Thích Quảng Đức protesting the persecution of Buddhists by self-immolation on 11 June 1963.

Self-immolation is the act of setting oneself on fire. It is mostly done for political or religious reasons, often as a form of protest or in acts of martyrdom. Due to its disturbing and violent nature, it is considered one of the most extreme methods of protest.[1]


The English word immolation originally meant (1534) "killing a sacrificial victim; sacrifice" and came to figuratively mean (1690) "destruction, especially by fire". Its etymology was from Latin immolare "to sprinkle with sacrificial meal (mola salsa); to sacrifice" in ancient Roman religion.[2][3] In Mewar region of India it was called Jauhar to save the honour of women from invading armies.


Self-immolators frequently use accelerants before igniting themselves. This, combined with the self-immolators' refusal to protect themselves, can produce hotter flames and deeper, more extensive burns.[4] Self-immolation has been described as excruciatingly painful. Later the burns become severe, nerves are burnt and the self-immolator loses sensation at the burnt areas. Some self-immolators can die during the act from inhalation of toxic combustion products, hot air and flames.[5] The body has an inflammatory response to burnt skin which happens after 25% is burnt in adults. This response leads to blood and body fluid loss. If the self-immolator is not taken to a burn centre in less than four hours, they are more likely to die from shock. If no more than 80% of their body area is burnt and the self-immolator is younger than 40 years old, there is a survival chance of 50%. If the self-immolator has over 80% burns, the survival rate drops to 20%.[6]


The self-immolation (jauhar) of the Rajput women, during the Siege of Chittorgarh in 1568

Self-immolation is tolerated by some elements of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India, for various reasons, including jauhar, political protest, devotion, and renouncement. An example from mythology includes the practice of Sati when the Hindu goddess Parvati's incarnation of the same name (see also Daksayani) legendarily set herself on fire after her father insulted her in Daksha Yajna for having married Shiva, the ascetic god. Shiva, Parvati and their army of ghosts attacked Daksha's Yajna and destroyed the sacrifice and Shiva beheaded Daksha and killed Daksha. Later, Daksha was revived by him and Daksha Yajna was completed when Daksha apologized. Certain warrior cultures, such as those of the Charans and Rajputs, also practiced self-immolation.[citation needed]

There are several well-known examples from antiquity to modern times. Kalanos, also spelled Calanus (Ancient Greek: Καλανὸς)[7] (c. 398 – 323 BCE), was an ancient Indian gymnosophist,[8][9][10][11] and philosopher from Taxila[12] who accompanied Alexander the Great to Persis and later, after falling ill, self-immolated by entering into a pyre, in front of Alexander and his army. Diodorus Siculus called him Caranus (Ancient Greek: Κάρανος).[13]

Zarmanochegas was a monk of the Sramana tradition (possibly, but not necessarily a Buddhist) who, according to ancient historians such as Strabo and Dio Cassius, met Nicholas of Damascus in Antioch around 22 BC and burnt himself to death in Athens shortly thereafter.[14][15]

The monk Fayu (Chinese: 法羽) (d. 396) carried out the earliest recorded Chinese self-immolation.[16] He first informed the "illegitimate" prince Yao Xu (Chinese: 姚緒)—brother of Yao Chang who founded the non-Chinese Qiang state Later Qin (384–417)—that he intended to burn himself alive. Yao tried to dissuade Fayu, but he publicly swallowed incense chips, wrapped his body in oiled cloth, and chanted while setting fire to himself. The religious and lay witnesses were described as being "full of grief and admiration".

Following Fayu's example, many Buddhist monks and nuns have used self-immolation for political purposes. While some monks did offer their bodies in periods of relative prosperity and peace, there is a "marked coincidence" between acts of self-immolation and times of crisis, especially when secular powers were hostile towards Buddhism.[17] For example, Daoxuan's (c. 667) Xu Gaoseng Zhuan (Chinese: 續高僧傳; lit. 'Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks') records five monastics who self-immolated on the Zhongnan Mountains in response to the 574–577 persecution of Buddhism by Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou (known as the "Second Disaster of Wu").[18]

A Hindu widow burning herself with the corpse of her husband (sati), 1657

For many monks and laypeople in Chinese history, self-immolation was a form of Buddhist practice that modeled and expressed a particular path that led towards Buddhahood.[17]

Historian Jimmy Yu has stated that self-immolation cannot be interpreted based on Buddhist doctrine and beliefs alone but the practice must be understood in the larger context of the Chinese religious landscape. He examines many primary sources from the 16th and 17th century and demonstrates that bodily practices of self-harm, including self-immolation, was ritually performed not only by Buddhists but also by Daoists and literati officials who either exposed their naked body to the sun in a prolonged period of time as a form of self-sacrifice or burned themselves as a method of procuring rain.[19]

