self-harm ( was 'penance')

Julia Leslie jl6 at SOAS.AC.UK
Mon Jan 20 15:33:55 UTC 2003

My thanks to Arlo et al for this fascinating thread, which I am only
now catching up with.

I have selfishly re-titled the thread 'self-harm' because that is my
own angle. I am currently engaged (in collaboration with Mitchell
Weiss) in writing a book on 'Suicide and Self-Harm in India: A
Study in Cultural Understanding'. This study is based on the premise
that an academic understanding of the ideology surrounding fatal
and non-fatal deliberate self-harm in classical Indian culture
provides a historical basis for (some of?) the meanings attached to
these acts in India today. The starting-point is that the current
medical model (imported to India from the West) of self-harm as an
outcome of mental illness (self-harm as psychopathology) fails to
appreciate the complexity of Indian cultural discourse. The study will
consider in turn: the medical approaches of both Indian and
Western traditions; the ritual arena (e.g. Yavakriita); ascetic
practice, including Jain and Buddhist examples; self-harm in pursuit
of dharma; the bhakti context; and the implications of caste and

Each of these sub-topics has its own extensive bibliography, of
course. While I can't (= won't?) list everything I have collected here,
I must mention Ariel Glucklich's insightful analysis of what he calls
'self-hurting': "Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the
Soul" (NY: OUP, 2001).' Taking the point of view of the practitioner,
Glucklich's material is broadly crosscultural, both historical and
contemporary, and ranges from spiritual goals to current research
in neurology and neuropsychology.

I would be delighted to continue this discussion with interested
colleagues, either on or off the list.


Dr I J Leslie

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