The Supreme Court allowed the Jain practice of Santhara, which was earlier banned by a Rajasthan High Court order, and gave the Rajasthan government and the Centre four weeks to answer why it had opposed the practice. Last week, a Jain body had moved the Supreme Court challenging the Rajasthan High Court order declaring the ritual of Santhara or fasting unto death a penal offence. The petition by Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad said that Santhara was not an act to terminate one’s life, but a vow intended to purify the soul from the karmas and it could not be equated with the offence of suicide.
According to a survey conducted in 2006, on an average 200 Jains practice sallekhana until death each year in India. Statistically, Sallekhana is undertaken both by men and women of all economic classes and among the educationally forward Jains. If we believe on the survey statistic, it is done by more women than men. In around 300 BC, Chandragupta Maurya (founder of the Maurya Empire) undertook Sallekhana atop Chandragiri Hill, Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa, Karnataka. Acharya Shantisagar, a highly revered Digambara Jain saint of the modern India took Sallekana on 18 August, 1955. He decided to take the vow in July 1955, on account of inability to walk without help and weak eye-sight. He died on 18 September 1955. Sallekhana is often compared with suicide. According to Purushartha Siddhyupaya, when death is near, the vow of sallekhanā is observed by properly thinning the body and the passions. It also mentions that, sallekhanā is not suicide since the person observing it, is devoid of all passions like attachment.
Like most religions, Jainism forbids all forms of suicides. Suicide involves an intentional act of harm against oneself with a known outcome that negatively affects those left behind. It is believed that the precipitous taking of one’s life constitutes only a perpetuation of the karma from the current life (particularly that associated with negativity or suffering), which is thus “inherited” by the subsequent life to be assumed through reincarnation. Suicide does not allow escape from one’s karma, nor from one’s cycle of births and rebirths. However, in the practise of Sallekhana, it is viewed that death is “welcomed” through a peaceful, tranquil process that provides peace of mind and sufficient closure for the adherent, their family and/or community.
Whereas, suicide is an act of extreme desperation fuelled by anguish and hopelessness, a Sallekhana practitioner relinquishing food and drink voluntarily by this method has arrived at that decision after calm and unruffled introspection, with an intention to cleanse oneself of karmic encumbrances and thus attain the highest state of transcendental well-being. Sallekhana, for him/her, is therefore simply an act of spiritual purification premised on an exercise of individual autonomy. In both the writings of Jain Agamas and the general views of many followers of Jainism, due to the degree of self-actualisation and spiritual strength required by those who undertake the ritual, Sallekhana is considered to be a display of utmost piety, purification and expiation.
It is prescribed both for the householder and ascetics. Sallekhana is made up from two words sal (meaning ‘properly’) and lekhana, which means to thin out. Properly thinning out of the passions and the body is ‘Sallekhanā’. Sallekhana is allowed only when a person is suffering from incurable disease or great disability or when a person is nearing his end. It is a highly respected practice among the members of the Jain community. There is a similar Hindu practice known as Prayopavesa or Sanjeevan samadhi. Sallekhana is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death. It should not be taken as to end the life. The person does not wish to die nor he/she is aspiring to live in a state of inability where he/she can’t undertake his/her own chores. The person is peacefully in observance of all the religious activities, spends maximum time in discussing and listening to the sermons and religious texts. There is a daily prayer for every devout member of Jain community wherein he/she wishes to be able to face death after having taken the vow of Sallekhana. Due to the prolonged nature of Sallekhana, the individual is given ample time to reflect on his or her life. The purpose is to purge old karmas and prevent the creation of new ones. According to Tattvartha Sutra (a compendium of Jain principles): “A householder willingly or voluntary adopts Sallekhana when death is very near.
In 2006 human rights activist Nikhil Soni and his lawyer Madhav Mishra, filed a Public Interest Litigation with the Rajasthan High Court. The PIL claimed that Sallekhana should be considered to be suicide under the Indian legal statute. They argued that Article 21 of the Indian constitution only guarantees the right to life, but not to death. The petition extends to those who facilitate individuals taking the vow of with aiding and abetting an act of suicide. In response, the Jain community argued that it is a violation of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. It was argued that Sallekhana serves as a means of coercing widows and elderly relatives into taking their own lives. This landmark case sparked debate in India, where national bioethical guidelines have been in place since 1980. In August 2015, the Rajasthan High Court stated that the practice is not an essential tenet of Jainism and banned the practice making it punishable under section 306 and 309 (Abetment of Suicide) of the Indian Penal Code. On Monday, Supreme Court of India stayed the decision of Rajasthan High Court and lifted the ban on it.
Source various agencies.