Jains: Santhara Ritual

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More Jains embracing ancient santhara ritual

The Times of India, March 18, 2010

Hemali Chhapia & Mansi Choksi

The death of 60-year-old Jain monk Sadhvi Charan Pragyaji on September 11 last year was different from any that the tiny town of Bhilwada in Rajasthan had witnessed. Over 20,000 Jains from across the country thronged the hamlet, not in white to mourn the loss but in their finest bandhnis. They came to join a massive celebration to mark Sadhvi’s death, for she was the only Jain to have survived a santhara of 87 days, the longest in recent collective memory.

Santhara is the Jain practice of voluntary and systematic fasting to death. Jain texts say it is the ultimate route to attaining moksha and breaking free from the whirlpool of life and death. According to Babulal Jain Ujjwal, editor of the All India Jain Chaturmas Suchi(a veritable fount of information of Jainism), the practice is spiralling — more than 550 Jains took the vow in 2009 compared to 465 in 2008. This year, 45 Jains have already embraced santhara.

‘‘Every single day through the year, a Jain somewhere in the country takes up this holy vow,’’ says Ujjwal, adding that in Mumbai, the longest santhara was observed for 59 days last year by a Jain sadhvi in Malad. Kutch in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka account for the most santharas in the country.

Contrary to popular belief, Santhara is not the preserve of Jain monks who have renounced worldly affairs. ‘‘In fact, more ordinary Jains take up santhara than monks,’’ says Jitendra Shah, director of the LD Institute of Indology. ‘‘Another common misconception is that only people suffering from illness embrace the practice. That’s not true. Santhara is taken up with a view to sacrificing attachments, including one’s body.’’ Shah says the woman-man ratio of Santhara practitioners stands at 60:40, perhaps because ‘‘women are generally more strong-willed and have a religious bent of mind’’. Of late, Santhara has been embroiled in controversy, with critics equating the practice with suicide. But there are differing legal opinions on this. While advocate Sanjay Jain says that Articles 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution protect all religious practices, unless otherwise prohibited by law, Mahesh Jethmalani argues that any practice that eventually leads to death is attempted suicide.

The legal debate surrounding the practice has made the Jain community wary of publicising santharas. ‘‘Earlier, mainstream Gujarati and Hindi papers would advertise santharas so that people could pay their respects. However, the police have been cracking down, in some cases force-feeding the individual,’’ says a Kandivli housewife.


Judgement of Rajasthan High Court

India Today, August 27, 2015

Rohit Parihar

Law and life vs faith and death

Sociologist Rashmi Jain calls this form of voluntary death "a religious act accompanied by frenzy", and draws a parallel between santhara and sati, which stands outlawed.

Badana Devi Dagga began her 'voluntary' fast until death, as part of the Jain ritual santhara or sallekhana, on July 16. On August 10, as the 82-year-old from Bikaner, Rajasthan, entered the 26th day of her fasting and her family members and Jain monks got ready to accelerate her end by denying her even water, something stopped the religious leaders and the kin in their tracks. That day, the Rajasthan High Court ruled that the practice of santhara is illegal-an offence punishable for attempt to suicide under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). And those assisting the person in that voluntary death can be prosecuted for abetment to suicide under IPC Section 306. "The State," the High Court ruled, "shall stop and abolish the practice of 'Santhara' and 'Sallekhana' in Jain religion. Any complaint made in this regard shall be registered as a criminal case." The judgment came on a petition filed in 2006 by human rights activist Nikhil Soni through his lawyer Madhav Mitra. And that verdict-"Santhara is not an essential tenet of Jainism," the bench of Chief Justice Sunil Ambwani and Justice V.S. Siradhana observed-has opened a can of worms. On August 24, as Badana Devi's fast entered its 40th day and Sundar Kanwar, a Jain sadhvi (holy woman) also from Bikaner, died on the third day of her santhara, thousands of people from the community, including religious leaders, hit the streets in protest in several cities. However, despite claiming it to be at the core of Jainism, no leading Jain muni (priest) is learnt to have chosen santhara till date. Neither Acharya Tulsi, a leading figure from the religion who died in 1997, nor his successor Acharya Mahapragya, who died in 2010, sought voluntary death, even though both died following prolonged illnesses. It is primarily the elderly , and even among them the seriously ailing and those near death, who are made to undertake santhara-and often against their desire-although certain cases of children being pushed towards death is also not unheard of. Divided they stand Sociologist Rashmi Jain calls this form of voluntary death "a religious act accompanied by frenzy", and draws a parallel between santhara and sati, which stands outlawed. Like her, many Jains are backing the court judgment despite the widespread criticism of it from most sections of the community. "I consider santhara inhuman," says social and cultural activist Sundeep Bhutoria. "It is often misused-a person who cannot live long due to medical reasons is forced into starvation in the name of religious sacrifice."

