Sallekhanā (as per Jain holy text)

Posted: 24.12.2008
Updated on: 30.07.2015


The body is the means and not the end, it is a means to attain liberation. One has to leave the body at the end. The Jainas, therefore, prescribe forsaking food (and sometimes even water) and leave the body with equanimity under certain circumstances. This is known as Sallekhanā or Santhārā. This is supposed to end or shorten the mundane existence of the soul in the whirlpool of transmigration from one life to another. This is allowed only if one feels that he or she is not able to perform his religious duties with efficiency anymore. A healthy person who is physically fit is not allowed to take up Sallekhanā.

There is inscriptional proof that Jain monks, nuns and householders have been observing Sallekhanā for the last two thousand years. The inscription of Śravanabelagola mentions that the period of this kind of fast varied from three days to one month. It would be interesting to read a description of this vrata from one of the oldest Agamas of the Jainas – the Ācāranga Sutra. The portion given below is the translation by Hermann Jacobi of the original Prakrit. It is the oldest description of Sallekhanā.

    • Knowing the twofold (obstacles, i.e. bodily and mental), the wise ones, having thoroughly learned the law, perceiving in due order (that the time for their death has come), get rid of kārman. (2)
    • Subduing the passions and living on little food, he should endure (hardships). If a mendicant falls sick, let him again take food. (3)
    • He should not long for life, nor wish for death; he should for yearn after neither, life or death. (4)
    • He who is indifferent and wishes for the destruction of kārman, should continue his contemplation. Become unattached internally and externally, he should strive after absolute purity. (5)
    • Whatever means one knows for claming one’s own life that a wise man should learn (i.e. practice) in order to gain time (for continuing penance). (6)
    • In a village or in a forest, examining the ground and recognizing it as free from living beings, the sage should spread the straw. (7)
    • Without food he should lie down and bear the pains which attack him. He should not for too long time give way to worldly feelings which overcome him. (8)
    • When crawling animals or such as live on high or below, feed on his flesh and blood, he should neither kill them nor rub (the wound). (9)
    • Though these animals destroy the body, he should not stir from his position.
    • After the âsravas have ceased, he should bear (pains) as if he rejoiced in them. (10)
    • When the bonds fall off, then he has accomplished his life.
    • (We shall now describe) a more exalted (method) for a well - controlled and instructed monk. (11)
    • This other law has been proclaimed by Jňâtripūtra:
      • He should give up all motions except his own in the thrice- threefold way. (12)
      • He should not lie on sprouts of grass, but inspecting the bare ground he should lie on it.
    • Without any comfort and food, he should there bear pain. (13)
    • When the sage becomes weak in his limbs, he should strive after calmness.
    • For he is blameless, who is well fixed and immovable (in his intension to die). (14)
    • He should move to and fro (on his ground), contract and stretch (his limbs) for the benefit of the whole body; or (he should remain quiet as if he were) lifeless. (15)
    • He should walk about, when tired of (lying), or stand with passive limbs; when tired of standing, he should sit down. (16)
    • Intent on such an uncommon death, he should regulate the motions of his organs.
    • Having attained a place swarming with insects, he should search for a clean spot. (17)
    • He should raise himself above (sinfulness), and bear all pains. (18)
    • And this is a still more difficult method, when one lives according to it: not to stir from one’s place, while checking all motions of the body. (19)
    • This is the highest law, exalted above the preceding method:
      • Having examined a spot of bare ground he should remain there; stay O Brāhmana! (20)
      • Having attained a place free from living beings, he should there; fix himself.
    • He should thoroughly mortify his flesh, thinking:
      • There are no obstacles in my body. (21)
      • Knowing as long as he lives the dangers and troubles; the wise and restrained (ascetic) should bear them as being instrumental to the dissolution of the body. (22)
    • He should not be attached to the transitory pleasures, nor to the greater ones; he should not nourish desire and greed. Looking only for eternal praise. (23)
    • He should be enlightened with eternal objects, and not trust in the delusive power of the gods; a Brāhmana should know of this and cast off all inferiority. (24)
    • Not devoted to any of the external objects he reaches the end of his life; thinking that patience is the highest good, he (should choose) one of (the described three) good methods of entering nirvāna. (25) Thus I say.

Spiritual Way of Meeting Death

The end of life is death. All is well that ends well. If one becomes disturbed at time of death it has a great impact on his future. One has to be careful that he is able to perform his religious duties. And his body becomes a burden on him rather than serving as a means of a monk, is expected to face death with equanimity and voluntarily.

Of course, the wisest from of death is that of a perfect soul who has attained the summum bonum of his life and who will not take any birth after his death.

The second form of death is one who has been following spiritual past to the best of his capabilities but has stopped short of perfection and, therefore, he leaves his body voluntary in case of a situation where his body his body does not help him in spiritual practices. He forsakes food.

The third stage is that of a householder who has practiced partial self control but could not take up monk’s life but at the time of death he also forsakes food and faces death with equanimity.

The forth type of death is of a person who has believed in wrong principles of life. We have thus the last vow of asceticism called Sallekhanā or Santhārā where one faces death with equanimity by facing death voluntarily.

The nature of Sallekhanā is such that one is likely to confuse it with suicide. The Jain acaryas have, therefore is justified if the body becomes incapable of observance of vratas.

In view of what has been said above, Sallekhanā has been recommended when someone is confronted with calamity, famine, senility, disease, and when the sustenance of spiritual practices is endangered. Sallekhanā can also be practiced at a time when the natural death is known to be at hand. It is better to die a voluntary death with self-control than try to save the body in vain, when it ceases to respond to medical treatment.

The idea underlying Sallekhanā is not mere flagellation of the body but denial of passions also. Voluntary death is not so difficult as upholding self-control, when the vital forces leave the body. If the mind is not pure at the last moment, the life-long self-control study, austerity, worship and charity become futile, just as a king, well versed weapons, is not good if he faints in the battle-field.

Transgressions of Sallekhanā vrata

Tattvarthasutra gives the following five transgressions of Sallekhanā vrata:

    1. Desire to live (jīvītāsmsā)
    2. Desire to die (maranāsmsā)
    3. Remembrance of friends (mitranurāga)
    4. Revival of past pleasure (sukhanubandha)
    5. Expectation of future prosperity (nidāna)

We explain below the aticāras of Sallekhanā vrata:

    • Jīvītāsmsā: Pujyapāda explains it is reluctance to leave this body. Āśā Dhara thinks that the desire to listen to one’s own praise from those who surround the dying person constitutes this aticāra.
    • Maranāsmsā: Pujyapāda explains it as desire for quick death.
    • Mitranurāga: This includes remembering one’s friends, games of childhood, merry festivities etc. the Śvetāmbaras do not recognize this aticāra.
    • Sukhanubandha: This means recollection of past comforts and pleasures.
    • Nidāna: One should not desire sensual satisfaction in the next life as a reward for performance.
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