legendary suicides

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Legendary Suicides

daya dissanayake

"In the 15 (Shakespeare) plays classified as tragedies, there are 13 definite and 8 possible suicides, i.e, a total of 21 incidents for evaluation. Among the 13 overt suicides, at least 7 are depicted as being admirable under the circumstances at the time. Also, in various ways, 4 of these 13 were assisted, and at least 3 others contain an imitative element. Overall, the action of taking one's life is presented in a neutral or even favorable light, and the audience is left with a mingling of pity and admiration for the victim, not reproach." L. R. Kirkland, Department of Medicine, Emory University.

Almost always writers make suicides live for ever, like Romeo and Juliet. Rama and Sita too had committed suicide, according to some versions of Ramayama, but the Indian poets did not make them heroic acts.

If suicide is immoral, how is it that people consider Gertrude's monologue about Ophelia's drowning as one of the most beautiful descriptions of death in Shakespeare? What right had Shakespeare to show the cowardly act of suicide in such glory, by putting such immoral words into the mouths of his heroes and heroins. "what's brave, what's noble....and make death proud to take us" - Cleopatra. "A Roman, by a Roman valiantly vanquished" - Antony. "It is more worthy to leap in ourselves than tarry that they push us" - Brutus.

Anna Karenina, regrets her action, just before her death, but that message is not strong enough and what remains in the reader's mind is that she has escaped from her misery.

Human beings are probably the only animals on earth who engage in intentional self-destructive bahaviour, just as they are the only animals who display violence. There are of course recent reports of self-destructive attempts by animals, but such incidents had always been caused by man himself, by caging poor innocent animals in zoos and homes, or by depriving them of their traditional habitat.

There are many new terms regarding suicides, since it has become a new subject called Suicidology. One such term is 'indirect suicidal behaviour', and as examples they give smoking, and use of drugs and alcohol. We can now add use of agrochemicals and genetically modified food. But in reality all human beings have been showing indirect suicidal behaviour, suffering from Suicide Syndrome, because they are over-exploiting all natural resources, poisoning the environment and slowly destroying not only themselves, but all life on earth.

Fortunately writers have not harped on murder-suicides, where a person murders someone and kills himself. We have so many names, spousal murder-suicides, filicides (killing children and then killing oneself), familicide-suicide. There are mass suicides by religious fanatics.

Then there is rational suicide, if any suicide could be considered a rational decision. The only rational decisions could be the cases mentioned in the Buddhist literature, about Godhika, Vakkali and Channa, who had given up all attachments and they were not clinging to life.

There was forced suicide in ancient Greece. The elite were given the option of committing suicide instead being put to death. Aristotle drank the slow acting hemlock, and dictated his last dialogue as he was dying. Seneca's death was the most tragic. He had decided to cut his wrists instead of taking poison, but he bled so slowly, he asked for poison, which too did not kill him. He sank into a hot bath, to increase the bleeding,

There were others who preferred to die, in fear of been captured. Among them Hannibal Barca, who had brought mighty Rome to her knees, took poison. Cato the Younger who fought against Julius Caesar, tried to kill himself with his sword and died tearing at his wound. Marcus Junius Brutus who fought against Octavian and Marc Antony, fell upon his sword.

In our own country, according to historical narrative Culavamsa, Kasyapa was the first to die by his own hand, when he saw his imminent defeat at the hands of his step brother, "..the king with his dagger cut his throat, raised the knife on high and stuck it in the sheath", according to the Geiger translation. But L. C. Wijesinha has translated it as, "The king having cut off his head with his knife, threw it into the air, and put the knife back into its sheath". Next was Upatissa's son Kassapa, who was fighting Silakala, "...cut his throat, wiped the blood from his dagger and stuck it in the sheath." Then it was the turn of Dathapabhuti, who usurped the throne, cut off his head when facing defeat from Mogallana.

Jetthatissa "quickly drew his dagger out of that (betel-nut bag) and cut his throat. Then leaning upon his elephant, he stuck the knife back in his sheath". Then the 'high dignitary who carried the message of death to the queen, "cut his throat, stuck the knife in the sheath and spake; 'Thus died His Majesty'". Mahinda, brother of Sena I, "cut off his head even as he sat upon his elephant. When his men saw that, many of them likewise cut their throats.."

Prof. Gananath Obeysekara says that the manner of Kassapa's death produced a model for later kings to follow. Before that ideal death was through face-to-face fight unto death. May be the near impossible feat said to have been performed by Kasyapa was later included in describing the suicides of the later kings, to make them heroic deeds.

If suicide is not legal in any country, if it is not endorsed or encouraged in any of the original world religions, why is it allowed in literature and fiction? Literature also describes murder and other crimes, but such crimes are not shown as admirable or heroic deeds, or those committing them as heroes. It is only in suicides, which too are criminal acts, we find such glorification. This could be the reason that the suicide rate is going up, everywhere on earth.

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