Pradhuman Jain was only four, but he remembers standing in the corner of a room as his 76-year-old grandmother Gindhodi Devi Jain lay dying, surrounded by religious texts. He recalls walking up to her coyly, and she putting her hand on his head to bless him. He also remembers the steady trickle of people coming to visit her over her last few days, at their house in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area. “Woh prabhu ka dhyaan kar rahi hain (She is in prayer), my mother would tell me,” says Jain, now 45.
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Gindhodi Devi’s funeral procession was accompanied by music and her pyre was made of sandalwood. No one shed a tear.
Jain would realise much later what he had witnessed between January 29 and February 6, 1971, when Gindhodi finally passed away.
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“Like how animals sense an earthquake, death sends a signal to the person before it actually comes. That was my grandmother’s cue. Her parents had also taken santhara. And I too wish to go the same way,” says Jain, who is associated with the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions.
But is this choice of death actually as black and white? That is now a matter of debate since the Rajasthan High Court last month held santhara illegal, making it punishable under Sections 306 (abetment of suicide) and 309 (attempted suicide) of the IPC, terming it equivalent to suicide. The bench also held that santhara was not an “essential religious practice” of Jain religion.
As Jains, who make up 0.4 per cent of the population according to the 2011 Census, held protests across the country, the Supreme Court stayed the high court order.
Santhara, also called ‘Pandit-maran’, ‘Sallekhana’ and ‘Sakham-maran’, is believed to have been practised since the foundation of Jainism and finds mention in its agams (religious texts). As per the Jain Yuva Sangh, the Pratikramana Sutra in Shravaka Anuvrata (the code of conduct for Jains) clearly explains santhara, saying that when all purposes of life have been served, or when the body is unable to serve any more purpose, a person can opt for it.
That itself flows from the Jain belief that anything they do can disturb the natural ecology. Therefore, eating a mango weighs lesser on one’s karma than eating a strawberry, which has more seeds, and hence possibilities of life. Through santhara, a person is expected to cause minimum disturbance to others. He or she is presumed to be voluntarily shunning all of life’s temptations — food, water, emotions, bonds — after instinctively knowing death was imminent.
“Sallekhana is the soul of Jainism,” says Jaipur-based Munishri 108 Praman Sagarji Maharaj (the numbering being a gradation for Jain monks). “In its absence, a Jain sadhak’s (practitioner’s) sadhna is not successful. Just like a student whose year-long studies come to a naught if he does not go to the classroom, a Jain who practises Jainism fails if he can’t undertake sallekhana.”
Mahesh Pagariya, the national president of the youth wing of the Delhi-based Jain Conference, estimates that at least 1,500 people have undertaken sallekhana in the last 10 years in Mumbai and Pune alone. Jain guru Parampujya Acharya Shree Kulchandra Suriji (‘KC’) Maharaj, based in Mumbai, puts the number at more than 250 people every year.
“The numbers have certainly dwindled,” says a disciple of the guru, “but that is because we know this is the kalyug. People’s leaning towards religion is on the decline.”
Jayant Jobalia, vice-president of the Shree Vardhaman Sthanakvasi Jain Sangh, Borivali West (Mumbai), likens santhara to Hindu saints attaining samadhi. “All our tirthankars left this world undertaking santhara. It is also a very scientific process where the body is crushed in a gradual manner.”
To compare it with suicide is completely wrong, says Kanak Parmar, the general secretary of the Mumbai-based Jain Shakti Foundation. “Suicide results from depression, anger, loneliness. People avoid talking about it. Santhara on the other hand is observed amid festivity. The person concerned is treated akin to god. The house becomes a teerthasthan (place of pilgrimage).”
Calling the Rajasthan judgment “an assault on our culture”, Vivek Sagar, a Bhopal-based Jain monk, says, “If sallekhana is suicide, then samadhi — jal, parvat and other forms practised by Vaishnavites — is also suicide. Several political leaders undertake fast unto death… They should also be booked.”
Justice (retd) P C Jain of the Rajasthan High Court drafted the Shwetambar sect’s stand in the high court arguing in favour of santhara. Jain, who had been on the bench in the Deorala sati case and co-authored the order directing the government to ensure there was no sati glorification, calls the other comparison — between sati and santhara —as similarly devoid of logic.
Rather than an age-old custom, sati was a recent innovation, born of material interests, Jain ruled in the Deorala case. That, he notes, makes it quite different from santhara.
“The learned (high) court’s order is flawed in fact and law,” the retired judge says. “The petitioner did not say anything about the use of force or torture but the court cited these.”
The Shwetambar sect also argued that santhara was not a way to attain “moksha (liberation)” and could be undertaken only in three cases — terminal illness or imminent death, famine or non-availability of food, and old age with loss of faculties.
