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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Santhara or Sallekhana: Can Jain tradition of Fasting to death be banned?

The body kept for darshan
Even as the Rajasthan High Court is hearing the petition challenging the 2,300 year old Jain practice of Santhara as per which a person decides to stop taking food and water until death in order to attain salvation ['moksha], similar deaths are reported from all over Rajasthan.

After Vimla Bhansali died by oberving Santhara in Jaipur and Amarchand Kaswan also died in this ritual in Ajmer, now it is Dhani Devi Pugalia who is in her 20th day of Santhara fast in Bikaner.

She is member of Terapanthi sub-sect of the Shwetambar sect of Jains, is on deathbed. Meanwhile, Monk Merubhushan has also announced that he will take the similar route to end life. Another lady Keila devi has also vowed the same. And these are just reports from urban areas of Rajasthan.

I spoke to a friend of mine whose family had two Sallekhana (the Digambars call it Sallekhana Vrata) recently in MP. Is it a form of suicide, euthanasia or a practice like the Sati that should be stopped legally.

Practically, I think it is not easy to stop Santhara. Jainism is one of the oldest religion in the world Mahavir, the last of 24 Tirthankars was a younger contemporary of Gautam Buddha, and Jains claim that India got the name Bharat owing to the name of Bharat, son of first Tirthankar Rishabh.

Religion as surname

The tradition exists for long and every year hundreds commit sallekhana. Never the need for curb on the practice was felt as Jainism went into near-extinction and was almost considered a part of Hinduism until the revivalism when Jains [mostly Digambar sect] decided to drop their surnames.

The commonest of Jain surnames include Shah, Sheth, Lodha, Godha, Khandelwal, Kasliwal, Bakliwal, Baid, Sethia, Sanghvi, Surana, Banthia, Bansal, Bhandari and even some Agarwals. Now, they instead write Jain.

Thus Jains became a unique people, a majority of whom [not in Gujarat though where surnames like Shah were not replaced [began writing their religion as their surname to appear more in number. Ever heard a Rajesh Hindu, Salim Musalman or a David Jew!

So being a micro-minuscule minority Jains grappled with a serious problem of preserving their identities like their beliefs [they are atheists and don't believe in God], places of worship 'Jinalaya' that is generally known as Jain Mandir and other unique traditions.

Can there be a consensus among Jain sects?

You can't simple ban the Santhara because it is about a community that is very minor [around 50 lakhs in India or just 0.4% of the country's population] and further divided in sects and sub-sects demographically spread in such a way that a consensus is very difficult.

Being less in number, they are more sensistive about their religion and it age old practices. An example is that of Parsis whose number is dwindling [they are barely around 75,000 in India] and still they are not ready to accept half-Parsis [those who marry outside the community] even when their survival is at stake.

Apart from the arguments in favour--like the oft-quoted claim that Santhara is not a social evil because both men and women go for it unlike Sati or that it is not forcible and people take the vow themself, there are  other aspects to it as well.

Arguments against Sallekhana ritual

Firstly, it's illegal and it is surely a crime to take one's own life. Secondly, it is a fact that majority of those who take Santhara are women and often in rural areas, the 'old person who is of no use' goes for it and the family often encourages it because in rural areas they gain prestige and also other monitory benefits in some regions, not all. 

Thirdly, some other Jain traditions like the practice of making children as monks [a 9-year-old girl was sent by her parents to go and live a celibate ascetic for life] are not entirely agreeable in a free democratic society. The case of the girl was in the court until I knew and her parents and the Jain community claimed that she had herself volunteered to become a monk!

Still, voices against Santhara should come from within the Jains. Has anybody heard any voice against it from them? Not a single one. Even the most fiery social activists including women [belonging to Jainism] who keep voicing their concern on all social 'evils' just keep mum when it comes to Santhara or Jain Nuns' plight or the 'deeksha' at an early age.

If a Guru's permission is necessary before embarking on Santhara, then the Gurus [Monks] can be urged by governments to not give such a permission. But is it practical? Most Jains believe in Santhara and they consider death as a celebration unlike other communities.

Even governments will not be able to force them. A clear majority of Hindus is against Sati today and condemns it. However, it is difficult to find a Jain who does not believe in Santhara tradition. The practice has been existing since time immemorial.

