officer who chronicled the history of the Kamikaze Corps and Admiral Ohnishi’s role in developing it, wrote that “[i]‌t would be wrong to think that his suicide was merely an atonement for sin. I believe that his life was dedicated from the moment he organized the Kamikaze Corps. Thereupon he had resolved to take his own life, and would have carried out that resolve even if Japan had won the war. In imagination he must have ridden with every pilot of his command as each made his final special attack.”

Rikihei Inoguchi, Tadashi Nakajima, and Roger Pineau, The Divine Wind.  Japan’s Kamikaze Force in World War II (Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1958; New York: Bantam Books, 1960), Chapter 21, “Last Letters Home,” pp. 175-185. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers (University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. xvii, 10-11, 39, 52, 65-66, 72, 78-79, 84. Quotations and paraphrase in the introductory note are also from this volume, and from Hatsuho Naito, Thunder Gods: The Kamikaze Pilots Tell Their Story (Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1989), pp. 16, 21.  A slightly different account of the origins of the Special Attack Force is to be found in Ryuji Nagatsuka, I Was a Kamikaze, tr. Nin Rootes (New York: Macmillan, 1972).



The following are excerpts from the diary of Sasaki Hachiro, born in 1922, who was drafted as a student soldier from the Imperial University Tokyo in December 1943 and volunteered to be a tokkotai pilot of February 20, 1945. He died on his kamikaze mission less than three months later, April 14, 1945.

We entered Kamikochi and greeted the Hodaka mountain peaks in the morning. Leaves of larch and birch are reflecting the morning sun and it is like looking at a scroll painting. I found my absolute authority here. If man did not posses a political nature, I would not mind sacrificing my life for this absolute authority [beauty and nature]. (April 4, 1940).

I prefer to think that “inevitability” is more important than “necessity.” One must always strive for stirb und werde! [“die and become!” or growth through death]. I am truly grateful for being aliveWe cannot detach ourselves from the present condition. It is in Welt sein [the presence in the universe] of Heidegger The most important thing is the freedom of will, freedom of spirit, amidst the chaos at present Blind obedience without free will is not an answer to our chaos. Chaos is not so simple as to be resolved by a Führer. (November 1, 1940)

Zwei Seelen wohnen ach in mein[em] Herz! (Ah, two soulsreside in my heart!] After all I am just a human being. Sometimes my chest pounds with excitement when I think of the day I will fly into the sky. I trained my mind and body as hard as I could and am anxious for the day I can use them to their full capacity in fighting. I think my life and death belong to the mission. Yet, at other times, I envy those science majors who remain at home [exempt from the draft]. Or, I think of those fellows who did not pass the draft examination as “having managed cleverly.”I feel like a fool to be proud of my fitness as a pilot. Those who skillfully escaped by not qualifying in the examination and took shelter in bookkeeping, engineering, and medical tasks must be the real clever ones. One of my souls looks to heaven, while the other is attracted to the earth. I wish to enter the Navy as soon as possible so that I can devote myself to the task. I hope that the days when I am tormented by stupid thoughts will pass quickly.

* * *

Born in Tokyo in 1922, Hayashi Tadao attended the prestigious Third Higher School in Kyoto and then the Imperial University of Kyoto; he was drafted as a student soldier in 1943. He became a Navy Air Force pilot, but was shot down by an American fighter plane that took off from an aircraft carrier he had sighted, two days after the Allied Forces had delivered the Potsdam Declaration to Japan.

Death is immoral and to live is absolutely moral.

(June 2, 1944)

I feel that I have to accept the fate of my generation to fight in the war and die. I call it “fate,” since we have to go to the battlefield to die without being able to express our opinions, criticize and argue pros and cons of issues, and behave with principles, that is, after being deprived of my own agency.To die in the war, to die at the demand of the nation—I have no intention whatsoever to praise it; it is a great tragedy.

(Oct. 12, 1941)

I do not avoid sacrifice. I do not refuse the sacrifice of my self. However, I cannot tolerate the reduction of the self to nothingness in the process. I cannot approve it. Martyrdom or sacrifice must be done at the height of self-realization. Sacrifice at the end of self-annihilation, the dissolving of the self to nothingness, has no meaning whatsoever.

(Jan. 3, 1944)

* * *

From a description by Kasuga Takeo, who had been drafted and assigned to look after the meals, laundry, room cleaning, and other daily tasks for the tokkotai pilots at the Tsuchiura Naval Air Base, on the night before their final flights. He was 86 years old when he wrote this letter, fifty years after the events.

At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night of life. They thought of their parents, their faces and images, lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées—all went through their mind like a running-horse lantern [a rapidly revolving lantern with many pictures on it]. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express—some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in a frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next morning. But this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported. I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life, which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel and torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.



What, then, were the thoughts and feelings of the suicide pilots themselves as they volunteered, waited their turn, and went out on their missions?

Mr. Ichiro Ohmi made a nationwide pilgrimage for four and a half years after the war to visit the homes of kamikaze pilots.  The families showed him mementoes and letters of their loved ones.  He has kindly provided the authors of the book with copies of these letters, some of which express more clearly than could any other words the thoughts and feelings of the pilots about to die.

In general, what little the enlisted pilots wrote was of a simple, straightforward nature.  Academy graduates also wrote very little—perhaps because they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the way of the warrior and thus accepted their fate matter-of-factly.  It was the reserve officers from civilian colleges and universities, who had had only a hasty military training before receiving their assignments, who wrote the most. A few typical letters serve to convey the spirit of kamikaze pilots.

The following was written by Ensign Susumu Kaijitsu of the Genzan (Wonsan) Air Group in Korea. Kaijitsu was born in 1923 at Omura City, Nagasaki Prefecture of northern Kyushu.  He had graduated from Nagoya Technical College just before entering the naval aviation school.

Dear Father, Mother, brothers Hiroshi and Takeshi, and sister Eiko:

I trust that this spring finds you all in fine health.   have never felt better and am now standing by, ready for action.

The other day I flew over our home and bade a last farewell to our neighbors and to you. Thanks to Mr. Yamakawa I had a chance recently to have a last drink with father, and there now remains nothing but to await our call to duty.

My daily activities are quite ordinary. My greatest concern is not about death, but rather of how I can be sure of sinking an enemy carrier. Ensigns Miyazaki, Tanaka, and Kimura, who will sortie as my wingmen, are calm and composed. Their behavior gives no indication that they are momentarily awaiting orders for their final crash-dive sortie. We spend our time in writing letters, playing cards, and reading.

I am confident that my comrades will lead our divine Japan to victory.

Words cannot express my gratitude to the loving parents who reared and tended me to manhood that I might in some small manner reciprocate the grace which His Imperial Majesty has bestowed upon us.

Please watch for the results of my meager effort. If they prove good, think kindly of me and consider it my good fortune to have done something that may be praiseworthy.Most important of all, do not weep for me. Though my body departs, I will return home in spirit and remain with you forever. My thoughts and best regards are with you, our friends, and neighbors.  In concluding this letter, I pray for the well-being of my dear family.

 *   *   *

Ensign Teruo Yamaguchi was born in 1923 on Goto Island, Nagasaki Prefecture, in northern Kyushu.  Brought up by a stepmother, his youth had not been a particularly happy one.  He enlisted upon graduation from Kokugakuin University in Tokyo and was assigned to the Amakusa Air Group, which was based near his home.  From there he was transferred to the 12th Air Flotilla for a suicide mission.

Dear Father:

As death approaches, my only regret is that I have never been able to do anything good for you in my life.

I was selected quite unexpectedly to be a special attack pilot and will be leaving for Okinawa today. Once the order was given for my one-way mission it became my sincere wish to achieve success in fulfilling this last duty. Even so, I cannot help feeling a strong attachment to this beautiful land of Japan. Is that a weakness on my part?

On learning that my time had come I closed my eyes and saw visions of your face, mother’s, grandmother’s, and the faces of my close friends. It was bracing and heartening to realize that each of you want me to be brave. I will do that!  I will!

My life in the service has not been filled with sweet memories. It is a life of resignation and self denial, certainly not comfortable. As a raisond’être for service life, I can see only that it gives me a chance to die for my country. If this seems bitter it probably is because I had experienced the sweetness of life before joining the service.

The other day I received Lieutenant Oixubo’s philosophy on life and death which you so kindly sent. It seems to me that while he appears to have hit on some truth, he was concerned mostly with superficial thoughts on the service. It is of no avail to express it now, but in my 23 years of life I have worked out my own philosophy.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of the deceits being played on innocent citizens by some of our wily politicians. But I am willing to take orders from the high command, and even from the politicians, because I believe in the polity of Japan.

The Japanese way of life is indeed beautiful, and I am proud of it, as I am of Japanese history and mythology which reflect the purity of our ancestors and their belief in the past—whether or not those beliefs are true. That way of life is the product of all the best things which our ancestors have handed down to us. And the living embodiment of all wonderful things out of our past is the Imperial Family which, too, is the crystallization of the splendor and beauty of Japan and its people. It is an honor to be able to give my life in defense of these beautiful and lofty things.

Okinawa is as much a part of Japan as Goto Island. An inner voice keeps saying that I must smite the foe who violates our homeland. My grave will be the sea around Okinawa, and I will see my mother and grandmother again. I have neither regret nor fear about death. I only pray for the happiness of you and all my fellow-countrymen.

My greatest regret in this life is the failure to call you “chichiue” (revered father). I regret not having given any demonstration of the true respect which I have always had for you. During my final plunge, though you will not hear it, you may be sure that I will be saying “chichiue” to you and thinking of all you have done for me.

I have not asked you to come to see me at the base because I know that you are comfortable at Amakusa. It is a good place to live. The mountains north of the base remind me of Sugiyama and Magarisaka on Goto Island, and I have often thought of the days when you took Akira and me on picnics to Matsuyamanear the powder magazine. I also recall riding with you to the crematorium at Magarisaka as a youngster, without clearly understanding then that mother had died.

I leave everything to you. Please take good care of my sisters.

One setback in its history does not mean the destruction of a nation. I pray that you will live long. I am confident that a new Japan will emerge. Our people must not be rash in their desire for death.

Fondest regards.

Just before departure,

Without regard for life or name, a samurai will defend his homeland.

*   *   *

The following letter is by Flying Petty Officer First Class Isao Matsuo of the 701st Air Group.  It was written just before he sortied for a kamikaze attack.  His home was in Nagasaki Prefecture.


28 October 1944

Dear Parents:

Please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the seas to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.  I shall be a shield for His Majesty and die cleanly along with my squadron leader and other friends. I wish that I could be born seven times, each time to smite the enemy.

How I appreciate this chance to die like a man! I am grateful from the depths of my heart to the parents who have reared me with their constant prayers and tender love. And I am grateful as well to my squadron leader and superior officers who have looked after me as if I were their own son and given me such careful training. Thank you, my parents, for the 23 years during which you have cared for me and inspired me. I hope that my present deed will in some small way repay what you have done for me. Think well of me and know that your Isao died for our country. This is my last wish, and there is nothing else that I desire.

I shall return in spirit and look forward to your visit at the Yasukuni Shrine.  Please take good care of yourselves.

How glorious is the Special Attack Corps’ Giretsu Unit whose Suisei bombers will attack the enemy. Movie cameramen have been here to take our pictures. It is possible that you may see us in newsreels at the theater.

We are 16 warriors manning the bombers. May our death be as sudden and clean as the shattering of crystal.

Written at Manila on the eve of our sortie.


Soaring into the sky of the southern seas, it is our glorious mission to die as the shields of His Majesty. Cherry blossoms glisten as they open and fall.

*   *   *

Cadet Jun Nomoto of the Himeji Air Group was born in 1922 in Nagasaki Prefecture. He had graduated from the University of Commerce in Tokyo just before enlisting. Apparently written in great haste, the actual letter printed below is preceded by brief notes and is concluded in a hand other than that of the original writer:

Moved forward to * * * under sudden orders. Determination for success renewed upon learning that we will sortie tomorrow.

Cadet * * * was dropped from the list of those assigned to take part in the sortie, upon my arrival. Cannot help feeling sorry for him. This is a situation of mixed emotions.

Man is only mortal. Death, like life, is a matter of chance. Yet destiny, too, plays a part. I feel confident of my ability in tomorrow’s action. Will do my utmost to dive head-on against an enemy warship to fulfill my destiny in defense of the homeland. The time has come when my friend Nakanishi and I must part. There is no remorse whatsoever. Each man is doomed to go his separate way in time.

Since our unit was organized at the end of February we have undergone the most intensive kind of training. Now, at last, our chance to sortie is at hand. In our last briefing the commanding officer cautioned us, “not to be rash to die.” It seems to me that everything is up to Heaven.

I am resolved to pursue the goal that fate has chosen for me. You have always been good to me and I am grateful. My 15 years of schooling and training are about to bear fruit. I feel great joy at having been born in our glorious country.

It is my firm belief that tomorrow will be successful. It is my hope that you will share this belief. The time for our departure was set so suddenly that I will not have a chance to write last letters to my relatives and friends. I shall appreciate it if you will write to these people on my behalf, at your convenience, and express my sentiments….

Dearest Parents:

Please excuse my dictating these last words to my friend.  There is no longer time for me to write more to you.

There is nothing special that I can say, but I want you to know that I am in the best of health at this last moment. It is my great honor to have been selected for this duty. The first planes of my group are already in the air. These words are being written by my friend as he rests the paper on the fuselage of my plane. There are no feelings of remorse or sadness here. My outlook is unchanged. I will perform my duty calmly.

Words cannot express my gratitude to you. It is my hope that this last act of striking a blow at the enemy will serve to repay in small measure the wonderful things you have done for me.

My last wish is that my brothers may have a proper education. It is certain that uneducated men have an empty life.  Please see to it that their lives are as full as possible. I know that my sister is well taken care of because you have provided for her as you did for me.  I am grateful for a wonderful father and mother.

I shall be satisfied if my final effort serves as recompense for the heritage our ancestors bequeathed.


