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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'. Due to the prolonged nature of sallekhana, the individual is given ample time to reflect on his or her life. The vow of sallekhana is taken when one feels that one's life has served its purpose of a person, has no wishes/ambition/desires left, and no responsibilities remaining in life. It is also allowed in cases of terminal disease or great disability. The purpose is to purge old karmas and prevent the creation of new ones. There exists a similar Hindu practice known as Prayopavesa. 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.
Rationale of starvation
Jains are strict vegetarians. In order to attain moksha all positive and negative karmas must be burnt. One can burn Karmas, by observing the five great vows:Ahimsa (Nonviolence), Satya (Truth), Brahmacharya (Control of senses, wishes and desires), Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness), Asteya (Non-stealing).
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 with the process of fasting during last few days of remaining life. This is practiced when one has finished living and wish to go on to another existence/re-incarnation/life. 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.
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 called śikṣa-vrata.
Questions regarding legality
Like most religions, Jainism dictates that essentially all forms of conventional, non-ritual suicides are forbidden. 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.
For some, Sallekhana is motivated by belief or the desire for redemption for some bad act. For others, the decision to end their life may be motivated by reasons ranging from the economic hardship. Sallekhana is generally carried out without active protest or interruption from others in Jain community, as it is commonly understood that individuals who choose to observe this custom are in full control of their faculties and not suffering from any impairment of intellect. 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 Aagams (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.
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/Santhara is not illegal in India.
Santhara/sallekhana scholarship in Western academia
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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- Jain tablets reveal family Sallekhana
- Euthanasia? Jain woman observing death ritual dies
- Is Santhara Suicide or Sati?
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- The Times of India: Editorial
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