Relevance Of Sallekhanā In Today’s Society And Euthanasia

Posted: 29.12.2008
Updated on: 30.07.2015

1.0 Introduction

The literature in all languages, the scriptures of all religions and preachers of all faiths have vexed themselves eloquent to emphasize the inevitability of death but, at the same time they have also said that the death is one of the most fearsome, painful, sorrowful, miserable and frightening happening. The Uttarādhyayanasutra says that birth, death, decay and disease are sorrows, the mundane existence itself is full of sorrow, where the living beings feel miserable.[1] In the same vein Ādi Śankarācārya says that repeated births and deaths and lying in the wombs of mothers are very painful.[2]

It has, therefore, been the endeavour of all the great and noble saints and prophets down the ages to find a way to free the living beings in general and the humanity in particular from this pain, sorrow and misery. Sallekhanā is one of such means to meet death squarely without fear or misery.

Presentation and Discussion

The presentation and discussion are proposed to centre on the following points:

    1. Inevitability of death and the fear of death.
    2. Can fear and misery associated with death be overcome? If yes, how?
    3. The concept and practice of Sallekhanā.
    4. Sallekhanā as ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ or the death sans fear and misery.
    5. Relevance of Sallekhanā in today’s society.
    6. Euthanasia: comparison with Sallekhanā.

1.1 Inevitability and Fear of Death

That the Death is inevitable needs no proof. We all see people dying around us all the time. All that are born have to die, sooner or later. Bhagvadgītā says, “One who takes birth must die some day and one who dies must be reborn somewhere.”[3] However, it is not the death but the fear of death that is the point of discussion here. Though death is so natural that it comes to all without any distinction, the dying very seldom take it so naturally. The reason behind the fear of death, basically, lies in two things:

    1. The love for life,
    2. The uncertainty associated with the afterlife.

The love for life: No matter what the quality of life that a living being enjoys or suffers, it does not wish to die but to live on. Even the poor and the miserable who can be heard as wishing to die all the time, back out when the death stares them in the face and beg to live on. Life is the dearest thing and one wants to hold on to it as long as possible. As death means dissociation from life or the termination of life, it frightens.

Uncertainty Associated with Afterlife: One is never sure of what lies in store for him in the afterlife. This uncertainty is also a potent cause of the fear of death.

1.2 Can the Fear and Misery associated with Death be overcome?

The fear and misery associated with death can be overcome if we can address the causes that result in such fear and misery.

Firstly, the love of life and the desire to live on springs from a lack of appreciation of the purpose of life as well as a lack of belief in a life after death. The believers of rebirth and afterlife, to that extent, feel less frightened and miserable as compared to those who believe that there is nothing but perpetual darkness after this life. Also, an appreciation of the purpose of life gives one a balanced outlook towards life and when one feels that, due to a variety of reasons, the body is unable to fulfil the purpose of life, one is prepared to face death with dignity in the hope of a suitable rebirth and of regaining a body capable of achieving the purpose of life better in the next birth. For such believers, present life is one in a continuum of lives in which the purpose of life is to be fulfilled. For such believers the death ceases to be frightening.

Secondly, for a reasoning being, that the human being is, the afterlife is also not such an absolutely uncertain commodity after all. The quality of afterlife largely depends on the activities of the present life and if one has led a pious life, he can be reasonably sure of a good afterlife and it certainly reduces the fear of death just like in the case of a traveller who has made all the necessary reservations and, consequently, can travel arrangements and, consequently, can hope to have a good trip.

2.1 The Concept and Practice of Sallekhanā

As this subject has already been covered, at length in a previous lecture discussion, I shall skip it with minimal reference. The very purpose of Sallekhanā is to reduce the fear and anxiety associated with death and to prepare the dying, psychologically, to face death with equanimity in a peaceful state of mind. It does so by drawing his attention to the purpose of life that is to be fulfilled in a number of lives in a continuum.

I am sure; you have been exposed to the three different regimens, at three different levels of rigour, which have been in vogue for the practice of Sallekhanā. I shall just name them for a quick recall. The three regimens are:

    1. The longest one of twelve years’ duration
    2. The medium one of one year’s duration, and
    3. The short one of anything up to six months’ duration.

Three levels of rigour are: 1. Bhaktapratyākhyāna, 2. Iṅginī, and 3. Prāyopagamana.