*   *   *

Lieutenant (jg) Nobuo Ishibashi, a native of Saga City in northern Kyushu, was born in 1920. He was a member of the Tsukuba Air Group before his assignment to the Special Attack Corps.  his is his last letter home.

Dear Father:

Spring seems to come early to southernKyushu. Here the blossoms and flowers are all beautiful. There is a peace and tranquillity, and yet this place is really a battleground.

I slept well last night; didn’t even dream. Today my head is clear and I am in excellent health.

It makes me feel good to know that we are on the same island at this time. Please remember me when you go to the temple, and give my regards to all of our friends.


I think of springtime in Japan while soaring to dash against the enemy.

*   *   *

The following letter was written by Ensign Ichizo Hayashi, born in 1922, in Fukuoka Prefecture of northern Kyushu. He had been reared in the Christian faith. Upon graduation from Imperial University at Kyoto he joined the Genzan (Wonsan) Air Group, from which he was assigned to the Special Attack Corps.

Dearest Mother:

I trust that you are in good health.

I am a member of the Shichisei Unit of the Special Attack Corps. Half of our unit flew to Okinawa today to dive against enemy ships. The rest of us will sortie in two or three days. It may be that our attack will be made on 8 April, the birthday of Buddha.

We are relaxing in an officers’ billet located in a former school building near the Kanoya air base. Because there is no electricity we have built a roaring log fire and I am writing these words by its light.

Morale is high as we hear of the glorious successes achieved by our comrades who have gone before. In the evening I stroll through clover fields, recalling days of the past.

On our arrival here from the northern part of Korea we were surprised to find that cherry blossoms were falling. The warmth of this southern climate is soothing and comforting.

Please do not grieve for me, mother. It will be glorious to die in action. I am grateful to be able to die in a battle to determine the destiny of our country.

As we flew into Kyushu from Korea the route did not pass over our home, but as our planes approached the homeland I sang familiar songs and bade farewell to you. There remains nothing in particular that I wish to do or say, since Umeno will convey my last desires to you.  his writing is only to tell you of the things that occur to me here.

Please dispose of my things as you wish after my death.

My correspondence has been neglected recently so I will appreciate it if you remember me to relatives and friends. I regret having to ask this of you, but there is now so little time for me to write.

Many of our boys are taking off today on their one-way mission against the enemy. I wish that you could be here in person to see the wonderful spirit and morale at this base.

Please bum all my personal papers, including my diaries. You may read them, of course, mother, if you wish, but they should not be read by other people. So please be sure to burn them after you have looked at them.

On our last sortie we will wear regular flight uniforms and a headband bearing the rising sun. Snow-white mufflers give a certain dash to our appearance.

I will also carry the rising sun flag which you gave to me. You will remember that it bears the poem, “Even though a thousand men fall to my right and ten thousand fall to my left….”  I will keep your picture in my bosom on the sortie, mother, and also the photo of Makio-san.

I am going to score a direct hit on an enemy ship without fail. When war results are announced you may be sure that one of the successes was scored by me. I am determined to keep calm and do a perfect job to the last, knowing that you will be watching over me and praying for my success. There will be no clouds of doubt or fear when I make the final plunge.

On our last sortie we will be given a package of bean curd and rice. It is reassuring to depart with such good luncheon fare. I think I’ll also take along the charm and the dried bonito from Mr. Tateishi. The bonito will help me to rise from the ocean, mother, and swim back to you.

At our next meeting we shall have many things to talk about which are difficult to discuss in writing. But then we have lived together so congenially that many things may now be left unsaid. “I am living in a dream which will transport me from the earth tomorrow.”

Yet with these thoughts I have the feeling that those who went on their missions yesterday are still alive. They could appear again at any moment.

In my case please accept my passing for once and for all. As it is said, “Let the dead past bury its dead.” It is most important that families live for the living.

There was a movie shown recently in which I thought I saw Hakata. It gave me a great desire to see Hakata again just once before going on this last mission.

Mother, I do not want you to grieve over my death. I do not mind if you weep. Go ahead and weep. But please realize that my death is for the best, and do not feel bitter about it.

I have had a happy life, for many people have been good to me. I have often wondered why.  It is a real solace to think that I may have some merits which make me worthy of these kindnesses.  It would be difficult to die with the thought that one had not been anything in life.

From all reports it is c1ear that we have blunted the actions of the enemy.  Victory will be with us.  Our sortie will deliver a coup de grâce to the enemy.  I am very happy.

We live in the spirit of Jesus Christ, and we die in that spirit.  This thought stays with me.  It is gratifying to live in this world, but living has a spirit of futility about it now.  It is time to die.  I do not seek reasons for dying.  My only search is for an enemy target against which to dive.

You have been a wonderful mother to me.  I only fear that I have not been worthy of the affection you have lavished on me.  The circumstances of my life make me happy and proud.  I seek to maintain the reason for this pride and joy until the last moment.  If I were to be deprived of present surroundings and opportunities my life would be worth nothing. Standing alone, I was good for little.  I am grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to serve as a man.  If these thoughts sound peculiar, it is probably because I am getting sleepy.  But for my drowsiness there are many other things I should like to say.

There is nothing more for me to say, however, by way of farewell.  I will precede you now, mother, in the approach to Heaven. Please pray for my admittance. I should regret being barred from the Heaven to which you will surely be admitted.  Pray for me, mother.


(When his sortie was delayed, this flier added the following postscript to his letter.)

“Strolling between the paddy fields the night is serene as I listen to the chant of the frogs.” I could not help but think of this during my walk last evening. I lay down in a field of clover and thought of home. Upon my return to the barracks, my friends said that I smelled of clover and it brought them memories of home and mother. Several of them commented that I must have been a mamma’s boy.

This did not disturb me at all; in fact, I was pleased by the remark. It is an index that people like me. When I am disturbed it is good to think of the many people who have been so kind to me, and I am pacified. My efforts will be doubled to prove my appreciation of the kind-hearted people it has been my pleasure to know.

The cherry blossoms have already fallen. I wash my face each morning in a nearby stream. It reminds me of the blossom-filled stream that ran near our home.

It appears that we will go to make our attack tomorrow. Thus the anniversary of my death will be 10 April. If you have a service to commemorate me, I wish you to have a happy family dinner.

Now it is raining, the kind of rain we have in Japan rather than what I experienced in Korea. There is an old organ in our billet and someone is playing childhood songs, including the one about a mother coming to school with an umbrella for her child.

The departure was again postponed for this flier and he had a chance to add yet another bit to the letter, which was finally mailed after he had taken off on his final flight:

I have thought that each day would be the last, but just as with most things in life, one can never be certain. It is the evening of 11 April, and this was not my day.

Do hope that I was photogenic today, for several newsreel cameramen were here, and they singled me out for a special series of pictures. Later the Commander in Chief of Combined Fleet greeted us in our billet and said to me, “Please do your best.” It was a great honor for me that he would speak to so humble a person as myself.  He is convinced that the country’s fate rests upon our shoulders.

Today we gathered about the organ and sang hymns.

Tomorrow I will plunge against the enemy without fail.

*   *   *

Ensign Heiichi Okabe was born in 1923. His home was Fukuoka Prefecture of northern Kyushu. Before enlisting he was graduated from Taihoku Imperial University. His first duty was in the Wonsan Air Group, and he was transferred thence to Shichisei Unit No.2 of the Special Attack Corps. He kept a diary which was sent to his family after his final sortie. The following is an excerpt from one of his last entries in that diary:

22 February 1945

I am actually a member at last of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps.

My life will be rounded out in the next thirty days.  My chance will come!  Death and I are waiting. The training and practice have been rigorous, but it is worthwhile if we can die beautifully and for a cause.

I shall die watching the pathetic struggle of our nation. My life will gallop in the next few weeks as my youth and life draw to a close….

…The sortie has been scheduled for the next ten days.

I am a human being and hope to be neither saint nor scoundrel, hero nor fool—just a human being.  As one who has spent his life in wistful longing and searching, I die resignedly in the hope that my life will serve as a “human document.”

The world in which I live was too full of discord.  As a community of rational human beings it should be better composed.  Lacking a single great conductor, everyone lets loose with his own sound, creating dissonance where there should be melody and harmony.

We shall serve the nation gladly in its present painful struggle.  We shall plunge into enemy ships cherishing the conviction that Japan has been and will be a place where only lovely homes, brave women, and beautiful friendships are allowed to exist.

What is the duty today?  It is to fight.

What is the duty tomorrow?  It is to win.

What is the daily duty?  It is to die.

We die in battle without complaint. I wonder if others, like scientists, who pursue the war effort on their own fronts, would die as we do without complaint.  Only then will the unity of Japan be such that she can have any prospect of winning the war.

If, by some strange chance,Japan should suddenly win this war it would be a fatal misfortune for the future of the nation.  It will be better for our nation and people if they are tempered through real ordeals which will serve to strengthen.

*   *   *

Like cherry blossoms

    In the spring,

       Let us fall

          Clean and radiant.

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from Ethics: The Last Things and the Things Before the Last


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian, was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), the son of a famous psychiatrist. From 1923 to 1927, Bonhoeffer studied theology at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen. He also studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he attended and taught at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, developing a love of Negro spirituals and an acute interest in racial justice. Bonhoeffer’s doctoral thesis and early writings sought to explain Christian theology in light of contemporary philosophy and sociology. He was an early opponent of anti-Semitism and the Nazi regime, and became involved in the Confessing Church, the center of German Protestant resistance to the nazification of the churches. Through his leadership and his books, Gemeinsames Leben (1939; trans. Life Together, 1954) and Nachfolge (1937; trans. The Cost of Discipleship, 1948), Bonhoeffer instituted rigorous practices of private confession, prayer, and discipline while attacking the laxity of popular Protestantism. Bonhoeffer focused on creating a church capable of withstanding National Socialism and its theological proponents.

As early as 1933, Bonhoeffer and his family were persuaded that Hitler’s government was illegitimate and the the church should stand up against the state. He favored killing Hitler, not as an assassination, but as tyrannicide. Bonhoeffer became involved with the Abwehr in 1940 where his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, worked; in that capacity he was able to use his ecumenical connections to carry messages abroad for the German resistance. 

From 1940–43, he wrote fragments of his theological volume Ethik (1949; trans. Ethics, 1955). Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and hanged just before the end of the war in 1945. Published posthumously, his Widerstand und Ergebung (1951, trans. Prisoner of God: Letters and Papers from Prison, 1953) expresses his profound belief in the maturity of the Christian individual and the worldly groundedness of true Christianity.

In the selections from Ethics, written at the time of the Nazi “euthanasia” killings, Bonhoeffer argues that the possibility of suicide is an indication of human freedom over life: we are free to make this choice, and it can be seen as “a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless.” However, God alone possesses rights over life, and God’s existence is the only relevant rationale for the inappropriateness of suicide. In individual cases, bodily self-sacrifice is not considered self-murder if the intentions are altruistic. But suicide is in general wrong, something lack of faith may disguise, since it “conceals from a man the fact that even suicide cannot release him from the hand of God. . . .” Suicide, Bonhoeffer wrote (one cannot know whether at the time he could foresee his arrest, internment, and hanging at the hands of the Nazis), is the “hardest of all temptations.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1965), pp. 155–156, 162, 166–172. Material in introduction from Victoria J. Barnett.




The Right to Bodily Life

Bodily life, which we receive without any action on our own part, carries within itself the right to its own preservation. This is not a right that we have justly or unjustly appropriated to ourselves, but it is in the strictest sense an ‘innate’ right, one which we have passively received and which pre-exists our will, a right which rests upon the nature of things as they are. Since it is God’s will that there should be human life on earth only in the form of bodily life, it follows that it is for the sake of the whole man that the body possesses the right to be preserved. And since all rights are extinguished at death, it follows that the preservation of the life of the body is the foundation of all natural rights without exception and is, therefore, invested with a particular importance. The underlying right of natural life is the safeguarding of nature against intentional injury, violation and killing. That may sound very jejune and unheroic. But the body does not exist primarily in order to be sacrificed, but in order that it may be preserved. Different and more exalted considerations may give rise to the right or the duty of sacrificing the body, but this in itself presupposes the underlying right to the conservation of bodily life. . . .

But let us now consider the case when an incurably diseased person in full possession of his senses gives his assent to the termination of his life, and indeed asks for it. Can a wish of this kind carry with it a valid demand for the application of euthanasia? Undoubtedly one cannot speak of a valid demand so long as the patient’s life still raises demands on its own account, in other words so long as the doctor is under an obligation not only towards the will but also towards the actual life of the patient. The question of destroying the life of another is now replaced by the question of the admissibility of terminating one’s own life in a case of extremely severe illness, or of assisting in so doing. We shall be discussing this matter in connection with the problem of suicide. . .

Our conclusion must, therefore, be that consideration for the healthy also establishes no right to the deliberate destruction of innocent life, and from this it follows that the question regarding euthanasia must be answered in the negative. The Bible sums up this judgement in the sentence: ‘The innocent…slay thou not’ (Ex. 23:7).


Man, unlike the beasts, does not carry his life as a compulsion which he cannot throw off. He is free either to accept his life or to destroy it. Unlike the beasts man can put himself to death of his own free will. An animal is one with the life of its body, but man can distinguish himself from the life of his body. The freedom in which man possesses his bodily life requires him to accept this life freely, and at the same time it directs his attention to what lies beyond this bodily life and impels him to regard the life of his body as a gift that is to be preserved and as a sacrifice that is to be offered. Only because a man is free to choose death can he lay down the life of his body for the sake of some higher good. Without freedom to sacrifice one’s life in death, there can be no freedom towards God, there can be no human life.

In man the right to live must be safeguarded through freedom. It is therefore not an absolute right, but a right which is conditional upon freedom. The right to live has as its counterpart the freedom to offer and to give one’s life in sacrifice. In the sense of sacrifice, therefore, man possesses the liberty and the right to death, but only so long as his purpose in risking and surrendering his life is not the destruction of his life but the good for the sake of which he offers this sacrifice.

