Suicide in India in a religious, political and social context

Seminar Paper 2002 36 Pages

Ethnology / Cultural Anthropology




1. The legal consideration of suicide

2. Statistics about suicide

3. Suicide, homicide or accident? The unrecorded and untrue recorded cases

4. Religous suicide

5. Political suicide

6. Social suicide
6. 1. Causes for social suicide
6. 2. Methods of suicide
6. 3. Suicide Prevention

7. Conclusion




Suicide is the intentional destruction of one´s own life. The most people who commit suicide do it with the hope for rescue, because in reality they don’t want die. This self-destroying act is rather a cry for help and a desperate attempt to change hopeless situtations. Only less of all suicides happen deliberate without chance for help. In general men use harder methods to kill themselves than women, e.g. very often men shoot or hang themselves and women use more likely an overdose of sleeping pills (Digel, Werner (Hg.), Kwiatkowski, Gerhart (Hg.) 1987: 96). This informations would stand for that men are more determined to die definite than women who more likely hope for rescue. Indeed the rate of suicide committed by men is in the most countries in general higher than that of women (www[1]: WHO 2001 b).

The general causes of suicide and high- risk groups are mostly aged people, divorced, unemployed, social isolated, addict (especially alcoholics), psychically unbalanced and those who already attempted suicide in the past. Problems of women are often lovesickness, marital and family conflicts, problems of men are economic and social (especially professional) difficulties. The best prevention against suicides is the support of social relationships and organizations, which should be accessible for all people who need help (Digel, Werner (Hg.), Kwiatkowski, Gerhart (Hg.) 1987: 96).

In the following chapters I descibe different kind of suicide in India. After general informations about suicide, I explain suicide in the context of religion, politic and society. Therefore I make following categories: a) religious suicide, b) political suicide, and c) social suicide. The chapter about social suicide is more detailed. Social suicide is seen as a public health problem. Positive changes can be achieved through prevention and care programs which I deal with at the end of this essay. I will not make a detailed comparing between India and other countries. I make no specific separation or detailed comparing between different groups, like young-old, men-women, different castes, different social strata, etc.

My informations are hold very general.

1. The legal consideration of suicide

Attempted suicide and suicide is illegal in the Indian penal code. The most families will not report about attempted suicides (Rao 1983: 212). It is a problem that families very often cover up suicides as accidents, because for fear of being punished by law. Therefore the estimated number of unknown cases must be very high. The consequences of families in which attempted suicide or suicide occurred stand beside legal penalies for social disadvantages:

“Survivors of suicide attempts and family members are looked upon with suspicion, and such a family ‘taint’ can damage marriage prospects. Society’s attitude toward the suicide and his family is compounded of fear, censure, shame and condescension, all of which may injure a family’s economic and social status” (Rao 1983: 212/213).

The prohibition of attempted and committed suicide by law is obviously no solution for the problem of suicide. Rather it intensifies the social pressure to the person who attempted suicide and to the family concerned, because for fear of being punished and to lose social status.

2. Statistics about suicide

I want to avoid to use too much numbers and percentages of suicide rates. Statistics are often inaccurate and convey only approximations of the real numbers. To give an idea of the dimension of suicide in the world and in India I overtake following informations from articles of the WHO:

“Taken as an average for 53 countries for which complete data is available, the age-standardized suicide rate for 1996 was 15.1 per 100 000. The rate for males was 24.0 per 100 000 and for females 6.8 per 100 000. The rate of suicide is almost universally higher among men compared to women by an aggregate ratio of 3.5 to 1” (www: WHO 2001 b).

“India. Over 95 000 Indians killed themselves in 1997, equal to one suicide every six minutes. One in every three was in the 15­29-year age group. Between 1987 and 1997, the suicide rate rose from 7.5 to 10.03 per 100 000 population. Of India's four major cities, Chennai's suicide rate of 17.23 is the highest” (www: WHO 2001 c).