Sallekhanā as ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ or the death without fear and misery: As has been hinted earlier, Sallekhanā enjoys the distinctions of being voluntary and of being peaceful and, therefore, can be justly termed as the ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death.’ As it is the death in a state of equanimity and peace of mind, it is the death without fear and misery.

2.2 Relevance of Sallekhanā in Today’s Society -

This is the most pertinent part of this discussion. The answer to the question: ‘Is Sallekhanā relevant in today’s society?’ is the most sought after answer. Actually, the question of death is so personal that each one has to find the answer to this question by oneself and no generalisation can be made. However, if we carefully look at today’s society, the point cannot miss us that in the present run for material goodies, the peace and tranquillity eludes most of us and we cannot help feeling miserable and fearful when we come face to face with death.

As has been brought out earlier, in spite of all the causes of fear associated with death, one may not die a frightened and miserable death. As the death can be rationalised and steps taken to reduce the fear and misery, it is within everyone’s reach to die a peaceful, tranquil death in a state of equanimity of mind. Because Sallekhanā is such death, it never becomes irrelevant but remains relevant in all ages and at all times. It is, therefore, relevant for today’s society as well.

As a part of my study of Sallekhanā for my PhD. thesis, I had gathered data on the Sallekhanās undertaken over a period of ten years from 01 January, 1994 to 31 December, 2003. It will be an eye opener for most of us to know that nearly twenty persons embrace Sallekhanā every month. The data is presented hereunder for ready reference:

    1. Period Of Study: Jan 1994 to Dec 2003.
    2. Sample Size: 350 cases.
    3. Extrapolated figure for the incidence of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ in the last ten years: 2400.
    4. Average incidence of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’
      1. Per year: 240
      2. Per month: 20
    5. Sources of Information:
      1. Newspapers:
        • Rajasthan Patrikā, Daily, Udaipur Edition.
        • Dainik Bhaskar, Daily, Udaipur Edition.
      2. Periodicals:
        • Jaina Gazette, Weekly, Lucknow.
        • Jaina Mitra, Weekly, Surat.
        • Jaina Sandesh, Weekly, Mathura.
        • Jaina Prakash, Mumbai.
      3. Magazines and Journals:
        • Jaina Dharma Jyoti, Monthly, Bhilwara.
        • Jinavani, Monthly, Jaipur.
        • Sramanopasak, Monthly, Bikaner.
        • Sramana Samskriti, Monthly, Beawar.
    6. Limitations Of The Study: Though all possible efforts were made to gather as much information about the practitioners of Voluntary Peaceful Death from as authentic sources as possible, the following limitations have been noticed:
      1. Only about 750 issues out of 1500 possible issues of the newspapers, periodicals, magazines and journals could be accessed for a sample of 350 cases of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’.
      2. In most cases, the reporting of the cases is incomplete and does not carry most vital information about the aspirant practitioner such as age, period of preparatory penance and period of fast unto death, the supervising monk, etc. In most cases it only mentions that such and such person has died a peaceful death (Samādhimaraṇa) without any further elaboration. In all such cases it has been assumed that the aspirant practitioner had taken the vow of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ and died on the same day.
      3. c. It has been assumed that the person embracing Voluntary Peaceful Death had forgiven all and sought forgiveness of all, especially those with whom he was inimical earlier.
      4. In 81 cases out of 350, the age of the aspirant practitioner had not been indicated. These cases have been distributed in proportion to the age group wise distribution arrived at from the remaining 269 cases.
      5. In cases where no specific mention of the preparatory penance (Sallekhanā) has been made, it has been assumed that no preparatory penance was undertaken.

2.3 The Findings of the Study

Incidence Of Samādhimaraṇa

The sample of 350 cases analysed here is, at best, only a part sample. Extrapolation has been resorted to arrive at the more plausible figure of 700 cases in the last ten years for the sections of Jaina (especially the Śvetāmbara sect) represented by them. Also, the periodicals referred to P represent only some sections of the Jaina society and, as such, the figure of 700 cases of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ is also only a part of the total figure. A conservative estimate arrived at by extrapolating these figures is that nearly 2400 cases of Samādhimaraṇa must have taken place in the last ten years, which account for almost 240 cases per year or twenty cases per month. This is, by no means a mean figure and it shows the importance attached to this practice in the Jaina scheme of spiritual practices. This figure also holds well with an estimated figure reported in the ‘India Today’ dated 18 February, 2001 wherein it has been claimed that only two sections of Śvetāmbara (Sthānakavāsī and Terāpanthī) Jainas report 170 cases of Samādhimaraṇa per year.

