Gratefully Dead (On Santhara)

Posted: 06.11.2006
Updated on: 21.06.2014


According to Jainism, each individual soul is pure and perfect, but since eternity it is associated with karmic matter which is transformed into different forms. This suppresses innate cognitive and other properties of soul which has, therefore, become subject to birth and rebirth.

The supreme object of religion is to show the way of liberation to the soul from the bondage of karma. This spiritual process is inextricably connected with the process of shedding karmas. The basic concept underlying a vow of sallekhana or santhara is to prevent influx of new karmas even at the last stages of life and at the same time liberate the soul from bondage of karmas.

The word sallekhana is composed of two words, sat and lekhana. Sat means samyak (rationality in belief) and lekhana means weakening the strength of body and passion by taking a vow. Santhara is a process that starts after a vow of sallekhana is taken. Santhara derives from the Sanskrit word sanstar which in prakrat has become santhar. Santhar is to spread a bed of grass.

It is in the last stage that a person, for achieving samadhimaran, sits on a grass bed and goes into deep meditation. He cultivates no interest in living or no regret in embracing death. The purpose is not to seek moksha but to liberate the soul from the bondage of karmas.

In Jainism, the tradition of systematic fasting, known as santhara, has existed for more than 2,000 years. Holy men say that sallekhana is giving up the body by fasting when there is unavoidable calamity, severe drought, old age or incurable disease, in order to observe the discipline of religion.

Prior to taking vow of sallekhana, santhara is required to give up all feelings of love, hatred, companionship and attachment of any kind with a pure mind. One may take to santhara after obtaining blessings from gurus, and permission from family, friends and relatives.

Sallekhana is voluntary termination of one's life, but under no circumstances is it equivalent to committing suicide. Suicide is committed on a sudden impulse. It is normally a misfortune of one's own making. It may be a result of mental weakness or external circumstances.

Attempting suicide is a penal offence under Section 309 of Indian Penal Code. The high courts of Bombay and Delhi have held Section 309 unconstitutional.

In Rathinam P before a division bench of the Supreme Court, it was argued that provisions of Section 309 of IPC are arbitrary, monstrous and barbaric and offend the equality clause under Article 14 of the Constitution. The division bench by invoking Article 21 has held that since right to live includes right to die, Section 309 is violative of Article 21.

It is true that the division bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Rathinam P stands overruled in Gian Kaur. However, in the Gian Kaur case the court observed: "The right to life including the right to live with human dignity would mean the existence of such a right up to the end of natural life.

his also includes the right to a dignified life up to the point of death including a dignified procedure of death. In other words, this may include the right of a dying man to also die with dignity when his life is ebbing out".

The Supreme Court in Gian Kaur has summed up the law of the land by observing that the right to live with human dignity includes the right to terminate natural life after commencement of natural process of certain death.

If we examine the case on the basis of philosophy of religion it is evident that every man lives to accomplish four objectives of life i.e. dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

When earthly objectives are complete the question arises as to why a person should cling to the body. Hence, a man has a moral right to terminate his life according to Jain religious tenets, because death is simply changing the old body into a new one.

In 1972, the Law Commission recommended abolition of Section 309 of the IPC. In UK, there is no punishment for abetment of suicide. In a number of countries, including UK, euthanasia or mercy killing is permitted.

In 1993, Dutch parliament permitted mercy killing under strict guidelines. In Gian Kaur the court has recognised the right to die with dignity. Hence, a dying man who is terminally ill or in a persistent vegetative state can be permitted to prematurely terminate his life.

Sallekhana is a system of belief which Jains regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being. The preamble to the Constitution states that the Constitution secures to all its citizens liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.

Article 25 guarantees that every person in India shall have freedom of conscience and a right to profess, practice and propagate religion. Article 29 goes further and declares that any section of citizens having a distinct culture shall have a right to conserve the same.

If any law comes in conflict with constitutional rights, it will have to yield. According to Sati Prevention Act, 1987, abetment of sati means that if any widow commits sati, or if someone abets or glorifies it, the act is punishable.

This is different from sallekhana-santhara. It is clear that sallekhana is not suicide, and practice of sallekhana in the Jain community is protected by various guarantees enshrined in the Constitution.

The writer is former judge, Rajasthan high court.

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