Just because of the media boom, people have come to know about it. It could probably have been banned in the years after independence but government can't take such a step just because media is highlight something that is occurring for centuries.

Didn't the great emperor Chandragupta Maurya abandon his kingdom and died of Sallekhana? Jains are the most educated community in the country with a vast treasure of literature preserved in their libraries and unless a reformist movement comes out from within, nobody can force a change.

[The photograph shows Vimla Devi's body kept for darshan, after she died of Sallekhana]


vick said...

It would be difficult. The whole Hindu-Jain-Buddh history is filled with examples of people giving up their own life. It doesnt look like giving up your own life is considered evil. In Mahabharata all Pundava died in similar ways. In recent past Binova Bhave famous Gandhian gave up his life same way.

A Soul In Exile said...

A peculiar issue with a secular democracy...

How would a constitutional proclaimation really change this...even if it was declared illegal? Afterall, would police go around checking if people were eating on a regular basis. Very tough law to implement in a country where we have failed to prevent child marriages, sati etc inspite of supposedly strict laws.

It needs the society in itself to churn and force the change - rather than the govt to do anything about. And I am sure Jain's have the social maturity to handle this more than any other community in India...

Hammad said...

God may mercy on them.

How do we know said...

You have inspired my next post. I am very pro suicide. Will write about that as soon as the 7 happy posts are over.

Hiren said...

I found the surname concept quite interesting. Both Osho and krishnamurthy said that one should drop belief in organized religion because they divide people sooner or later. That way everybody's surname should he human.
My wife is a Jain and what I can't understand is why can't they modify traditions to suit modern times- what is the need for their maharjji to travel by foot just for the heck of it. Makes no sense fo me.

Diganta said...

See every religion has some practises which are practically outdated. There's no harm to at least phase out those practises for the betterment of our society.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Blog...just stumbled upon it.
Thanks for such intriguing insite.

Anonymous said...

Oops! I meant insight...

Rohit said...

I, for one, support euthanasia.

Whether one wants to live or not should be one's choice, not something the government or society can control. It is a matter between oneself and one's family, and if one believes in a God, then it is also between oneself and one's God. But the government should not have any say in the matter.

Moreover, we all have different ways of living. Some people take good care of their health, and some don't. The latter may develop illnesses sooner than the former, and will generally have shorter lives. Does this mean they are committing suicide in slow motion? If yes, can the government stop it?

And lastly, if the Jains consider this practice as a way of attaining salvation, who are we to say that it is illegal? Wouldn't we be violating their right to practice their religion by blocking (in their view) the way to salvation?

indscribe said...

Yes vick, ASIE true aout secular demoracy.
Pro-Suicide, How do we know, really?
Hiren, yes Jain monks (or Saints) do live an austere life though there is opulence in cermonies. Agree with Diganta and Thanks Rohit for visiting.

A Soul In Exile said...

Someone just pointed out...in a different discussion... I thought its relevant to this thread.

The arguement:
If Santhara or such practices are to be curtailed by constitutional intervention, it amounts to the govt defining norms for religious groups within the country. There is quite some political and social group (NGO) support for this law right now...
But can the govt afford to only make such interventions selectively - when the govts have repeatedly avoided touching "uniform civil code"...
Either the govt should/can intervene in all religious communities or with none. No selective law making...

Anonymous said...

nobody should be fasting to death as a protest ..

Simran Khan said...


Well, I am here again to share some of my special thoughts with you on a strange fact. I really wanna know what do you feel about this!

Death has no victory over life now! Sounds strange isn’t it?? Yeah! Now Jains can decide when they want to die. Well, what’s weird and wonderful is, that, Jain deaths aren't sad now else it’s a grand occasion and a time for celebration!! Santhara, a very wonderful Jain concept, is the ultimate way to expunge all sins and karma to liberate the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It is the "Dharmic mahotsav" - the means to get salvation and to purify the body.

Have you heard about this practice! Do you think its good? Do share your opinion on: http://www.indiademocracy.com/blogs/template3.jsp?blogid=blog20061102131513
Or http://www.jantaraj.com/blog/bcdetails.asp?bid=179

‘Santhara’ or “Sallenkhana” is a Jain’s religious ritual procedure in which fasting is done with the intention to prepare for death and undertaken when all the purpose of life seems served. Jains believe that every action (eating/drinking included) will count in karma; as for them, a tree has life and hence they believe, taking away a vegetable/fruit/leaf hurts it - thereby adds a negative karma. In fact, since water also has microscopic organisms, even drinking water adds on to ones’ karma. Therefore, they abstain from consuming anything in Santhara.

