Santhara: Civilisational ethos vs Canon Law
by Sandhya Jain on 08 Sep 2015 52 Comments

The Supreme Court’s decision to stay the Rajasthan High Court’s astonishing order declaring Santhara (also Sallekhana) a form of suicide punishable under law gives respite to the tiny Jain community for whom the judgment came as a lightning bolt. It is a setback to the agent provocateurs who, unmindful of the profound philosophy behind the Dharma, were hell-bent on criminalising its practitioners by accusing them of indulging in an act explicitly forbidden by its tenets. This is especially galling as Jainism has taken the concept of ahimsa to heights unmatched by any tradition in the world.


The judgment and some reactions to it betray confusion regarding faith, “essential” practices, and the limits of State authority. At stake are profound principles of civilisational ethics and worldview that must under gird any discussion. As the Supreme Court will take time to adjudicate the matter, it may be in order to make some points.


The judgment is deeply flawed, partly for taking a narrow view of constitutional provisions governing the right to life, but mainly for breaching the boundaries of the Constitution. The Indian Constitution is respected because it provides a moral and legal framework in which diverse individuals and groups can live peaceful and fruitful lives.


By defining Santhara as suicide (Nikhil Soni vs Union of India & Ors) and declaring it is not an “essential” aspect of the faith, the court (mis)uses juridical principles to frame Canon Law for Jainism; this violates our civilisational ethos and surpasses constitutional limits. The spiritual and philosophical streams of thought that evolved into Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism have hoary origins, but Mohenjo-daro seals attest that they rose simultaneously. Scholars view these streams as a continuum, where distinctions stand out or merge, according to one’s perspective.


All uphold Dharma as sanatana, eternal; but no life is eternal. The desire to live eternally in human form (the holy grail of western scientific quest) is repugnant to Indian civilisation and violates the Rishis’ understanding of the immutable laws of nature. Long before other cultures grasped the concept of akash (sky, ether), our rishis knew the universe is composed of five elements (air, fire, water, earth, sky) and that the body must return to these panch-tattva.


Only Asuras strive ceaselessly for the boon of immortality through severe penances. One king tried to die without dissipating his body; he was transformed into a star, Trishanku, and lives a solitary existence between heaven and earth. Even the desire for abnormal longevity defies the Hindu spirit. The Buddhist sage, Nagarjuna, enabled a devotee-king to live so long that almost all his wives, sons and grandsons died before him. Finally, goaded by his mother, the last son rebuked the sage who killed himself by pricking his jugular vein with a straw; the shocked king died instantly.


Santhara is a proactive embrace of one’s approaching demise. A person who has led an exemplary life earns the right to die in peace and in full possession of his faculties, freely relinquishing worldly ties, including those of attachment to the mortal frame. He allows life to ebb away, desiring neither to prolong life artificially nor unduly anticipating his demise, thereby purifying the soul and hastening its release from the otherwise eternal cycle of birth and death. Samadhi (death in meditation) is known among Hindu saints. But the ascetic ideal is deeply imbued amongst Jain laity, and even ordinary Jains hear the inner call to willingly meet an approaching end.


In 1994, my paternal uncle suddenly declared after a midday meal: “this was the last meal of my life.” He was in good health, but was clearly responding to an inner call. Relatives and friends came to pay respects and ensure he was not “deprived” if he changed his mind and wanted food or water. But he expressed no such desire and passed away peacefully ten days later.


Jainism prepares devotees for life beyond transient human existence. Santhara, literally thinning one’s body and passions, is an exemplary way of exiting one’s mortal coils. It can only be invoked by an inner call, itself the fruition of a long karmic trajectory wherein the soul accumulates merit over myriad lifetimes. Usually, the permission of a senior monk is sought to ensure that the person undertaking this fast has the necessary level of spiritual attainment, or is dying from old age or an incurable disease. Permission is refused to those with worldly responsibilities (such as young, even unmarried, children).


Santhara is well recorded in history. Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan empire, renounced his throne under the influence of the great Jain ascetic, Bhadrabahu. Following the saint to Mysore, the king practiced great austerities on Chandragiri hill, opposite the Bahubali murti at Shravana Belagola, and ended his life by Santhara (298 BC). In the ninth century, king Nitimarga I of the Western Ganga dynasty, and the last two Rastrakuta rulers in the tenth century, took the Sallekhana route to salvation.


Santhara represents the pinnacle of an individual’s ethical autonomy: one faces approaching death with equanimity. For a court goaded by busybodies to cursorily conclude that such a choice is not an “essential” part of faith is preposterous. Santhara is not a ritual in the sense of an act routinely performed by all devotees. It is the choice of an enlightened soul; by definition a rare act; but it is a path enshrined in Jain tradition.


By criminalising Santhara, the Rajasthan High Court is semitising a civilisation that is more than a religion or legal code, and creating Canon Law in a civilisation that has resisted canons since the time the Rishis ‘heard’ the divine truths and presented the Vedic hymns to mankind. By refusing to seal the revelations as final and binding for all time, the Rishis protected the civilisation from falling prey to dogmatism and rigidity, and enabled succeeding generations to experience truth for themselves. A hackneyed petition cannot overthrow a civilisational legacy.


Ironically, this is happening at a time of growing public interest in the merits of euthanasia for persons beyond recovery (such as late Aruna Shanbag). Citizens are coming to believe that quality of life is more important than merely prolonging life. The Law Commission (June 2005) had recommended that government permit withdrawal of life-support systems in the “best interests” of terminally ill patients.


Santhara is a dharmic value; it curtails the karmic journey. It cannot be conflated with suicide - an act of fear, desperation, or mental instability - as suicide, indeed, any violent death, means beginning one’s karmic journey all over again.   

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