“Santhara is only a matter of dying with dignity,” says P C Jain. “And you can’t undertake suicide and then decide to withdraw (unlike in santhara). There are several examples where people have withdrawn, the most famous being Muni Vidyanand, a Digambar saint who withdrew after six years in santhara, during which he gradually gave up food, saying his body was not ready yet.”
Jain sees a hangover of “Christian morality” in the debate. Suicide was an abhorrent practice in England at the time many of India’s laws were framed. “The person who committed suicide lost property rights and was not even allowed to be buried in the graveyard. But now even the UK and US have decriminalised suicide,” he says.
“Other religions show how to live, we show how beautiful it is to die,” says Vijay Bhatevara of Pune, whose 58-year-old wife Sunanda took santhara and passed away within hours on August 23. In her will, she expressed her wish to donate her body.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2010, Sunanda was in “unbelievable pain”, says son Sujit. “My mother had a right to die with dignity. Still we consulted several doctors. Finally family members too agreed that my mother should be able to take santhara.” Vijay is happy that his wife could give her body for research.
But the fact that santhara is taken up mostly by those old and ailing, and particularly women, has left it open to other accusations. Human rights activists allege old people are made to undertake santhara by relatives who don’t want to look after them.
“Santhara has essentially turned into socially acceptable suicide,” says Manchand Khandela, general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Jain Jagriti Parishad. “The person who undertakes it is under immense pressure. He or she is sworn into it by a great saint and that is a commitment hard to break. The person is treated like a demi-god; people come for their darshan.”
Just because santhara is based on non-violence, is it appropriate to let a person die, asks Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a Mumbai-based lawyer. “Why are protesters on hunger strike arrested and force-fed then? The government is not allowing Irom Sharmila to die as her santhara is political?” she says.
Agreeing with Khandela, she adds, “How ‘voluntary’ can a decision of santhara be? It is taken under the threat of being socially ostracised if they have a second thought.”
While family members contest this, in practice, it is mostly people on the verge of death who opt for the vow, in the hope of giving their death meaning.
Nikhil Soni, on whose petition the Rajasthan High Court held santhara illegal, comes from Churu, the Rajasthan district that once saw one of the highest number of santhara cases in the country. He claims he approached the court after hearing about the case of Bimla Devi Bhansali, who was allegedly coerced into santhara by her family and whose cries for help were “ignored”.
Badamiben Mehta was similarly old, ailing and a woman. A resident of Kalbadevi in Mumbai, the 73-year-old had been bedridden for over a year, receiving treatment for tuberculosis, before doctors gave up hope.
“That was when she told me she wanted to take santhara,” says son Kamal Mehta. “We went to our religious preacher, who explained the concept in detail.” Badamiben died within 40 hours of starting santhara.
Jaipur-based Man Singh Mehta, whose wife Kamla Devi undertook santhara, says, “We Jains are not poor. You think we don’t have enough food or water in our homes, that we would force people into death?”
Kamla Devi suffered from cancer and when doctors said they couldn’t help her anymore, she was brought home. She began her santhara on the night of June 5, 2006, and was dead within seven hours. “Undertaking santhara was her last wish,” stresses Mehta.
Terming the high court order ill-informed, he adds, “Our saints walk miles without shoes. Tomorrow the court will declare that too as cruelty and ban it.”
When Megha Kothari’s 80-year-old father Nemichand Katariya passed away on February 26 this year, his last words were “Michchhami Dukkadam”, an ancient Jain phrase in Prakrit meaning, ‘If I have caused you offence in any way, in thought, word or deed, then I seek your forgiveness’.
Her father, who lived with her brother near the Fergusson College road in Pune, had had a lively routine till cancer struck last year, Megha says. “He barely took one dose of chemotherapy and then simply refused treatment. From December last year he took homeopathy pills and survived on a basic diet. The pain was there but his constant refrain was to take santhara. We all urged him to continue with the cancer treatment. But it was like a calling from within.”
Wife Suryamala was supportive. “My husband had decided to take the vow. How could I be an obstacle?” the 78-year-old says.
“My father was asked often if he wanted to change his mind, have food. But not once did he even ask for water,” Megha says.
Manikchand Lodha, 90, Pune, took up santhara the same day as the Rajasthan High Court order. “My father-in-law was bedridden for two-and-a-half years but he was so determined to take santhara that he stopped medicines,” says daughter-in-law Sunita.
Family members admit it was distressing to see the frail old businessman give up, one by one, tea, television, interaction with family, and finally the little bit of milk and juice he took. “We tried to dissuade him, but he knew his mind,” says Sumitlal.
Shekhar Hattangadi, whose documentary Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism? has won awards at film festivals, says a basic difference lies at the centre of the row. “We follow the West in legal and economic principles, while our faith is very similar to what is followed in the East,” he says. “In Western philosophy, the Catholics consider the body to be a temple, while the Jains consider the human body to be a prison of the same temple. The conflict arises there itself.”
with Mahim Pratap Singh in Jaipur, Milind Ghatwai in Bhopal & Anuradha Mascarenhas in Pune