Can One Not 'Observe' One's Own 'Natural Death'?

Posted: 13.08.2015‘One who is born, will die. I do not know how long will I live. But am definite that I will die!’

When one reaches the edge of one’s life expectancy (because of age or illness,) one cannot or should not be restrained from ‘observing’ how ‘life departs naturally.’ Why? Because while observing santhara/sallekhna, I am not ‘causing death of self’ as in suicide or sati, nor am I ‘accelerating the process of my death’ as in euthenasia. I am voluntarily, without pressure and wilfully- knowing the nearness of my otherwise definite death - trying to be a spectator, distancing myself from all worldly distractions, observing how death takes place. I am trying to experience the difference of body and soul. I know at the back of my mind, I will die. I have lived my life to the full, now I want to see how I die naturally!

Yesterday’s Judgment by a division bench of the Rajasthan High Court regarding ‘Santhara’ or ‘Sallekhna’ in effect has two surprising outcomes. Firstly, it criminalizes the practice of Santhara/ Sallekhna and its abetment under S.309 & 306 of IPC and secondly, effectuates it as being violative of our Constitution. The reason for calling it a crime has been inter alia that Art 21- ‘right to life’ does not include ‘right to die’, on the other hand, the reason for calling it unconstitutional has been that the act is criminal (u/s 309 IPC) therefore, against public order, and hence cannot be guaranteed under religious freedom. This reasoning takes the bull by its horns; it is circular and starts with completely wrong interpretation of the philosophy and practice of Sallekhna.

Santhara or Sallekhna, in my opinion is wrongly construed as a ‘ritual’ of whose acceptable practice we are trying to locate in religion. Upon our failure to satisfy ourselves of acceptable historic and canonical principles in Jainism, we are declaring it as an unacceptable practice where one strives towards death by taking a vow not to eat, drink etc. We have erred all this while in understanding Santhara.

The debate has essentially entered the wrong contours by it being reduced to analyzing whether ‘right to die’ is essentially included in ‘right to life’ or not, more so, when there is religious practice prevalent. Santhara is in no case, violative of Article 21. Firstly, we have taken it as a practice striving towards death. While actually, it is just ‘observing’ natural death by one’s own will. We are not striving towards death. We are deciding to ‘look into our death.’ The difference is in no way hairline. It is bold and segregates sallekhna from any other act that may amount to striving towards death. In order to practice sallekhna, one requires greater courage even abstaining oneself from taking food and water. It is not an act of cowardice undertaken under societal pressure or as a reaction (as is suicide), nor a decision based on inflict of emotions and pressure (as in sati) nor is it an easy solution to pain (as in euthanasia). Sallekhna is not to put one’s body to gain anything (as in hunger strike) nor is it using the body as a site of protest (as by Irom Sharmila or Mahatma Gandhi). It has no ill effect on society and there is no question of affecting public order. It does not cause danger to public health. A dead body left open on the road and calling it a religious practice would qualify as danger to public health. And in no way is it against morality. In fact, it is in pursuance of greater morality. Such differences cannot be ignored and generalized. Sallekhna needs to be seen as different from - suicide, sati, euthenesia, hunger strike or fast unto death. It is none of it!

Can one’s ‘resolve’ to ‘observe one’s own natural death’ be ever violative of right to life? Does it even qualify as ‘causing death of oneself’ or ‘accelerating one’s death’? The aim of Sallekhna is not to achieve death (via observing restraint etc.) but is ‘observing one’s natural life and death’.

Consider Sallekhna as a scientific experiment performed under controlled conditions for self realization without cruelty to self or society, without pressure from society or within, without a motive to die or accelerate death. It is not against natural law, moral law and cannot be against constitutional law.

Plea of a Sallekhna Seeker:

Give me the freedom to experience how my soul is freed from the prison of my body. Don't put me behind bars!


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