On Monday afternoon, nearly 200 members of the Jain community gathered at Sri Jain Seva Sangh Bhavan at Ramkote in central Hyderabad. The mood was sombre. Exactly a week ago, 13-year-old Aradhana Samdariya died two days after she completed 68 days of fasting. Many of the people present at this meeting, had taken part in Aradhana's 'send-off' on 4 October.
The closed door meeting that was called 'chintan sabha' (a meet for introspection) lasted a little over an hour. When they trooped out, it was obvious the community had decided to close ranks. Aradhana's death on Monday night was not due to fasting, they said.
"The cause of her death is not the penance. She died two days after breaking her fast," pointed out Ashok Sanklecha, president of the Sri Jain Seva Sangh Bhavan. Some members said 'tapasya' (single-minded devotion) cannot lead to death. Others pointed to Aradhana's fasting track record: She had fasted for eight days in 2014, for 34 days in 2015 and now 68 days this year.
"Jain dharma does not believe in superstitions or miracles. In this case, Aradhana was aware about the strength of her body and accordingly decided on the fast,'' he added.
The Hyderabad police has filed an FIR against Aradhana's parents, Laxmichand Samdariya and Manisha for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and under the Juvenile Justice Act for failure to protect the child. If found guilty, they could be behind bars for upto 10 years. At the meeting, members expressed unhappiness over what they see as an attempt to curb the practice of their religion. Laxmichand said they are being targeted by people who do not understand the ethos of Jainism.
"She has been fasting since she was five years old. She would fast for a day when she was that young. There was never any compulsion,'' said Laxmichand, who runs a jewellery shop in Secunderabad. Grandfather Manekchand Samdariya pointed out that fasting to achieve purification of the soul is a Jain way of life. He says Aradhana was always religiously inclined and had wanted to become a Jain monastic when she was 11. "I told her to wait until she was 16," he said.
The family says that Aradhana was in fact, asked to stop the fast after she finished 35 days of fasting, one day more than last year. "But she did not want to stop. So we would take permission everyday from our Guruji in Chennai, one day at a time," said Laxmichand.
On 1 October, a grand rath yatra was organised in Secunderabad in which Aradhana was taken around decked up, seated on a chariot. Over 600 people took part in it, most of them praising the Class VIII student for her perseverance. No one thought it necessary to tell the family that they were playing with Aradhana's life.
In the two days after she broke her fast, Aradhana was on a liquid diet, even put on drip to help her recover from the weakness. Around 11pm on Monday, when she began to perspire, and collapsed, she was rushed to Kims Hospital, where she was declared 'brought dead', having suffered a cardiac arrest.
The next day, Aradhana was cremated, with religious monks advising the family to observe it as a 'shobha yatra'. The family has received letters from Jain spiritual leaders who advised that they should keep grieving rituals to the minimum. It is very clear from the sequence of events that the family and the community at large is convinced that they did no wrong.
While it is obvious that the parents will be booked since Aradhana was primarily their responsibility, how can the others who encouraged her to carry on with her fast not come under the scanner. Why wouldn't the monk who permitted her to continue with the fast, figure in the FIR? Can the 600-odd people who clicked selfies with her on the 68th day of her fast, absolve themselves of guilt? Did Zaheerabad MP BB Patil who attended the 1 October event as chief guest tell Aradhana's parents that what they have done is not right? Didn't the St Francis School have the responsibility to see that a student did not miss school because she was taking part in a fast?
With its tendency to glorify life in the 'fast' lane, by lauding those who are able to fight the demon of hunger, the high priests of the religion cut young Aradhana's journey short
But the community is finding fault with the media for its reportage — accusing it of running a slander campaign against it. WhatsApp messages within Jain community groups are doing the rounds emphasising that Aradhana did not fast for her family to do well in the jewellery business. "Jain monks do not compel anyone to fast, they do not even keep any money with them so the question of greed does not arise," it read.
But not everyone within the community is on the same page and there are some who think Aradhana's tragic death is a rude wake-up call. Entrepreneur Prashant Jain said, "Teach yourself and your kids to be rebels and question all views so that they may learn from experience rather than by social conditioning."
Child rights activists are livid that religiosity is clouding thinking even in educated Jain families. In this case, Aradhana's two aunts are doctors. A child rights organisation is demanding that Aradhana's younger sister be taken away from the parents lest she too be pushed into record fasting. "The right of a child should take precedence over religion and culture. Over here, it is the question of right to life of a child," said Shantha Sinha, former chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Jainism encourages its followers to explore their inner self. But with its tendency to glorify life in the 'fast' lane, by lauding those who are able to fight the demon of hunger, the high priests of the religion cut young Aradhana's journey short.