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Thousands of Jains in India Protest for the Right to Fast Until Death

The practice has been ruled illegal by Rajasthan's High Court, but adherents of the faith insist that their abstemious preparation for death is not an act of suicide.
August 25, 2015, 7:50pm
Jain women on the steps of a temple in Palitana. (Photo by Arian Zwegers/Flickr)

Nearly 2,500 members of the Jain religious community rallied on Monday in the northern Indian city of Kanpur to silently protest a recent ban on its practice of Santhara — a ritual fasting to death. Protests also took place inother cities across India, where adherents of Jainism number about fourmillion.

The Rajasthan High Court ruled that the practice of Santhara was illegal on August 10. The decision ended an almost decade-long public interest litigation casefiledby the Indian human rights activist Nikhil Soni, who had argued that Santhara was tantamount to suicide, which is punishable by law.

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Jains undertake Santhara toward the end of their lives as a means of spiritual purification. It typically begins after the body has irretrievably broken down or grown ill in such a way that death is a certainty. Adherents of the faith, which involves fasting at other times of the year for religious purposes, insist that the process is an abstemious preparation for death rather than an act of suicide.

One of the oldest religions in the world, Jainism is based on the ideas of nonviolence and self-control, of which leading an ascetic lifestyle is a key value. Like Hindus, who are a majority in India, Jains also believe in the spiritual concept of reincarnation. They believe that having a clear mind focused on spiritual rather than material matters at the time of death is the best state with which to pass into the next life. The ritual is also practiced as a means of achieving "moksha," a spiritual state that is free from the cycle of birth and death.

This practice is sacred among Jains, who often sit by the bedside of their dying relative.

"This ritual was made for saints who decided to desert their physical body to earn moksha," Jain guru Acharya Dr. Lokesh Munisagar told the Hindustan Times, following the ban. "The High Court's decision is against the sentiments of the Jain community."

Protest against Rajsthan Highcourt descision on Sallekhna.— prachi jain (@ciprachi)August 25, 2015

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"Santhara has nothing to do with suicide. On the contrary, it's a blessing for those who can undertake it," one of the heads of the Jain International Youth Organization (JIYO) told VICE News. The man, who lives in Mumbai and wished to remain anonymous, stressed that Santhara is not commonplace and is mostly undertaken by "the elderly and the orthodox." According to the Times of India, nearly 400 people have died after performing Santhara in the western city of Mumbai over the last seven years.

The practice received a lot of public attention in 2006, when 93-year-oldKaila Devi Hirawat's undertaking of Santhara prompted Soni to file his legal petition, sparking a national debate about whether it constituted suicide or a form of euthanasia.

"This is not suicide, because suicide is impulsive," Pana Chand Jain, a lawyer who argued on behalf of Jains in the case, remarked in 2006. "This is an action taken with a conscious mind, with the permission of family and of gurus. It is not secretly done. It is a religious practice."

Nine years later, the Rajasthan High Court has determined that Santhara is punishable as attempted suicide, for which someone can be imprisoned up to a year. The court also found that anyone found to have supported Santhara leading to death could be charged with abetting suicide, which could bring a prison sentence as high as ten years.

The court also called on Rajasthan state authorities to "stop and abolish" the practice, and urged for "any complaint made in this regard [to] be registered as a criminal case and investigated by the police." Four days after the court pronounced its ruling, young members of the Jain community in central Indore collected signatures on a 108-feet canvas to protest the ban. Young Jains also urged fellow followers to wear black wristbands as a sign of protest.

"For many of us, Santhara is a very pure way of leaving this life," explained the JIYO official. "This [court] decision is difficult to accept, and many see it as an attack on our religious freedom."

Jain religious leaders have declared that they will appeal the ruling to India's Supreme Court.

"For now, we don't know what will happen to those who wish to perform Santhara," said the JIYO official. "Some families may find themselves accused of complicity, of abetting suicide. It's very concerning."

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c Photo viaFlickr