Feature Article

Poignant acts of self-immolation

[TamilNet, Saturday, 14 February 2009, 10:45 GMT]
It may sound good to say that there is no place for feudal expressions in a 'postmodern' world. It may be true that there can be no second word about resolving issues on a democratic plane. But the first warnings have come pointing to the flaws in the handling of the situation by democratic powers and calling for effective rectifications. They have come from non-combatants and have come spontaneously. The extreme expression of self-denial, openly denouncing injustices perpetrated on a people by ganged-up authority, has come from educated people of ordinary walks of life committing self-immolation.

Triggered off by Muthukumar, six people have already committed self-immolation in response to the plight of Eezham Tamils in the last few days in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia and Switzerland.

For the first time, members of the Eezham Tamil diaspora were seen resorted to take this extreme step, as demonstrated by the acts in Seramban in Malaysia and Geneva in Switzerland.

The Tamil Nadu scenario has long witnessed several such acts in the past in response to various social and political issues. The recurrent frequency has even made others to designate this extreme way of denunciation as something peculiar to Tamil culture.

Another parallel, highly publicized and extensively researched, was the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the times of US involvement in Vietnam.

The rhetoric we hear today from circles of authority, which themselves not free from the guilt of violent oppression of peoples and of humanity, is the accusation that the human bomb is an innovation of the LTTE. There are researchers who have already started searching for its roots in the Eezham Tamil culture.

The psychological foundation of self-immolation and human bomb is binary, like non-violence and violence (ahimsa and himsa).

If Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology of ahimsa could be traced to the Jaina legacy of Gujarat, it is the same Jaina (Chama’na) substratum in Tamil culture that justified or even eulogized self-sacrifice for public or universal purposes.

The Digambara Jaina hill, Shrava’na be’lago’la, in Karnataka today and its surroundings have thousands of inscriptions commemorating self-sacrifice of life by Jainas.

The application of the religious practice, known as Vadakkiruththal in Tamil and Sallekhana or Nishidati in Sanskrit, for political and emotional causes is recorded at length in the Changkam Tamil literature in the instances of a king and a poet (Ko-perugn-choazhan and Pichiraanthaiyaar).

The first recorded act of self-immolation in Tamil tradition, committed roughly two millennia ago, was rather political and was a public denunciation of an injustice committed by ganged-up authority of the ancient Tamil country.

It was the act of making a fire-pit and jumping into it by the Changkam poet Kapilar, who was frustrated by the course and consequence of a war, waged jointly by all the three Tamil kings against a chieftain (Paari) known for his philanthropy that resulted in the chieftain’s death not by defeat but by treachery.

Another legend of literary fame, which is still recollected in the history of the Tho’ndaima’ndala Vea’laa’lar (Muthaliyaars) of northern Tamil Nadu, is the collective self-immolation of 70 members of the clan for giving a word but failing in protecting the life of a merchant (Pazhaiyanoor Neeli Kathai).

Sacrificing one’s life with commitment to a cause, in valorous deeds or in violent revenge, is the other side of the story.

There was a long legacy of such individuals or groups especially in southern India, as testified by the distribution of hundreds of thousands Nadu-kal or Veerak-kal (hero stones) memorial stones, with sculptural depictions and inscriptions dating from very early times.

In later times the martial cultures of Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu became known for it. Hobson Jobson attributes the origin of the English word ‘amok’ as in the phrase ‘running amok’, to Malayalam.

The important point is the deification of such individuals in the popular culture. They became heroes of the folklore.

Anthropologist M.S.S. Pandian identifies a long oppression of the lower echelons of masses by authority as the reason behind the tendency that was actually an expression of revenge against oppressors.

It may sound good to say that there is no place for feudal expressions in a ‘postmodern’ world. It may be true that there can be no second word about resolving issues on a democratic plane.

But the first warnings have come pointing to the flaws in the handling of the situation by democratic powers and calling for effective rectifications.

They have come from non-combatants and have come spontaneously.

The extreme expression of self-denial, openly denouncing injustices perpetrated on a people by ganged-up authority, has come from educated people of ordinary walks of life committing self-immolation.

Some powers have gone wrong somewhere and the accusing finger is certainly not pointing to the imaginary demon invented by them.


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