Tradition-wise Distribution Of Cases

Digambara Tradition

Svetambara Tradition

Total

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

90

26

260

74

350

100

Status-wise Distribution Of Cases


Tradition

Status

Total

Monks

Nuns

Lay male

Lay female

Digambara

41

35

9

4

89

46,1%

39,3%

1,0%

0,6%

100%

Svetambara

11

26

97

119

253

4,3%

10,3%

38,3%

47%

100%

Total

54

63

108

125

350

Average incidence of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’

Per year

 240

Per month

20

This distribution shows that overall the householders, both males and females; embrace the vow of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ in much greater number than their ascetic counter parts. However, there seems to be a complete shift of emphasis as far as the two major Jain traditions (sky-clad and white-clad) are concerned. While the monks and nuns rule the field in the former, it is the householders in the latter. This is clearly visible in the graphic alongside as well as in the tabulated data given below.

Monks

Digambara

Śvetāmbara

Total

36

27

63

57,4%

42,6%

100%

Nuns

Digambara

Śvetāmbara

Total

36

27

63

57,4%

42,6%

100%

Lay Male Followers

Digambara

Svetambara

Total

10

98

108

8,5%

91,5%

100%

Lay Female Followers

Digambara

Svetambara

Total

5

120

125

4,0%

96,0%

100%

Area-Wise Distribution Of Cases

Urban Area

Rural Area

Total

Number

%

Number

%

Number

%

220

62,9%

13

37,1%

350

100%

More people from the urban areas take to the vow of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ as compared to those from the rural areas. This is probably due to the fact that firstly, the people from the urban areas are; generally, more conscious and can appreciate the spiritual benefit that might accrue from such a practice. Secondly, as compared to the villages, better support by way of continued presence of the monks and nuns and other infrastructure is available in the towns.

Age-Group-Wise Distribution Of Cases

AgeGroup

21-30

31-40

41-50        

51-60

61-70

71-80

81-90

91-100

>100

Total

No.

4

3

3

14

52

99

135

28

4

350

%

1,1

0,8

0,8

4,0

17,0

28,3

38,9

8,0

1,1

100

Average age (at the time of death) of the sample group: 77 years and four months. The model age group of the distribution is 81-90. This is the age group in which maximum number of cases of Samādhimaraņa occurs. The medium age group is 71-80.The mean deviation of the distribution is 3.1.The Standard Deviation of the distribution is 12.4 meaning that the distribution is quite deviated from normal. This is quite apparent from the graph, which is far from the bell-shaped curve of normal distribution. This is quite logical also as the practitioners of Samādhimaraņa are generally in higher age groups and the distribution has to be heavily skewed towards that direction.

From this data (also graphically represented in the line-graph given below) it is obvious that maximum incidence of embracing ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ is in the age group of 61-100 years. This fact is also supported by the finding of this study that the average age of the practitioners of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ is 77 years.

Reasons for embracing ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’

Reason

Accident or Emergency

Old-age / Incurable Disease

Total

Number

13

337

350

Percentage

3,6

96,4

100

This data and the graph alongside clearly show that there are only a few cases of accidental deaths in which the dying takes the vow of ‘Santhāra-‘, assume a disposition of equanimity and dies a peaceful death. Most cases of embracing of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ are due to one’s inability to carry on with the religious practices owing to weakness and infirmity of old age and sufferings wrought by incurable diseases.

Distribution Of Cases Of Samādhimaraņa with and without Sallekhanā

With Sallekhanā - 26 (7.4 % of the sample)


Tradition

Period Of Sallekhanā

Total

12 Years

Over 1 year

Under 1 year

Digambara

9

7

4

20

Śvetāmbara

-

2

4

6

Without Sallekhanā - 324 (92.6 % of the sample)

From this distribution, it is apparent that winter season is the most favourite season for the practitioners of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’. It stands to reason, as the winter does not take kindly to the old, weak and the feeble.