Why increased the suicide rate in India? Is it an increase of suicides or an increase of reported cases? Reasons for an increasing of suicides could be urbanization, modernization and the search for more money. Social pressure arise in new situtations which some people cannot sustain and attempt or commit suicide.

Since 1964 the Central Bureau of Investigation, government of India makes statistics on suicide and accidential deaths of recorded cases for the whole country. In 1972 the percentages of reported suicides of each state in India committed by men were slightly higher than those of women (Rao 1983: 215, 221, 222). I have no actual numbers but I heard that the suicide rate of men is still higher than that of women. If this is true why is the number of men higher than that of women or why was it higher in 1972? Maybe men commit really more suicide than women. As I mentioned in the introduction, men commit suicide more definite. Women are more often rescued than men, because they want to be rescued. So the number of men could be higher because men die through their suicide and women survive it. Or maybe the estimated number of unknown cases of women is higher than that of men, because the womens’ methods often can be covered up us accidents. Accidents involve no penalties by law and no disadvantages for the status of the families.

3. Suicide, homicide or accident? The unrecorded and untrue recorded cases

We know that attempted suicide is legally punishable. It is very likely that many suicide cases are unrecorded, because people want to avoid hostility and entanglement with the society and police.

“Suicides are concealed because of legal consequences from felony statutes and because of the need to protect family honor and status. Attempted and completed suicides are concealed as accidents, heart attacks, and the like” (Rao 1983: 236).

To explain the death of a person, family members often claim a suicide as accident if possible. While cooking a woman can burn accidential near the cooking place. While washing or bathing in a river a person can drown accidentially. In the reverse case homicides are covered up as suicides or accidents. If such ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’ happen inside the house it is nearly impossible to solve the reality if there are no witnesses.

Rao demands in his essay of the year 1983 a change in the Indian law to have a possibility to find proofs for the real action:

“The bodies of suspected suicides are subjected to autopsy, which in Indian culture is not viewed with approval. In these respects, suitable modification of the existing law is called for” (Rao 1983: 235).

It is not clear what kind of modification of law Rao demands. I also don´t know how the actual laws act in these kind of unclear cases today. An ordered autopsy by law could help to find the real cause of death. If it will be a habit after some time the Indian thinking will begin to change maybe in a way of accepting it as a means to an end.

4. Religious suicide

In this chapter I will give some general informations about religious suicide in India. I refer to informations given by Rao (1983) and Sax (1992).

First reports of suicide in India exists from the early Vedic period (about 4000 – 2000 B.C.) in which suicide was allowed. The early Indian inhabitants made sacrifices to get good harvests and to hope for protection of danger. In this reports the best sacrifice was the human life. In the later Upanisad period (about 800 B.C.) suicide was condemned. Rao gives a quotation from a seer of this time from the Īśāvāsya Upanisad:

“He who takes his self [life][2] reaches after death, sunless regions covered with darkness[3]

(Rao 1983: 211).

Darkness in this sense means adharma or “anti-dharma”. It is the result of a wrong way of living which was not in accordance to one´s dharma (Sax 1992: 202/203). In most cases suicide is not accepted, but as Rao says, later an exception was made for the sanyasin, because of his full achieved insight into himself and the cosmos. Although it is not clear which time period Rao means with ‘later’and by whom he has adopted the following quotation, I want to adopt this quotation, because it shows which kind of suicides are accepted for the sanyasin:

“The sanyasin may enter upon the great journey, or choose death by voluntary starvation, by fire, by a hero’ s fate, or by drowning” (Rao 1983:211).

A sanyasin is a man who has gained a state of life through long-termed ascetic practises which allows him to control his body and mind and to choose a certain way of death to attain immortality without the help of a God.

Sax says that in the Vedas, Upanishads, Epics, Puranas and other Hindu literature since very ancient times various exceptions are made for committing suicide. The most famous one is the suicide on a pilgrimage journey or a holy place (Sax 1992: 200).

