Death By Fasting

Posted: 01.11.2016

India Today

by Dr Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar

Ever since a 13-year-old Jain girl died of cardiac arrest in the early hours of October 4, there has been an outcry by the media as well as child ' rights activists. It was assumed that Aradhana Samdariya, a deeply religious teenager who went on a ritual fast for 68 days, was forced or manipulated into fasting. It was even alleged that she fasted to help her father's business grow. The lack of grace by social activists and other liberal voices towards a family grieving the death of their child and the attitude of Jain religious leaders to perceive any interference with the spiritual practices of their community as a violation of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, exposes the urgent need for dialogue.

Enforcing laws to protect the well-being of minors and other members of a community must have priority over religious sentiments. Children in particular nave to be protected from cultural or parental pressure undertake religious rituals, or any activity for that matter that is potentially life-threatening. However, we also need to make an effort to understand some practices and beliefs of a community that seem removed from our modern world. Perhaps our secular perceptions are as self-righteous as those of some leading monks who deny outsiders any right to question matters of their community.

The current debate around rigorous fasting practices is not new to the Jain community. It was initially triggered in 2006 with the death of Kela Devi Hiravat (93) and Vimla Devi (61), two lay women, both terminally ill, who had chosen to practise sallekhana, a rare and highly respected ritual of fasting oneself to death, celebrated by thousands as the climax of a lived life that is coming to an end. Social activists criticised sallekhana as a cruel practice that had no place in modern society. The controversy around the legality of sallekhana came to a head when two lawyers filed a PIL in the high court of Rajasthan, claiming that sallekhana is a form of suicide, and thus illegal under Indian law. This led to a nationwide debate on euthanasia and bioethics. Jams would emphatically reject the idea of sallekhana being classified as suicide. They argue that a person who takes the vow of sallekhana, thus laying down his or her life intentionally, does not do this out of an emotional condition. If anything, sallekhana is considered to be a rational and conscious act of an advanced soul, while suicide is an outcome of emotional disturbances or unfavourable external circumstances, an act deeply reprehensible to the Jain community. Sallekhana and other fasting practices are considered spiritual vows to conquer one's body and to surrender attachments.

It has to be remembered that Jainism is a religion of radical asceticism based on the principle of non-violence. It rejects the existence of god, though it does believe in a pluralistic system of souls. Without redemption through a divine power, the ultimate goal of life has to be self-realisation, which can only be achieved through one's own efforts. Here the practice of fasting comes into play. Fasting, together with meditation, is not just an act of 'thinning out' the body but 'thinning out' the passions, strictly speaking the five senses and four passions: anger, deceit, greed and pride.

But why are children encouraged to engage with spiritual matters, which also include fasting? The fostering of a child's self-discipline helps build inner strength, which will make the habit of fasting easier in later life. The readiness to sacrifice is of value and interest to the religious community and also helps produce monastic successors.

Without justifying the attitude of the parents and their community towards the fast 13-year-old Aradhana opted for, we then have to understand their perspective as well. For them, fasting is a core spiritual value linked to the mental state of equanimity. Thus, neither sallekhana nor the tragic and accidental death of the 13-year-old teenager is considered a form of suicide, or that they had abetted it.

To effectively protect minors from harmful religious activity, the enactment of new laws will not be sufficient. A dialogue with the affected community needs to be fostered, health information on the dangers of prolonged fasting provided, the enforcement of solutions from within the community encouraged. The issue of reconciling core religious beliefs and universal human rights, especially of women and children, is a contentious one in all communities, not only the Jains. Perhaps, as a first step, we should start engaging more open-mindedly with other cultural models of living and dying.

The issue of reconciling core religious beliefs and universal human rights is a contentious one in all communities


Dr Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar is an anthropologist who works as a visual artist and writer in Goa

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