In his liberty to die man is given a unique power which can easily lead to abuse. Man can indeed by its means become the master of his earthly destiny, for he can by his own free decision seek death in order to avoid defeat and he may thus rob fate of its victory. Seneca’s patet exitus is the proclamation of man’s freedom in relation to life. If in the struggle with destiny a man has lost his honor, his work and the only human being whom he loves, if in this sense his life is destroyed, it will be difficult to persuade him not to make use of this opportunity of escape, provided that he still retains courage enough to secure his freedom and his victory in this way. And indeed it cannot be contested that through this deed a man is once again asserting his manhood, even though he may be misunderstanding its significance, and that he is opposing it effectively to the blind inhuman force of destiny. Suicide is a specifically human action, and it is not surprising if it has on this account repeatedly been applauded and justified by noble human minds. If this action is performed in freedom it is raised high above any petty moralizing accusation of cowardice and weakness. Suicide is the ultimate and extreme self-justification of man as man, and it is therefore, from the purely human standpoint, in a certain sense even the self-accomplished expiation for a life that has failed. This deed will usually take place in a state of despair, yet it is not the despair itself that is the actual originator of suicide, but rather a man’s freedom to perform his supreme act of self-justification even in the midst of this despair. If a man cannot justify himself in his happiness and his success, he can still justify himself in his despair. If he cannot make good his right to a human life in the life of his body, he can still do so by destroying his body. If he cannot compel the world to acknowledge his right, yet he can still assert this right, himself, in his last solitude. Suicide is a man’s attempt to give a final human meaning to a life which has become humanly meaningless. The involuntary sense of horror which seizes us when we are faced with the fact of a suicide is not to be attributed to the iniquity of such a deed but to the terrible loneliness and freedom in which this deed is performed, a deed in which the positive attitude to life is reflected only in the destruction of life.

If suicide must nevertheless be declared wrongful, it is to be arraigned not before the forum of mortality or of men but solely before the forum of God. A man who takes his own life incurs guilt solely towards God, the Maker and Master of his life. It is because there is a living God that suicide is wrongful as a sin of lack of faith. Lack of faith is not a moral fault, for it is compatible with both noble and base motives and actions, but, both in good and in evil, lack of faith takes no account of the living God. That is the sin. It is through lack of faith that a man seeks his own justification and has recourse to suicide as the last possible means of his own justification, because he does not believe in a divine justification. Lack of faith is disastrous in that it conceals from a man the fact that even suicide cannot release him from the hand of God, who has prepared his destiny for him. Lack of faith does not perceive, beyond the gift of bodily life, the Creator and Lord who alone has the right to dispose of His creation. And here we are confronted with the fact that natural life does not possess its right in itself, but only in God. The freedom to die, which is given to human life in natural life, is abused if it is used otherwise than in faith in God.

God has reserved to Himself the right to determine the end of life, because He alone knows the goal to which it is His will to lead it. It is for Him alone to justify a life or to cast it away. Before God self-justification is quite simply sin, and suicide is therefore also sin. There is no other cogent reason for the wrongfulness of suicide, but only the fact that over men there is a God. Suicide implies denial of this fact.

It is not the baseness of the motive that makes suicide wrongful. One may remain alive for base motives, and one may give up one’s life for noble motives. It is not bodily life itself that possesses an ultimate right over man. Man is free in relation to his bodily life, and, in Schiller’s phrase, ‘life is not the highest of possessions.’ Nor can human society, as Aristotle supposes, establish an ultimate right over the bodily life of the individual. For any such right is negatived by the ultimate right to dispose of himself which is conferred on a man by nature. The community may impose penalties on suicide, but it will not be able to convince the offender himself that it possesses a valid right over his life. Insufficient, too, is the argument which is widely used in the Christian Church to the effect that suicide rules out the possibility of repentance and, therefore, also of forgiveness. Many Christians have died sudden deaths without having repented of all their sins. This is setting too much store by the last moment of life. All the arguments we have mentioned so far are incomplete; they are correct up to a point, but they do not state the decisive reason and are therefore not cogent.

God, the Creator and Lord of life, Himself exercises the right over life. Man does not need to lay hands upon himself in order to justify his life. And because he does not need to do this it follows that it is not rightful for him to do it. It is a remarkable fact that the Bible nowhere expressly forbids suicide, but that suicide appears there very often (though not always) as the consequence of extremely grave sin, so, for example, in the case of the traitors Ahithophel and Judas. The reason for this is not that the Bible sanctions suicide, but that, instead of prohibiting it, it desires to call the despairing to repentance and to mercy. A man who is on the brink of suicide no longer has ears for commands or prohibitions; all he can hear now is God’s merciful summons to faith, to deliverance and to conversion. A man who is desperate cannot be saved by a law that appeals to his own strength; such a law will only drive him to even more hopeless despair. One who despairs of life can be helped only by the saving deed of another, the offer of a new life which is to be lived not by his own strength but by the grace of God. A man who can no longer live is not helped by any command that he should live, but only by a new spirit.

God maintains the right of life, even against the man who has grown tired of his life. He gives man freedom to pledge his life for something greater, but it is not His will that man should turn this freedom arbitrarily against his own life. Man must not lay hands upon himself, even though he must sacrifice his life for others. Even if his earthly life has become a torment for him, he must commit it intact into God’s hand, from which it came, and he must not try to break free by his own efforts, for in dying he falls again into the hand of God, which he found too severe while he lived.

Far more difficult than the determining of this general principle is the judgement of particular cases. Since suicide is an act of solitude, the ultimate decisive motives almost always remain hidden. Even when some outward catastrophe in life has gone before, the deepest inward reason for the deed is still concealed from the eye of the stranger. The human eye can often scarcely discern the borderline between the freedom of the sacrifice of life and the abuse of his freedom for the purpose of self-murder, and in such cases there is no basis for forming a judgement. Certainly the taking of one’s own life is as a matter of plain fact different from risking one’s life in a necessary undertaking. But it would be very short-sighted simply to equate every form of self-killing with murder. For, in cases where a man who kills himself is deliberately sacrificing his own life for other men, judgement must at least be suspended because here we have reached the limits of human knowledge. It is only if the action is undertaken exclusively and consciously out of consideration for one’s own person that self-killing becomes self-murder. But who would venture to assess with certainty the degree of consciousness and exclusiveness of such a motive? If a prisoner takes his life for fear that under torture he might betray his country, his family or his friend, or if the enemy threaten reprisals unless a certain statesman is surrendered to them and it is only by his own free death that this statesman can spare his country grievous harm, then the self-killing is so strongly subject to the motive of sacrifice that it will be impossible to condemn the deed. If a sufferer from incurable disease cannot fail to see that his care must bring about the material and psychological ruin of his family, and if he therefore by his own decision frees them from this burden, then no doubt there are many objections to such an unauthorized action, and yet here, too, a condemnation will be impossible. In view of such cases as these the prohibition of suicide can scarcely be made absolute to the exclusion of the freedom of sacrificing one’s life. Even the early Church Fathers held that self-destruction was permissible for Christians in certain circumstances, for example when chastity was threatened by force; though certainly already St Augustine contested this and asserted the absolute prohibition of suicide. Yet it seems scarcely possible to draw any distinction of principle between the cases we have just considered and the unquestioned duty of the Christian which requires, for example, that when a ship is sinking he shall leave the last place in the lifeboat to another in the full awareness that he is thereby going to his death, or again which requires that a friend shall with his own body shield his friend’s body from the bullet. A man’s own decision here becomes the cause of his death, even though one may still distinguish between direct self-destruction and this surrendering of life into the hand of God. Clearly the case is different if suicide is motivated by purely personal matters such as wounded honor, erotic passion, financial ruin, gambling debts or serious personal lapses, in other words if a man kills himself not in order to protect the lives of others but solely in order that his own life may be justified. Even here indeed, in concrete instances, the thought of sacrifice will not be entirely absent, but nevertheless all other motives will be outweighed by the desire to rescue one’s own person from shame and despair, and the ultimate ground for the action will therefore be lack of faith. Such a man does not believe that God can again give a meaning and a right even to a ruined life, and indeed that it may be precisely through ruin that a life attains to its true fulfillment. Because he does not believe this, the termination of his life remains to him as the only possible means whereby he himself can impart a meaning and a right to his life, even though it be only at the moment of its destruction. Here again it becomes quite clear that a purely moral judgement on suicide is impossible, and indeed that suicide has nothing to fear from an atheistic ethic. The right to suicide is nullified only by the living God.

But quite apart from all external motivations there is a temptation to suicide to which the believer is especially exposed, a temptation to abuse the freedom which is given by God by turning it against his own life. Hatred for the imperfection of his own life, experience of the headstrong resistance which earthly life in general opposes to its own fulfillment by God, the grief which arises from this and the doubt as to whether life has any meaning at all, all these may lead him into great danger. Luther was able to say a great deal about this from his own experience. In such hours of trial no human or divine law can prevent the deed. Help can come only from the comfort of grace and from the power of brotherly prayer. It is not the right to life that can overcome this temptation to suicide, but only the grace which allows a man to continue to live in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness. But who would venture to say that God’s grace and mercy cannot embrace and sustain even a man’s failure to resist this hardest of all temptations?

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from The Moral Problem of Suicide


Paul-Louis (also known as Paul-Ludwig) Landsberg was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1901 to a prominent family. Landsberg became a professor of philosophy at the University of Bonn in 1928. He wrote several works on anthropology and German philosophy, as well as Die Welt des Mittelalters und Wir (c. 1922) (The Medieval World and Us, The World of the Middle Ages) when he was only 21. He left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power and traveled first to France and Switzerland, before accepting a position in Barcelona, Spain, as professor of philosophy. Landsberg was forced to leave Spain again in 1936 because of the Civil War. He moved to France and began to write for the periodical Esprit—a publication associated with the “Personnaliste,” or Personalist, movement. In 1940, he and his wife were placed in separate internment camps during the German occupation of France. Despite his experiences, he chose to remain in France to support the liberation effort and to aid his wife, who had suffered a nervous breakdown while incarcerated. During this time, Landsberg carried a poison that he intended to use on himself if captured by the Gestapo. He was arrested by German officers in 1943, but he had apparently changed his mind about suicide and had destroyed the poison. He died of exhaustion at a camp in Oranienburg, Germany, in April of 1944.

Landsberg’s philosophy was characterized by a fundamental concern with the nature of human beings and the connections between the body and the soul. He particularly emphasized the importance of the body in relationship with the soul, stressing the need to avoid a complete “abstraction” of the human person as primarily a soul tied to a physical frame. With this complex approach to the human condition, Landsberg addressed the ethical question of self-killing in The Moral Problem of Suicide (published posthumously in French in 1951). In this long essay, excerpted here, Landsberg discusses historical arguments for and against suicide, specifically those associated with Christianity, many of which he finds simplistic. He argues that the issue of suicide is too complex to simply make a universal decree that is applicable to all people and situations. Having found the views of the Church fathers unconvincing, despite his own religious convictions, Landsberg offers his own unique interpretation of suicide and the states of mind leading to it; he sees it as the temptation to complete freedom, a freedom that is often opposed to duty. What is most missing from these early accounts is an example; he finds it in Jesus Christ. Landsberg argues that life is, of necessity, filled with suffering; suffering serves as a purifying process. Happiness is not the goal of life; and the mere prolongation of bodily existence is not of value. A total prohibition of suicide can only be justified because of the “scandal and paradox of the cross”: “live and suffer.” By “paradox,” Landsberg alludes to the perspective of pagan philosophies like Stoicism, which could not understand the Christians’ preference for martyrdom over suicide; he also considers the ways in which Buddhism’s view, though averse to suicide, is deeply different from the Christian view. Suicide, on Landsberg’s view, is unjustified because to throw away one’s life is to throw away one’s suffering, through which the meaning of life is achieved and made evident.

Paul-Louis Landsberg, The Experience of Death and The Moral Problem of Suicidetr. Cynthia Rowland. (New York: Philosophical Library), 1953, pp. 65-97.




I shall be told that the problem I propose to discuss simply does not exist or, at any rate, does not exist for Christians.  We all that know that Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular, and all moral theologies, whether catholic or protestant, consider suicide to be moral sin, and do not admit that it can be justified in any circumstances whatsoever.  All this is quite clear, and there seems nothing more to be said.  Suicide is forbidden by divine authority and that ought to be enough.  I should like to add that, in my case, there seem to be two particular reasons which indeed make the question of suicide a very real problem, which neither Christian philosophy nor theology has the right to overlook.

  1. I have been profoundly impressed by the fact that, of all existing moralities, Christian morality is strictly speaking the only one to forbid suicide outright, without willing to allow exceptions.  There are, it is true, some philosophers, particularly Plato and the Platonists, who share a certain aversion to suicide.  But we have no example of a non-Christian philosopher who considers it to be in every case a grave sin or crime.  We do, it is true, finding in the ethics of certain communities a marked disapproval of suicide, for instance, among the Jews of the Old Testament, the Buddhist, and the followers of the orphic mysteries; but here also we find a considerable number of exceptions which are considered to be justified, and there is no question of an intransigent principle.  The sacred horror of suicide is a peculiarly and exclusively Christian phenomenon.
  2. From the philosophic angle, there is always a moral problem wherever there is a temptation latent in human nature itself.  It should be enough to point out that cases of suicide have occurred at all times and amongst all peoples, even amongst the so-called “primitives,” to a much greater extent than is generally admitted, to show that it is a temptation of fairly common occurrence.

And further, the very way in which the Christian religion opposes suicide by stigmatizing it as an extreme aberration, presumes the existence of such a temptation.  But above all, we need only to have lived and to have understood only a little of the human heart, to know that man can welcome the idea of death.  And as soon as there is temptation we have a positive meaning which can even serve to make our morality deeper and more conscious. The great temptations are active forces which are necessary to the moral evolution of an extremely imperfect creature that is nevertheless destined to perfection, that is to say, to man.  It is not sufficient to point purely and simply to a divine command when humanity is challenged by one of its specific and, so to say, basic temptations.  Man has to respond with his whole being, with the weight of his existence, in action, in feeling and also in his intellect.  All serious moral philosophy is the theoretical expression of the outcome of such a struggle against temptation latent in the human condition.

