Last month, a deeply religious man in India ended his life in a way that has been practiced for millennia by devout members of the Jain religion. His death made headlines when a state court in Rajasthan declared the practice, known as Santhara, illegal. The Jain community responded with protests, and the Indian Supreme Court ended up reversing the order until further deliberations.
Few may know of Jainism, an ancient Eastern religion similar to Buddhism, which has six million adherents in India and some 100,000 in North America. Jainism’s central theme is nonviolence. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi learned about nonviolence from a Jain monk. Additionally, Jains believe in non-absolutism, which means that one must realize that the real truth has multiple facets, and non-possessiveness, which means that one must balance needs and desires.
Among the many practices of Jains, such as vegetarianism, meditation, forgiveness, and fasting, santhara (also called Sallekhana) is the most austere and it is practiced primarily by strict adherents, Jain monks and nuns.
What is santhara and how does it differ from suicide? To answer that, we have to delve into the Jain scriptures and learn the conditions for santhara and the process of how it is performed.
Death with Equanimity: Santhara
To fully appreciate santhara, the process of dying with equanimity, we must understand Eastern religions, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, where the purpose of life is to advance one’s spirituality and minimize the “karmic” baggage in order to achieve salvation.
To a Jain the last moments in life are critical in determining the situation for future incarnations. Hence the ultimate hope of a spiritual person is to experience a passionless death and ideally “death while in meditation” or samadhi-marana.
By dying in meditation the aspirants are able to die with the mind being in complete awareness, calm and undisturbed by pain or emotions. Furthermore, the aspirants practice their ultimate belief that their body and the material world are not their pure self and that they can become detached from them. Hence, for a Jain, human death is not the destination or terminal point in the soul’s journey, rather it is a critical connecting point.
In order to die with equanimity the traditions have prescribed rules and rituals that assist in the act of santhara.
How is Santhara different from Suicide?
Death has many paths. In order to differentiate various types of deaths (accidental, murder, suicide, euthanasia, santhara) we need to ask four key questions.
1. Was the death premeditated?
2. Was the death consented to by the individual or family members?
3. Was the death purposeful?
4. Did the dying process follow a ritualistic tradition?
Accidental death such as a car crash meets none of the four criteria. A murder is often premeditated, yet not consented to by the victim and from the perspective of society it is not purposeful. Suicide is often premeditated and consented to by the self but not consented to by the family nor is it purposeful from the society’s perspective. Rather, suicide is an act under duress or excessive passion such as depression or rage. Euthanasia differs from suicide and murder in that it is premeditated, consented to by self or family and most important that it serves a purpose, such as relieving suffering from terminal cancer. Santhara is much like euthanasia but with an additional core element of following a well-defined ritualistic path.
Conditions for Santhara
When should one seek santhara? According to ancient Jain traditions four situations permit santhara.
1. An unavoidable calamity, such as an earthquake Upasarga
2. A great famine, durbhiksa
3. Old age with failing health, jara
4. Terminal illness in which death is imminent, Nihpratikara ruja.
Present day ethicists, doctors and politicians use similar conditions that were laid out by saints several thousand years ago.
How is Santhara performed? According to Hindu tradition the act of self-willed death called prayopavesa is done in the following manner.
1. The person makes the decision to die and declares it publicly (distinguishing it from suicide or traumatic emotional act done in anguish).
2. The person obtains forgiveness and forgives others for any harmful actions in their life.
3. The person takes a vow of death after discussion of the present condition with a saint.
4. The person meditates on the innermost self, the soul.
5. The person gradually abstains from solid food, liquids and then water.
6. The person goes into meditation as the soul releases from the body
A person seeking the vow of the holy death requests a vow from his teacher.
“Please instruct me, sir. I have come forward to seek … sallekhana, (the vow of) which will remain in force as long as I live. I am free of all doubts and anxieties in this matter. I renounce, from now until the moment of my last breath, food and drink of all kinds.”
If the teacher agrees and judges the person’s desire to be genuine, the teacher offers the vow. After the vow the person engages in confession or the ritual of forgiveness or pratikraman and self-censure or alochana. Then the teacher, depending on the person’s ability, gradually decreases the amount of food and water each day. Eventually, only water is given, and then the person goes on to a complete fast. There is dissociation with all and renunciation of all worldly matters. The person spends their final hours repeating the namokar mantra or listening to others chanting. Jains believe that the spiritual life is in preparation for such a sacred death, and wavering from this is similar to a warrior fleeing the battlefield at the very moment of combat.
Thus the state court got it wrong when it declared this ancient and sacred practice to be illegal, or it to be treated as suicide. Rather, santhara is a holy ritual that we can all learn from on how to die with equanimity.
Jaini, Padmanabh S.,The Jaina Path of Purification, MotilalBanarsidass Publishers, reprinted Delhi 1990.
Settar S, Pursuing Death: Philosphy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life, Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, Dharwad, 1990.
Jain Philosophy and Practice- JAINA Education Series, JES 401 (Compiled by JAINA Education Committee, Pravin K. Shah)
Subramuniyaswami, Satugur S.,Dancing with Siva- Hinduism’s Contemporary Catechism, Himalayan Academy Publishers, 1997.