It is confirmed that a growing number of people are opting for Santhara today and experts estimate that the annual figure of those undergoing the ritualistic death is around 200 from all across India. Till today, Santhara, the centuries-old practice, continues to thrive amongst the Jains. Preventing Santhara invites social ostracism here; human rights organizations and there are many others who feel that Santhara, like sati, is only an act in accordance with social and religious conditioning and hence must be abolished.

Your friend,
Simran Khan

Anonymous said...

Religions frequently come up with extreme interpretations such as kill others, kill yourself. Both are abominable practices, but trying explaining that to people that believe that they have every right to do so.

Abhi said...

What a nice article.
Good work done.

Want to put one point here.

Every thing is made legal and illigal by the purpose and reason.

We need to see the purpose and reason behind it.

Suicide is there because the person wishes to death and illegal because the reason he is not able to fight with the challenges of life. The person runs away from the responsibilities given by life to him.

Santhara: Here the purpose is not the death; it is the FAST till death. The person is not ending him but he is fasting till death.
And the reason is not a frustration but the cheer of the faith the cheer of the religion. The person is not running away with the responsibilities but he is done with all his responsibilities.

It is funny if someone says it is suicide.

It is simple to understand that if no one from the jain society against to it, that means who ever understand this process, think it is right.

Whenever it is the metter of debate, before putting a point on it the person need to understand well about the whole procees, the way, the purpose, the reason and most important the willness

Anonymous said...

I am what I would call Jain by name but practice hinduism. And although I agree with some of the Jain principles (shared by hindusim/buddis etc) in that some principles enable us to live healthier and better lives,there are others i completely disagree with. i agree with one blogger that religions need to evolve. The concept of fasting was to show mind over matter and the will power to overcome all desires...but i feel people who fast to die a truly disgusting concept (each to their own off course). ive heard during pajorshan tht people fast for 30 days and died. This is a sad fact of life. Religions do not preach these stupid rules, but people make them. Think before you act!

Anonymous said...

I am what I would call Jain by name but practice hinduism. And although I agree with some of the Jain principles (shared by hindusim/buddis etc) in that some principles enable us to live healthier and better lives,there are others i completely disagree with. i agree with one blogger that religions need to evolve. The concept of fasting was to show mind over matter and the will power to overcome all desires...but i feel people who fast to die a truly disgusting concept (each to their own off course). ive heard during pajorshan tht people fast for 30 days and died. This is a sad fact of life. Religions do not preach these stupid rules, but people make them. Think before you act!

Anonymous said...

santhara is very different from sucide or sati pratha. first lets understand what is santhara. no young one can take santhara. santhara is only allowed when the person is at the end of his life the body has given up and the person wants to deprive himself of all worldly life and just die by fasting. but he can come out of santhara if he wants to and decides thats not for him. fast to death may last for a month. its not instant. a person has ample of time. in sati pratha young women were fed opium and pushed into fire thats wrong. in sucide people jump off a building or take poison thats sort of instant. there is a big difference.my grandfather took santhara when his lungs failed and doctors said he wont live more then few days. he wanted to take santhara and we called the monk. the monk refused and said he will only give him vow after confirming with the doctor. the doctor said he was very near to death. so the monk gave him the vow with a condition that he can break it if he wants to. but my grandfather died in two days after that. we were all present near him. taht was his wish. so read about jainism first. cant even harm an ant, wouldnt go on killing people. this is an act at the end of life when a person wants to give up food and luxury. and one more thing both men and women are allowed to take it. its not like sati where only women were exposed to it. and last thing santhara is not taken to attain moksha or liberation. according to jainism no soul can attain moksha in this era. its just an act when you are at the death bed and want to decide to slowly give up food and fast till you die. the jains dont oppose it because its not a forced act and no healthy person is allowed to take it. check the details.

I am a Hindu said...

Every religion has its own pecularity, its own means and methods of attaining the goal as prescribed by there religion. Though i am a hindu , i know many great personalities like vinoba bhave, who have accepted to die this way. I too feel that this is a more bold way of facing the death. Do others have the courage to face the death?? No!! What is the point in dying cowrdly , when one is not prepared????