Euthanasia: The Life-Death Continuum
by Sandhya Jain on 15 Mar 2011 12 Comments

The Supreme Court’s decision to set parameters for withdrawal of medically unproductive aid to terminally ill patients would have been truly rewarding if the august Court had not fallen into the Abrahamic mindset of viewing life in opposition to death, disregarding India’s civilisational ethos which sees life and death as a continuum, and regards the complete cessation of life by reunion with the Divine as the ultimate goal of existence.


Still, the 7 March 2011 judgment on euthanasia, which studies the situation in various countries to arrive at a working paradigm, has moved boldly on legally uncharted seas. The judgment is a welcome respite to the miniscule Jain community that has often been subjected to gross interference by godless atheists who have sought police action against individuals practicing sallekhana (also called santhara), religious death by voluntary renunciation of food and water.


This hounding terrorized the pacific Jain community to hiding rather than celebrating a practice that, if successful, marks the pinnacle of a believer’s spiritual journey. The writer views the demonisation of sallekhana as part of a sinister agenda to promote the Abrahamic worldview as an empirical universal norm to which India must adjust her spiritual and secular life, negating her own rich heritage.


While embracing death is not unknown among Hindus (the most eminent examples in independent India include Veer Savarkar who renounced food and water when he realized his end was nigh, and passed away on 26 Feb. 1966; and noted Gandhian Vinoba Bhave who refused medication and died in 1983), the Jain laity has been able to incorporate it into the normal practice of faith. Among Hindus, mostly saints take samadhi (death in meditation), though even today many anticipating death take their families to the holy city of Kashi to have their last rites performed on the sacred ghats of the Ganga. But unlike Jainas, Hindus awaiting their end at Kashi do not cease intake of food and water; their demise is a natural rather than a ritual process.


There is an immense power and dignity in the Jain way of choosing to end life by choice, in full possession of one’s faculties, as the climax to a life well lived, abandoning worldly ties, including attachment to the body. Jains believe voluntary embrace of death purifies the soul and ensures the final release (moksha, nirvana) from the otherwise eternal cycle of birth and death. As the ascetic ideal is deeply ingrained in the community, such a ‘call’ is heard and answered unceasingly; the Supreme Court judgment emboldened community elders to reveal that daily at least one believer exits his/her mortal coils this way. My own paternal uncle took this route in 1994, in the very pink of health. Sallekhana goes back to the centuries BC.


By preparing devotees for the eternal life beyond transient human existence, Jain tradition redefines the moral contours of natural human hedonism. Sallekhana (literally, thinning one’s body and passions) cannot be invoked without an inner call that is itself the fruition of a long karmic trajectory wherein the soul accumulates merit over myriad lifetimes. It is customary to seek the permission of a senior monk to ensure that the person undertaking this fast has the necessary level of spiritual attainment (accumulated over past lives), or is dying from old age or an incurable disease. Those with worldly responsibilities to fulfill (like young children) are denied permission. That is why Jains have insisted that sallekhana cannot be equated with ordinary suicide, which is an act of despair committed by those driven by mortal anxiety or mental instability. The Supreme Court has now recognized this truth about suicide and ordered its decriminalization, with help extended to such unhappy souls.


Interestingly, Jains believe that animals too have a moral and spiritual dimension. One of the most beautiful stories concerns an elephant, the leader of a large herd, which was trapped in a forest fire. In their quest for safety, all the animals clustered around a lake, and the area was soon crammed with creatures large and small. After a while, the elephant lifted a leg to scratch himself, and a small hare swiftly occupied the space thus vacated. Feeling deep compassion for the small animal, the elephant immediately severed all ties with future animal destinies. He stood with one leg raised for over three days till the fire abated and the hare left. His limb froze, and unable to set his foot down, he fell down. Maintaining purity of mind till the end, he was reborn as prince Megha, son of king Srenika of Magadha; he became an eminent monk under Mahavira.


This exalted understanding of life and death should have informed the national debate over euthanasia for the incurably ill. Long before author Pinki Virani took up the cause of nurse Aruna Shaunbaug, who has been in a persistent vegetative condition for 37 years, long-suffering patients had begun petitioning the President of India, the Courts, and the Human Rights Commission of various States for the right to die. In June 2008, Ramesh Babu, 38, an ex-Indian Air Force official suffering from muscular dystrophy, petitioned the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission for permission to commit suicide. Though avoiding advocacy of such active euthanasia, the Law Commission had, in June 2005, suggested permitting withdrawal of life-support systems (including artificial nutrition and hydration) in the “best interests” of terminally ill patients. But, as noted by the Supreme Court, the government has failed to move in this regard.


Some unsatisfactory aspects of the Supreme Court judgment derive from a tacit assumption that the worldly life is the summon bonum (highest good) of existence. There appears to be a bias towards Western materialism and its bizarre quest to prolong human life to the point of abolishing death. This derives from the belief that there is just one life, at the end of which the soul remains in limbo for aeons, till the Day of Judgment assigns it to eternal heaven or hell.


Centuries ago, Hindu society dealt with the unnatural quest for eternal human life by frustrating the strenuous exertions of prince Trishanku to enter heaven in his mortal frame, condemning him to a solitary life, upside down, in a special nether world between earth and heaven (Valmiki Ramayana). Trishanku seems a prescient metaphor for a medically prolonged comatose existence.


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