Sin, a Disease, a Vampire or All Combined - II
By Mohammad Ashraf Chaudhry
Did the church
ban suicide in as unequivocal terms as did Islam?
A. Alvarez writes that the Church had difficulty
in rationalizing the ban on suicide since “neither
the Old nor the New Testament directly prohibits
There are four suicides recorded in the Old Testament
- Samson, Saul, Abimelech and Achitophel -, and
none of them earns adverse comments. “In the
New Testament, the suicide of even the greatest
criminal, Judas Iscariot, is recorded as perfunctorily…
it is not added to his crimes, but is described
as a measure of his repentance”.
The Church legislated against it in the sixth century.
“Thou shalt not kill”. St. Augustine
arguments were sharpened by the suicide mania which
somehow became very fashionable with the early Christians.
“Since life itself is the gift of God, to
reject it is to reject Him and to frustrate His
Will; to kill His image is to kill Him-which means
a one-way ticket to eternal damnation”. This
belief re-echoed in Islamic civilization later.
GLAMORISATION OF SUICIDES: Suicidal acts would never
have gained glory and dignity had they not been
glamorized out of proportions. A Roman holiday involved
the slaughter of, literally, thousands in gladiatorial
shows. After the Spartacus uprising, the crucified
bodies of six thousand slaves lined the road from
Rome to Capua like lampposts. In Christian Europe,
executions replaced the Roman circuses.
An execution was like a fun fair. In Paris, the
Morgue was a tourist attraction where the corpses
were displayed like the waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s.
After wars, the battlefield looked like a butcher’s
shop. The paradise of the Vikings was Valhalla,
“The Hall of those who died by violence”.
Next to death in the battlefield, was death by suicide.
According to one tradition, suicide was promoted
as a religious principle. “There is another
world, and they who kill themselves to accompany
their friends thither, will live with them there”.
In some African tribes warriors and slaves would
kill themselves to death when their king died, in
order to live with him in paradise. In Hindu suttee
a wife burned herself to death on the funeral pyre
of her husband with similar expectations.
Tribes as far apart as the Iglulik Eskimos and the
people of Marquesas Islands believed that a violent
death was a passport to paradise. Ancient Scythians
regarded it as the greatest honor to take their
own lives when they became too old, thereby saving
the younger members of the tribe both the trouble
and the guilt of killing them. Suicide gradually
became a matter of general pleasure than of principle:
one sacrificed a few days or years on this earth
in order to feast with the gods eternally in the
next. Some extremists in Islam who are in the business
of suicidal attacks on the civilians also follow
this kind of twisted doctrine.
Some die because they begin to think that life is
not worth living. Suicides of this kind, according
to Alvarez, are thought to be an index of high civilization.
He cites the examples of Tasmanian aborigines who
died out not just because they were hunted like
kangaroos for an afternoon’s sport, but also
because a world in which this could happen was intolerable
to them; so they committed suicide as a race by
refusing to breed. Similarly, hundreds of Jews put
themselves to death at Masada rather than submit
to the Roman legions.
More extreme still, the history of the Spanish conquest
of the New World is one of deliberate genocide in
which the native inhabitants themselves cooperated.
The treatment at the hands of the Spaniards was
so cruel that the Indians killed themselves by the
thousands rather than endure it. A whole cargo of
slaves contrived to strangle themselves in the hold
of a Spanish galleon where it was impossible to
do so, but they did it by squatting or kneeling.
Out of the two million original inhabitants of Haiti,
fewer than one hundred and fifty survived as a result
of the suicides and slaughter.
The Romans turned the ancient world’s toleration
of suicide into a high fashion. Socrates makes such
death infinitely desirable. He himself drank the
cup of hemlock gleefully. Plato suggests that if
life itself becomes immoderate, then suicide becomes
a rational, justifiable act. To him, painful disease
or intolerable constraints were sufficient reasons
to depart. Stoics after a hundred years of Plato,
made suicide the most reasonable and desirable of
all ways out. Epicureans also joined them because
they too treated life as indifferently as they treated
life. Zeno the founder of this cult hanged himself
due to sheer irritation of his wrenched finger.
John Donne’s list of notable suicides of the
classical world runs into three pages.
As stated earlier, with the Romans, a soldier was
considered a state property, and thus, his suicide
was tantamount to desertion. According to Frazer,
‘at one time people would offer themselves
for execution to amuse the public for five minae,
about 50 pounds, the money to be paid to their heirs.
The market was so competitive that the candidates
would offer to be beaten to death rather than beheaded,
since that was slower, more painful and so more
spectacular”, writes Alvarez. Suicide had
never been thoroughly condemned. It always found
a soft corner though many a ‘buts’,
Even Dante puts the suicides reluctantly in the
grimmest cantos of the Inferno, saying, “What
the church condemns, no poetry can exonerate”.
John Donne always regretted, but he did write a
defense of suicides; Morselli, a 19th Century sociologist
underpins the general attitude, “A corpse
is a corpse… all that matters is the dignity
of the act, a stylishness in dying.” Francis
Bacon does not distinguish morally between death
by suicide and death from natural causes. Such treatment
to this sickness kept the fad alive in the past,
as it is being sustained now under different names,
some political, some religious, some cultural, and
some social and economic. (To be continued)