Sallekhana: a faith towards the ritual of death
Indian constitution has explained us the beauty of freedom by giving us fundamental rights such as right to live with dignity and right for performing one’s religious.
Right of life and live with dignity is the most important right amongst all other rights and with the help of this right we can enjoy all the other rights mentioned under fundamental right. Whereas, right to perform one’s religious helps us to perform the practice freely, as customs and traditions are always interlinked with the society and are unbreakable or inseparable from each other.
Nevertheless, when it comes to choose between the two fundamental rights such as right of life and right of practicing one’s religion then the rights becomes debatable.
Sallekhana one of the oldest form of custom, which had been practiced in Jain community, has been debateable after Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in Rajasthan High Court in 2006. In this case, Hon’ble High Court had declared the practice illegal as it directly strikes the section 306 and 309 of Indian Penal Code, 1960. Further stated that, is practice is one of the method of attempting suicide that is an offence under Indian Penal Code.
Sallekhana also known as santhara, Samadhi marana, or sanyasana marana. It is 300 years old custom practiced by Shvetambara group of Jain Community. this practice is said to be the most peaceful and desirable type of death as the follower voluntarily decreasing the intake of food and water in order to end one’s life and move towards the moksha in Jain Scripture. it is viewed, as of thinning of human passion and the body and it is believed that it welcomes the death of a person which helps in accomplishing the feeling of self-actualization and spiritual liberation; in other words it is said as destroying the rebirth by the influence karma by withdrawing all physical and mental activities.
Jainism does not consider Sallekhana as suicide and believes that this practice is more an act of passion and they don’t use any external force (weapons, poison) on the body
Sallekhana is a vow available for both ascetics and household people. Even there has never been any discrimination between genders and even queens have participated in this practice.
According to condition mentioned in Jain Scriptures, following individuals are forbidden from participating in this religious practice or has to follow the rules while practicing.
Old age or a person suffering from any terminal disease that can cause death.
If any person having any difficulty in performing normal bodily function.
If any person has still to fulfil any of his/her responsibility towards this family.
Only if any person wants to remove his/her bad karma that he/she had committed during their lifetime and has strong desire of attaining moksha.
Only when a person has strong faith in the religion and god.
Only after the permission has been granted from the family members and relatives.
A person with good mental and emotional health.
However, in modern era, Sallekhana has been relatively uncommon event in Jain community. According to the statistical data in 2011, on an average 240 Jain people practice santhara every year.
Procedure for performing Sallekhana
A person have to make up his/her mind before practicing and have to reveal it in their community.
He/she has to apologize to everyone person who was hurt by that person’s action in his/her lifetime. This practice is also known as michhami dukkadam.
He takes the pledge of santhara after a discussion of his present condition with a saint and family members.
After that, he/she starts meditation and tries to look inside his/her soul.
Further, he slowly and gradually restrain himself/herself from food and water.
Eventually, his/her soul leaves the body behind and attains moksha.
Sallekhana is practice that requires consent from all the members of family, relatives, also from the teachers, saints, or preachers of Jainism.
Sallekhana was carried more in ancient time but today Jainism do not embrace this practice and believe as one of the most ancient rituals. It is also said by one of the gurus in Jain community that, the numbers have certainly declined due to Kalyug, this duration is more about facts and reasons and less of faith and believes in rituals.
Legal comparison of Sallekhana with suicide
In Jain text there is a clear distinction between the Sallekhana and suicide. In the text, they belief that soul can be reborn on the base of accumulated karma and how one dies contributes to the karma accumulation with a pious death reduces the negative karma attachment.
The comparison between Sallekhana with suicide has been a hot topic debated since early time of Jainism.
Professor S.A Jain cities that there is a difference between the the people having motivation behind the suicide and those performing Sallekhana as it is argued that Sallekhana is suicide, since there is voluntary severance of life, there is no passion in this undertaking. A person, who kills himself by the means of poison, weapon, etc swayed by attachment, aversion, or infatuation, commits suicide. However, Sallekhana practiced, as a holy death is free from desire, anger, and delusion. Hence, it is not suicide.
