Monday, July 30, 2012

Seeing a 'Sallekhana': Jain woman who had taken death vow under an ancient tradition gives up life after long fast

The Santhara [or Sallekhana] is a Jain ritual, under which people make a decision to voluntarily die by giving up food and water totally, which results in their death.

Though not too common, quite a lot of Jains are undertaking this vow. Its an ancient practice, as Jainism is one of the oldest religions.

An elderly Jain woman--Chain Kunwar, a nonagenarian, recently gave up her life by observing the 'Sallekhana'. She was 93.

Chain Kunwar, who was wife of late BL Jain, had decided that she had lived her life and it was of no further use. She decided to undergo Santhara. The old woman got even more frail within days, as she could no longer eat or take every a drop of water.

The Death Vow

Already, there was news circulating among the community members about a 'Sallekhana'. When she finally died, thousands had reached the place to participate in the last ritual. Munis and newly initiated monks were part of the programme.

Mortal remains in palanquin procession
The mortal remains [body] was kept in the palanquin [palki] in 'padmasana' position and after the rituals, taken for last rites.

Though a section criticises the practice and terms it a sort of suicide, followers of Jainism say that it is the highest and purest form of death.

Chain Kunwar becomes Ajeyamati Mata

Only recently, Chain Kunwar, had told her family members that she would renunciate the world through this age-old path.

She was taken to the Jinalaya [popularly known as Jain Mandir or temple] were a Saint made her take the vow.

Now she was rechristened and given the honorary name as Aryika Ajeyamati* Mata. From then onward she shunned food and water. [*the victorious, one couldn't be conquered]

Demise on Tenth Day

On the tenth day, the soul departed. Amid chants of the Navkar Mantra, and amid presenece of thousands of devotees, the funeral procession began from the Jinalaya. Some local politicians also reached to seek her blessings.

Most of those who were part of the procession belonged to Digambar Jain sect [though there were people from some other sects of Jainism and also other religions] reached there to witness the 'shobha yatra' and the last journey.

The large crowd during the final procession
"When a person feels that he or she has no more to gain from or give to the society, they take this vrat".

That's what says a Jain devout over the controversies regarding the death fast and opposition to this tradition.

"It is not about religious dogma but this is a radical and modern approach towards life and death".

"And the person who thinks on a much more philosophical plane, takes the decision, voluntarily", he says. "It is not suicide but a refined way of renouncing the world, happily", he further adds. The Jains say that it is not euthanasia, which is intentional death, do escape from pain or illness.

Spirit and Spectacle

The procession was impressive, both in terms of strength and the passion among the crowd. People were happy that a woman in the city has become a 'Sant', by taking up the vow and letting her soul escape the body.

Catching the last glimpse!
There were banners with 'Jai Mahavir' written over them. Besides, there were posters depicting other religious messages that also had photographs of the idols of Jain tirthankars.

On way one could see Jain youth lined up. Many scaling the walls, to catch a last glimpse of Ajeyamati Mata Ji. It was quite a spectacle, indeed.

'Not suicide but leaving the world Gracefully'

Rather, it is voluntary fasting to death, which is sublime form of leave from the world gracefully. Though it often comes in conflict with law, as it is a ritual and part of a religious community's heritage, there is generally no obstruction by authorities.

During the event, one could feel how India has such a unique culture with innumerable traditions [of diverse faiths], many of which are not even known to people in other countries.

As Jains are not a large community, but because they are more numerous in cities and towns, particularly, in markets and business areas, the ceremonies and practices which were not too well known earlier are also getting more coverage in media, and thus reaching the wider public.