Man Singh Khandela, General Secretary, Akhil Bharatiya Jain Jagriti Parishad, calls santhara antithetical to the religious message of Jainism. As a corollary, he says, "It is logical to conclude that those helping one perform santhara are also abetting suicide." Pointing out that courts have banned the sacrifice of animals in temples despite opposition from certain religious quarters, Khandela says, "Be it sati or santhara, you can't take away a life that you can't give." A special act against sati had followed a nationwide outrage after Roop Kanwar, a teen widow, burnt herself on her husband's pyre as thousands cheered on in Deorala village of Rajasthan's Sikar district in 1987. Significantly, only eight recorded cases of sati had taken place in Rajasthan since independence until 1987. In comparison, santhara is widely prevalent: conservative estimates put the number of such voluntary deaths at 300 each year. And this is what the critics of the court verdict are pointing towards. Fearing a political and judicial backlash, like against sati in 1987, they are vehemently differentiating it from both suicide and sati. As Tarun Sagar, a firebrand Jain monk, says, "Santhara is not an impulsive act. It is a sanatan (loosely translated, eternal) action that takes 12 years in which one gradually stops eating." Praman Sagar, another priest, calls it part of the basic meditation of Jains. Like the religious leaders, many prominent citizens from the community have criticised the judgment. These include some former judges, former Securities and Exchange Board chief D.R. Mehta, Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, who has called for legal recourse by the community, and state BJP chief Ashok Parnami, who joined the protest march by the community in Jaipur on August 24. Yet, the community realises that mere protests will cut no ice with the judicial process. A review petition and appeals before the high court and the Supreme Court have thus been moved. As Badana Devi survives on just water (this report was written on August 25), the crevasse is growing wider and the differences deeper. Her family and many in her community hope the case for santhara will be reasoned better before the apex court. Those opposed to it hope the number of people choosing this voluntary form of death is so negligible that it can be abandoned without causing any harm to the religion. But the bigger question is, can the state on the one hand force-feed Irom Sharmila, the Manipuri rights activist who has been on hunger strike since November 2000 to protest against the imposition of AFSPA, and look the other way when it is done in the name of religion?

Jain practice of Santhara suicide: HC


1. The Times of India, Aug 11 2015

2. The Times of India, Aug 11 2015, PJ Joychen

The Rajasthan high court declared the practice of `Santhara' or `Sullekhana' -or fasting unto death -within the Jain community as illegal, reports P J Joychen. The court called the practice punishable under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as an attempt to commit suicide. It said support to Santhara would be punishable as abetment under section 306 of the IPC.

The centuries-old practice has been in the news since 2006 when 93year-old Keila Devi Hirawat from Jaipur performed Santhara, triggering a debate in the world media whether such a practice is out of place in the modern era.

Jain saints argue that Santhara is a voluntary act carried out rationally and cannot be considered suicide.They say it is something one does with full knowledge and intent, unlike suicide, which is typically an emotional and impulsive act.

The court of chief justice Sunil Ambwani and justice VS Siradhana, issuing the order on a PIL filed by a human rights activist Nikhil Soni, said, “The state shall stop and abolish the practice of Santhara in the Jain religion in any form. Any complaint made in this regard shall be registered as a criminal case and investigated by the police in the light of the recognition of law in the Constitution of India and in accordance with section 309 (attempt to suicide) and section 306 (abetment).“

The petitioner had argued the Constitution guarantees the right to life and protects life.

