India T.V. Channel Interviews H.H. Acharya Mahaprajna On Santhara

Posted: 04.10.2006
Updated on: 02.07.2015

Interview taken by India T.V. Channel of Acharya Shri Mahaprajna on "Santhara — the Jain Practice of Fasting-unto-death"

(In context of Rajasthan High Court's Notice questioning Santhara's lawfulness)

Acharyaji! What is the importance of the pratha (custom) of Santhara in Jain Samaj?

Santhara is indeed a spiritual practice of penance. One who leads a noble life undertakes various practices of penances while living. When such spiritual personage would find, at the fag end of his life , that the body had already reached a tattered stale, and would not last long, he would like to pass his last moments of life in complete tranquility and composure through the practice of penance, in which he renounces food. But the essential condition in Santhara is that he should neither cling to life nor crave for early death. He should be completely equanimous. In such stale of extreme mental peace, he reflects that if death occurs, let it come. This is Anashana (fasting-unto-death).

Then, what is the objective of such practice?

Let us understand clearly the objective of undertaking Santhara. When the body has become too weak to be good-for-nothing, one should not have attachment to such death-bedded body. Santhara is nothing but an experiment to become free from such attachment. For, our greatest attachment is towards our body. As such, giving up of the bodily attachment is the most invincible task. It is thus an experiment in Sadhana of detachment. In such highest state of detachment, there would be no attachment either for body or for food, and death occurring in such detached stale would lead one to better reincarnation and better birth in next life. On the other hand, if he transmigrates with the bondage of attachment, his next birth cannot be noble. They who believe in the reincarnation theory profess that the next birth will not be noble if one is not free from intense attachments. Thus, Santhara means an experiment of cultivating detachment.

Acharyaji! This pratha (custom) has been challenged through a writ in High Court, it is a very important tradition of Jainism. Can the Court intervene in this (religious) affair?

First of all, the fact is that Santhara is not a pratha (custom). 'Custom' is that which is compulsory. Santhara is not compulsory at all ; the fact, on the contrary, is that out of millions upon millions, hardly four to five persons take to Santhara. Hence, it is clear that it is not a pratha. Secondly, it is doubtful whether the person who has filed the writ is well acquainted with the authentic information about Santhara (Anashana) or not. Only it is being compared with Satipratha. But, in Satipratha, the woman commits herself Sati after or for her dead husband , whereas Santhara is undertaken neither after someone nor for someone. Santhara is accepted only for the pure object of one's own benevolent future In Satipratha, there is no consideration of the age of the woman committing Sati - she may be only 25 or so, whereas the Santhara or Anashana is practiced only by a person on the death-bed. Hence, its comparison with Satipratha could be made only out of sheer ignorance. Dowry is also a custom. People are forced to give it and so on; there are many such customs. But Anashana cannot be called a custom. It is only a practice for individual's Sadhana. It is not at all a pratha. If those who have filed the writ would have collected factual information about Santhara from the experts, and then would have taken the step, it would have been reasonable, otherwise there is no legitimacy of doing so.

Santhara can neither be considered a custom, nor can it be compared to Satipratha, nor can it deemed to be suicide. For, it is undertaken not with the objective of ‘dying'. A person who is a spiritual practitioner undertakes anashana with a definite objective. Its objective is to live in the state of detachment, as I have already mentioned. There are two main causes of attachment— food and body. It is indeed a great spiritual practice to become detached to both these.

Do you mean Acharyaji that it is useless to move the court..........?

Well, the propriety of challenging anything without understanding the issue holistically is beyond our understanding. If it were a general custom that every Jain must undertake anashana, it would be justified to move the court. But when it is not so, what is the sense in filing the writ? However, everyone is free to do so in the age of democracy. Even then, it would have been better that before filing the writ, one should have made a thorough study and collected full authentic information about Santhara from the experts/scholars who are well conversant with the subject, and then he would have moved the court; this would have been more reasonable. Whether one is a lawyer or someone else, there is always the scope for ignorance and delusion. Hence, I do not consider it proper to do so.

Perhaps, in my view, this is not an issue for the judiciary. If someone is undertaking his spiritual practice (Sadhana), why should the court interfere? If there were some atrocity or compulsion, then the court has to intervene. Or if it was a tradition or custom, then also it is its duty. But this is only an individual's personal inclination for spiritual enhancement. Suppose a person thinks that he would observe penance (fasting) for 100 days (for his spiritual purity). Why should others interfere?

Even in Naturopathy Treatment, the patient has to undertake fasting of longer duration. Thus, someone may undertake such fasting for one's cure, other for one's spiritual upliftment or so, why there should be interference in his individual's matter. I do not think it proper or even relevant (or rational).

