Even Sir Monier-Williams (1819 – 1899) whose Sanskrit-English Dictionary saw the light in the last year of his life could in his translatory activities not avoid employing the religio-philosophical terminology that is so important in that culture of which he was a child. When describing the mental attitude of compassion, as it was expressed in the Hindu canon, he automatically translated “day” with “hav(ing) pity”, and “dayā“, resp. “dayākara” with (sympathy, compassion, and) “pity”, resp. “store of pity”.
The same is true for the earlier translators of the Buddhist Sanscritic and Pali canon. Here terms such as “anuganhāti”, “anuddaya”, “anukámpaka/anukámpika”, and even “karunā” are rendered with “merciful” and/or “full of pity” (and “compassion”).
These translators made no distinction between compassion and pity. It seems that the early Buddhist scriptures did. That is to say, when in the Birth Story (Jātaka) the bodhisattva senses the hunger and pain of the trapped tigress who is about to eat her cubs, he offers his own body. Was this a sign of pity? Was this martyrdom? Could we replace compassion (anuganhāti, anuddaya, anukámpaka/anukámpika, karunā) with pity?
All Buddhist teachers reject the use of the word pity since pity easily entails an attitude of looking down on the person who is “to be pitied” by the person who is so much better off and has a so much better understanding and attitude towards the situation. The pitying person speaks from his very own top of the mountain about the to be pitied masses down below.
Compassion (karunā), in the Buddhist sense of the word, starts off as an universal attitude to be cultivated as an abstractum, not (yet) necessarily directed or applied towards some individual sufferer somewhere. In cases of urgency this universal attitude of karunā is made manifest in a more specific line of action towards the individual: beings in situations like this suffer, or could be better off, hence let me lend a helping hand because in my heart of hearts I know what it feels like; in the distant past I may have been there, and perhaps one day I will be there again.
Neither the classical Sanskrit, nor the Hybrid-Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhist Chinese etc. have a word that could be translated with “martyr”, or “martyrdom”. Buddhism has no martyrs; sometimes it has co-sufferers.
Confucianism and martyrdom
When scholars such as Walter H. Slote and George A. De Vos in a publication of 1998 speak of Confucianism and mention that “filiality requires” “self-sacrifice”, they too apply the philosophical terminology of the West on concepts of the East. The same goes for another writer who in a publication of 2002 speaks in terms of “the [Chinese Confucian] martyr’s dedication to advancing society through selfless commitment to justice in public administration, ….”
Even Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush, and Joan Piggott (2003) cannot help but to refer to “the category ‘martyr'” when speaking of the Korean “widows [of the past] who commit suicide as a demonstration of loyalty to a deceased husband, or to avoid ‘humiliation’ …”.
It might be that Confucianists reading theses such as these would raise the same objections as Buddhists do when Western translators jollify the Buddhist canon with such highly sensitive words such as pity and martyrdom.