Last updated on 7th September 2015
A High court in the Indian state of Rajasthan recently ruled that the Jain practice of Santhara/Sallekhana has to viewed as suicide and so is illegal and punishable by Indian law. Indian law also views abetting suicide as illegal and so a punishable crime. This verdict has been appealed in the Supreme Court.
First, some info. about Santhara/Sallekhana from its wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sallekhana.
Sallekhanā (also Santhara, Samadhi-marana, Sanyasana-marana), is the Jain practice of facing death voluntarily at the end of one's life. It is prescribed both for the householder and ascetics. Sallekhana is made up from two words sal (meaning 'properly') and lekhana, which means to thin out. Properly thinning out of the passions and the body is 'Sallekhanā'. Sallekhana is allowed only when a person is suffering from incurable disease or great disability or when a person is nearing his end. It is a highly respected practice among the members of the Jain community.
Sallekhana is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death. It is not taken to end the life. The person does not wish to die nor he is aspiring to live in a state of inability where he / she can't undertake his / her own chores. The person is peaceful in observance of all the religious activities, spends maximum time in discussing and listening to the sermons and religious texts. There is a daily prayer for every devout member of Jain community wherein he / she wishes to be able to face death after having taken the Vow of sallekhana. Due to the prolonged nature of sallekhana, the individual is given ample time to reflect on his or her life. The purpose is to purge old karmas and prevent the creation of new ones.
According to a survey conducted in 2006, on an average 200 Jains practice sallekhana until death each year in India.
In around 300 BC, Chandragupta Maurya (founder of the Maurya Empire) undertook Sallekhana atop Chandragiri Hill, Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa, Karnataka.
[Ravi: Chandragupta Maurya was a near contemporary of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Seleucus I Nicator (358 - 281 BC), referred in below wiki extract, was an infantry general under Alexander the Great and became ruler of the eastern parts of Alexander's conquered areas.
From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandragupta_Maurya: In foreign Greek and Latin accounts, Chandragupta is known as Sandrokottos and Androcottus. He became well known in the Hellenistic world for conquering Alexander the Great's easternmost satrapies, and for defeating the most powerful of Alexander's successors, Seleucus I Nicator, in battle. Chandragupta subsequently married Seleucus's daughter to formalize an alliance and established a policy of friendship with the Hellenistic kingdoms, which stimulated India's trade and contact with the western world. The Greek diplomat Megasthenes, who visited the Maurya capital Pataliputra [Ravi: in modern day Indian state of Bihar], is an important source of Maurya history.
--- end wiki extract on Chandragupta Maurya ---
Ravi: So even such a powerful emperor of Ancient India who could defeat Alexander's general in battle and conquer some of that general's territories in what today would be, I guess, Pakistan and/or north west parts of India, eventually took to the Jain practice of Santhara to give up his body! Amazing factoid!]--- end wiki extracts on Sallekhana/Santhara ---
Yesterday's (24th Aug. 2015) The Hindu carried this fascinating article by SHIV VISVANATHAN, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiv_Visvanathan, a leading Indian intellectual who is well known for his writings on sociology and philosophy, "A reductive reading of Santhara", http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-reductive-reading-of-santhara/article7572187.ece.
Shiv Visvanathan disagrees with the High Court verdict of viewing Santhara as suicide. He asks some fascinating questions, "Is Santhara a giving up of life or of taking death in one’s stride? For a culture that believes in rebirth, is Santhara philosophically or ethically suicide?"
The author claims that Anglo-Saxon view/interpretation of law (Indian Penal Code took shape under British rule of India) has led the High court to not have a proper understanding of the Jain practice of Santhara. He writes, "Eventually, the judgment creates a monologic sense of life and a standardised sense of what death and dying is. In fact, it has missed an opportunity to look at life and death and the ethics of dignity and dying in a creative way."
In Calcutta, the Jain community registered its SILENT protest against the Rajasthan (different state from Bengal which Calcutta is the capital of) High court judgement, "Jains take to streets in Kolkata against Santhara verdict", http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/jains-take-to-streets-in-kolkata-against-santhara-verdict/article7576335.ece.
Ravi: Utterly fascinating religious group - the Jains. I have huge respect for their adherence to non-violence and the asceticism of their spiritual groups.
To top it all, here's a fascinating article, "Doc firm on Santhara despite HC ban: I too want a beautiful death", http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/doc-firm-on-santhara-despite-hc-ban-i-too-want-a-beautiful-death/. The doctor, Dr. Kalyan Gangwal, is a consulting physician (so practising medicine NOW), who is 71 years old and is preparing for his "thinning out" (death of passions and body in an atmosphere of reverence to God) as he would like to give up his body by following the footsteps of his father 19 years ago who did the same. Dr. Gangwal refers to his father's death as a "beautiful death".
His father practised Santhara/Sallekhana for 12 years! To quote him, "My father slowly gave up consumption of ghee, salt. In his last seven days, he had only water. He eventually died, in a fully conscious state in March 1996. This is Iccha Maran. He had hoped to die on the auspicious occasion of Gudi Padwa (the Maharashtrian New Year) and he did. All of us are so proud of him."