In view of this, perhaps I shall be allowed to affirm the existence of an authentic problem and of the philosopher’s right to discuss it.  We often find an argument against suicide, which is commonly put forward by the unintelligent.  It is very customary to find all suicides condemned as cowards.  This is a typically bourgeois argument which I find ridiculous.  How can we describe as cowardly the way of dying chosen by Cato, or Hannibal, or Brutus, or Mithridates, or Seneca or Napoleon?  There are certainly far more people who do not kill themselves out of cowardice.  The argument can only be valid on an entirely different level.  It may be that compared with the supernatural courage of Christ and the saints, even the courage of Cato might appear a form of cowardice.  But on an ordinary human level it is more frequently the courageous who, in certain circumstances, decide to kill themselves.  The Christian religion, which condemns it far more as a sin of Lucifer than a banal cowardice.  And further, nothing is more opposed to the spirit of Christianity than to treat the prolongation of empirical existence as an absolute value or even as a value of a very high order.  Similarly, there is no weight in the argument that suicide is always proof of a weakness of will.  There is a will to live and a will to die, and the latter has to be extremely powerful before it leads to suicide.

And then there are those, on the other hand, who still support the right to a voluntary choice of death by countering the Christians argument as follows: you say that voluntary death is contrary to the will of God who created us.  But if this is true, then why did he create us in such a way that we have the capacity and opportunity to kill ourselves.  This argument is all too easy to refute, but perhaps it is more important to learn from it.  The fallacy of course is obvious.  Every crime and sin is in a sense possible to man and the same argument could be used to justify murder and robbery.  The whole significance of a moral prohibition is that it is there to guide a man who has the capacity to act otherwise. But in the case of suicide we must dwell for a moment on the importance of the fact that man is a being who can kill himself and may not do so.  This is quite different from being incapable of doing so.  Temptation is an experience of the difference between the vertigo of power and the decision of duty.  The manifold possibilities open the unstable, intelligent, imperfect creature that we are, from the basis of all moral problems.  A genuine moral problem is always the immense problem of man taken from a given angle.  There are few facts so profoundly characteristic of the abyss of liberty and the power of reflection by which man makes himself, up to a certain point, master of his actions and even of his existence.  This is precisely why man lives his moral problems, and he has therefore to live this problem of self-inflicted death.  The temptation to suicide is part of the vertigo of his dangerous liberty.  If, therefore, the fact of being able to kill oneself is not a justification for suicide; it is nevertheless the basis of a specifically human problem.  For the temptation to fathom the full extent of his freedom is one of the profoundest temptations known to man.

It is therefore not surprising that philosophic discussion of the problem has always centered on the problem of liberty.  I have no room to do justice to the quality of this discussion.  It is no exaggeration to say that the problem of free choice of death is one of the fundamental problems of all the great moral philosophies.  All I can do here is to review briefly the stoic point of view, which is particularly important and well-developed.  Stoic wisdom did not necessarily entail death, but it depended on a frame of mind in which the whole person has become the free arbiter of his own “living or dying” according to the dictates of reason. The stoic was a man who could die if reason so ordained.  The empirical capacity to die which is common to all human beings was transformed in the stoic into a capacity which could function immediately if fate required it of reason.  It is not the external act of suicide which is glorified, but rather the inner liberty which permits and insists on it, in certain cases.  In such circumstances suicide is the via libertatis.  Then the voice of Seneca says to man: “You should not live in necessity, since there is no necessity to live.” It is Cato who will not survive if the Republic has lost its freedom, it is Hannibal who refuses to live as prisoner of the Romans, it is Lucrece who will not survive the dishonor she has suffered.  In modern times, it is Condorcet who will not live to see the degradation of the revolution.  There are the countless heroes of Plutarch; there is a Chamfort saying good-bye to a world where the heart must break or grow cold—or the suicides after the German defeat in 1918, and more recently after the defeat of France.  From the stoic viewpoint the death of Socrates is also voluntary, in the sense that he refuses to live as a fugitive far from the city.  This strong-willed and rationalist roman philosophy of the person Sui compos, master of his own life, is the last great philosophy of Greco-Roman antiquity before the victory of Christianity.  Stoicism has never completely died out and the conflict between Christianity and morality has continued to disturb the conscience of Europe, particularly since the Renaissance.  In any case, what is important here is that it is a philosophy of the autonomy of the reasonable being, the keystone of which is the philosophy of a free choice of death.

It is understandable that the struggle with stoicism should have led the Christian Church to give explicit reasons for its condemnation of self-conflicted death.  I believe, however, that the early Christians did not discuss the problem, simply because they considered it had been solved for them by the example of Christ and the martyrs.  There are many who kill themselves in order to avoid a certain form of death.  Hundreds and thousands of persons have killed themselves in this way, either in the prisons of the inquisition, particularly of the Spanish inquisition in order to escape being burnt, or during the French Revolution, like the Girondins and others, in order to avoid ignominy of the guillotine. Neither is it unknown in our present century, in the prisons of the Tcheka and elsewhere.  On the other hand, during the great persecutions, the Christian martyrs underwent the most hideous forms of death in the strength of a triumphant faith, without attempting to kill themselves before-hand.

It seems only fair, however, to put forward my own definition of suicide, which a human being deliberately creates what he considers to be an effective and adequate cause of his own death.  The theorists who look at Christianity from outside may, in fact, be easily led astray by the almost total contempt for empirical existence displayed by the martyrs.  This fact is important, since it demonstrates once again that Christianity has not been led to condemn suicide from any attachment to earthly life or from any particularly exalted view of its value.  In the story of the martyrdom of St. Peter, for instance, we find contempt for death and empirical existence which is inspired by Christ’s example.  “My brethren, my children, we must not flee suffering, for Christ’s sake, since He Himself of His own free will, accepted death for our sake.”  This is also the significance of the legend of Quo Vadis.  But this is far from justifying the fantastic idea which tries to make of Christ a type of suicide.  To kill oneself to avoid the cross and to suffer martyrdom on the cross are not exactly the same thing.  We should be quite clear that nothing was further from the minds of the early Christians than to condemn a self-inflicted death in the name of any loyalty to our empirical existence.  The contempt for earthly life amongst early Christians was so extreme that to modern eyes it might sometimes seem even monstrous.  Take, as an example, a passage from the epistle to the Romans of Ignatius the martyr:” let me be fodder for the beasts….I am the corn of God; I must be ground in the jaws of beasts….I hope to meet wild beasts of suitable disposition and, if necessary, I shall caress them, so that they may devour me immediately.”  Those who turn Christianity into a sort of virtuous optimism proper to all decent people, will never understand the attitude of true Christians to death, neither, as we shall see, will they understand the deeper reason underlying the Christian rejection of self-inflicted death.  The magistrate who said to Dionysius the martyr,” it is good to live”, received the reply, “Far other is the light we seek.”  Modern man is not superior, but definitely inferior to the stoics.  He has to be reminded that Christianity also condemns all forms of euthanasia, which must indeed be scandalous and hideously paradoxical to all but the heroic cast of mind.

But to return to St. Augustine, who was led to discuss the problem in his arguments with the Donatists, a Christian and belligerent sect which admitted suicide; and above all in his struggle with the Stoics.  His admirable text, which is the foundation of all Christian philosophy on this subject, can be found in the first chapter of the Civitas Dei.  You will remember the events which gave rise to the book: Rome the Eternal City, The City, in short, the holy capital of civilization and the Empire, had fallen for the first time in 410, to the barbarian invader. She had been partially destroyed and terribly ravaged by Alaric. The bishop of hippo, the apologist of the Church, wrote his great work in order to prove that Christianity was not the cause of this shattering event, and that the fall of Rome was far from implying the fall of the religion which, since Constantine, had been to some extent the Roman religion.  So he was compelled to tackle the stoic philosophy from the Christian point of view, since Stoicism had remained to a large degree the philosophy of the Roman nobility, and was apparently being used as the philosophical basis of the argument that Christianity and its slave morality had been responsible for the decadence of Rome.  Christian women were, in particular, reproached for not having killed themselves rather then fall into the hands of the barbarians, which inevitably implied the loss of their virginity.  St. Augustine replies first of all that the essence of virginity is not a physical state but a moral fact.  It can be lost morally without being lost physically but, what is still more important, when a woman loses her physical virginity without any consent of the will, as in the case of the women raped during the sack of Rome, she does not lose her moral virginity; she is innocent and not dishonoured and therefore has no reason to kill herself.

When discussing the classic instance of Lucrece, St. Augustine insists on the spiritual morality of Christians. But in the main he counters the stoic argument with the assertion that suicide is always and everywhere a crime. The arguments he uses reappear again and again in Christian literature down to our own days.  The principal argument is as follows; to kill oneself is to kill a man, therefore suicide is homicide.  Homicide is inexcusable and is forbidden in the Ten Commandments.  With all respect, I hardly feel that the argument is adequate.  The commandment cannot and should not be interpreted to cover every act which involves as a deliberate consequence the death of a man. The Christian tradition, apart from a few sects, has always allowed two important exceptions: war and capital punishment.  St. Augustine knows this very well, and therefore he treads warily. He says: “Ubique si non licet privata potestate hominem occidere vel nocentem, cujus occidendi licentiam lex nulla concedit; profecto etiam qui se ipsum occidet, homicida est.”  The stress is put on privata potestate and on cases where there is no legal sanction.  But the moment we begin to make moral distinctions between the different types of cases which may involve the death of a man, one may just as well make a distinction between suicide and the murder of someone else. In my opinion, it is even necessary to do so. In the first place, if we are deciding something which affects our own life, we are in a totally different position from deciding something which affects the life of another.  What would be an act of violent hostility towards another cannot be the same towards ourselves, if it is we who decide on the act.  In many cases, the man who kills himself has no intention of destroying his person, but rather of saving it.  Rarely, if ever, does he aim at annihilation.  There is a smack of sophistry about this moral identification of the two acts when their dissimilarity is so striking. As for the commandment, we must not make it say what it does not say.  It is universally accepted that it does not forbid a just war or the death penalty, but it is difficult to maintain that it does condemn suicide, at any rate unconditionally.  The Old Testament records as many suicides as it does wars, and some of them are glorified, as in the cases of Samson and Saul. Christians have made out, in the case of these biblical suicides, that a direct and exceptional command from God may hallow acts which are quite immoral in themselves.  This is the paradox taken up by Kierkegaard, of Abraham who is prepared, in faith and obedience, to become the murderer of his son.  It is Calvin’s justification of political sedition when ordained by God.  However, the Old Testament chronicles its suicides without insisting on any such supernatural justification.  There is no reason for believing that the Decalogue was intended to cover cases of suicide.  And the chain of reasoning which plays such a large part in Augustine’s text, is certainly not an example of his profoundest thinking.

There is an allusion to Job which allows us to suspect that he has not spoken his whole mind.  The reason is obvious.  He was dealing with Romans. It often happens that the brilliant orator and advocate, the direct descendant of Cicero, gets the upper hand and then he speaks ad extra and ad hominem.  Thus, in the middle of his expositions we find a beautiful passage which counters the famous example of Cato, so highly praised by his own master, Cicero, not with a Christian counterpart, but with the example of Regulus, who returned to Carthage in order to keep his word, in the certainty that he would be killed by the Carthaginians.

Unfortunately, I have not the space to analyse Augustine’s text as it deserves, nor to follow up in proper detail the evolution of Christian doctrine with regard to suicide.  We find no substantial argument added to the reasoning of the Father of the church in the period between St. Augustine and St. Thomas. But St. Thomas is not satisfied with St. Augustine’s arguments and tries to substitute others.  The fresh arguments that he adduces are three:

