Indian Perspective on Euthanasia, Abortion, and Capital Punishment
by Kapil Kapoor on 21 Mar 2011 0 Comment

The three issues concern non-natural death – and this death is putting an end to life that is being nursed in one’s own self, or of the other, either consciously as an act of mercy, or forced on the other as a societal decision. Since death is the end of life, a community’s response to these three situations is naturally governed by its concept or definition of what is life and what is death.


Western society has witnessed vigorous opposition to all the three. The opposition is on the moral ground that one has no right to take away what one does not have the ability to give. This position gets laced with theology, humanitarianism and in the case of the third, with the explanatory, reformist sociology/psychology that holds the society and circumstances responsible for an individual’s criminal acts, and not the individual himself. [This position was first formulated by Jeremy Bentham who believed that criminality is not inherent in man, but is induced in him by societal environment and circumstances, a view that was completely rejected by Hazlitt who argued that just as there is moral nature, there is also criminal nature].


This discussion is embedded in the view that life is God-given and as such is very precious. But what is the definition of life? Evidently life is equated with physical breathing and with what sustains it – the intake of food. So long as these two are there, there is life and it is ‘sacred’ and cannot be put an end to. So Terri Schiavo must hang by those pipes though she has no consciousness. Some argue on the humanitarian ground that Terri must be allowed to go because that is what she would want had she the consciousness to decide.


Some argue on humanitarian and Free Will grounds that an unhappy mother can put an end to an unwanted pregnancy. Others say no, neither the individual nor the society has any rights over the life of the other – only God has that right. This is also used as an additional argument against capital punishment. This is the central, characteristic Theo-centric Hebraic argument in this debate of ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ to abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.


The Indian view, the classical Indian position is different and quite clearly argued. There are some fundamental ‘drivers’ of the Indian mind, its premises –

(i) Man is responsible for his life/birth as a being – his karma (deeds) determines his birth and character; 


(ii) Life is jiva / atman inhabiting a physical body and death is this jiva giving up this body;


(iii) Man passes through cycles of life and death and death is not irreversible, and hence not that terrible thing at all;


(iii) Man has complete right over his life and death and so the right to put an end to one’s life for weighty reasons is practiced by, among others, the Jain munis and even ordinary people and it is not equated with ‘suicide’.


(iv) Man is responsible for his actions and deeds and his deeds shall work themselves out and he cannot get away from the effects of his karma;


(v) Birth and Death are stages in the cycle of life, and death is defined as the beginning of another ‘life’, that is allowing for the jiva to inhabit another body. Naturally death is not a serious matter because it is not the end. And life is defined by Caraka [1] as one of arogya, freedom from disease, and of good health, so that one is able to perform the enjoined duties and attain the four ends of life – dharma (righteousness), artha (material ends), kama (desires) and moksa (freedom of the self from all this pursuit). Ayurveda, Indian medicine, is thus not concerned merely with ayu, long life. It asks - why must one live long and what kind of long life should we aspire for? Ayurveda is not concerned merely with ensuring long life (dirgha ayu) – it seeks to promote suhkha ayu and hitayu [2], a happy life and a useful life.


Caraka defines happy life as one:

-        “…free of bodily or mental ailments, able to do all work, endowed with strength and with energy to do [his] duty, possessed of knowledge, able to use and enjoy all his senses, ornamented with virtues, able to fulfil/achieve his tasks, blessed with different suhkha…” [3]  


And hitayu, useful life, is defined as the life of one:

-        “…who in all his life-time thinks of the well-being of others, considers others’ wealth as tuccha, of no consequence, is possessed of acknowledged virtues, sadguna, such as truth-telling, acts thoughtfully, respects those who are worthy of respect, is indifferent (udasina) to others, serves, devotedly the learned and the aged, controls his passions, is constantly involved in sharing his knowledge, his wealth, sees all beings in his own self, accepts good advice.” [4]


Significantly, life is defined as a harmonious conjunction of the body (limbs), mind, senses and the self.