Champat Rai Jain, a Jainism scholar wrote in 1934. “Soul is a simple substance and is immortal. Death is for compounds whose dissolution is termed disintegration and death when it has reference to a living organism that is a compound of spirit and matter. Dying in a proper way will develop and it has a great asset for the future life of the soul. the true idea of Sallekhana is only that when death does appears at last one should know how to die, that is one should die like a man, not like a beast like bellowing, panting and making vain by efforts to avoid the unavoidable.
In today’s time Indian activist had questioned the practice and called voluntary choice of death an evil similar to sati, by which the practice had attempted to legislate and judicially act against this religious custom. It’s said that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, 1950 had guaranteed the right of life to all person within the state and not the right of death.
Nikhil Soni v. Union of India (2006),
Advocate Nikhil Soni as well as a human activist filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Hon’ble Court of Rajasthan, by saying that Sallekhana is illegal practice and considered as suicide in the eye of law.
According to the petitioner, Sallekhana violates article 21 of Indian constitution that says about right of life. Petitioner cites the case of Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v Union of India, related to euthanasia and Gian Kaur case that says article 21 permits us the right of life and not right to die, “the right to life is a natural right embodies in article 21 which means to die a natural death and does not includes the right to commit suicide which is an unnatural extinction of life and inconsistent with the concept of the right of life.”
Even argued that, “No person has a right to take his own life consciously, as the right does not includes the right to end once life under article 21. He asked the Hon’ble court to consider Sallekhana as suicide and thus should be punishable under section 309 (attempt to commit suicide). the case was further extended to those who helped in facility the death of an individual observing Sallekhana, would be culpable under section 306 (abetment of suicide) with ading and abetting the act under Indian Penal Code, 1960.
In response, the Jain community argued that prohibiting the practice of Sallekhana would violates their freedom of practicing their religions; a fundamental right guaranteed by the article 15 and 25 of Indian Constitution. T. K Tukoi widely cited in the court from the book called Sallekhana: “Sallekhana practice is not considered to be suicide whereas it is way of attending moksha”.
According to the Judgment passed by Hon’ble high court of Rajasthan, constitution of India does not permits nor includes under Article 21 the right to take one’s own life nor can it includes the right to take the life as an essential religious practice under article 25 of the constitution and further added that, there is no prove that Sallekhana is an essential practice of Jainism, therefore it can not be covered under article 25(1).
Hence, High Court banned the practice in August 2015 and made it punishable under section 306 (abetment of suicide) and 309 (attempt to commit suicide) under Indian Penal Code, 1960.
Protest against the ban!
Soon after the judgement, Jain community started their non-violent protest across India. The Jain community transparently censured the Court and the judges as the community trusted that Court has an unmindful and discourteous conduct towards the religious practice and towards article 25 of the constitution that the gifts freedom of religions to the citizens of India. During the protest, media try to cover the individual perspective from the Jain community, which leads to the debates across the world.
Hence, after the judgement of High court announced a special leave petition was brought under the steady gaze of the Apex Court of India. The petition clarifies the concept of Sallekhana and stated the differences between Sallekhana and suicide as Sallekhana is practically a vow, which is not taken either in passion or in anger. It is a conscious process of spiritual purification when one does not desire death but to live his life, whatever is left of it in a manner so that it would reduce the influenced karma.
The person who had undertaken the vow is consider as a great saint. Therefore, the person is treated as demi-God; even people come for their blessing.
Supreme Court took less than a minute to order a stay on the judgment given by Rajasthan High Court in which the court has declared Sallekhana as a medium of suicide and made punishable under IPC.
Supreme Court has witness the opposition against the religious belief and legal concepts during the case of Nikhil Soni v Union of India. Court had taken a stand for Sallekhana as not a medium of suicide and considering with a basic religious practice. As the court knew that thousands of individuals were waiting for the judgment and to see whether India is a secular nation in a genuine sense or it is just a myth.
However, this case clarified all the doubts regarding the beliefs and the practice for every religion by giving a fair, honest, and just judgement in the favour of Jainism.
Nikhil Soni vs Union Of India & Ors. on 10 August, 2015
Aruna Ramchandra Shanbaug vs Union Of India & Ors on 24 January, 2011
Smt. Gian Kaur vs The State Of Punjab on 21 March, 1996
Author: Pratiksha Thakur,
Navrachana University student