  1. suicide is contrary to man’s natural inclinations, contrary to natural law and contrary to charity—to that charity which a man owes to himself. Amor bene ordinatus incipit a semet ipsum. What are we to make of this argument?  First of all, if suicide were, in every case, contrary to natural law, it would not occur, or only in a very few exceptional or pathological cases.  I must admit I find it difficult to see that something can be against natural law when it is practiced, accepted and often honoured amongst all non-Christian peoples.  Suicide is far from being contrary to human nature.  The human animal’s will to live is neither unlimited nor unconditional.  It remains to be seen whether suicide must, in every case, be contrary to the love we should have for ourselves. Suicide, no doubt, deprives us of that good which is life.  But in fact, and from the Christian’s point of view, this good is of highly dubious quality; and, in any case, it is not the highest good and often rather more like an evil. To deprive oneself of a purely relative good to avoid an evil which is expected to be greater, such as the loss of honour or freedom, is not an act directed against oneself.  And this is very often precisely the case of the man who kills himself.  It would be much more reasonable to say that he kills himself out of too great self-love. Consider also the importance of the almost ontological concept of war in the ancient world and Proteus’s suicide out of friendship.  If we interpret it on a deeper level, the argument runs: he who kills himself deprives himself of salvation, which would be the total negation of that charity towards oneself required by the gospels.  But in this case we are arguing in circles, since we have an argument which sets out to prove that suicide is a sin, by assuming the premise that suicide is already mortal sin.  In fact, the vast majority of those who kill themselves have no desire or intention of forfeiting their salvation.  On the contrary, they say, like Doňa Sol to Hernani: “Soon we shall be moving towards fresh light, together we shall spread our wings and fly with measured beat towards a better world.”  The case of Kleist and his woman friend is there to demonstrate that the romantic suicide is not a purely literary invention.  Man finds, on the other side of the grave, an imaginary home for the hopes which have been disappointed in life.  There Werther will meet Lotte once more?  “Death, tomb,” he says, “what do such words mean?”  In the majority of cases, the one who kills himself seeks neither perdition nor extinction; the life he knows seems less desirable than something which is vague and unknown, but at any rate something.  The theological sin of despair is not defined as to the loss of such and such an empirical expectation, but as the loss of that fundamental hope in God and His goodness which is the very life of the human heart.  The loss of expectation is even a necessary step in the spiritual journey of the masters.  It is therefore false to claim that all suicides are men without hope, in the theological sense.  Personally, I go so far as to believe that man never despairs completely, that it is impossible for him and contrary to his essential being, to despair. Desesperare, says St. Thomas, non est descendere in infernum.  He does not speak of suicide in his tremendous chapter on the sin of despair.  In my view, despair is not a characteristic of man on earth, but perhaps only of Hell and the Devil.  We do not even know what it is.  The act of suicide does not, to me, express despair, but rather a wild and misguided hope directed to the vast unknown kingdom on the other side of death. I would even venture on the paradox:  men often kill themselves because they cannot and will not despair. This is why the idea of Hell, which fills the place of the unknown beyond, is such a strong disincentive to suicide. Even Shakespeare, speaking with the voice of Hamlet, is held back by this dread of the terror of a future existence.
  2. St. Thomas repeats the argument used by the platonic school, and particularly Aristotle, to discountenance suicide.  Plato was, in fact, somewhat opposed to the idea of suicide for reasons not unrelated to the enormous influence of the orphic mysteries on the spirit of his philosophy, and also because of his profound attachment to the idea of the Polis; one has only to read Diogenes Laertius to appreciate that suicide was almost the normal end of all Greek philosophers from Empedocles down to the Hellenistic period. But Plato gives the philosophers a place in the City and advises them not to desert this place.  Aristotle turns it into the argument that a man belongs to his country and to society and has no right to deprive them of his presence and activity by suicide.  St. Thomas takes up this argument which would, perhaps, have a certain value in an ideal society; but, in reality, people often kill themselves because the very imperfect societies in which they are condemned to live prevent them from leading any form of creative life.   So long as societies breed more forms of moral and material misery than need be our lot, it would be highly imprudent to authorise them to condemn those who try to escape from their authority by death.  Man did not ask to be born into a society and he does not see why he should not be allowed to leave it by the best door left open, if life in such a society has lost all meaning for him.  The argument may be valid in certain cases, where someone may in fact be abandoning an important social duty, but it is clearly inadequate as a general argument against suicide as such.  Moreover, the same collectivist premise might lead to the opposite conclusion if an individual could no longer find a social justification for his existence.  I would add that, to me, the argument seems inspired by a collectivist outlook, by the atmosphere of the Greek City which is essentially non-Christian.  It is purely and simply anti-personalist to try to decide such an intimately personal question as to whether or not I have the right to kill myself, by reference to society.  Suppose I die a little sooner or a little later, what has that to do with a society to which, in any case, I belong for so short a space?  St. Thomas is taking up one of Aristotle’s arguments, as he often does, without allowing for the profoundly non-Christian outlook which inspires his thinking both in detail and in the whole.  The weakness of the social argument can be seen even more clearly in Kant.  According to Kant, the man who feels temped to commit suicide should consider whether the principle on which his decision is based could become a principle of general legislation.  But man knows very well that he is faced every time with a particular situation, and that he is, as a person, unique.  In modern Christian moralists the argument reappears in the form that man has no right to kill himself since this would constitute a crime against his family.  But as a general argument, this also fails to convince.  First of all, a lot of people have no families, or a shattered or detestable family, and secondly, the question is really far too personal to be decided by such arguments.  Everyone dies sooner or later, and society and the family get over it.  It is true that those who have a normal family life seldom kill themselves, like those who might happen to live in an ideal society.  But all the same, the fact that there are so many suicides proves that many people do not find in their homes what they should find there.  One of the most frequent types of suicide is the result of a love affair, often in the form of a suicide pact.  It would be ridiculous to try to say to these unhappy creatures that they are proposing to commit a mortal sin because they are neglecting their duty towards their family.  Why does no one say the same thing to the young people who go into monasteries, often against the wishes of the family?  This is another of those arguments—not St. Thomas’s argument, but that of one’s duty to the family—which reek of complacency.  Suicide is often taken to be an act indicative of decadent and anarchistic individualism, overlooking the fact that amongst entirely healthy and even extremely warlike communities it is often considered, in certain circumstances, a social duty. But death is above all so much a personal and individual thing that the problem it creates transcend the social life of this planet.
  3. By far the most weighty of St. Thomas’s arguments is the third: we are God’s property, just as the slave is the property of his master.  Man is not sui juris.  It is for God to decide on our life or death.

Leaving aside the comparison with the slave, which invites the stoic reply that it is precisely the free man who can kill himself, there is undoubtedly something strong and cogent in this argument. Suicide may be due to pride. Man can now prove that he can be sicut Deus. Montaigne has replied in defense of the stoic point of view: “God has given us leave enough when He puts us in such a state that living is worse than dying.”  The Thomist argument loses much of its value unless it is taken in a specifically Christian sense.  If we were dealing with a god who was a tyrant and slave owner, the argument would clearly not suffice.

 *   *   *

I have discussed certain traditional arguments, not really so much for their historic importance as to bring out the enormous complexity and difficulty of the problem.  I turned hopefully to the Christian Father for an answer to the question and, in fact, failed to find a really satisfactory reply.  I might add that this seldom happens.  Neither have I criticized for the pleasure of criticizing such and such an argument, but for a much more serious reason.  “We can only discuss something honourably in so far as we sympathise with it”, says Goethe in Werther on the very topic of suicide. Picture to yourself a man who is very much tempted to suicide.  Perhaps he has lost his family, or he despairs of the society in which he has to live, or maybe bitter suffering is depriving him of all grounds for hope.  His present life is terrible, his future dark and menacing.  Suppose you tell him he must live in order to obey the commandment, or in order not to sin against the love of oneself, or to do his duty to society and family, or finally, in order not to decide something himself that only God is entitled to decide: do you think you would convince this man in his misery and suffering?

Of course you would not. He would find your arguments either dubious by technical difficulties, by cowardice or weakness of will, by a certain instinct for life or, as often happen, by an implicit faith in divine protection or by the fear of Hell. But these traditional arguments will probably be ineffective. So what he needs is not so much abstract arguments as an example of Christ.  Here we must turn, not to the letter of the old but to the spirit of the New Testament.  To understand why Christianity is opposed to suicide, we must recall the fundamental character of Christian life which is, in all its forms, an attempt at the imitation of Jesus Christ.

This effort implies a radical conversion of natural human attitudes, more especially with regard to suffering.  The human being has, by nature, a horror of suffering and a desire for happiness.  The man who kills himself almost always does so to escape from the suffering of this life toward an unknown happiness and calm.  In any case he says in his heart, “I want to go somewhere else.  I do not wish to endure this suffering which has no meaning and is beyond my strength”.

It is here that the spirit of Christianity intervenes with its tremendous paradox.  Yes, live and suffer. You should not be surprised that you suffer.  If happiness were the meaning of life, it would indeed be a revolting and finally improbable condition.  But the situation is different if life is a justification, the progress towards a transcendent goal, and if it’s meaning were in fact evident in suffering and achieved through suffering.  “Lord, to suffer or to die”, prays St. Theresa.  Yes, in spite of all those optimistic believers, life is the carrying of a cross.  But even the cross has a sacred meaning.

My belief is, therefore, that far from being one of the so-called natural laws, or the law of some peculiar common sense, the total prohibition of suicide can only be justified or even understood in relation to the scandal and the paradox of the cross.  It is true that we belong to God, as Christ belonged to God. It is true that we should subordinate our will to His, as Christ did.  It is true that we should leave the decision as to our life or death to Him.  If we wish to die, we have indeed the right to pray to God to let us die.  Yet we must always add: Thy will, not mine, be done.  But this God is not our master as if we were slaves.  He is our Father.  He is the Christian God who loves us with infinite love and infinite wisdom.  If He makes us suffer, it is for our salvation and purification.  We must recall the spirit in which Christ suffered the most horrible death.  In certain circumstances, to refuse suicide is far from natural.  To prefer martyrdom to suicide is a paradox peculiar to the Christian.  It was precisely this element in the martyr’s attitude which so profoundly shocked the pagan philosophers.  The martyrs refuse suicide, not through a cowardly attachment to life, but because they found a strange happiness in following the example of Christ, and suffering for Him and with Him. It has been quite reasonably maintained that the fact that people are willing to die for a cause argues nothing as to the value of that cause.  It is true that a great many persons have died for causes which we find deplorable.  So it is in a different sense that the martyrs bear witness to Christianity.  They do not prove any given theoretical truth, but they prove by their example that it is possible to live and die in a Christian manner.  It is not their death, but their manner of dying which is important.  They are witness in a very special way to the fact that Grace may enable a man to follow Christ in His attitude towards suffering and death, which is itself very far from natural. Their blessedness in, and to some extent through, suffering, far exceeds the somewhat frigid heroism of the ancient world.  The vast majority of humanity is morally inferior to the Stoics.  The Christian martyr is superior.  The stoic virtue is perhaps the highest morality known to man outside the sphere of Christian Grace.  The hero, master of his own death, stands above the mass of poltroons and slaves.  “This noble despair, so worthy of the Romans,” wrote Corneille.  The saint is, as it were a super-hero of specifically Christian character.  It is his life that in fact demonstrates the argument.  He shows that it is possible for man to live out his suffering by discovering a transcendental significance in its very depths.  One cannot stress too strongly the paradoxical quality of all this, just as Kierkegaard has so rightly insisted on the paradoxical nature of the whole of Christianity.  In order to gauge the paradox, we should remember what suffering is.  The word is quickly said, but the subject itself is vast, an authentic mystery.  Even physical suffering can take on horrible forms.  We are told that it will be limited and that consciousness, the precondition of suffering, fails at a certain level of pain.  Perhaps: we know little about it.  Man is always mistaken when he thinks he has reached the worst moral tortures.  One falls, one falls from abyss to abyss.  In periods like our own, one must feel frightened at the immensity of present human suffering.  When one reads history, one is overwhelmed by what men have always and everywhere endured.  Sickness, death, misery and all manner of peril, surround the human being.  The optimists are having a joke at our expense.  It is no exaggeration to speak, as Schopenhauer does, of a ruchloser optimismus, a frivolous and criminal optimism.

The same judgment applies equally to those who immediately try to console you with talk of divine Providence and goodness.  There is nothing more paradoxical than this divine love which has, according to Dante, created Hell.  Even Providence is another paradox.  All that is left is the example of Christ and of those men who were able to follow his example, showing that to do so they needed not to be gods, but only to be granted divine Grace, which is equally promised to us.

All that we can say to the suffering man who is tempted to commit suicide, is this “Remember the suffering of Christ and the martyrs.  You must carry your cross, as they did.  You will not cease to suffer, but the cross of suffering itself will grow sweet by virtue of an unknown strength proceeding from the heart of divine love.  You must not kill yourself, because you must not throw away your cross.  You need it.  And enquire of your conscience if you are really innocent. You will find that if you are perhaps innocent of one thing for which the world reproaches you, you are guilty in a thousand other ways.  You are a sinner.  If Christ, who was innocent, suffered for others and, as Pascal said, has also shed a drop of blood for you, how shall you, a sinner, be entitled to refuse suffering?  Perhaps it is a form of punishment.  But divine punishment has this specific and incomparable quality, that it is not revenge and that its very nature is purification.  Whoever revolts against it, revolts in fact against the inner meaning of his own life.”

There is no doubt that there is no justice here below.  Criminal monsters carry all before them, and none suffers more then the saint.  Here we approach the mystery of sin, which is so closely linked with this other mystery that the Christian finds the meaning of life in and through suffering.  Man, we said, was a creature who could kill himself and should not do so.  The meaning of this assertion now becomes clearer.  The temptation exists, and there is rejection of this temptation.  Where this rejection is authentically Christian, it is in the form of an act of love towards God, and towards suffering, not as suffering, which is impossible—algophilia is pathological, and even Christ faltered before His last agony, and prayed that it should be taken from Him—but towards suffering in so far as it contains a remedy desired by God.

Just as there is a qualitative difference between bourgeois and heroic morality, there is an abyss between natural morality on the one hand and the supernatural morality of Christianity on the other.  Our reflections on the problem of suicide show this, just as any profound reflection on any moral problem of practical and vital importance must show it.  Christianity is a new message.  The truth of stoicism lies in its understanding of the close relationship between human freedom and a contempt for death.  Whoever is a slave to death is in fact also a slave to all the accidents of life.  There is no liberation of the person unless the supreme and universal necessity of this mortal accident is transformed into a free act.  But whereas stoicism tries to acquire this freedom through the knowledge of the possibility of suicide, the Christian must acquire it through a loving acceptance of the will of God.  He may prefer life to death, or death to life according to the circumstances, but he must place the will of God with absolute sincerity before his own.  Death is often a boon, and swift was right o speak of “the dreadful aspect of never dying”, but it is God who must set a term to our suffering.

There are other doctrines beside Christianity, which have given a positive, metaphysical significance to earthly suffering.  The orphic mysteries, often considered as an early prototype of Christianity, saw suffering as a way to the liberation from the body.  There is Buddhism, and the almost Buddhist philosophy of Schopenhauer.  It is significant that these doctrines should be equally inimical to suicide.  But there is nothing in these attitudes to compare with the Christian drama.  To authentic Buddhism, as to Schopenhauer, suicide is an error, or sort of impasse.  What Buddha calls thirst, and Schopenhauer, the will to live, cannot be overcome by suicide.  Nor can one escape from existence by such violent means.  The suicide transformed, according to his Karma, but he does not attain Nirvana.  We have seen, in fact, and I know it to be true in many cases I have known of personally, that the purpose of suicide was not the idea of extinction but of attaining an existence radically different from the one left behind by death.  The Buddhist aversion to suicide is naturally not in any way comparable to the Christian rejection.  In the first place, genuine Buddhism is far too intellectualized to entertain any general concept of sin.  If anyone commits the error of refusing, by such an act of violence, to accept his suffering, he will suffer the consequence according to his Karma, and he will learn.  That is all.  Finally, and here the comparison may help us to establish an important point, the moment of physical death has not the same quality of metaphysical decision for the Oriental as for the Christian.  The stress placed by Christianity on this prohibition of suicide is no doubt partly explained by the idea that everything to do with death has a metaphysical aspect, an idea which is absolutely foreign to the East.  What is horrible about suicide to the Christian is that there is little or no time left for repentance after the sin has been committed.  In principle, therefore, canon law refuses Christian burial to the suicide, because he died in a state of mortal sin.  There are, however, two exceptions: one, if the act is committed in a state or even a moment of mental unbalance, which excludes responsibility; the other, if the suicide can be given the benefit of any doubt; if, for instance, there is any possibility that he may have made an act of repentance.  The existence of there two exceptions, and the obvious difficulty of excluding them completely in any particular case, have led the Church, particularly in modern times, to exercise indulgence.  Principles cannot be changed, but there are more scruples about the mental health of the suicide, and a reluctance to assert that no act of repentance, which might be something like a lightning flash of conscience, could have taken place.  Thus judgment is left to God, that is to say, judgment on the person, not judgment on the principle of the act itself.