Terri Schiavo’s parents, had she had been an Indian, would have asked the doctors to let her go – even mothers are known to ask for the termination of the suffering of their sons. For life is not just breathing or being able to swallow food and drink. Life must be protected and prolonged, yes, but what life? One that is of use to others.




About abortion, the standpoint is clear. Caraka considers abortion nica, an act of abhorrence. This stems from the understanding of conception as the moment when jiva, the life-principle, takes abode in a body. And therefore ending a pregnancy amounts to hatya, murder.


But then what about natural abortions? That is explained in terms of the jiva being destined to inhabit that body only for that long. But then what about pregnancies that result from rape?


The wider meta-rules of Indian sociological and moral thinking have to be kept in mind to judge matters like this. In Indian thought a clear distinction is made between dharmic life and criminality. All the injunctions are operative for a dharmic life, which is governed by a structured framework of thought. Thus marriage is for progeny, to briefly recapitulate the logic, and the two parents perform an almost ‘religious’ duty when they seek to have a child.


When life takes root in that context, terminating that life is a murder. Anything out of the dharmic framework belong to the other sphere of criminality and is to be taken care of not by the dharmasastras, sociological texts of moral living, but by niti sastra, science of polity and governance, that is enshrined, among others, in the famous Arthasastra of Kautilya, who will enjoin death by hanging for a man who forces an unmarried girl into an unwanted pregnancy because his jurisprudence has the golden rule that “No man shall have sexual intercourse with a woman against her will.” [5]


Further the ‘mother’ has the right over her pregnancy and she will decide what to do. The mother’s womb is as sacred as the place in the temple where the deity abides, and hence the Sanskrit word for both is the same – garbha. But sanctity belongs to the dharmic order and not to criminality.


Capital punishment


Same meta-assumption governs the sphere of jurisprudence. Indian thought holds the individual responsible, unambiguously, for his acts. This is almost a cosmic law – the good deeds and the bad shall work themselves out.


Unlike the Greeks who held Fate responsible for man’s tragedy, unlike the medieval age Christians who held man’s innate sinfulness responsible for his suffering, and unlike the modern reformist-Marxist-utilitarian thinkers who hold the society or the circumstances responsible even for man’s criminality and shift the burden away from him, the Indian mind holds the man, the individual, squarely responsible and answerable for his acts and deeds.


The overriding dharma rule is causing suffering to others and for this kind of transgression, one has to ‘pay’ a price commensurate with the wrong done. Life is worthy, but one has to be worthy to live. Therefore Kautilya is in no doubt about death as a punishment. His eleventh chapter concerns ‘Death With or Without Torture’. It is interesting to note the crimes that merit this maximum punishment – crimes that cause grievous harm to others or obstruct ordered peaceful civic life are dealt with very severely. This stems from the theory that the duty of the King, that is the Government, is to protect life and legitimate property of the peaceful citizens. Therefore danda is an instrument for protecting dharmic life.


Even a cursory study of texts of polity shows that Indian thinking is linked strongly with upholding the four ends of life – righteousness, material well being, legitimate desires and liberation from the constraints of mundane life. Certainly clarity of what constitutes righteousness and what are the duties of a citizen and what are the goals of governance, ensured the continuity of Indian polity over almost three millennia. When you do something wrong there are no attenuating circumstances. That is the law.



1] An Afghan resident of Gandhara, the Kingdom ruled by Nagnajit, was a contemporary of the great Persian King Daryus (Darius), 6th century B.C. and a teacher at the University of Taxila and the composer of the celebrated text of medicine Carakasamhita (CS).

2] CS, 1.1.41

3] CS, 1.30.23

4] CS, 1.30.26

5] Arthasastra, tr. R.Shamasastry. Mysore: Wesleyan Mission Press. 1929, 12.232


The writer is a former Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University; Delhi. The article is based on a lecture delivered in London in May 2005 to NRIs and some London Media at a private home at the time when the withdrawal of life support for Terri Schiavo was being debated in America 

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