3.1 Euthanasia

The life - own or other’s - is sacred and taking it away either by accident or by design is considered as a sin by all the religious philosophies of the world. The Jaina Prophets and preceptors down the ages have considered life, not only human but also of the lowliest of the low creatures, as sacred and inviolable. Even then man has resorted to killing others in the name of wars or game or otherwise and taking his own life away under various pretexts. Also life is very dear and all the thinkers, preceptors and philosophers have vexed themselves eloquent in saying that ‘all living beings want to live and none wants to die’. On the other hand there is death, which can be natural (Cyut), forced (Cyāvit) and voluntary (Tyakta). Whatever be its form, in most cases it has always evoked fear. Even then the history of human race is replete with the incidents of death inflicted on oneself and the others on one pretext or the other.

Among the voluntary deaths also there are deaths by personal choice under widely varying circumstances and those that are part of religious rituals or practices. Amidst this line of thought, there are quite a few religions that consider voluntary death, embraced under suitable frame of mind, as soul–liberating and recommend it for their followers. Jainism is one such religious philosophy that glorifies voluntary peaceful death (Sallekhanā or Samādhimaraņa) as a very potent means of shedding the karmic encumbrance that the soul has been carrying since time immemorial and, hence, a way to seeking spiritual emancipation and final liberation from the mundane existence. So much so that all the incidents mentioned in Jaina scriptures where an aspirant practitioner has liberated, he has done so by embracing voluntary death in a state of equanimity of mind, with his soul free from desire, passions and attachment and aversion and at peace with itself.

However, all is not well with ‘voluntary deaths’ and these very religions consider many of such deaths as not only not liberating but positively soul–shackling. Jainism is no exception to this distinction amongst various forms of voluntary deaths that can be grouped under the following heads:

  1. Sallekhanā or Samādhimaraņa or ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’,
  2. Other religious deaths,
  3. Honour deaths,
  4. Euthanasia, and
  5. Suicide.

In this lecture cum discussion, it will be my endeavour to discuss various facets of Euthanasia and to compare it with Sallekhanā.

3.2 Euthanasia and Sallekhanā or Samādhimaraņa

The question of the right of the humans, the most thoughtful and intelligent beings on planet Earth, to decide for themselves as to when and how to die has been debated ever since they suffered intolerable and incurable maladies and wanted no more of it. However, the advocates of Euthanasia or gift of death to the suffering and terminally ill people to mitigate their misery considered the human life as a personal affair and disregarded its religious and socio–cultural aspects. In any cultured society a human life is not only a personal matter but also a social one. Human death does not affect only the dying and the dead but also his family, friends, kith and kin and the whole society at large. When a person dies he leaves behind bereaved survivors with whom he has emotional relationships, who feel his absence and mourn for him. There are funeral rites that are attended by others. He leaves behind a society - his business associates, co–workers, those with whom he has had financial dealings like the lenders, borrowers, bankers, etc. that are affected in one way or the other. However, the question arises that how much is his obligation to the society at large and to what extent he should suffer for its sake. All his obligations except the emotional ones can be taken care of with due planning and there must come a time when even his near and dear ones and the society must feel that he has suffered enough and call a halt to it by allowing him to get a gift of a painless, peaceful and dignified death.

Painless, peaceful and dignified death to the incurably diseased and immitigably suffering is what is intended by ‘Euthanasia’, which means ‘good death’ or ‘dying well’. The Oxford Dictionary defines euthanasia as “(bringing about of a) gentle and painless death for a person suffering from a painful incurable disease, extreme old–age, etc”.[4] Yet another definition says, “Euthanasia is simply to be able to die with dignity at a moment when life is devoid of it. It is a purely voluntary choice, both on the part of the owner of this life and on the part of the doctor who knows that this is no longer a life.”[5] When the gift of death is made, with all good intentions, at the sufferer’s own request it is referred to as ‘voluntary euthanasia’ or ‘active euthanasia’. However, good intentions not withstanding, the term is also equally applied to what is known as ‘mercy–killing’ or ‘involuntary euthanasia’ or ‘passive euthanasia’. In this sense, too, it is intended to ease the sufferings of those sufferers such as the mind–dead victims of accidents, physically deformed and mentally incapacitated babies and others who are not in a position to make a request. On the other hand the tyrannical regimes apply it to take the lives of the old, the mentally retarded and other unwanted members of society, which are nothing but culpable homicides amounting to murders.

Not withstanding all the hype and hoopla, this issue is not as simple as it looks on the surface. This issue has two clear cur sides each with their own very strong arguments. In what follows we present a balanced view on its two sides and compared the practice of euthanasia with the practice of Sallekhanā -Samādhi–maraņa.