During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as "fire baptism" (self-burners: samosozhigateli).[20] A 1973 study by a prison doctor suggested that people who choose self-immolation as a form of suicide are more likely to be in a "disturbed state of consciousness", such as epilepsy.[21]

Political protest

As a form of political protest, the 14th Dalai Lama explained in 2013 and 2015 the act of self-immolation:

I think the self-burning itself [is a] practice of non-violence. These people, you see, they [could instead] easily use bomb explosive, [causing more casualties]. But they didn't do that. Only sacrifice their own life. So this also is part of practice of non-violence.[22][23]

Self-immolations are often public and political statements that are often reported by the news media. They can be seen by others as a type of altruistic suicide for a collective cause, and are not intended to inflict physical harm on others or cause material damage.[24]


The Buddhist crisis in South Vietnam saw the persecution of the country's majority religion under the administration of Catholic president Ngô Đình Diệm. Several Buddhist monks, including the most famous case of Thích Quảng Đức, immolated themselves in protest.

The example set by self-immolators in the mid 20th century did spark numerous similar acts between 1963 and 1971, most of which occurred in Asia and the United States in conjunction with protests opposing the Vietnam War. Researchers counted almost 100 self-immolations covered by The New York Times and The Times.[25]

Soviet Bloc

The memorial to Romas Kalanta in Kaunas in the place of his self-immolation. The inscription reads Romas Kalanta 1972.

In 1968, the practice spread to the Soviet bloc with the self-immolation of Polish accountant and Armia Krajowa veteran Ryszard Siwiec, as well as those of two Czech students, Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, and of toolmaker Evžen Plocek, in protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1978, Ukrainian dissident and former political prisoner Oleksa Hirnyk burnt himself near the tomb of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko protesting against the russification of Ukraine under Soviet rule. On 2 March 1989, Liviu Cornel Babeș set himself on fire on the Bradu ski slope at Poiana Brașov as a sign of protest against the communist regime. He left the message: "Stop Mörder! Brașov = Auschwitz." He was taken to the Brașov county hospital, where he died two hours later.

In 1972, Romas Kalanta, a 19-year-old Lithuanian high school student, self-immolated near the Kaunas State Musical Theatre protesting against the Soviet regime in Lithuania and it resulted in the 1972 unrest in Lithuania; in the same year another 13 people self-immolated in Lithuania.[26]

Russian Federation

In 2020, the practice resumed when Russian journalist Irina Slavina burned herself in Nizhny Novgorod after her last post on Facebook, in which she wrote: "I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death".[27][28] This was preceded by an investigation into a criminal case against businessman Mikhail Ioselevich, who is accused of carrying out activities of the "undesirable" organisation "Open Russia" in Russia.[29][30]

Cases of self-immolation as a form of political protest were also recorded in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Izhevsk, Kemerovo and other cities of the Russian Federation. Most of the cases were fatal.[31]


The practice continues, notably in India: as many as 1,451 and 1,584 self-immolations were reported there in 2000 and 2001, respectively.[32] A particularly high wave of self-immolation in India was recorded in 1990 protesting the system of Reservation.[24] Tamil Nadu has the highest number of self-immolations in India to date.[33]


In Iran, most self-immolations have been performed by citizens protesting the tempestuous changes brought upon after the Iranian Revolution. Many of these instances have gone largely unreported by regime authority, but have been discussed and documented by established witnesses. Provinces that were involved more intensively in post-war problems feature higher rates of self-immolation.[34] These undocumented demonstrations of protest are deliberated upon worldwide, by professionals such as Iranian historians who appear on international broadcasts such as Voice of America, and use the immolations as propaganda to direct criticism towards the Censorship in Iran. One specifically well documented self-immolation transpired in 1993, 14 years after the revolution, and was performed by Homa Darabi, a self-proclaimed political activist affiliated with the Nation Party of Iran. Darabi is known for her political self-immolation in protest to the compulsory hijab. Self-immolation protests continue to take place against the regime to this day. Most recently accounted for is the September 2019 death of Sahar Khodayari, protesting a possible sentence of six months in prison for having tried to enter a public stadium to watch a football game, against the national ban against women at such events. One month after her death, Iranian women were allowed to attend a football match in Iran for the first time in 40 years.[35][36]


On 19 October 2017, a 54-year-old man, chemist Piotr Szczęsny self-immolated in protest against the policies of the ruling Law and Justice government. Szczęsny died in hospital 10 days after his self-immolation.[37]

