Buddhist Perspective of Suicide and Euthanasia
Suicide is the intentional act of taking one’s own life, and unfortunately, is an everyday occurrence in today’s world. In general, suicide is a taboo topic and is often avoided in conversation. However, it is important to recognize the religious implications that arise from suicide and euthanasia. Ancient Indian religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, share some commonalities but also diverge from one another in their perception on intentionally taking your own life. Both religions draw from fundamental ideas held when formulating their individualized overall viewpoint on this topic.
Within Hinduism, suicide is perceived as a dualistic concept. As an overarching rule, Hinduism condemns the act of suicide. Not only does it have horrific consequences to the individual, but it also creates a social stigma around the family involved. Due to this complication faced by exposure, suicides within this religion are often not reported.
Hinduism regards karma as a cause and effect relationship that is enforced by an invisible power and is a direct result of action. The soul, or the atman, is considered to eternal and unchanging, and travels through samsara, or the cycle of rebirth, until liberation is reached.
Liberation, or moksha, allows the atman to become one with God again. Wrongful actions result in “bad karma” and cause the downward movement of the atman, which creates a farther path to achieving moksha. For the duration of human life, followers are expected to strive to attain liberation. The principle of ahimsa, or no violence, is fervently held in Hinduism and is reflective in followers’ everyday lives. This concept extends to oneself as well as others.
For one, suicide is condemned in this religion because all life is considered sacred. Humans life is perceived as precious because only through one of the three human realms can liberation be achieved. Other living things, such as insects and animals, do not receive the same opportunity, so it is crucial followers within this realm take advantage of this. By committing suicide, followers are ignoring the good fortune they have received and are behaving in a way that is sinful.
Also, suicide is unacceptable because it results in the failure to fulfill the unique role given to each individual by God’s creation. Similar to the traditional view of the caste system, each human being is a necessary participant in the society as a whole. Regardless of this designation, it is that person’s responsibility to behave in a way that does not comprise the overall good. When a follower decides to commit suicide for selfish reasons, the cosmic progression of events is affected as well as “disrupting the family lineage, the birth of progeny, nourishment of gods, and the proper function of society” (Jayaram, n.d.). Overall, committing suicide as a willful act is seen as “disobedience to God and His laws” (Jayaram, n.d.).
In the sixteenth teaching of The Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna differentiates between the divine and the demonic in man. The demonic man is characterized as being, “subject to insatiable desire, / drunk with hypocrisy and pride, / holding false notions from delusion, / they act with impure vows” (The Bhagavad-Gita 16:10). Since committing suicide is viewed as an impure act, followers that submit to this form of self-harm are included within this description. Lord Krishna then states, “these hateful, cruel, vile / men of misfortune, I cast / into demonic wombs through cycles of rebirth” (The Bhagavad-Gita 16:19).
If a follower is successful in committing suicide the atman neither goes to heaven or hell. Instead, the atman resides within the earthly realm as a spirit and is confined to this realm until its expected life span is over. Then the soul enters back in to the cycle of rebirth until liberation is achieved. However, before the atman can enter back in to samsara, it must first enter hell. Mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita, the three gates of hell, including desire, anger, and greed, must be relinquished before the atman can enter back in to the cycle of rebirth. It is then that the atman can begin building positive karma in the prospect of liberation.
Despite this generalized viewpoint, within ancient Hindu text, exceptions are made for the act of suicide under certain parameters. One example of this is the practice of prayopasvesa, which is defined as fasting to death. This is reserved for individuals that have achieved enlightenment and is considered the only acceptable form of suicide because it is a non-violent and a natural death. The three stipulations for this action are, “the inability to perform normal bodily purification”, “death appears imminent, or the condition is so bad that life’s pleasures are reduced to nil”, and “the action must be subject to community regulation” (Walton, n.d.). Overall, given these parameters, prayopasvesa is a recognized practice in Hinduism. However, despite the recognition of this form of euthanasia, there are some suicidal practices previously held within ancient Hindu traditions that are no longer enforced.
The term Sati is derived from the Sanskrit term asti, which is defined as pure or true.
This practice is traced back to mythological times, when Sati the wife of Lord Shiva threw herself on to a fire to rebel against the negative feelings her father had for her husband. Although this story was used as a justification for the practice, she was not a widow, so it does not directly approve this act. Sati is considered to be the greatest form of sacrifice a wife can make for her husband and it involves the wife “immolating herself after her husband’s death” (Jain, 2018).
As time progressed, this tradition was increasingly forced upon women who did not wish to participate. If a woman was seen as a burden to society and lacked children to support her financially but refused to perform sati, she was forced to die through different methods. This practice was most popular in the 15th and 18th century, and “during this period, as many as 1,000 widows were burned alive every year, most commonly in India and Nepal” (Jain, 2018).