He hammers home his spiritual philosophy point so well, "My child, my wife have nothing to do with my soul. If we have a right to live, then we have a right to die with dignity. This is our religious practice, our spiritual philosophy. Law should not hurt the sentiments of the community".
Ravi: I salute these guys. Mumbai/Bombay (and surrounding areas like Dombivli) where I spent most of the first four decades of my life have a lot of Jains. I also had some Jain friends. I was told of some awesome ascetic practices by even Jain youngsters in money crazy Bombay (Jains are heavily into business in Bombay), who wanted to become Jain ascetics. This included girls. At that time I was not that deeply into religion proper (though into philosophy of Bhagavad Geetha & Upanishads) and so was not able to appreciate them so much then. Today, I salute the culture of the Jain religion that even in the midst of material plenty today in money crazy and prosperous cities like Mumbai/Bombay, it produces youngsters who are so deeply into Jain spiritual philosophy and religion that they take to become ascetics.
I also deeply admire the Jain religion for producing people like the above mentioned Dr. Gangwal who so deeply believes in the revelations of Jain religion about the soul being separate from the body, and views the body as just a vehicle for the spirit, which (body) can be shed voluntarily when it is time. What a conquest over the terror of death! Surely, there would be no sting in death for Dr. Gangwal.
Update on 7th Sept. 2015
On 31st August 2015, the Supreme Court of India, stayed the Rajasthan High Court order referred in above post contents (dated August 10th 2015) which made Santhara a penal offence. A few extracts from "Supreme Court stays Rajasthan High Court order declaring ‘Santhara’ illegal", http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/supreme-court-stays-rajasthan-high-court-order-on-santhara/, dated Sept. 1st 2015:
The High Court said Santhara was not an essential religious practice of the Jain community which needed to be protected under the right to freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.
A batch of appeals were filed in the Supreme Court against this order. The petition by Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad stated that Santhara was not an act to terminate one’s life but a vow intended to purify the soul from the karmas, and it could not be equated with the offence of suicide.
“Conceptually, Santhara or Sallekhana is different from suicide as this vow is not taken either in passion or in anger, deceit, etc. It is a conscious process of spiritual purification where one does not desire death but seeks to live his life, whatever is left of it, in a manner so as to reduce the influx of karmas,” the petition stated.
On the other hand, the petition stated, suicide is an offence of passion, abhorred in Jain religion. “Suicide is undertaken by a person in severe bouts of passion in anger, depression or hatred — antithetical to the concept of peaceful and joyous renunciation which is the basis of Sallekhana or Santhara,” it stated.
The appeal claimed it was unwise and improper to link a sacred practice of the Jain religion, premised on ahimsa (non-violence), with suicide.
--- end extract ---
Ravi: The article also stated that as the Supreme Court bench had admitted the appeal for hearing and that it had granted leave, the matter will come up for hearing again only after older appeals are decided, which may take a few years!
This article from the Hindu on the same matter, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/supreme-court-lifts-stay-on-santhara-ritual-of-jains/article7600851.ece, states that "The Supreme Court said that Jain scholars were not consulted by the High Court before it criminalised the practice".
The Supreme Court stay of the Rajasthan HC order paved the way for some who had stopped their Santhara to resume it. Yesterday's Hindu (Sep. 6th 2015 issue), carried this article, "Woman on ‘Santhara’ vow dies", http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/woman-on-santhara-vow-dies/article7620013.ece. A small extract from it:
Amid the controversy over ‘Santhara’, an 82-year-old woman, who publicly resumed the Jain religious ritual of voluntary fast unto death after the Supreme Court stayed the High Court ban on it, passed away here on Saturday.
--- end extract ---
This news report, http://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/82-year-old-woman-dies-after-performing-santhara-115090500455_1.html, has a family member stating, "We pray for her soul. She died peacefully and it was the blessings of the God and we are happy at it,".
This one has a photograph of the lady lying down, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/83-year-old-jain-woman-dies-in-rajasthan-after-50-days-of-santhara-fasting/article1-1387598.aspx.
This one has a photograph of the funeral procession in the town of Bikaner, Rajasthan: http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/jaipur/jaipur-woman-in-santhara-dies-minister-among-visitors/. A couple of small extracts from it:
Badni Devi Daga, who had been on santhara for more than a month, passed away Saturday morning, leading to celebrations among her family members and the Jain community in her town Bikaner.
A huge gathering of people from the Jain community participated in her ‘funeral’ procession, including Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who said had the Jain community taken the santhara ban lightly, it would have been an insult to the Tirthankars.
--- end extract ---
Ravi: In my view, this is a great victory for Jains, which may also pave the way for legally safe resumption of similar practices of voluntary withdrawal of intake of food & water to give up one's body in other religions including Hinduism, which are done in an environment (like ashrams) that is well protected from misuse/abuse of the practice and well protected from it being an act of passion i.e. suicide. I mean, if somebody has done his/her duties in life and now wants to withdraw and drop/shrug off the body in an atmosphere of deep reverence to the eternal God within (& without) and thereby merge in that eternal God within, what's the problem for others and for the state?
[I thank Wikipedia, The Hindu, The Indian Express, Business Standard & Hindustan Times and have presumed that they will not have any objections to me sharing the above small extracts from their websites on this post which is freely viewable by all, and does not have any financial profit motive whatsoever.]