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Sallekhana (also Santhara, Samadhi-marana, Sanyasana-marana), is the Jain practice of undertaking voluntary death at the end of one's life. It is a highly respected practice among the members of the Jain community. 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 'Sallekhana'. It is prescribed both for the householder (sravakas) and ascetics. Sallekhana is allowed only when a person is suffering from incurable disease or great disability or when a person is nearing his end. 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 Jain texts, sallekhanā leads to Ahimsa (non-injury), as person observing sallekhanā subjugates the passions, which are the root cause of himsā (injury or violence). After taking the vow of Sallekhana, one must not have the desire to live or desire to die. Practitioner shouldn't recollect the pleasures enjoyed or, long for the enjoyment of pleasures in future.
In Jainism, both ascetics and householders have to follow five major vows (vratas): Ahimsa (Nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-thieving), Brahmacharya (celibacy), Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness). Ascetics must observe these vows more strictly. Jain ethical code prescribe seven supplementary vows, which include three guņa vratas and four śikşā vratas.
- Guņa vratas
- digvrata- restriction on movement with regard to directions.
- bhogopabhogaparimana- vow of limiting consumable and non-consumable things
- anartha-dandaviramana- refraining from harmful occupations and activities (purposeless sins).
- Samayika- vow to meditate and concentrate periodically.
- Desavrata- limiting movement to certain places for a fixed period of time.
- Fasting at regular intervals.
- Vow of offering food to the ascetic and needy people.
An ascetic or householder who has observed all these vows to burn the karmas, take the vow of Sallekhana at the end of his life. Sallekhana is treated as a supplementary to the twelve vows taken by Jains. However, some Jain Acharyas such as Kundakunda, Devasena, Padmanandin and Vasunandin have included it under the last vow, śikşā-vrata.
Jains are strict vegetarians. In order to attain moksha all positive and negative karmas must be burnt. Santhara is a method of burning Karma when one has mastered self-control, has no worldly desires, inclination towards pleasures are nil, mentally and spiritually person is in sound health. Santhara is not allowed in conditions of good health, mental disease or unconsciousness, unwillingness, due family responsibilities, desire to eat or live, or remaining worldly desires. Healthy young adults or children are unfit (not allowed) to do santhara because they have family obligations, lives to live and religion to practice. It is allowed only in cases of impending death due to old age or terminal disease.
The basic idea in different kinds of Jain fasting is to acquire a lowest possible negative karma and purify oneself. The guiding philosophy is: "Our soul is immortal. Our soul goes from one body to another body (cycle of birth and rebirth or reincarnation) just like we change old clothes. For betterment of our soul we must be free from desires and kamas. By practicing Jain principles in life those people who attain such a peaceful state of mind, perpetual happiness and self actualization and become free from desire of eating, living, dining etc. perform santhara. It is a Jain method of separating soul from old and diseased body during last few days of life to enter in new life form/reincarnation."[this quote needs a citation]
Santhara is a voluntary act and is bound by very strict regulations. Only a person who has no wishes/desire/ambition left, and no responsibilities remaining in life is entitled to perform it and the action is done under community regulation. The decision to do so must be publicly declared well in advance and permission from family & other relatives is a must. Conditions that allow santhara are:
- Old age disease such that death appears imminent. Or in cases of terminal disease in adults.
- One's inability to perform normal bodily function,
- The condition is so bad that life's pleasures are nil or death appears imminent.
- No responsibilities towards family/relatives remaining in life.
- The person must be fully conscious and in good mental and emotional health.
- Strong desire to burn karmas by fasting.
- Strong belief on right god, spiritual teacher & religion.
- Permission from family members and relatives.
- Strong Desire of Moksha/Nirvana.
All these conditions must be fulfilled before taking the vow of santhara.
Jains claim that Santhara or Sallekhana is the most ideal, peaceful, and satisfying form of death. It is done in full consciousness, not suddenly, sadly or ignorantly.
Comparison with suicide
Sallekhana is often compared with suicide. According to the Jain text, Purushartha Siddhyupaya, when death is near, the vow of sallekhanâ is observed by properly thinning the body and the passions. It also mentions that, sallekhanâ 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.
Statistically, Sallekhana is undertaken both by men and women of all economic classes and among the educationally forward Jains. Statistically it is done by more women than men. It has been argued that Sallekhana serves as a means of coercing widows and elderly relatives into taking their own lives, but that is a rare case. In both the writings of Jain scriptures 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.
My studies of Jurisprudence, the Indian Penal Code and of criminal cases decided by me had convinced that the vow of Sallekhana as propounded in the Jaina scriptures is not suicide
In 2006 human rights activist Nikhil Soni and his lawyer Madhav Mishra, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the High Court of Rajasthan. The PIL claimed that Sallekhana is a social evil and should be considered to be suicide under Indian legal statute. The petition extends to those who facilitate individuals taking the vow of with aiding and abetting an act of suicide. Jain community argued that it is a violation of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, after all Sallekhana has been mentioned in the Jain Agamas.
This landmark case sparked debate in India, where national bioethical guidelines have been in place since 1980. Historically, Sallekhana has been accepted because of its religious context, while euthanasia and attempted suicide are criminal offenses. Hunger strikes are a common form of protest in India but often end with forced hospitalization and criminal charges. Sallekhana is not illegal in India.
Research by Western scholars
Jain voluntary death by fasting is a relatively obscure religious practice, done by a very few elderly religious individuals. It has not received much scholarly attention in Western academia. Three scholars currently researching the practice are British anthropologist and philosopher James Laidlaw, Canadian anthropologist Anne Vallely and American bioethicist Whitny Braun.
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