Santhara - Civilisational ethos vs Canon Law

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 undergird 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.

First  published in The Pioneer, 8 September 2015. Also published at

Also  read
1. Essentials of Jaina philosophy
2. Pictures of Jain Temples

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