In the dharma śā stras a discussion is about whether somebody has the right to kill oneself or not. There are only a few exceptions for religious suicides. These exceptions apply for:

- ascetics
- persons, who drown themselves at the junction of the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna
- persons, who wander and decide for self-starvation in the last years of their life
- suttee, the immolation of a wife on the funeral pyre of her husband to follow him to the next world
- persons who were very ill or old and want to finish their lifes (Rao 1983:211).

Suttee, the immolation of a wife[4] on the funeral pyre of her dead husband was original a voluntary practice. Later it became obligatory. Rao sums up the important items of the history of suttee:

“Many women were forced against their will to end their lifes in this way, either through social pressure or through physical force. Raja Ram Mohan Roy attacked the custom in 1818, arousing public opinion by agitation and pamphlet writing. Among his other important moves against suttee, he examined all the legal texts from the most ancient times, showing that not all the authorities in Hindu law were agreed on approving the practice and that many of the later jurists who did permit it stated that it should be a voluntary act free of pressure. Suttee, declared illegal in 1829, has died out, and only rarely is a case reported from remote areas” (Rao 1983: 212) .

Though forbidden by law some cases of the past show that sati is accepted by the masses, which see it more as attraction than as a religious act.

Suicides are accepted in different Hindu texts only if they are in a religious context. Religious suicide is justified through its purpose or aim, that is to achieve the salvation from the circle of birth and rebirth and to attain to immortality.

The ancient lawgiver Kautilya prescribed severe penalties for the body of suicide, when the suicide was not a religious one (Rao 1983:211). In the dharma śāstras penalties are for example sixty thousand years in hell, prohibition of funeral rites for the souls of suicides or defiling the corpses (Sax 1992: 203). In Hindu thoughts there is no end after life. Only the body dies. The soul remains immortal. The Indian thoughts of reincarnation see death as the door to next life:

“The individual’s rebirth will depend upon his actions in this life. Death can thus be an opportunity for a new life in accordance with the individual’s views on and acceptance of Hindu philosophy” (Rao 1983: 211/ 212).

When a natural death is the opportunity for a new life, then a suicide is no death in this sense. In Indian beliefs religious suicide is one way to salvation, but what happens after the non-religious suicide? If it is really the way to “sunless regions covered with darkness” (Rao 1983: 211) then this must be better than the actual life. Both religious and non-religious suicide release from actual life. The first-mentioned has the specific aim to release from the circle of life and death. It needs long preparations and is planned for a long time. The last-mentioned only aims to be released from life. It is mostly not planned and rather an act of desperation.

5. Political suicide

I categorize suicides which occur in a frame of political actions or targets as political suicides.

I want to give the example of the LTTE[5], which is since 1986 the strongest and most influential guerilla organisation in Sri Lanka under the leadership of V. Prabhakaran (Rösel 1997:127), and which took action also in India. In this essay is no place to summarize the history of the LTTE and the changeable relationship between this organization and the government of India, but I decided to give it as example for political suicides in India.

The central point of this organisation is the readiness of the fighters to sacrifice their own life for their political aims[6]. The fighters[7] are initiated to be members of a community with a constant readiness of death. That is why all fighters have a cyanide capsule around their neck with the purpose to take it in the case of capture. The cyanide capsule is a symbol of fearlessness, invincibility and courage. Even the childs and youth are proud to wear the ‘saving’ capsule. The organization teaches diszipline, asceticism and the readiness to the marriage with the death. If there are hopeless wounded fighters in the camp, they get heroin against their pain. If the death is near they will dressed with a white robe and will carried to the middle of the camp. On the white robe is the sign of the Tiger. The hopeless injured are now dying surrounded and observed by all other fighters as example of the acceptance and readiness of death (Rösel 1997: 188-189, 198). The purpose of this celebration of death is clear: a motivation for all members to live and especially to die only for the organization.