The Arguments For (Voluntary) Euthanasia:

    1. It upholds the sufferer’s right to die a painless and dignified death as and when he chooses to die.
    2. It shortens the life but also shortens the suffering, which is of vital concern from the sufferer’s point of view.
    3. It is applied only on voluntary specific request from the suffering when the doctor also feels that the disease is incurable and the suffering is immitigable.
    4. It is applied in the cases of extremely old and persons suffering from incurable diseases like advanced stages of AIDS, Cancer, Kidney failure, Alzheimer’s disease, Nervous disorders, etc only.
    5. It upholds human dignity, which is compromised in the cases of old–age and suffering.
    6. It is voluntary on the parts of both the sufferer and the doctor to whom the request is made.

In The Case Of Passive Euthanasia (Mercy–Killing):

    1. It is the case of humane killing and when applied with discretion in the case of the brain dead persons etc, it is an act of mercy to end the suffering of those who cannot even tell.
    2. In most cases the doctor just has to discontinue the life support systems such as the ventilator, feeding tubes etc and the patient passes away without any suffering and pain.

Arguments against Euthanasia:

    1. ‘The God giveth and the God taketh’; no one else has a right to intervene in the divine process of life and death. The man cannot give life so he must not take life, voluntarily or otherwise.
    2. Though humane it is still killing.
    3. It does not enjoy any religious approval.
    4. It has legal implications.
    5. It can be grossly misused by the vested interests and irresponsible regimes.

Comparison

This description of voluntary and involuntary euthanasia and the arguments for and against its practice give us enough grounds to draw a comparison between this practice and the practice of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa. They are as follows:

      1. Euthanasia is practiced from purely personal and medical points of view while Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa from that of spiritual emancipation point of view.
      2. In euthanasia the person surrenders to the pain and suffering and wishes to die while in the practice of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa he braves the suffering while patiently waiting the death to visit him.
      3. The seeker of euthanasia is not at all calm and composed while that of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa is in a state of peace and equanimity of mind.
      4. Euthanasia is pure desire to die while Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa is the practice of immortality.
      5. The practice of euthanasia is aided by the doctor who simply administers the lethal dose of chemical to ease life out. He is least concerned about the psychic state of the patient at the time of death while the practice of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa is aided and assisted by the Niryāpakas who constantly endeavour to maintain the kşapaka’s peace of mind.
      6. The practice of euthanasia is attended by despondence and anger (Ārtadhyāna and Raudradhyāna) while that of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa. is attended by pious thoughts (Dharmadhyāna).
      7. The practice of euthanasia is sought by the cowards that cannot bear the fruits of their karma while that of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa by those brave and patient aspirants who bear them with courage and fortitude.
      8. The result of euthanasia is spiritually unrewarding death while that of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa is spiritually rewarding one.
      9. In the case of passive euthanasia the subject cannot make a decision for himself he is simply killed, albeit mercifully, while the practice of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa cannot proceed without the voluntary consent of the aspirant practitioner.
      10. The practitioner of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa sets his sights on the ultimate good of achieving nirvāna or immortality while euthanasia aims at a very narrow concept of painless death, which may also be only an euphemism.
      11. The concept of euthanasia is only about dying well while that of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa is also about living well. “One who lives a pious life, dies a peaceful death”, it proclaims.
      12. The practice of euthanasia is fraught with legal complications while that of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa is not.
      13. Killing how–so–ever painlessly is a violent activity so euthanasia may look merciful at the surface but it is violent in nature. Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa, on the other hand, is non–violent from the beginning to the end.
      14. The practice of euthanasia does nothing to improve the quality of life of the subject by way of de–addiction, psychological strengthening, prayers etc while these are a part of the practice of Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa.

    This comparison clearly shows that there is nothing in common between the practices of euthanasia and Sallekhanā-Samādhimaraņa except that both may be voluntary. No spiritual benefit can ensue from the practice of euthanasia.

4.0 Conclusion

From the presentation made, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Sallekhanā is the most sought after peaceful death, which can relieve the human being from the fear and misery of death.
  2. Sallekhanā is relevant in all ages and in all times. It is very much relevant in today’s society as well.
  3. Euthanasia is a form of voluntary death that may be resorted to relieve the terminally ill and miserably suffering human beings from their painful life but it does not compare well with Sallekhanā, which is death in a state of equanimity and peace of mind. Euthanasia has its merits and drawbacks.

The topic is open for discussion.

Footnotes:
[1]
[2]
[3]
[4]
[5]
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