“The right to freedom of religion under Article 25 is subject to public order, morality and health. A practice, however ancient, cannot be allowed to violate the right to life of an individual,“ the petitioner argued.

The court said the respondents had failed to establish Santhara as an essential religious practice without which the following of Jain religion would not be possible.

“There is no evidence or material to show that Santhara has been practiced by persons professing Jain religion even prior to or after the promulgation of the Constitution. The over riding and governing principle of public orders, morality and health conditions the right to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion,“ the court said.

Soni and his lawyer Madhav Mishra had filed the PIL claiming Santhara should be considered suicide under the law. One of the concerns raised was that it is old people who usually resort to Santhara, and that allowing an elderly person to suffer without medical assistance, food and water is inhuman.

Jain saint Munishri Praman Sagarji Maharaj said the community would appeal in the Supreme Court within 90 days.

Santhara is not suicide: Singhvi

The Times of India, Aug 28 2015

Abhishek Singhvi  Rajasthan high court judgment equating the two must be rectified

A charitable description of the judgment would be to call it a digest of arguments and rival contentions, compiled in haste, arranged without finesse, concluded largely without logic and reason, and written perfunctorily and casually.

Forty-one of its 46 pages are a mechanical collection and recitation of rival contentions, with the last four pages perfunctorily reaching the above conclusion, without repelling any of the detailed material and weighty submissions of the Jain community.

Secondly, the Article 25 constitutional guarantee of freedom of conscience and right to freely profess, practise and propagate one's religion is repelled qua santhara by reaching the startling conclusion that there is no evidence or material to show that santhara has been practised by Jains as a religious tenet prior to or after 1950! This will make ancient scholars turn over loudly in their graves and Jain researchers, analysts and authors weep.

References to santhara are many and diverse, physical as also documentary .Many were filed in the high court.

It is explained extensively in Ratnakarandaka Shravakachara of 2nd century AD by Acharya Samantabhadra (Shlokas 122 to 135, also translated by Champat Rai Jain); Chandragupta Maurya, who took and implemented the santhara vow, is archaeologically depicted by ASI Bengaluru Circle 2005; the commemorative Brahmdev pillar at Shravan Belgola of 974 AD with the Kannada inscription depicts the valour and greatness of the Ganga King Marsimha, who, after fulfilling all his promises, relinquished sovereignty, observed the santhara vow for three days and attained samadhi in the presence of his guru Ajithsena Bhatarakha; diverse memorial stones depict 13th century Nishadhi Jains in Haveri district of Karnataka doing santhara; Hermann Jacobi's several books, Umaswati's Tatvavarthasutra, Millacra's KundaKunda and so on.

Thirdly , the judgment proceeds to propound that santhara has not been treated as an essential religious practice in any of the scriptures and, further, that what is required to be shown is not only that it is an essential Jain religious practice but that this practice is necessarily required for immortality or moksha or that this “is the only method without which moksha is not attainable“. This is a grievous legal error compounded by the earlier factual ignorance.

There is no mention of the word “essential“ nor of “essential religious practice“ in Article 25. Ambedkar's speech in the Constituent Assembly on December 2, 1948, and the early 1950s Supreme Court judgments make it unambiguously clear that “essential religious practice“ is used in contradistinction to non-religious secular activities. A key shift changes the word “essential“ from qualifying the nature of the practice (religious versus secular) to the later apex court orders using the same word to qualify its importance within the religion (ie essential to religion).

The high court proceeds in blissful ignorance of both the factual material referred above as also such legal nuances while arriving at sweeping conclusions, without giving a single reason why the aforesaid diverse ancient material does not qualify this practice as an intrinsic and essential part of Jainism.

Fourthly, the judgment has completely mixed up the philosophical origins of santhara and its fundamental conceptual differences with suicide, sati or euthanasia. Santhara is simply a Jain way of mastering the art of dying as much as the art of living. The animating object of the exercise is neither speedy death nor desire for enhanced lifespan.