Before drawing to a close, I should briefly mention one argument against the Christian point of view.  If suffering is sacred and contains the meaning of life, why are we entitled to struggle against it?  If we have this right, and even this duty, why should we not have the right to withdraw from suffering by suicide, if there is no other way out?  I agree at once that man has the right to struggle against the miseries of existence.  The contrary would obviously lead to moral absurdities, such as the immorality of medicine.  But we should not overestimate the struggle, neither in its importance nor in its chances of success.  It is natural and laudable for man to struggle against sickness, cruelty, misery and the rest. But in point of fact there has been no progress in human happiness in all our history, but rather the reverse.  Everything we know leads us to believe that the so-called primitive people are much happier than we are.  What is false is not the struggle against suffering, but the illusion that we can destroy it.  The means of fighting this suffering is, above all, work, which was given to man both as punishment and cure.  But this effort to combat suffering can not be compared with the act of suicide.  Suicide is something on its own.  It seems to me to be a flight by which man hopes to recover paradise lost instead of trying to deserve Heaven.  The desire for death which is unleashed when temptation becomes our master is, psychologically speaking the desire to regress to a pre-natal state.  To disappear, to get away from it all.  Stekel and others have given us a precise psychological analysis of suicide, the longing for the abyss, the mother, the return.  The whole process could be described in Freudian terms.  Theologically speaking, there is, in fact, the vague illusion of a return to Paradise.  The Rousseau-Werther type of suicide is usually conscious of this obscure motivation.  In this connection one could quote many interesting passages from Goethe, Sénancourt, Amiel, and others.  But Christ guides us through struggle and suffering towards a brighter light.  The god, or rather, goddess, of suicide thrusts us back upon the mother’s breast.  In this sense, suicide is an infantilism.  It is this quality of regression which prevents any comparison between suicide and man’s normal struggle against suffering.  It is the failure of all other means which, in the majority of cases, leads to suicide; it is the universal experience of powerlessness.  This convergence of one disaster after the other, destroying all possibility of living and struggling, is the common factor in the biographies of all suicides.  Without going into the details of some personal biographies I have myself studied, let me remind you of two great classics:  Werther and Anna Karenina.  You can see in these two books how life and his own character combine to form a trap for man.  And it is precisely what is most noble in man that may urge him to suicide.  If you can imagine a Werther or an Anna Karenina who were both slightly more frivolous, you will see that their problems might have been solved.  But you will see also that in such cases the only truly positive and honourable solution would be that complete conversion required by Christ.

It is perfectly clear that the Christian apologists were well aware of this real and profound explanation of the Christian attitude to suicide.  Saints such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were certainly far better aware of it than I.  Why then did they not give it?  I think largely because things were taken for granted in that period of militant and heroic Christianity.  Do not forget that St. Augustine only mentions this problem when he is addressing Roman pagans, in defense against the charge that Christianity had grown weaker.  Nowadays, when it has frequently become painfully mediocre, it is again attacked by a new and fanatical paganism, which also has its moments of heroism.  Either Christianity will disappear, or it will recover its original virtues.  We do not believe that it can disappear, but it must certainly renew itself by becoming aware of its true nature.  It is therefore useful, by dwelling on one specific problem, to show that Christian morality is not some sort of natural, reasonable and universal morality, with perhaps a little more sensation in it than some others, but the manifestation in life of a paradoxical revelation.  It cannot be superfluous, either, to remind oneself to-day that Christian morality is not a morality of compromise, but that it requires a heroism more profound, more absurd and, in a way, more intransigent, than any other.  In other words, we had to become explicitly conscious of things which in an age still close to the martyrs could be taken for granted.

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Letter to the President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland


Szmul Zygielbojm was born in a village in what is now Poland, then part of the Russian empire. At the age of 10, he left school and began working in a factory. As a young man, he became involved in the Jewish labor movement, and in 1924 he was elected to the Central Committee of the Bund in 1924. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Zygielbojm went to Warsaw to participate in the defense of the city. He volunteered to replace a woman who was also active in the labor movement as one of the 12 hostages the Nazi occupation demanded; the Nazis then made him a member of the Jewish Council, the Judenrat, which they had established in order to create the ghetto in Warsaw, a move that Zygielbojm opposed. Zygielbojm escaped from the country, and during the years 1940–1943, he traveled, trying to persuade the Allies of the Nazi threat to Polish Jews. Representatives of the English and American governments met in Bermuda on April 19, 1943, to discuss the situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, but did nothing. At the same time, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out and was definitively suppressed by the Nazis; Ziegelbojm’s wife and son were among the hundreds of thousands killed. Zygielbojm killed himself weeks later, on May 12, 1943, in protest against the Allied indifference to the evolving Holocaust.

Ziegelbojm’s suicide note, dated the day before his death, takes the form of a letter to the Polish president Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and the Polish prime minister Wladyslaw Sikorski. Ziegelbojm explains the reason for his action; it is a brief but poignant and powerful account of suicide as protest.

Szmul Zygielbojm, “The Last Letter from Szmul Zygielbojm, The Bund Representative With the Polish National Council in Exile,” Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Available online from Yad Vashem.



May 11, 1943

To His Excellency
The President of the Republic of Poland
Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz
Prime Minister 
General Wladyslaw Sikorski

Mr. President,
Mr. Prime Minister,

I am taking the liberty of addressing to you, Sirs, these my last words, and through you to the Polish Government and the people of Poland, and to the governments and people of the Allies, and to the conscience of the whole world:

The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out.

The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime. by looking on passively upon this murder of defenseless millions — tortured children, women and men — they have become partners to the responsibility.

I am obliged to state that although the Polish Government contributed largely to the arousing of public opinion in the world, it still did not do enough. It did not do anything that was not routine, that might have been appropriate to the dimensions of the tragedy taking place in Poland.

Of close to 3.5 million Polish Jews and about 700,000 Jews who have been deported to Poland from other countries, there were, according to the official figures of the Bund transmitted by the Representative of the Government, only 300,000 still alive in April of this year. And the murder continues without end.

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave.

By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

I know that there is no great value to the life of a man, especially today. But since I did not succeed in achieving it in my lifetime, perhaps I shall be able by my death to contribute to the arousing from lethargy of those who could and must act in order that even now, perhaps at the last moment, the handful of Polish Jews who are still alive can be saved from certain destruction.

My life belongs to the Jewish people of Poland, and therefore I hand it over to them now. I yearn that the remnant that has remained of the millions of Polish Jews may live to see liberation together with the Polish masses, and that it shall be permitted to breathe freely in Poland and in a world of freedom and socialistic justice, in compensation for the inhuman suffering and torture inflicted on them. And I believe that such a Poland will arise and such a world will come about. I am certain that the President and the Prime Minister will send out these words of mine to all those to whom they are addressed, and that the Polish Government will embark immediately on diplomatic action and explanation of the situation, in order to save the living remnant of the Polish Jews from destruction.

I take leave of you with greetings, from everybody, and from everything that was dear to me and that I loved.

S. Zygielbojm

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from The Courage to Be


Paul Tillich was a German-American theologian whose work helped to revolutionize Protestant theology in light of a philosophical analysis of existence. Born in a small Prussian town, the son of an authoritarian Lutheran minister, Tillich attended universities in Berlin, Tübingen, and Halle before receiving a doctorate from Breslau in 1911, as well as a licentiate of theology from Halle in 1912. As an ordained Lutheran minister and chaplain in the German army, Tillich joined forces with the religious social movement, which struggled to expand social opportunity and justice while opposing both the utopian delusions of Marxism, as well as the individualism and otherworldliness of the dominant forms of Christianity.

Tillich’s early work examined how tradition could coexist with autonomy and freedom. In The Religious Situation (1932), Tillich viewed religion as the ultimate concern of humanity that underlies 20th-century changes in art, politics, and philosophy. Because of his criticism of Hitler, in 1933, he was barred from teaching, and he emigrated to the United States to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich continued to publish sermons and articles on theology and history. Systematic Theology (1951–63), his three-volume magnum opus, presents God not as a being—an anthropomorphic, personal God—but as Being-itself, or ultimate reality; this work attempted to integrate traditional Christianity with contemporary concerns including existential uncertainty, the scientific method, and psychoanalysis. Christian doctrines are seen as resolutions of practical human problems.

In this selection from Tillich’s popular The Courage to Be (1952), suicide is explored in relation to anxiety and despair. Suicide only partially liberates the soul from anxiety, Tillich says; the inescapable guilt and condemnation of despair frustrate the attempt to escape them through this finite act.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 54-57.




The Meaning of Despair

Despair is an ultimate or “boundary-line” situation. One cannot go beyond it. Its nature is indicated in the etymology of the word despair: without hope.  No way out into the future appears. Nonbeing is felt as absolutely victorious. But there is a limit to its victory; nonbeing is felt as victorious, and feeling presupposes being. Enough being is left to feel the irresistible power of nonbeing, and this is the despair within the despair. The pain of despair is that a being is aware of itself as unable to affirm itself because of the power of nonbeing. Consequently it wants to surrender this awareness and its presupposition, the being which is aware. It wants to get rid of itself—and it cannot. Despair appears in the form of reduplication, as the desperate attempt to escape despair. If anxiety were only the anxiety of fate and death, voluntary death would be the way out of despair. The courage demanded would be the courage not to be. The final form of ontic self-affirmation would be the act of ontic self-negation.

But despair is also the despair about guilt and condemnation. And there is no way of escaping it, even by ontic self-negation. Suicide can liberate one from the anxiety of fate and death—as the Stoics knew. But it cannot liberate from the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, as the Christians know. This is a highly paradoxical statement, as paradoxical as the relation of the moral sphere to ontic existence generally. But it is a true statement, verified by those who have experienced fully the despair of condemnation. It is impossible to express the inescapable character of condemnation in ontic terms, that is in terms of imaginings about the “immortality of the soul.” For every ontic statement must use the categories of finitude, and “immortality of the soul” would be the endless prolongation of finitude and of the despair of condemnation (a self-contradictory concept, for “finis” means “end”). The experience, therefore, that suicide is no way of escaping guilt must be understood in terms of the qualitative character of the moral demand, and of the qualitative character of its rejection. Guilt and condemnation are qualitatively, not quantitatively, infinite. They have an infinite weight and cannot be removed by a finite act of ontic self-negation. This makes despair desperate, that is, inescapable. There is “No Exit” from it (Sartre). The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness participates in both the ontic and moral element in despair. Insofar as it is an expression of finitude it can be removed by ontic self-negation: This drives radical skepticism to suicide. Insofar as it is a consequence of moral disintegration it produces the same paradox as the moral element in despair: there is no ontic exit from it. This frustrates the suicidal trends in emptiness and meaninglessness. One is aware of their futility.

In view of this character of despair it is understandable that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful. Extreme situations are not reached frequently and perhaps they are never reached by some people. The purpose of an analysis of such a situation is not to record ordinary human experiences but to show extreme possibilities in the light of which the ordinary situations must be understood. We are not always aware of our having to die, but in the light of the experience of our having to die our whole life is experienced differently. In the same way the anxiety which is despair is not always present. But the rare occasions in which it is present determine the interpretation of existence as a whole.

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from Indian Home Rule
from An Autobiography: The Story of    My Experiments With Truth
from Non-Violence in Peace and War


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (often called “Mahatma,” or “great soul”), the Indian nationalist and advocate of non-violence, was born in Porbandar to the local chief minister and a mother who was an active disciple of Vaishnavism, the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu. Gandhi’s religious upbringing emphasized principles of ahimsa (non-injury to living beings), fasting, self-purification, and nonviolence; these themes would figure prominently in his political philosophy. His academic performance in Indian schools was mediocre; however, after a rebellious adolescence, Gandhi committed himself to a program of passionate self-improvement. In 1888, he sailed to England to study law at the Inner Temple, but found himself more involved in adjusting to Western culture. His vegetarianism, at first a source of embarrassment, became an opportunity to practice his social influence: he joined the London Vegetarian Society, where he was introduced to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.

In 1891, he returned to India to discover that, because he found himself unable to speak in the courtroom and thus was left merely to prepare legal documents, law was not a lucrative career for him in India. Subsequently, in 1893, he took a job for an Indian firm in South Africa; the prejudices against Indians he encountered there persuaded him to remain to help fight discrimination. Almost overnight he was transformed into a skilled politician. He established spiritual communities (ashrams), the Natal Indian Congress, and a weekly newspaper, the Indian Opinion. In 1906, he staged his first nonviolent resistance campaign based on his technique of satyagraha (“the Force which is born of Truth and Love, or nonviolence”), which he derived from the works of Thoreau, Tolstoy, the Hindu scriptures, and the New Testament. Gandhi and his followers in South Africa were often threatened and imprisoned.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India, where he began to campaign and fast for Indians of the lowest castes and for “untouchables,” whom he renamed Harijan, “children of God.” Upon the passing of the Rowlatt Act in 1919, an infringement on Indian civil liberties, he planned an all-India satyagraha campaign, but the event backfired when some of the protesters resorted to violence. Another campaign in 1920 boycotted the British cloth industry; he was subsequently arrested for sedition in 1922 and spent two years in prison. (During his lifetime, he would spend a total of 2,338 days in jail.) Upon his release, he was elected president of the Indian National Congress. He led several social movements, his “constructive program,” which included women’s rights, education, industry, personal hygiene, and Hindu-Muslim unity. However, the issue of whether there should be a separate electorate for Dalits, an alternative term for “untouchables,” divided him from the activist Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar regarded as a hero of the casteless. In 1933, Gandhi fasted for 21 days over issues concerning untouchables. In 1942, he led a satyagraha to demand the withdrawal of British forces from India; the British reacted sharply and imprisoned the leadership of the Congress. On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan were declared independent, but Gandhi was deeply disappointed by this lack of unity at the moment of freedom. Renewed riots between Hindus and Muslims led Gandhi to a final fast. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic while traveling to his evening prayer meeting.