Similar to Hindu tradition, Buddhist followers have a contrasting view on the idea of suicide. There is little historical text from Siddhartha Gautama or other prominent figures within Buddhism on suicide, so interpretations must be made based on the information given. This perspective can be interpreted in many ways, and those varying viewpoints will be examined individually.
In Buddhism, the journey to enlightenment entails the Four Nobles Truths and the Eight-Fold Path that must be overcome to end suffering. The Four Noble Truths entail followers accepting dukkha as inevitable, realizing suffering comes from desire and attachment, ending desire and attachment, and that this is done by following the Eight-Fold Path. Followers of Buddhism reject the idea of the soul entirely, instead, referring to it as anatman, or no-self. Anatman is reflective of the three qualities of existence, including interdependence, impermanence, and suffering. No separate self-entities exist within this religion because they must inter-exist with one another. The karmic process differs from Hinduism in that the action is dependent on the intention behind it. Without intention behind an action, the cycle of rebirth cannot be affected.
Within the perspective that holds suicide as morally just, there is a distinct designation when done by someone considered enlightened versus someone who is not considered enlightened. Referring to the unenlightened, “the desperate person who takes his own life obviously aspires to annihilation: his suicide, instigated by desire, will not omit him from fruition, and he will have to partake of the fruit of his action” (Keown, 1996). This traces back to the fundamental idea of dukkha and overcoming suffering. An unenlightened individual who commits suicide is considered to have misinterpreted or misunderstood the First Noble Truth. They were unable to accept suffering as an inevitable part of life and overcome it due to their blindness towards their attachments and desires. However, “in contrast, suicide is justified in the persons of the Noble Ones who have already cut off desire and by so doing neutralized their actions by making them incapable of producing another fruit” (Keown, 1996). The division between these two types of individuals stems for the motivation behind their actions. The enlightened are seen as having relinquished all attachment to desire, so as a result their suicide is not motivated by any sort of ill will and is not considered to be evil.
A differing stance on the act of suicide regards motivation as an improper measurement on the morality of taking one’s own life. This evaluation holds that viewing suicide through the former perspective is a subjective analysis of a complex topic, and this differing viewpoint “claims the same action (suicide) can be either right or wrong depending on the state of mind of the person who suicides: the presence of desire (or fear) makes it wrong, and the absence of desire (or fear) makes it right.” (Keown, 1996).
This perspective is defended by interpretations from historical text regarding Channa. The situation in which Channa committed suicide can be perceived as condoning suicide, but if anything, it was an exoneration from blame for his actions. In addition, the validity of the exoneration is not clear within the text and firm conclusions cannot be drawn that either confirm or deny this. There is also stipulation as to whether or not Channa was even enlightened, which entirely undercuts the relevancy of the event. It is factual that Channa died an Arhat, “by reference from the Buddha’s closing statement, although there is no corroborating evidence that Channa was an Arhat and no indication of when he became on” (Keown, 1996). Without assurance that Channa was an Arhat upon death, the idea that suicide is a moral act when committed by an enlightened individual cannot be supported.
This viewpoint can also be further sustained by referencing the overarching fundamentals of Buddhism. The Buddhist path is coined as the “Middle Way”, meaning “rejection of the two extremes of sensual indulgence and harsh absurdity, both of which he rejected in favor of a moderate and balanced way of life” (Keown, 1998). The idea of suicide seems to fit within this extreme categorization and as a result is not a compromise.
Euthanasia is also a debated topic in regard to its moral validity. Ahimsa, mentioned earlier, takes on a different meaning due to the assertion of the importance of the intention behind the action. With the redefined meaning of ahimsa, euthanasia cannot be condemned within Buddhism. This is because “ahimsa prohibits only intention killing”, “it does not impose an obligation to preserve life at all costs” (Keown, 1998). Followers are under no obligation to cling to life if it is through unsustainable means, and this could even be perceived as “detrimental to spiritual progress” (Keown, 1998). This draws back to conclusions made about the Middle Way of Buddhism and references the extremes that must be gone to in order to prolong life as well as shorten it.
Within the two religions, excluding exceptions, the rationale behind the perspective on suicide and euthanasia is based on the interpretation of ahimsa. While there is no explicit evidence supporting or denying the approval of suicide in Buddhism, what we do know is that the motivation behind the action is taken in to consideration. However, in Hinduism, the strict definition of ahimsa, being no harm, entirely eliminates the acceptance of this act. The motivation behind taking one’s own life is not a factor regardless of the situation.