On May 12, 2014, 67-year-old Param Chand Nahata, a Calcutta businessman and social worker, was on a trip to Gaya, Bihar, when his son, Pankaj, called. “Dadima has decided to go on santhara,” he said, sounding frantic. Nahata says: “I rushed back. We all tried to dissuade her, but she was firm in her resolve. She stopped taking food and water from that day onwards and 18 days later, she died.” Lilawati was 101 years, and told her family, comprising sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, that she had already lived a full life and that there was nothing more to be gained by being alive. She requested everyone to allow her to make this “joyous journey” on her own terms without creating “emotional obstacles”. Says Param Chand, “We were heartbroken. No matter how old your mother is, you can never really let go. And my children and grandchildren loved her dearly.”
It’s a huge emotional issue, but ask the Nahata family if they support the Rajasthan High Court’s order of last week banning santhara, the Jain religious custom of fasting to death to gain salvation. The answer is a unanimous no. “None of us agrees with the court order because it denies a person the divine right to choose the path of his or her own death,” they say. The court had reasoned that such customs, cherished as they were by some religious groups, left open the possibility of abuse: elderly relatives could be coerced or forced into it by family members seeking inheritance or perhaps seeking to avoid the burden of medical treatment. In fact, it was just such a case that compelled Nikhil Soni, a Mumbai-based lawyer and human rights activist, to file the public interest legislation that led to the HC judgement.
Soni’s PIL brought to the court’s notice that Bimla Devi, an elderly woman with terminal cancer, was being forced into santhara by her relatives, and that at the time of her death, her desperate cries for water were drowned out by the chanting and praying of the crowd of devout who had gathered to watch her passing. The court order noted that it is the elderly and the helpless who are pushed to such ritual suicide.
Many Jains, however, say they are horrified that a court could interpret a spiritual custom steeped in the notion of renunciation in terms of the basest propensities of the human mind, such as the urge to push a loved one into death for material gain. “A few exceptional cases of such abuse may have taken place in all the years that the tradition has been in place, but to take this as the norm and deliver a judgement on the basis of this premise is not correct,” Param Chand protests.
Calcutta has the third-largest number of Jain families in India, after Delhi and Mumbai. There are some 10,000-plus families of the Digambara sect (‘sky-clad’, so called because their priests abjure clothing) and as many families of the Swetambara (those clad in white) sect. “It’s also a city where you’ll find many families with members who have performed santhara,” says Param Chand, adding that he would put the numbers at two or three per year for many years in continuity.
Leaders of the Jain community also say there are many different types of santhara. Explains one, “The most common is that in which an elderly family member goes into it by just announcing it to her children and close relatives and begins the fast, taking no food or water until they die.”
“The critics of santhara are unable to fathom the spiritual significance of the practice. It’s a way of taking control...”
Acharya Vijay Kirti Yash Suri, Swetambara acharya
Fasting and penance—including some discomforting forms of self-mortification—are ingrained in the lives and rituals of the Jains. Children as young as seven or eight years often take part in some of them, under the watch of adepts. This is done in order to continuously reinforce in the minds of followers the guiding principles of restraint, non-killing and non-lying. Many fasts are on specific days, but quite often, devout Jains decide on their own to undertake fasts, as penance or as part of a retreat of a few days.
Santhara is seen as no more than the ultimate extension of such fasts. The process has been refined by monks and abbots, and when a person decides to undertake santhara, it is always after consultation with spiritual leaders. At every step, they guide the person. Not only does the person stop taking food and water, he or she begins a process of meditation and withdrawal from the world. This is believed to facilitate the lifting of the soul slowly from the body, the separation resulting in death. Crowds of devout gather at the place where the person is performing santhara; there is chanting and prayer; the funeral procession turns into a major religious affair.
While most Jains across India have spoken out against the ban, perceiving it to be an infringement on their religious rights and therefore unconstitutional—they argue that the petition violates Articles 25, 26b and 29i, protecting religious freedom—there are equally, some moderate voices from within the community that are willing to debate, if not santhara itself, at least the circumstances in which it could be abused.
For instance, Calcutta entrepreneur Sundeep Bhutoria wrote in an article after the ban was imposed: “According to the books, the greatest ascetic discipline in the Jain tradition is the rite of the santhara (or sallekhana). It combines the mandates of both asceticism and non-injury. When final, complete purification is attained, the soul rises to a transcendental realm of pure omniscience.... But in reality things are quite different.” He then points out several examples of how santhara has been abused, including two 2006 cases in Rajasthan.
Jain priests say that now, santhara is coming to be seen in a different, sceptical light, drawing comparisons with sati (banned by the British), in which widowed women were for centuries forced to commit suicide by jumping into the funeral pyre of their husbands. They say the opposition to santhara stems from ignorance. “Santhara will begin to make sense to all those who are now criticising it when they realise it is not a means to a death, but a person’s decision to stop looking after a body which he or she would have to discard sooner or later anyway. It is a process of detachment,” says Acharya Vijay Kirti Yash Suri Maharaj, a Jain priest of the Swetambara sect, defending the centuries-old religious tradition. He adds that critics are “unable to fathom the complex spiritual significance of the practice”. “It is a way of taking control over your own death in a positive state of mind rather than being forced into it against your will, which is what happens to mortals in most cases,” he says. Indeed, the very rationale of modern western medical science that every possible medical treatment must be administered in order to keep a human life alive is questioned by the community, which believes in the “dignity of life” and its quality over longevity.