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Beyond Sustainable Economy: Death - A Celebration

Published: 15.07.2017

[1] If there is a way to live there ought to be a way to die. Jainism teaches the art of right living through the practice of self-restraint and vratas, i.e. vows, and it teaches the art of dying through sallekhana. Aparigraha or non-attachment is an important component of the art of right living and the art of dying. Plato spoke of political communism, Karl Marx of economic communism, but Jainism speaks of spiritual communism through the practice of Aparigraha whether it be in living or dying. Jainism says that one who has mastered Aparigraha i.e., detachment alone can thoroughly master the art of right living and vice-versa.

Death is inevitable and one is bound to face it sooner or later, happily or sadly, meditatively or worriedly; In any case, one has to face the inevitable death. All living beings have a deal with death. A sound and successful death determines whether one's life is successful or not. The Bhagavad Gītā reveals that just as a person changes clothes every day the soul changes bodies. Death is nothing but a passing phase of the soul from one body to another. What the caterpillar thinks of as the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly. Bound, attached souls cannot live without a body. The body of flesh and bones of humans and animals is due to the karmic body. As long as the soul is associated with the karmic body it is subject to birth and death. Although the soul is immortal, from the point of view of the body it is subject to transmigration. The age-determining karma (ayusya karma) determines the duration of the stay of a particular soul in a particular body and none other than the soul is the doer of its own karmas and it reaps according to what it sows. Jainism says that each one is responsible for what he or she is; no God or gods manipulate the karmic patterns of any soul. Only liberated souls who are completely detached have freed themselves from the dreadful clutches of death, but every aspirant who is devoted to them and by thought, word and deed becomes detached like them shall eventually be freed from birth and death.[2]

The Jain scriptures talk of two kinds of death, the death of a wise man and the death of a fool. Both have to face death but the former faces it with detachment, wisdom and courage, peacefully, calmly and fearlessly. He understands very well that nothing is lost in death, and it is the body that is subject to decay and death; whereas the latter is attached and ignorant of his true self and fears death and resists it with all his might but in vain; he shudders at the very thought of death not knowing how to accept it and face it. It is very difficult for one to accept death if he or she does not understand the concept of the soul, but if one is deeply rooted in spirituality and imbibes the spirit of aparigraha, then the wisdom of right understanding of the soul enables him to face death boldly and wisely; and then death becomes a celebration. When one understands this, one conquers attachment and the fear of death and for them repeated births and deaths eventually cease and the soul returns home, i.e. to 'godhood,' its own Nature, which is the transcendental state of final beatitude, bliss and omniscience.

The scriptures reveal that there are two aspects of existences. One is material existence, full of miseries in the form of birth, death, old age and disease, the other is spiritual existence, which is in reality a fountain of incessant, and infinite, spiritual bliss, knowledge and power. One who recognizes the above aspects of reality alone can truly master the art of dying which is called sallekhana. Sallekhana means observing death wisely, passing wisely into samādhi – the higher, contemplative state of consciousness. sallekhana is a holy and noble way of facing the inevitable fearlessly. This is undertaken only under very special conditions, i.e. when a person is on the death bed or during some natural calamity, when one is face to face with death, when the body becomes fragile and weak and when death becomes inevitable – not otherwise.[3]

A balanced and an indifferent attitude towards life and death is possible only when one has achieved spiritual steadfastness and confidence in the transcendental self through the practice of aparigraha. An aspirant practices complete detachment because absorption in the contemplation of the self is his prime objective. Death is not glorified here, but the right attitude with which the inevitable death is embraced by a spiritual aspirant is glorified. Those who do not understand this fundamental aspect of sallekhana mistake it to be suicide, but it can never be so. Sallekhana is instrumental in terminating the worldly sojourn where as suicide is regarded as the greatest sin.

Thus we see that sallekhana is a pious, noble and austere spiritual exercise – an exercise of transcending the mind and the physical realm through the practice of aparigraha. All that is required are complete detachment and desirelessness, surrender of the external self to the inner self in order to manifest the supreme self, vibrating within. Just as the closing balance and the opening balance of a bank account are the same, the thought color (leśya) in which one leaves the body, opens with the same in the next life, hence it is important to take care of this, in the last breath of one's life. And for this, management of the self throughout one's life is to be learnt through scriptural study, meditation, spiritual contemplation in the company of the right masters so that one develops right understanding, right spiritual confidence and right conduct. This exercise cannot be possible without devotion, sincerity, surrender, deep spiritual insight, forbearance, forgiveness, a balanced attitude towards pleasure and pain, renunciation and aparigraha.

The three desires of a Jain aspirant called manorathas are recalled by him every day and they are firstly to limit all possessions (limited parigraha), secondly to take to the vows and lead a life of self-restraint (complete aparigraha) and thirdly to take to sallekhana in the last stage of one's life, or when death becomes inevitable. Ardent Jains take to partial sallekhana when they retire for the day and before going to bed as follows:

Ahara, śarīra, upādhi, paccakhu pāpa atharaḥ

Maraṇa paun to vosire, jiun to agara.


Food, body, possessions and the 18-fold sins, these are renounced if I die,

But if I continue to survive, these are for me to experience.

Thus we see that aparigraha is an important virtue to master the art of right living and the art of dying. In other words only an aparigrahi, i.e., a detached and awakened soul, can master both and become truly successful in life and death. The Jain way of greeting one and all is 'Jai Jinendra', meaning 'Victory to the Jinas', who have conquered themselves, it also means 'May victory be to the Jina in you and me'. This small greeting sums up the entire philosophy and religion of the Jains. Victory of oneself can be achieved through a careful and faithful study of the self and through the practice of aparigraha. As it is said, 'The essence of human life is wisdom and that of wisdom is practice of detachment and contentment'.

The world is worried that it wants so much more.

An aparigrahi is blissful in that he wants no more.


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Title: Beyond Sustainable Economy
Author: Dr. Rudi Jansma, Dr. Sushma Singhvi
Publisher: Prakrit Bharati Academy

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Ahara
  2. Aparigraha
  3. Ayusya Karma
  4. Body
  5. Chennai
  6. Consciousness
  7. Contemplation
  8. Fear
  9. Jainism
  10. Jina
  11. Karma
  12. Karmas
  13. Karmic Body
  14. Leśya
  15. Madras
  16. Maraṇa
  17. Meditation
  18. Parigraha
  19. Plato
  20. Pāpa
  21. Sallekhana
  22. Soul
  23. samādhi
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