Gandhi’s collected works—autobiography, letters, editorials, and speeches—fill 100 volumes. In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), Gandhi recounts his consideration of suicide during his period of youthful rebellion. His writings on satyagraha often refer to conditions under which it is permissible to lay down one’s own life for a noble cause. In the pamphlet “Indian Home Rule” (1909), he uses the dialogue of a hypothetical editor and reader to explain the attitudes of a “passive resister” toward death; in rejecting the ancient tradition of self-immolation that was practiced by Buddhist monks in Vietnam (q.v., Thich Nhat Hanh) in Harijan (1940), he insists that that was mere passive resistance, not the active, engaged satyagraha that he supported. Non-Violence in Peace and War (1945) illuminates his belief in the importance of learning the “art of dying.”

Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Indian Home Rule,” in The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of his Life and Writings, ed. Homer A. Jack (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1956; London: Dennis Dobson, 1958), pp. 112, 114-16; An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, tr. Mahadev Desai (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 25-28; excerpts from Gandhi on Non-Violence; Selected Texts from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Non-Violence in Peace and War, ed. Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Books, 1964, 1965), selections from pp. 39, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 52, 55, 60, 61, 62, 64, 73, 85, 86. Material in introduction also from Christine Everaert.



EDITOR: Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I an employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self.

Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others. Moreover, if this kind of force is used in a cause that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes. Men have before now done many things which were subsequently found to have been wrong. No man can claim that he is absolutely in the right or that a particular thing is wrong because he thinks so, but it is wrong for him so long as that is his deliberate judgment. It is therefore meet that he should not do that which he knows to be wrong, and suffer the consequence whatever it may be. This is the key to the use of soul-force. . .

READER: From what you say I deduce that passive resistance is a splendid weapon of the weak, but that when they are strong they may take up arms.

EDITOR: This is a gross ignorance. Passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is matchless. It is superior to the force of arms. How, then, can it be considered only a weapon of the weak? Physical-force men are strangers to the courage that is requisite in a passive resister. Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes? Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they, then, talk about obeying laws? I do not blame them. They can say nothing else. When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws. And that is a fitting thing for their constitution. But a passive resister will say he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon.

What do you think? Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend, or he who controls the death of others? Believe me that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister.

This, however, I will admit: that even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it. It does not require the training of an army; it needs no jiu-jitsu. Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy.

Passive resistance is an all-sided sword, it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom if is used. Without drawing a drop of blood it produces far-reaching results. It never rusts and cannot be stolen. Competition between passive resisters does not exhaust. The sword of passive resistance does not require a scabbard. It is strange indeed that you should consider such a weapon to be a weapon merely of the weak. . . .

READER: From what you say, then, it would appear that it is not a small thing to become a passive resister, and, if that is so, I should like you to explain how a man may become one.

EDITOR: To become a passive resister is easy enough but it is also equally difficult. I have known a lad of fourteen years become a passive resister; I have known also sick people do likewise; and I have also known physically strong and otherwise happy people unable to take up passive resistance. After a great deal of experience it seems to me that those who want to become passive resisters for the service of the country have to observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness.

Chastity is one of the greatest disciplines without which the mind cannot attain requisite firmness. A man who is unchaste loses stamina, becomes emasculated and cowardly. He whose mind is given over to animal passions is not capable of any great effort. . . .

Just as there is necessity for chastity, so is there for poverty. Pecuniary ambition and passive resistance cannot go well together. Those who have money are not expected to throw it away, but they are expected to be indifferent about it. They must be prepared to lose every penny rather than give up passive resistance.

Passive resistance has been described in the course of our discussion as truth-force. Truth, therefore, has necessarily to be followed and that at any cost. In this connection, aca

demic questions such as whether a man may not lie in order to save a life, etc., arise, but these questions occur only to those who wish to justify lying. Those who want to follow truth every time are not placed in such a quandary; and if they are, they are still saved from a false position.

Passive resistance cannot proceed a step without fearlessness. Those alone can follow the path of passive resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honor, their relatives, the government, bodily injuries or death.



Stealing and Atonement

I have still to relate some of my failings during this meat-eating period and also previous to it, which date from before my marriage or soon after.

A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamoured of the smell of a cigarette. We simply imagined a sort of pleasure in emitting clouds of smoke from our mouths. My uncle had the habit, and when we saw him smoking, we thought we should copy his example. But we had no money. So we began pilfering stumps of cigarettes thrown away by my uncle.

The stumps, however, were not always available, and could not emit much smoke either. So we began to steal coppers from the servant’s pocket money in order to purchase Indian cigarettes. But the question was where to keep them. We could not of course smoke in the presence of elders. We managed somehow for a few weeks on these stolen coppers. In the meantime we heard that the stalks of a certain plant were porous and could be smoked like cigarettes. We got them and began this kind of smoking.

But we were far from being satisfied with such things as these. Our want of independence began to smart. It was unbearable that we should be unable to do anything without the elders’ permission. At last, in sheer disgust, we decided to commit suicide!

But how were we to do it? From where were we to get the poison? We heard that Dhatura seeds were an effective poison. Off we went to the jungle in search of these seeds, and got them. Evening was thought to be the auspicious hour. We went to Kedarji Mandir, put ghee in the temple-lamp, had the darshan and then looked for a lonely corner. But our courage failed us. Supposing we were not instantly killed? And what was the good of killing ourselves? Why not rather put up with the lack of independence? But we swallowed two or three seeds nevertheless. We dared not take more. Both of us fought shy of death, and decided to go to Ramji Mandir to compose ourselves, and to dismiss the thought of suicide.

I realized that it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it. And since then, whenever I have heard of someone threatening to commit suicide, it has had little or no effect on me.

The thought of suicide ultimately resulted in both of us bidding good-bye to the habit of smoking stumps of cigarettes and of stealing the servant’s coppers for the purpose of smoking.



[In non-violence] the bravery consists in dying, not in killing.

Those who die unresistingly are likely to still the fury of violence by their wholly innocent sacrifice.

He who meets death without striking a blow fulfills his duty cent per cent. The result is in God’s hands.

A satyagrahi is dead to his body even before his enemy attempts to kill him, i.e., he is free from attachment to his body and only lives in the victory of his soul. Therefore when he is already thus dead, why should he yearn to kill anyone? To die in the act of killing is in essence to die defeated.

Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence.

The votary of non-violence has to cultivate his capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. . . . He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa to perfection. The votary of ahimsa has only one fear, that is of God. He who seeks refuge in God ought to have a glimpse of the Atman [the transcendent self] that transcends the body; and the moment one has glimpsed the imperishable Atman one sheds the love of the perishable body. . . . Violence is needed for the protection of things external; non-violence is needed for the protection of the Atman, for the protection of one’s honor.

There is a natural prejudice against fasting as part of a political struggle. . . . It is considered a vulgar interpolation in politics by the ordinary politician, though it has always been resorted to by prisoners. . . . My own fasts have always been strictly according to the laws of satyagraha. . . . I have been driven to the conclusion that fasting unto death is an integral part of the satyagraha program, and it is the greatest and most effective weapon in its armory under giver circumstances. Not everyone is qualified for undertaking it without a proper course of training.

A satyagrahi must always be ready to die with a smile on his face, without retaliation and without rancor in his heart. Some people have come to have a wrong notion that satyagraha means only jail-going, perhaps facing blows, and nothing more. Such satyagraha cannot bring independence. To win independence you have to learn the art of dying without killing.

A satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have been explored and have failed.

To lay down one’s life for what one considers to be right is the very core of satyagraha.

A satyagrahi may never run away from danger, irrespective of whether he is alone or in the company of many. He will have fully performed his duty if he dies fighting.

You are no satyagrahis if you remain silent or passive spectators while your enemy is being done to death. You must protect him even at the cost of your own life.

The art of dying for a satyagrahi consists in facing death cheerfully in the performance of one’s duty.

Ahimsa is one of the world’s great principles which no force on earth can wipe out. Thousands like myself may die in trying to vindicate the ideal, but ahimsa will never die. And the gospel of ahimsa can be spread only through believers dying for the cause.

Non-violence is the only thing the atom bomb cannot destroy. . . . Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.

Murder can never be avenged by either murder or taking compensation. The only way to avenge murder is to offer oneself as a willing sacrifice, with no desire for retaliation.

A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best, though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.

[Jesus—] a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.

No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life.


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(c. 1889)

The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself


This anonymous selection was originally published in the Methodist Church Missionary Society’s magazine The Gospel in All Lands in April of 1889. Little is known about its author or its exact date of composition, except that the author, “a widow herself,” identifies herself as a member of the Kayastha caste, living in the Punjab. The caste is a community of scribes, highly educated and historically very influential, and of well-to-do economic status.

Sati or suttee, as the British called it, also known as widow-burning, in which the new widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, was practice with apparent antecedents as far back as the 5th century A.D. or even earlier [q.v., Vedas]. The practice has never been universal among Hindus, and it does not always involve fire: for instance, the Bengali Jogi weaver caste and the Jasnathi caste in Rajasthan buried the wife alive with her husband. Sati stones or grave markers often served as sites of veneration, and were known throughout India by the 10th century. Rulers during the Mughal period attempted to suppress the practice but without lasting success, and it reached the greatest rates of frequency in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1813, the British East India Company recognized the legitimacy of sati as long as it was based on the widow’s “consent,” not coercion. Between 1813 and 1828, the period during which the British collected statistics on sati, approximately 8,000 widows were burnt. The practice was banned by the Bengal presidency in 1829 and upheld by the British Privy Council in 1832; statistics were not kept after that time, though the decree affected only some areas of India and that portion of the population where British rule was in sway. In 1856, the law was also amended to allow widows to remarry, but the Social Reform Movement found that traditional custom could not be undone overnight and that opposition to the continuing practice of sati was necessary. Although it is now illegal to attempt to commit sati or to glorify or abet it, it still occasionally occurs in rural areas of India.

“The Plight of Hindu Widows” is a distinctly graphic and disturbing account arising from the body of literature written in the second half of the 19th century focusing on the issue of widow remarriage and with it the question of women’s rights in India; it is significant in that it presents a view of sati not from the vantage point of European male observers, who were almost universally unsympathetic and disapproving (though often fascinated by the beauty of the doomed wife), but from that of an Indian woman who could have undergone sati herself.

Sati is sometimes conceptualized as a form of suicide, sometimes as a form of social murder. Earlier treatments of sati in Hindu literature had sometimes romanticized it (e.g., in Bana’s Harsha-Carita [q.v.], where the queen’s death is portrayed as a devout and fully voluntary choice against the opposition of her son, a religiously inspired act of devotion to her dead husband in the expectation of reward and reunion in the afterlife, though Bana was himself opposed to the practice). In popular belief, it is claimed, sati is said to be painless and will remove the sins of seven generations in a woman’s family, and she will not be reborn as a woman. In “The Plight of Hindu Widows,” in contrast, the practice of sati is seen by its widow author as an unwelcome alternative, though still preferable to the vicious social treatment experienced by widows, a treatment that she describes as a lifelong, slow death compared to sati’s quick but cruel death. Thus a widow might knowingly, even voluntarily, choose death by sati rather than the life that would otherwise await her after the death of her husband, even though the alleged voluntariness of her choice is severely compromised by oppressive social circumstances.

Anonymous, “The Plight of Hindu Widows as Described by a Widow Herself,” Methodist Church Missionary Society, The Gospel in All Lands, 1889, pp. 160-162, tr. Maya Pandit, in Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Centuryeds. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1991), pp. 358–363. Material in introduction also from Lata Mani, “Cultural Theory, Colonial Texts: Reading Eyewitness Accounts of Widow Burning,” from Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1992, Ch. 22, pp. 392–408; and Christine Everaert.



There are four major castes among the Hindus and I was born into the caste known as Kayastha, which is the third in the hierarchy and most infamous for its maltreatment of widows.

Widows anywhere have to suffer, but the customs in our caste are too terrible. The people in the Punjab don’t treat their widows so strictly. But we do not belong to the Punjab. Originally we migrated from the northwest and settled there. And since ours is a well-to-do, why, even wealthy, caste, our regulations in this regard are extremely strict.

Once the husband dies, the torture of his wife begins, as if the messengers of the death god Yama themselves have come to take away her soul. None of her relatives will touch her to take her ornaments off her body. That task is assigned to three women from the barber caste. Their number varies from three to six. No sooner does the husband breathe his last than those female fiends literally jump all over her and violently tear all the ornaments from her nose, ears, etc. In that rush, the delicate bones of the nose and ears are sometimes broken. Sometimes while plucking the ornaments from her hair, tufts of hair are also plucked off. If she is wearing any gold or silver ornaments, these cruel women never have the patience to take them off one by one; they pin her hands down on the ground and try to break the bangles with a large stone. And many a time her hands are severely wounded in the process. Why, these callous women torture even a six- or seven-year-old girl, who doesn’t even know what a husband means when she becomes a widow!