Another practised form of suicide of the LTTE is the hunger strike. Hunger strikes are till today not uncommon to demand special conditions or solutions. Often politically motivated they have a religious aura in the same matter of that of ascetics (Rao 1983: 212).

The 23 year old LTTE fighter Amrithalingam Tileepan startet 1987 with a public hunger strike. His political aim was the withdrawal of the singhalese troops and a majority of the LTTE in the interim government. His death from starvation after about one month led to mass pilgrimages and disturbances. The LTTE erected for Tileepan, like for all their martyrs, life-sized with flowergarlands decorated cardboard statues. The LTTE benefitted also from a death of starvation by a women to make a propaganda for their purposes. The women lost her son, a LTTE fighter, in a fight against the army of the government and decided to make a hunger strike. After two years the LTTE made a mourning band in memory of her death and decorated along a street everywhere little pennants and flowergarlands (Rösel 1997:216). The LTTE is acting like a political party. They need propaganda to gain more followers and celebrate a kind of cult to attract attention of the public and motivate new members.

The bond of the organization becomes stronger through its leadercult to Prabhakaran. A new strategy occurs since 1991 with a new intensity of the terror. Prabhakaran expects now from his followers that they are ready to be lifebombs to reach every enemy in every situation. Suicideassassins are now the new weapons of the LTTE.

On the 2nd of March 1991 a car full of dynamite exploded. One famous politician[8], 25 civilians and the Tamil driver died. Another suicideassassin died together with Rajiv Gandhi in Mai 1991 (Rösel 1997:336-337). The list of suicideassassins and their victims is long.

In summary possible purposes of a political motivated suicide can be the following:

A political suicide

- wants to achieve political motivated aims.
- hurts and kills other people in form of an assassination.
- saves the one who committed it against a killing or a capture by his enemy.
- can be used as weapon.
- is glorified by the organization which support it.
- causes the supporting organization to glorify the committer for propaganda purposes.

A political suicide is condemned by the public and law but glorified by the organization or person who support it for the purpose of its or his/ her political aim.

6. Social suicide

A social suicide happens in a sociocultural context. Suicide and attempted suicide in this context is not accepted by anyone. It is condemned by the law and the community. Social suicide is a last cry for help by the person who attempted or committed the suicide. For this person suicide is the only way of release out of a hopeless situation. It is an act of desperation.

6. 1. Causes for social suicide

Rao says that “the causes of suicide and attempted suicide in India are usually not psychiatric illnesses,…”. It seems that the causes are mainly nonpsychiatric like “interpersonal relationship, socioeconomic factors like poverty, unemployment, and indebtedness, marital unhappiness and discord, disappointment in love affairs, childlessness or excessive fecundity, failure in examination, and a fear of, or actual, loss of prestige.”

The main psychiatric causes are “schizophrenia, depression, hysterical reaction, immature personality, alcoholism, and drug dependency” (Rao 1983: 230).

We have to consider the sociocultural context, if we want to search for causes of social suicides. Different aspects of the social life lead unavoidable to social pressure and cause problems which can not easily be solved without extern help for example by social organizations. There are many reasons which can cause hopeless situations in which persons attempt or commit suicide. In the following I will describe widespread causes for suicide.

Frequent causes are:

- lovesickness
- demand of dowry
- violence against women
- a suitable marriage partner cannot be found
- tensions within the family
- healthy problems


Marriages are still conservative, arranged and approved by the parents of the prospective spouses. Furthermore they are only allowed in the same caste and between parties of social and economic parity:

“Hence marriages disapproved of by the parents, in the event of self-selection of the mate or selection from outside the caste, are not favored and are held to be against tradition. In such instances it is not uncommon for either or both of the lovers to attempt suicide. Similarly, suicides are known to result as a tragic consequence of unwanted forced marriages” (Rao 1983:213).

We see that love marriage is not accepted by the family and community.[9] A forbidden love has for the lovers only a common future in a common committed suicide[10].

