A 13-year-old girl died of cardiac arrest this Monday after fasting for 68 days. This even as public events were organised to celebrate her 'baal tapasvi' status. The glorification seemed to continue even after her death as a massive funeral procession, called shobha yatra, was organised, in which some 600 people participated.
Ironic for a religion that advocates non-violence and does not allow for accidental killing even for small insects and microbes. Community members, in fact, wear masks so that they don't accidentally inhale small organisms in the air. Whereas the 13-year-old, we are told, did not have even water, leave alone any fruits or food.
Aradhana Samdariya was not from an uneducated family. She was a class 8 student at St Francis in Hyderabad, but she stopped going to school after starting upvaas or fasting ritual. Her father and grandfather are in the jewellery business and own a shop in the Pot Bazaar area of Secunderabad. Her two aunts are doctors, one a paediatrician and the other a gynaecologist.
Aradhana's father Lakshmichand Samdariya is now being accused by Balala Hakkula Sangh, a child rights organisation, of allowing his daughter to die in the hope of bettering his business prospects.
"That is so harsh. Aradhana wanted to take deeksha when she was 11 years old. I did not allow that. I said wait till you are 16. She asked me for permission to do upvaas. We never expected this to happen," says grandfather Manekchand Samdariya.
"The same people who came and appreciated that your daughter is doing something so great are now saying, you starved her to death," says Lakshmichand Samdariya, Aradhana's father.
Manekchand says Aradhana fasted as per Jain rituals during the holy period of chaumasa. This is a severe form of fasting, called upvaas where even drinking water isn't allowed sipped. Aradhana had done it for shorter periods in the past too. "We did not do it secretly. She completed the 68-day fast and everyone participated in the parna," he says.
Parna is a ceremony held on the successful completion of fasting. In fact, leading Hindi newspapers had quarter page advertisements, announcing the grand function of completion of 68 days of fasting by 'baal tapasvi Aradhana'. Political leaders, including Telangana sports minister Padma Rao Goud and Zaheerabad MP BB Patil were announced as chief guests. "No one said it was wrong at that time," the family points out.
On 1 October, Aradhana was dressed up like a goddess and taken on a chariot ride at a Jain community centre. On 3 October, she reportedly collapsed late in the night and was taken to the KIMS hospital in Hyderabad, where the medical report says she died of a cardiac arrest.
Photographs and plaques kept as showpieces at the Samdariya residence indicate that for the family it was a matter of pride that Aradhana had achieved what most peers and even elders could not. Aradhana's photograph, all dressed up, taken on completion of an earlier fast of 39 days, is the centrepiece.
The family says several religious heads of the community have written to them that Aradhana's death is not to be mourned as a loss but to be looked upon as a matter of pride as she had achieved 'moksha'. The family was, in fact, advised not to hold mourning rituals.
Psychologists point out that subtle coercion by parents can psychologically maim a child. "The messaging is important. When religion is brought into the mix, it also brings in guilt if not conformed to. The child is made to believe it is for the good of the family. What is sacrificed is the health of the minor," says Purnima Nagaraja, clinical psychiatrist.
Aradhana's father Lakshmichand Samdariya is now being accused by Balala Hakkula Sangh, a child rights organisation, of allowing his daughter to die in the hope of bettering his business prospects
Religious leaders however, deny any coercion to fast and say fasting by youngsters is not uncommon. Maharasa Ravinder Muniji, a Jain monk in Hyderabad says, "Pregnant women or those who are unwell should not fast. But there is no bar on children fasting. But how much they should fast ought to depend on their own individual capacity."
Sanjay (name changed) however, says his mother had pressured him to undertake a 11-day fast. "It was difficult but then my mother would say, if someone else is doing it, why can't you. So I and a couple of my friends did it."
Sanjay says his parents now say what happened to Aradhana is wrong although what she achieved is great. "I also would like to emulate her. However, I think her parents should have stopped her. It is their mistake," says the 16-year-old. It is obvious his mind has been manipulated to think record days of fasting is the goal to achieve.
Child rights activist Isidore Phillips says any religious or spiritual practise or any form of abstinence has to be age appropriate. "You cannot put the burden of religion on a child; it mars the child's thinking. The family has the custodial responsibility of the child. In this case, it clearly failed to guide Aradhana. We need to go slow on such practises," says Phillips.
What seems worrisome is that while religious elders dub this as an accident, the glorification of Aradhana and her death could most likely wrongly inspire youngsters like Sanjay to push themselves towards more difficult and often impossible goals, within what is essentially a closed community, where those undertaking upvaas for three days, a week, 11 days, 21 days and more are publicly honoured and showered with gifts.
Horrified members of the Jain community are now raising their voice against this practise. One of them, Lata Jain says, "The problem is with the manner in which the youngsters who fast are lauded at community meetings by religious elders. If not a murder, this is a suicide.''
For a 13-year-old, to get carried away by all the adulation is easy and that is what seems to have happened in Aradhana's tragic case.