At such times grief crashes down on the poor woman from all sides. On the one hand she has to endure the grief of the husband’s death, and on the other hand, no one comes near her to console her. On the contrary, those who had loved her from her childhood, and had brought her up tenderly, even they shower curses on her. In our caste, it is the custom that all the women accompany men when the corpse is carried for cremation. Everyone has to walk even though they are wealthy and have carriages. The menfolk walk in front and women follow them, clad in veils. And the poor widow follows them all. She is supported by the barber women. There has to be a distance of two hundred feet between her and the rest of the women because it is believed by our people that if her shadow falls over a married woman, she too will become a widow. It doesn’t affect the barber women, who torture her, however, in the same fashion. Because of this stupid superstition, even a relative whose heart melts at the sight of her doesn’t dare to look at her. But people are not satisfied even when they have tortured her so much. They brand her heart further as if with red-hot irons. Several men keep on shouting in that procession, asking people to stay away from her, and the barber women literally drag her along throughout the walk.

The place for cremation is usually on the bank of a river or a lake. When the procession reaches the site, the widow is pushed into the water. She has to lie there till the corpse is burned to ashes and all the people have had their bath and dried their clothes. When people are ready to go home, they pull her out of the water. Whether the water is cold as ice or the sun scorches down fiercely, she has to stay there until everyone has finished. Nobody takes pity on her. Even on the way back home, she is dragged along throughout. Because of such things, women prefer to burn themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. If the poor woman falls ill on such occasions, nobody even thinks of giving her medicine.

Once, before I became a widow myself, I had been in one such funeral procession. The place of cremation was nearly six miles away. It was summer. It was three o’clock in the afternoon by the time we reached home after having completed all the rites. I will never forget how the scorching heat of the sun was literally burning us on our way. We used to halt at regular intervals to rest a while and drink water. But that poor widow did not dare to ask for water. Had she asked for it, she would have lost her honor. The women with her could have given her some, but they felt no pity for her. Finally she collapsed unconscious. But even then her torturers continued to drag her throughout the road. On top of it, they kept nagging at her, saying, “Are you the only widow in the world? What’s the point of weeping now! Your husband is gone forever!”

Later on, when this poor forsaken woman did not even have the strength to crawl, she was tied up into a bundle as if of rags, and then dragged off. This woman was one of our relatives; but none of us dared go anywhere near her. Had anyone done so, she would have been showered with curses. But even then, one woman somehow managed to take her water in a glass. On seeing her the widow ran to her like a wild beast. I cannot even bear to describe her behavior then. First of all, she gulped down the water, which revived her a bit. Then she fell at the feet of the woman who had given her the water and said, “Sister, I’ll never forget what you have done for me. You are like a god to me. You have given my life back to me. But please go away quickly. If anybody comes to know of what you have done, both of us will have to pay for it. I, at least, will not let this out.”

It is the custom that a widow should eat only once a day for a year after her husband’s death; apart from that, she also has to fast completely on several days. Other relatives also eat only once a day. But only for fifteen days. After returning from the cremation ground, she has to sit on the ground in a corner, without changing her clothes, whether dry or wet. Nobody, apart from the barber women, visits her. If her own relatives are poor, even they don’t come to see her. She has to sit alone. Oh, cruel corner, all of us widows know you so thoroughly well. And we never remember you unless we are grieved.

A woman whose husband is dead is like a living corpse. She has no rights in the home. In spite of her grief, her relatives brand her with frightening words and gestures. Though she is all alone there and not allowed to speak to anyone, her relatives go to her and pierce her with sharp words. Her mother says, “What a mean creature! I don’t think there is anyone more vile than she. It would have been better if she were never born!” Her mother-in-law says, “This horrible snake bit my son and killed him. He died, but why is this worthless woman still alive?” There are even other widows among the women who speak cruelly to her! They feel that if they don’t speak so, people, and God too, would think that they actually pitied her. The sister-in-law says, “I will not cast even a glance at this luckless, ill-fated creature! I will not even speak a word to her.” Those who come to console the relatives of the dead say to the mother of the dead man, “Mother, this monstrous woman has ruined your house. She must be cursed. It’s only because of her that you have been thrown into the ocean of grief!” And to the widow they say, “Now, what do you want to live for?” If she wails aloud, they say, “What a shameless woman! How callous! She cries because she wants a husband.” Thus, she has to spend those thirteen days of grief in that alcove. What an unendurable state! No one can understand how painful it is unless she experiences it.

On the eleventh day, the brahmin comes. He comes like a policeman to arrest a convict. And then he authoritatively demands money or oil and so on. The widow has to pay him even if she is very poor; if she cannot pay immediately, she has to promise him that she will pay in future. Even if the widow is exceedingly poor, she has to pay at least thirteen rupees. Other brahmins demand other things. They demand more if the family is a rich one. Sometimes the widows have to work as servants doing household jobs, to earn money to pay these brahmins their dues.

Thus, there is nothing in our fate but suffering from birth to death. When our husbands are alive, we are their slaves; when they die, our fate is even worse.

The thirteenth day is the most fateful, the worst day for the widow. Though on this day she is allowed to change the clothes she has been wearing since her husband’s death and have a bath, people continue to condemn her. Her relatives gather around her and place some money before her. This is supposed to be for her keep. They curse her a million times while doing so. If the money gathered is a large sum, one of her relatives takes it into his possession and doles it out to her in small installments.

Then the brahmin comes again to demand money. The brahmin and the barber women have to be paid again when the widow’s head is shaved. After six weeks, she is again given the very clothes she had been wearing for the first thirteen days. When she sees those clothes again, she shudders from head to toe, as if she has been widowed again. Then she is sent on a pilgrimage to the Holy Ganges, and those clothes are thrown into the river after she has taken a holy dip in it.

After one year, if the widow is staying with her parents, she may be allowed to wear some ornaments. If asked about the reason, the parents say, “How long can our daughter continue not wearing ornaments? How can we bear to see her sit like that before us, wearing none, when we ourselves wear so many?”

Those widows who have lost their parents, however, have a terrible fate. They have to remain as slaves to their brothers’ wives or even sons. People feel there is no need to employ a servant if there is a widow in the house. If the widow has a sister-in-law (her brother’s wife), she has to suffer harassment at her hands. They constantly quarrel. Her fate isn’t any different in her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law hate her and often beat her. If she decides to separate and live independently because of the frequent quarrels, her honor is maligned. If she has any children, she has to toil hard for their upkeep. And when they grow up and get married, she becomes a slave to their wives. If a widow does not have any children, her relatives make her adopt a male child. He becomes heir to her property. And when he grows up and gets married, he is ruled by his wife and provides his adopted mother only with food and clothing. The widow has no right whatsoever to any property she may have. In such a condition, it is better for her if she earns her own living by working for others as a domestic servant.

In our caste, a woman does not have a right over even a piece of her father’s property. It all goes to his relatives. Similarly, widows do not get a share in their husband’s property either. They can claim only that which someone is kind enough to offer them. If they get any cash, they know neither how to keep it safe nor how to spend it. If a woman dies when her husband is still alive, her body is decorated with ornaments and new clothes, and then cremated. But when a widow dies, her body is just wrapped up in plain white cloth and cremated. It is reasoned that if a widow goes to the other world in ornaments and new clothes, her husband will not accept her there.

Thousands of widows die after a husband’s death. But far more have to suffer worse fates throughout their life if they stay alive. Once, a widow who was a relative of mine died in front of me. She had fallen ill before her husband died. When he died, she was so weak that she could not even be dragged to her husband’s cremation. She had a burning fever. Then her mother-in-law dragged her down from the cot onto the ground and ordered the servant to pour bucketfuls of cold water over her. After some eight hours, she died. But nobody came to see how she was when she was dying of the cold. After she died, however, they started praising her, saying that she had died for the love of her husband.

Another woman jumped from the roof of her house and committed suicide when she heard that her husband had died away from home. I and many of her other friends knew that this woman had never gotten along well with her husband. They used to quarrel often. Yet people praised her for committing suicide. If all these tales are put together, it would make a large book. The British government put a ban on the custom of sati, but as a result of that several women who could have died a cruel but quick death when their husbands died now have to face an agonizingly slow death.

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#23 Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear

When a master of the fishing-spear has fallen sick and is becoming weak, he will call all his people and tell them to bring his whole camp (tribe or subtribe) to his home to bury him whilst he lives. His people will obey him quickly come, for if they delay and the master of the fishing-spear dies before they reach him, they will be most miserable…

[An informant relates…]

…I first saw a master of the fishing-spear called Deng Deng buried alive in the land of the Majok tribe across the river. I was only a boy…

The master of the fishing-spear Deng Deng was becoming very old, and when his years were finished and he was very old indeed, so that he could not see well and all his teeth had fallen out, he told his lineage that he wished to be buried alive, and that they should go and tell the people of the country and see if they agreed.

They prepared the ground for his burial at a very ancient cattle-camp site called Malwal, which was also hard by the homestead of Deng Deng and near his cattle-byre. So it was at his very own original home [panden nhom, literally ‘the head of his home’]. The clan which cleared and dug the ground was Padiangbar; it is that clan which buries a master of the fishing-spear alive in my country.

They dug a very big hole on the highest point of the cattle-camp site, in the middle of the cattle. Next to it were two bulls, a big white one and a red one. They were the whole beasts of the clan-divinities Mon Grass and Flesh. When the hole had been dug, they made two platforms [frameworks] of akoc wood, which had been fetched by the young men of Padiangbar from far away in the forest, as much as a day’s journey distant.

They worked for three days, and the old man was still above the ground. They honoured the bulls with songs for two days, speaking invocations each day in the morning and the evening. Then the masters of the fishing-spear of Pakedang, along with those of Paketoi and Pagong, slit the throats of the bulls at about 10 o’ clock. Deng Deng’s mother was the daughter of a woman of Paketoi and his mother’s father was of the clan Pagong. So they were all there together, to join together his father’s and his maternal uncle’s families (bi panerden mat kek pan e wun).

Deng Deng made invocations over the bulls, and the horns of the first bull, the white one, sank forwards to the ground. When the bull had been killed, they took its skin and cut it into strips, and made a bed from it on the framework. And every day they made a feast (cam yai) and danced inside the cattle-byre during the daytime, and outside at night. And men slept in the byre with other men’s wives, and everyone agreed to this [literally ‘and there was no bad word’].

They then placed a war-shield, made from the hide of a bull of the clan-divinity which had been killed in the past, on the top of the bed. It was a war-shield which had for long been kept in the byre, and which the people had anointed with butter every spring and autumn, during the ‘dividing months’. They placed Deng Deng on the shield and lowered him into the grave.

The red (brown) bull remained. When Deng Deng had been lowered into the hole, they made a platform over him, and so arranged it that the top of the platform was level with the surface of the ground. They sang hymns, and after the singing was finished they made an enclosure of dhot wood around the grave. The enclosure was about twice the area of the surface of the grave, and of such a height that a man could just see over it if he tried. Then they took cattle-dung and partly covered over the top of the grave, leaving part uncovered so that his voice could be heard. From his grave, Deng Deng called the older men together outside the enclosure, and all the women and children, even his own wives, were sent away…

While the master of the fishing-spear still speaks, they do not cover the grave with dung. But when he no longer replies when they address him, they heap up the dung over him. And when it has all sunk in, they make a shrine. Some people may then say ‘The master of the fishing-spear has died’, but they will usually say ‘The master has been taken into the earth’. And nobody will say ‘Alas, he is dead!’ They will say ‘It is very good.’…

The fundamental principle, clear in all accounts, is that certain masters of the fishing-spear must not or should not be seen to enter upon physical death and the debility which precedes it in the same way as ordinary men or domestic animals. Their deaths are to be, or are to appear, deliberate, and they are to be the occasion of a form of public celebration.

…the ceremonies described in no way prevent the ultimate recognition of the ageing and physical death of those for whom they are performed. This death is recognized; but it is the public experience of it, for the survivors, which is deliberately modified by the performance of these ceremonies. It is clear also that this is the Dinka intention in performing the rites. They do not think that they have made their masters of the fishing-spear personally immortal by burying them before they have become corpses or, in some accounts, by anticipating their deaths by ritual killing. The expressions used for the deaths of masters of the fishing-spear are euphemisms for an event which is fully admitted. In my experience they are not even inevitably used, though a Dinka would prefer to say gently ‘The master has gone to the earth’ or ‘The master has gone to sit’, rather than ‘The master has died’, particularly at the time of death. These euphemisms replace the involuntary and passive connotations of the ordinary verb for ‘to die’ (thou) by expressions suggesting a positive act. Similarly (though this point is not specifically made in any of the accounts) when we hear that the people ‘bury their master of the fishing-spear’ it is as an alternative to ‘letting him die’. In other words, the deliberately contrived death, though recognized as death, enables them to avoid admitting in this case the involuntary death which is the lot of ordinary men and beasts. Further, it is not the master of the fishing-spear who ‘kills’ himself, though he requests or receives a special form of death. The action to avoid, for him, the mere deprival of life which death represents for ordinary Dinka, is action taken by his people. And, as we see in most of the accounts given, their intention is not primarily to undertake the special ceremonies for his sake, but for their own.

[#23] Dinka: “Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear,” from Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 300-303, 313-314; quotations in introductory passage from 304, 309.

Additional Sources

Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298; of languages, estimate from Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Austin, 1996; see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1; concerning slavery, Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, p. 27; concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54; quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78; quotation from Samuel Johnson, from Toyin Falola, “Ade Ajayi on Samuel Johnson: filling the gaps,” chapter 7 in Toyin Falola, ed., African Historiography: Essays in honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi, Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993, p. 86. Concerning the Ashanti, also see “Public and Private Offenses,” in K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of the Ashanti. London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 65-71. Concerning the Fante story of Adjuah Amissah, see also “Expected Suicide: ‘Killing Oneself on the Head of Another,'” from A. B. Ellis [Alfred Burdon Ellis, 1852-1894], The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887, reprint Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287, 302-303; and T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, London: John Murray, 1819, reprint London: Frank Cass, 1966, ftn. p. 259.   Quotation in introductory passage concern Yoruba abiku in repeated pregnancy failure from William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, pp. 74. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5. Account of Frazer’s theory of regicide and its critics from Benjamin C. Ray, Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 10 et passim; quotation on Akan principles of justice from Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 164-165. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982; James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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