Debating Santhara: This Jain practice is not suicide, but Indian laws don't see it that way

(Editor's note: This article was republished in light of the Supreme Court's stay on the Rajasthan High Court judgment banning the Santhara ritual.)

Ibrahim Zauq, poet laureate of the Mughal court under Bahadur Shah Zafar, wrote a poignant couplet about our inability to control the two most important events of life: birth and death.

"Layi hayat aaye, qaza le chali chale; na apni khushi aaye, na apni khushi chale, (Life brought me, death took me away. I neither came of my free will, nor leave with my consent)," he observed.

For ages, humans have pondered over their inability to choose the date, circumstances and their place of birth and realised the utter futility of the quest. But the idea of choosing the circumstances of death, of leaving the material world at one's own khushi (free will or volition) has lingered. The thought of a beautiful death, the pursuit of a planned and painless end has crossed many minds, sometimes even as the final goal of life.

The concept of 'Ichcha Mrityu' (the power to decide when and how to die) has been a constant theme of our culture. In our mythology, it has been described as a rare gift, reserved only for the greatest of souls and those who earned it as the ultimate reward for their righteous karma and dharma.

In Mahabharata, for instance, when Shantanu was happy with his son Devavrata (Bhishma) for the sacrifices he made for him, he blessed the son with Ichcha Mrityu, a right that Gangaputra later exercised in the battlefield.

 Debating Santhara: This Jain practice is not suicide, but Indian laws dont see it that way

A file photo of 78-year-old Taraben Chovatia, who had renounced food in 2008, as part of Santhara. AFP

In Jainism, the concept of choosing the manner and time of one's death is a centuries-old ritual. The devout Jains believe that Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar, allowed Santhara, or Sallekhana, as the ultimate test of spirituality, will power, whose ultimate goal is purifying body and mind and facing death voluntarily.

According to the ritual, which Jains believe has been prevalent for thousands of years, a person voluntarily gives up food and water, either because of an incurable illness or due to the belief that the end is near. It is reserved only for the old and the invalid and is practised rarely. According to this Times of India report, in the first half of 2015, around 118 Jains performed Santhara across India.

The ritual has, however, been banned by the Rajasthan High Court. In its judgment on August 10, the court declared Santhara as illegal and made the practice punishable under Section 309 of the IPC. It compared it with suicide. The court also added that there is no evidence or material to prove that Santhara is not an essential Jain practice without adhering to which, practicing Jainism would be difficult.

The Jains have challenged the ban in the Supreme Court saying it can't be compared with suicide or euthanasia. On Monday, they came out on the streets of several Indian cities in large numbers to seek the apex court's intervention and protest the ban.

It is difficult to argue that Santhara is different from suicide or euthanasia. In the end, the objective of all these concepts is death, the destruction of life and mortal body. But, the Jains believe the difference is in the motivation for both the acts.

Suicide is a desperate measure, triggered by failure and setbacks in life; it is an act of cowardice, a surrender to the circumstance because of lack of will power. It is a decision forced upon the person by external circumstances. According to the Jains, Santhara is the exact opposite of this.

In one of his discourses, Osho Rajneesh had tried to differentiate between death as a spiritual discipline and suicide. "Mahavira says, 'Go on a fast, and die of hunger.' It takes ninety days for a normal, healthy person to die of hunger. If he is weak in resolve--even a little bit--the desire for food will return the next day... If Mahavira had given the permission to die by taking poison, drowning in a river, jumping off a mountain, it would have been a matter of instant death. But a warrior good for showing only a moment's bravery is of no use in the battlefield, because he will become a coward the next moment...So Mahavira has given permission to commit santhara, causing death to oneself as a spiritual discipline."

The problem in dealing with Santhara, and other religious practices, as Mumbai-based professor of constitutional law Shekhar Hattangadi argues, is that our law ignores some of the beliefs of Indian religions since it is based on the Westminster model of our colonial rulers. "The concept of suicide associated with religion is a repugnant one for the mainstream Anglo-Saxon West, whose Judeo-Christian beliefs would denounce such an act as antithetical to the moral and ethical principles espoused by Christianity."

Theological and philosophical beliefs play an important role in the social acceptance of rituals like Santhara. For Jains, as also for Hindus, for instance, the concepts of moksha and rebirth are linked to the nature and quality of death. As Osho argues, the purpose of Santhara is to cleanse the spirit, prepare it for rebirth and, by choosing death through this method, become the determiner of the next birth.

Since religion predates the current legal framework and law, a conflict arises every time ancient eastern customs and practices are seen through the prism of a modern, West-inspired law. The concept of a beautiful death as the perfect end to this life and the ideal beginning of the next may be based on our philosophical, spiritual and religious tenets. But, it is unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny under the existing legal framework.

The only hope for Santhara, it seems, lies in decriminalisation of suicide and legal acceptance of euthanasia. The path to moksha for Santhara goes through the acceptance of universal right to Ichcha Mrityu.

Updated Date: Aug 31, 2015 17:16:00 IST