India: Court Rules Faith-Based Starvation in Jainism is Suicide

Faith Based Starvation

A group of Jains approached India’s Supreme Court on August 25, challenging a lower court order that recently ruled santhara, the religious ritual of fasting until death, to be a form of suicide. Through its petition, Sthanakvasi Jain Shravak Sangh sought a stay on the order delivered by Rajasthan High Court after explaining how the judge in question had negated the basic tenets and philosophy of Jainism while declaring the ban.

Rajasthan High Court ruled against the practice of santhara on August 10, thereby making it punishable under sections 306 and 309 of the Indian Penal Code, which relate to abetting suicide and attempting suicide respectively.

“Santhara or fast unto death is not an essential tenet of Jainism,” the high court ruled, adding that it cannot be termed as a humane practice, as it violates basic human rights. Comparing the practice to euthanasia, sati and suicide, the court said that santhara too could not be allowed in the country.

However, the petition filed against the court’s ruling claimed that the judge had mistakenly equated the religious practice with the offence of suicide, without understanding that santhara is actually a vow taken by Jains to purify their souls before dying.

“Santhara is an ancient and old practice as old as the faith itself and the observations of the High Court in this regard is ex facie wrong and the references to the practice are found as far back as in Samvat 1389,” the plea said. “Article 25 protects the right of every person to the freedom of conscience which entitles him or her to have his or her own beliefs and faith and thus, so called modern thinking cannot be imposed on members of the Jain Community.”

The petition was filed amidst nationwide protests that were organized by members of the religious group not only in Rajasthan but also across several other states, including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Assam and West Bengal. Members of both Digambar and Shwetambar sects of Jainism participated in the demonstrations, with educational institutions and business enterprises owned by Jains remaining shut as part of the protests.

“Our peaceful protest is against the judgment pronounced by the high court,” convener of the joint action committee of Digambar and Shwetambar Jains, Rajendra Godha, said.

The high court’s order was met with stiff criticism from people across the country and members within the community, who explained that despite seeming like suicide, santhara is a sacred practice involving the voluntary and gradual ending of life via systematic fasting.

“Basically, the practice of Santhara is similar to Samadhi in Hindus. The word has been used in ancient Jain texts of philosophy. Santhara is not about dying of hunger or thirst. It is about letting go of sensual pleasures and passions, greed, anger, deceit and ego. It is different from suicide. A person cannot undertake Santhara unless he or she has permission from the family and an ascetic,” said Bipin Doshi, teacher of Jain philosophy at the University of Mumbai.

According to practitioners of Jainism, the need to seek permission from near and dear ones is what primarily distinguishes santhara from suicide and the fact that someone else does not make the decision to end a believer’s life is what distinguishes the practice from euthanasia.

Below are some of the chief principles associated with santhara:

  • A person should consider the ritual if only he or she voluntarily develops an inclination towards it.
  • The person must have his or her age and health evaluated before being given the permission to carry out santhara.
  • The person must approach his or her family members to seek permission for santhara. If his or her family members approve of the idea, an ascetic would be called for. The ascetic would thereafter give the final go to the concerned person.
  • The person must seek guidance from the ascetic the family refers him or her to.

Photo Credits: Blogspot

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