Preconditions for santhara are unavoidable calamity, terminal illness, great natural disaster or imminent death in old age. A Jain may then embark on the ultimate renunciation of his life by preparing for a cheerful, stoic and positive outlook on death after having sought all forgivenesses and made every attempt to divorce himself from every possible attachment of life (like affection, attachment, grief or fear), in order to ensure permanent escape from the eternal and unending life cycle of karma.

By purely passive acts of omission, he may let life ebb away with bravery and stoicism. All the negativity, depression, despair, hopelessness, exhaustion, frustration, anxiety or tension associated with suicide is conspicuously missing as also are acts of positive commission involving himsa (violence), which are an essential ingredient of suicide and which, being anathema to Jains, are proscribed.

Similarly , the passionate attachment to a departed relative, the violent acts of commission and the glorification associated with sati are the very antithesis of santhara, apart from the significant difference that sati has been banned by parliamentary enactment.

All these fundamental differences are ignored in a simplistic, casual, superficial and perfunctory approach of the high court and no such analysis worth the name finds mention in its operative paragraphs.

It is a patently erroneous judgment waiting to be reversed and rectified.

2008-15: 400 Santharas in Dombivli, Mumbai

The Times of India, Aug 16 2015

Hemali Chhapia-Shah

In 7 yrs, Mum suburb sees 400 Santharas

Wrapped in a white linen cloth, Ratanshi Samji Savla's forehead is smeared with sandalwood powder as he lies listlessly on the floor of his tiny apartment in Mumbai suburb, Dombivli. A steady stream of harried visitors slip out of their footwear, bow down to the elderly man and then scurry to find a spot with a back rest. A fortnight ago, Savla's house wasn't like this. Posters directed people to his home; there were no designated visiting hours. His iconic status within the Jain community only came about in July this year when he decided to adopt the voluntary systematic fast to death called santhara, which lasted for nine days.

Soon after him, Kasturben Gala took the same spiritual decision to give up food and embrace Santhara. She made up her mind, and in the presence of her family and guru, vowed to abandon her body and purify her soul by purging old karmas, preventing the creation of new ones and “remaining indifferent to death“.

After 17 days of fasting, Kasturben passed away . Her body was draped in white, put into a palanquin in the lotus position (to symbolize that she would attain moksha) and taken to the cremation ground in a procession. Hundreds of Jains in bright clothes thronged the procession to get a final glimpse, and no one was permitted to shed a tear, for it is believed that Kasturben has moved on to a higher place.

“There is a chain of Santhara that bonds a sect of the community residing in Dombivli and Nalasopara. When one Santhara among the Kutchi Visa Oswal sect ends, another person picks it up,“ says Babulal Jain, a veritable fount of information on Jainism. The Rajasthan high court's ruling to declare Santhara (also known as sallekhana) as suicide and illegal notwithstanding, the century-old practice is only spiralling.

Santhara is the Jain practice of dietary abstinence that eventually leads to death. Jain texts say it is the ultimate route to attaining moksha and breaking free from the whirlpool of life and death.“In Dombivli and Nalasopara, there have been close to 400 Santharas in the last seven years,“ says Manish Gala, president of the Kutchi Visa Oswal Sangh, the section of the Jain community that is largely made of cloth and grain merchants. Dombivli has a dominant population of Kutchis -close to 20,000 who subscribe to their very own daily religious newspaper, Khabar Patika -that enlists, apart from the lectures of various monks, details of Santhara too.

In the first six months of this year, 118 Jains across the country relinquished food and water voluntarily and decided to exercise autonomy over one's body to free the soul. Of these, 11 Santharas were from Dombivli. Gala adds that in the last 20 years, 1,000 Kutchis have taken to Santhara. Contrary to popular belief that this is a morbid obsession, Jains believe that only the fortunate live to sign off their time in their world with a Santhara. “So many monks die a sudden death and cannot go on to do Santhara,“ adds Jain.More women than men go on to adopt it and the ratio stands at 60:40, adds Gala, whose father-in-law also embraced Santhara last year.