Demand dowry:

In context with marriage, social pressure can also arise through the illegal demand of dowry[11]. Often this is a reason for committing suicide, either by men who cannot pay the demanded dowry or women who were driven to death by their husbands or mother-in-laws. A considerable problem is the bride-burning, because of insufficient dowries. One or more members of the family-in–law of a bride (or wife) commit homicide by burning the bride to get rid of her when her family could not pay the demanded dowry. This homicide happens inside the house without witnesses. Everyday we can read in Indian newspapers[12] about an ‘accident’ or a ‘suicide’ in which a women died by burning next to the cooking place. Nobody knows which of these stories tell the truth. Sunder Rajan sums up as follows:

“The ostensible cause of the death of the victim is the demand for additional dowry made by the woman’s husband and his family. After suffering months or years of torture and cruelty, the woman is driven to kill herself, or is actually killed by the family, thereby making way for the husband to marry again (and thus bring in another dowry!). Her death is almost always given out as an accident, and since it is often caused by fire, it is not hard to give it the appearance of a kitchen mishap. Where the accident explanation fails, the husband’s family will offer suicide as a cause. Actual murder is almost impossible to prove in a court of law, given the circumstances of death in a domestic place and situation” (Sunder Rajan 1993: 93).

Further Sunder Rajan mentions “the fact that convictions have taken place in only 3 per cent of all reported cases….” (Sunder Rajan 1993: 83). It is unclear where from the author has this exact number, but I think it is clear to say that only in less cases the true culprits can be convicted.

A tortured women will not leave her husband. Reasons for this have a social background: social pressure, fear, habit, the honor of the family and the protection of the husband.

“Wife murder as a widespread social phenomenon in India expresses the socially sanctioned violence against women that reinforces and is reinforced by the ideology of husband-worship (pativrata)” (Sunder Rajan 1993: 83).

The dowry death (homicide or suicide) is a phenomenon of India, which occurs mainly in the 1980s and 1990s with increasing numbers. What are causes for dowry death? Westernization? The westernization of India, the desire for more materialism and modernization and with these more status of the family surely had and still has some influence to it. The change to a materialized thinking happened in the time of colonialism (Mukherjee 1999: 2, 7). Of all ‘westernized’ countries India is the only one with the phenomenon of dowry death. So there must be other factors which lead to the dowry problem. In this essay is no place to go further in this subject. But to say last sentences to it I quote Mukherjee : “What we are dealing with is not just a dowry problem but a pathology or a syndrome rooted in history and gender inequality in a patriarchal society. Colonialism and patriarchal values became meshed in an alliance against women,…” (Mukherjee 1999: 9).


[1] All internetsources I have marked with ‘www’.

[2] The brackets are original by Rao.

[3] Another translation is from Aiyangar quoted by Sax (1992: 203):” (t)hose who take their lives reach after death the sunless regions, covered by impenetrable darkness”.

[4] I want to avoid the word ‘widow’ in context of suttee, because a woman who decides to make suttee is not considered as a widow.

[5] Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

[6] Another central point is also the readiness to kill people in purpose of their political actions.

[7] The fighters of the LTTE are men, women and childs of all castes who are trained in special camps (Rösel 1997:189, 197).

[8] The politician was Ranjan Wijeratne who belonged to the UNP-Regime (United National Party) and was as minister responsible for the war command (Rösel 1997:337).

[9] In big citys western orientated families or prominent people form sometimes exceptions.

[10] See in Appendix F as example one report of the Times of India.

[11] The practice of dowry exists among the higher castes of India and is unknown among the lower castes. It is forbidden by law since 1961 (Mukherjee 1999: preface, 161).

[12] See one example in Appendix G.


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University of Heidelberg – Südasien Institut, Abteilung Ethnologie
Suicide India Gender Gesundheit Politik Südasien



Title: Suicide in India in a religious, political and social context