Acharyaji! Then do you suggest that the Court should not have issued notice on this issue?

Well, why should I say the court should not do so, or why should I suggest that the court should have issued notice? However, I feel that the whole issue is neither concerned with the judiciary nor with the lawyer. In reality, it is purely a matter concerned with Sadhana. The suicide in my view is that in which one kills himself out of impulse. Suppose if someone is overwhelmed by anger, or say, by greediness, and kills himself, then it is suicide. Where there is no impulse, it is a state of composure and tranquillity (Samadhi). One who is practising Sadhana (spiritual practice) in peaceful condition reflects that “let me not die taking medicines and on bed in a hospital (with multitude of tubes and pipes in mouth, nose etc., and the body being pierced by injections everywhere in the body and so on). So let me die in the state of Samadhi in complete peace,” and reflecting thus, if he undertakes some practice of penance, then it should be considered only as his personal experiment of Sadhana and should not be equated with something else. Let me give suggestion even to those who have filed the writ or who are going to hear it, that they should learn how should they pass their last moments in peace and tranquillity. If someone dies in a hospital, amidst the bundles of ducts and pipes, arms pricked by needles through which glucose and other drugs are being administered, and still he is in the state of total unrest, I don't consider meeting such death as something noble or good. Perhaps, the reincarnation of such person would not be good. In my view, if someone is dying, let him die in peace, without fear, fearlessly (boldly), giving challenge to the death itself as “O death! You may come at any time; I am not scared by you! I have as a matter of fact no attachment to whatsoever to anything in this world.” It would be a great experiment! Not every Tom, Dick and Harry can undertake it!

Acharyaji! Some law experts have opined that as the law bans suicide, and Santhara practiced in India is a kind of suicide, it is also banned.

No, Santhara is not at all suicide. Suicide is committed only for dying. In Santhara, ‘dying' is not at all the objective. On the contrary, in the Santhara, it is incumbent upon him to refrain from desire either of living or of dying. He should keep himself completely equanimous and do his Sadhana. How can you deem Santhara to be suicide?

Acharyaji! Do you mean to say that Santhara is different from Satipratha or suicide?

Yes, Santhara is neither equivalent to Satipratha, nor it is suicide. We consider suicide a sin (rather a deadly sin). It is compulsory practice of taking a vow for all Jain followers that ‘he will never commit suicide out of impulse' and ‘he will never commit murder of anyone else'. It is the first and foremost of the vows. It is commonly practised among the lay followers. You should pay attention to this fact - it is the very beginning of his Sadhana not to commit suicide out of impulse or anger, and also not to kill anyone else.

Acharyaji! Some law experts have opined that Santhara is a kind of contradiction. On one hand there is 'Law of the Land' and on the other hand there is such tradition, which has its own history. Do you feel any contradiction between these two?

Well, I don't find any such contradiction there. The 'Law of the Land' is concerned with suicide - a pure case of suicide, but Santhara is not suicide, nor it is relevant to consider it as suicide. You have to make distinction between suicide and Sadhana (spiritual practice) Santhara is purely an undertaking of Sadhana and that too you can't practice arbitrarily at any time. It can be practiced only under the condition when one feels that now the life-line is sinking and there is no hope whatsoever for living long. It is under such situation that one may take to Santhara— "I now shall do my Sadhana by giving up food." How much difficult it is to give up food even for a day? Is it not uncommon that an old man or even one on the deathbed asks for a cup of tea! How colossal are human cravings, longings and attachments! In spite of them, if someone can pacify them and think in terms of renouncing food for spiritual practice, is it not great? If his line of thinking is, "Oh! Till now I have eaten too much, drunk too much - now let me give up the clinging or attachment to food and drinks when my drama of life is going to end soon," is it not something great? Something ideal? You see, the greatest hurdle in Sadhana is that of body - you have to give up attachment to it. It is something like remaining free from care of body even while living in the body.

Is there any kind of compulsion there?

No, there is no compulsion at all. As I have said, only one or two amongst thousands undertake Santhara. The total population of Jains, if we don't believe the official number, is more than one crore, not less than it. And again there are several crores people who are in one way or other in relation with them. Now, in a year, say hardly two to four persons might be taking Santhara. Thus, only a very very small percentage takes to Santhara; this can neither be considered as a prutha nor a tradition. It is only an individual Sadhana.

Acharyaji! Many many thanks for your response.

Whatever you wanted to know has become clear or not?

Yes, Acharyaji! It has become amply clear. I feel that you have clarified everything very well. You have explained it quite well. We shall present this before the whole country, so that no doubt prevails.

It is your duty rather.

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Terapanth Bhavan Bhiwani, by our correspondent Mahima Bokariya, Surat