Suicide by Fire: How the Indian Ascetic Kalanos Was Mistaken for a Buddhist

Last year, there was a horrifying occurrence of another ritual suicide by fire in Buddhism:

In the ensuing discussion, I was alerted to an article by the scholar Georgias Halkias, who argued that suicide by fire was not, as had been thought, a late development in China, but could be traced to the early Buddhist period via the ascetic Kalanos, who accompanied Alexander. Halkias’ article was published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (8, 2015), and since it had gained some traction among apologists for people burning themselves to death, I decided to publish a full rebuttal in the same journal. Thanks to Alex Wynne and the folks at JOCBS for helping bring it across the line.

TBH, while the topic of Kalanos is fascinating, this article is really only of interest to anyone who has read Halkias’ earlier one. Feel free to ignore it!

There are other interesting articles in the issue, including one by Alex on suicide.

Below is the conclusion.

In modern times, hundreds of Buddhists have burned themselves to death
throughout the world. This article was prompted by the latest such tragedy, a
protest against climate change. Right now, the next self-immolator is having
suicidal thoughts and is considering whether to go ahead. And those who are
Buddhists may well do so in the future in the belief that it is a practice of
ancient and spiritual meaning. They are, in all likelihood, reading articles and
social media posts where people repeat arguments that directly or indirectly
pave the way for more suicide.

The fact that some Buddhists commit suicide by fire does not mean it is an
established “Buddhist” practice. Buddhists are people and they do all kinds
of things, many of them quite stupid. Suicide by fire occurs globally among
people of all different backgrounds, and many of them, including Buddhists,
look to their own scriptures and traditions for justification.

The modern spectacle of suicide by fire as a political protest has no grounds
in early Buddhism. Yet the evolution from there to here is a gradual one. Were
it true that Kalanos was a Buddhist monk, it would push the origins of this
practice much closer to the time of the Buddha, and potentially, establish it as
a genuine practice of early Buddhism.

As we have seen, this is not the case. Rather, while ostensibly building
a historical argument, Halkias displays an uncomfortable tendency to
romanticise suicide by fire. The title of his article describes the gruesome act
of burning oneself to death as a “luminous encounter”. One section is headed
“An incandescent liberation” (2015: 172), another “Ablaze in honour of the
Buddha” (2015: 175). These phrases are not in his sources; he is describing
things as he sees them, not as his sources tell him.

Buddhism teaches us that the human state is precious and that no matter
what, we always have the chance to do better. Suicide achieves no spiritual
end and has no worth or place in any spiritual path. As a political protest, it is
rightly ignored and dismissed by decision-makers, who do not and should not
make decisions based on such extreme and destructive behaviour.
To burn oneself to death is not a “radical form of self-transcendence”
(Halkias 2015: 182). It is an agonising and fruitless display, a waste of a life, and
a sign of a disturbed and despairing mind. Let us please stop romanticising
suicide by fire.


If one is sane and has a question about this topic, consider the precept of not killing. Also consider all of the Suttas that have been read. Did they ever imply that burning oneself to death is a teaching given by the Tathagata? By all means, no. We’re even taught to put out emotional fires to achieve liberation, not start them!


How do you address the case of Dabba the Malian in UD8.9-10?

It strikes me as clearly being a pun (he’s extinguished without remainder both in the technical Buddhist sense and the ordinary sense) but I’m curious what else there is to it.

In absence of someone - the person or sakkaya - we cannot really speak about suicide. So it haven’t any negative consequences as likely was in the case of Indian showman, and yet it was even more spectacular, and very likely only increased the faith in Dhamma of these spectators who were presented at the event.

It seems from such cases that they knew their time was up. It’s difficult to say too much about such cases, but as with the Buddha, it seems that at least some sages had some sense that their life was coming to an end.

I’ve heard similar stories in modern times. At a cave near Ipoh, there was an old Chinese monk staying. People visited rarely, as his cave was at the top of a mountain. But one day someone went up and found him, dead in meditation posture next to his bathing area. It seems that he just knew it was time.

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