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Sallekhanā (also Santhara, Samadhi-marana, Sanyasana-marana), is the Jain practice of facing death voluntarily at the end of one's life. It is prescribed both for the householder and ascetics. 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 'Sallekhanā'. Sallekhana is allowed only when a person is suffering from incurable disease or great disability or when a person is nearing his end. It is a highly respected practice among the members of the Jain community. According to Jain Agamas, sallekhanā leads to ahimsā (non-violence or non-injury), as person observing sallekhanā subjugates the passions, which are the root cause of himsā (injury or violence).
The person observing sallekhana does not wish to die nor he is aspiring to live in a state of inability where he / she can't undertake his / her own chores. In Jainism, there is a daily prayer where a person wishes to be able to face death after having taken the vow of sallekhana. 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 Tattvartha Sutra (a compendium of Jain principles):"A householder willingly or voluntary adopts Sallekhana when death is very near."
- desire to live
- desire to die
- recollection of the pleasures enjoyed
- longing for the enjoyment of pleasures in future.
- Ahiṃsā- not to hurt any living being by actions and thoughts.
- Satya - not to lie or speak what is not commendable.
- Asteya- not to take anything if not given.
- Brahmacharya- Chastity / Celibacy in action, words & thoughts.
- Aparigraha (Non-possession)- detachment from material property.
- 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 shed the karmas, takes the vow of Sallekhana at the end of his life. According to the Jain text, Purushartha Siddhyupaya, "sallekhana enable a householder to carry with him his wealth of piety". Observance of the vow of sallekhanā starts much before the approach of death. A householder persistently meditate on the verse: "I shall certainly, at the approach of death, observe sallekhanā in the proper manner." The duration of the practice could be upto twelve years or more.
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.
According to a survey conducted in 2006, on an average 200 Jains practice sallekhana until death each year in India. 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. In around 300 BC, Chandragupta Maurya (founder of the Maurya Empire) undertook Sallekhana atop Chandragiri Hill, Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa, Karnataka. Acharya Shantisagar, a highly revered Digambara Jain saint of the modern India took Sallekana on 18 August 1955. He decided to take the vow in July 1955, on account of inability to walk without help and weak eye-sight. He died on 18 September 1955.
Comparison with suicide
Sallekhana is often compared with suicide. According to Purushartha Siddhyupaya, when death is near, the vow of sallekhanā is observed by properly thinning the body and the passions. It also mentions that, sallekhanā is not suicide since the person observing it, is devoid of all passions like attachment. The vow of sallekhanā is often explained with a famous example:
|“||A trader stores commodities for sale and stores them. He does not welcome the destruction of his storehouse. The destruction of the storehouse is against his wish. And, when some danger threatens the storehouse, he tries to safeguard it. But if he cannot stop the danger, he tries to save the commodities at least from ruin. Similarly, a householder is engaged in acquiring the commodity of vows and supplementary vows. And he does not desire the ruin of the receptacle of these virtues, namely the body. But when serious danger threatens the body, he tries to avert it in a righteous manner without violating his vows. In case it is not possible to avert danger to the body, he tries to safeguard his vows at least.||”|
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.
Whereas suicide is an act of extreme desperation fuelled by anguish and hopelessness, a Sallekhana practitioner relinquishing food and drink voluntarily by this method has arrived at that decision after calm and unruffled introspection, with an intent to cleanse oneself of karmic encumbrances and thus attain the highest state of transcendental well-being. Sallekhana, for him/ her, is therefore simply an act of spiritual purification premised on an exercise of individual autonomy. In both the writings of Jain Agamas 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. According to advocate, Suhrith parthasarathy, "Sallekhana is not an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practice intrinsic to a person’s ethical choice to live with dignity until death".
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 with the Rajasthan High Court. The PIL claimed that Sallekhana should be considered to be suicide under the Indian legal statute. They argued that Article 21 of the Indian constitution only guarantees the right to life, but not to death. The petition extends to those who facilitate individuals taking the vow of with aiding and abetting an act of suicide. In response, the Jain community argued that it is a violation of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom. It was argued that Sallekhana serves as a means of coercing widows and elderly relatives into taking their own lives.
This landmark case sparked debate in India, where national bioethical guidelines have been in place since 1980.
In August 2015, the Rajasthan High Court stated that the practice is not an essential tenet of Jainism and banned the practice making it punishable under section 306 and 309 (Abetment of Suicide) of the Indian Penal Code.
On 31 August 2015, Supreme Court of India stayed the decision of Rajasthan High Court and lifted the ban on santhara. The Special Leave Petition brought before the Supreme Court of India was filed by Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad. Supreme court considered Santhara as a component of non-violence ('ahimsa').
On 24 August 2015, members of the Jain community held a peaceful nationwide protest against the ban on Santhara. Protests were held in various states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi etc. Silent march were carried out in various cities.
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