People's Republic of China

Main article: Self-immolation protests by Tibetans in China

In 2009, the monk Tapey at Kirti Monastery in Amdo self-immolated in protest of the Chinese Government's restrictions placed against an important ceremony.[38] A wave of self-immolations began in 2011, after another monk, Phuntsok, also from Kirti Monastery self-immolated.[38] The wave continued until 2019 and resumed again in 2022. As of April 2022, there were 161 confirmed events in Tibet and 10 others made in solidarity outside of Tibet.[39][40] With the self-immolations by Tibetans, most of these protests (some 80%) end in death, while eyewitness reports state many of the protesters have been shot and beaten while burning, and then arrested by Chinese authorities, before disappearing.[41][42]

The 14th Dalai Lama has spoken with respect and compassion for those who engage in self-immolation, and blamed the self-immolations on "cultural genocide" by the Chinese.[43] The Chinese government claims that he and the exiled Tibetan government are inciting these acts.[44] In 2013, the Dalai Lama questioned the effectiveness of self-immolation as a demonstration tactic. He has also expressed that the Tibetans are acting of their own free will and stated that he cannot influence them to stop carrying out immolation as a form of protest.[45]

Arab Spring

A wave of self-immolation suicides occurred in conjunction with the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and North Africa, with at least 14 recorded incidents. These suicides assisted in inciting the Arab Spring, including the 2010–2011 Tunisian revolution, the main catalyst of which was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 2011 Algerian protests (including many self-immolations in Algeria), and the 2011 Egyptian revolution. There have also been suicide protests in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Syria.[46][47]


On 3 December 2020, a Taiwanese man self-immolated to protest the controversial closure of CTi News by the DPP government.[48]

New Zealand

On 21 September 2017, Zdenek "Sid" Hanzlik self-immolated outside the New Zealand Parliament Buildings in an apparent protest at injustices in the Family Court, where he was engaged in an ongoing legal battle relating to access to his children. He was taken to Wellington Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries.[49]


On 1 January 2022, an Australian man self-immolated to protest the COVID-19 vaccine mandates and vaccine IDs. He was later taken to the hospital.[50]

United States

On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, an anti-war activist, doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire below the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, to protest United States involvement in the Vietnam War.[51]

On 14 April 2018, David Buckel self-immolated in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Shortly before lighting himself on fire he sent an email to several news outlets which included the statement: "Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves."[52]

Wynn Bruce, a climate activist from Boulder, Colorado self-immolated on the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States on Earth Day, 22 April 2022. On 28 March 2022, he made a Facebook post stating: "This is not humor. It is all about breathing," followed by "Clean air matters."[53]

On 1 December 2023, a protester self-immolated in front of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta and was hospitalized in "critical condition" for severe burns. A security guard trying to stop the act was also burned on the wrist and leg.[54] The protester had draped herself in a Palestinian flag, and police indicated her actions were in response to the Israel–Hamas war.[55]

On 25 February 2024, Aaron Bushnell,[56] an active-duty U.S. Air Force service member, self-immolated outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., in protest against the United States' support for Israel in the Israel–Hamas war. Bushnell filmed the protest and livestreamed it on Twitch, and he also recorded it as he walked up to the Israeli Embassy, saying "I am an active duty member of the United States Air Force, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers—it's not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal."[57] When Bushnell arrived at the embassy's gates, he set his phone down to film himself dousing his body in a clear liquid from a metal bottle. He then lit himself on fire while shouting "Free Palestine".[58][59] He died of his injuries on 26 February.[60]


In 2014, two men set themselves on fire in protest at Japan's shift away from post-war pacifism.[61]

On 21 September 2022, a man believed to be in his 70s set himself on fire near the Japanese prime minister's office (Kantei). The man was expressing his disapproval for the planned state funeral for former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was shot dead in Nara on 8 July 2022.[61]


On 13 January 2018, a 38-year-old man burned himself in front of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara, stating that he had been jobless for 5 years, and had asked for help from the government to no avail. He later survived.[62]


On 17 December 2010, fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze to protest the soaring corruption within the police and government in Tunisia. The event served as a catalyst for what became the Arab Spring, the regional protest movement against corruption across the Arab World. [63]

On 13 April 2023, footballer Nizar Issaoui died after setting himself on fire in what Issaoui said was a protest against Tunisia's "police state".[64] During his funeral, demonstrators started throwing stones at police, who retaliated with tear gas.[65]

United Kingdom

Graham Bamford died on April 29, 1993 after pouring petrol over himself and flicking a cigarette lighter on Parliament Square while MPs were debating Bosnia and Herzegovina in the House of Commons. He set himself on fire to protest Western inaction over war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The father of one from Macclesfield, who was 48 when he died, had no connection to the Balkans but had become increasingly agitated by television reports first from Croatia and then from Bosnia and Herzegovina. [66]

See also


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