The vow as it is taken

When all the purposes of life have been served or when the body becomes unable to serve any purpose, I wish to be able to adopt santhara, a religious fast to death. I will abandon my body, which is very dear to my mind, the abode of my faith, like a box of ornaments containing precious stones. I will not care for the body in spite of feeling cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, or undergoing insect bites, troubles by other people, diseases, including those which may cause delirium, or other severe physical suffering.“

2016 : Controversial Santhara Ritual

Dr Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar , Death by fasting “India Today” 31/10/2016

Ever since a 13-year-old Jain girl died of cardiac arrest in the early hours of October 4, there has been an outcry by the media as well as child rights activists. It was assumed that Aradhana Samdariya, a deeply religious teenager who went on a ritual fast for 68 days, was forced or manipulated into fasting. It was even alleged that she fasted to help her father's business grow. The lack of grace by social activists and other liberal voices towards a family grieving the death of their child and the attitude of Jain religious leaders to perceive any interference with the spiritual practices of their community as a violation of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, exposes the urgent need for dialogue.

Enforcing laws to protect the well-being of minors and other members of a community must have priority over religious sentiments. Children in particular have to be protected from cultural or parental pressures to undertake religious rituals, or any activity for that matter that is potentially life-threatening. However, we also need to make an effort to understand some practices and beliefs of a community that seem removed from our modern world. Perhaps our secular perceptions are as self-righteous as those of some leading monks who deny outsiders any right to question matters of their community.

The current debate around rigorous fasting practices is not new to the Jain community. It was initially triggered in 2006 with the death of Kela Devi Hiravat (93) and Vimla Devi (61), two lay women, both terminally ill, who had chosen to practise sallekhana, a rare and highly respected ritual of fasting oneself to death, celebrated by thousands as the climax of a lived life that is coming to an end. Social activists criticised sallekhana as a cruel practice that had no place in modern society. The controversy around the legality of sallekhana came to a head when two lawyers filed a PIL in the high court of Rajasthan, claiming that sallekhana is a form of suicide, and thus illegal under Indian law. This led to a nationwide debate on euthanasia and bioethics. Jains would emphatically reject the idea of sallekhana being classified as suicide. They argue that a person who takes the vow of sallekhana, thus laying down his or her life intentionally, does not do this out of an emotional condition. If anything, sallekhana is considered to be a rational and conscious act of an advanced soul, while suicide is an outcome of emotional disturbances or unfavourable external circumstances, an act deeply reprehensible to the Jain community. Sallekhana and other fasting practicesare considered spiritual vows to conquer one's body and to surrender attachments.

It has to be remembered that Jainism is a religion of radical asceticism based on the principle of non-violence. It rejects the existence of god, though it does believe in a pluralistic system of souls. Without redemption through a divine power, the ultimate goal of life has to be self-realisation, which can only be achieved through one's own efforts. Here the practice of fasting comes into play. Fasting, together with meditation, is not just an act of 'thinning out' the body but 'thinning out' the passions, strictly speaking the five senses and four passions: anger, deceit, greed and pride.

But why are children encouraged to engage with spiritual matters, which also include fasting? The fostering of a child's self-discipline helps build inner strength, which will make the habit of fasting easier in later life. The readiness to sacrifice is of value and interest to the religious community and also helps produce monastic successors.

Without justifying the attitude of the parents and their community towards the fast 13-year-old Aradhana opted for, we then have to understand their perspective as well. For them, fasting is a core spiritual value linked to the mental state of equanimity. Thus, neither sallekhana nor the tragic and accidental death of the 13-year-old teenager is considered a form of suicide, or that they had abetted it.

To effectively protect minors from harmful religious activity, the enactment of new laws will not be sufficient. A dialogue with the affected community needs to be fostered, health information on the dangers of prolonged fasting provided, the enforcement of solutions from within the community encouraged. The issue of reconciling core religious beliefs and universal human rights, especially of women and children, is a contentious one in all communities, not only the Jains. Perhaps, as a first step, we should start engaging more open-mindedly with other cultural models of living and dying.

Dr Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar is an anthropologist who works as a visual artist and writer in Goa

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