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What is the Jain practice of Santhara and why is it being debated?

Namit Hans | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 4:02 IST

The Supreme Court on 31 August stayed Rajasthan HC's order which banned the Jain practice of Santhara. Under this ritual, an individual voluntarily starves to death in order to achieve moksha.

The High Court decision of 10 August was met with strong protest from the Jain community. They claimed that the court order hurt their religious sentiments.

What is Santhara?

  • Santhara, which is also known as Sallekhana, Samadhi-Marana or Samnyasa-Marana is a practice where a person voluntarily decided to fast unto death.
  • According to Jain philosophy and texts, this practice helps an individual attain moksha and frees them from the cycle of rebirth.
  • An individual usually decides to take a vow of Santhara, when they feel they have served the purpose of their lives. It is mostly practiced by the Shwetambar sect of Jains.
  • The Jain philosophy demands that its followers be strict vegetarians. They also believe that hurting anything which has life attracts bad karma. So they fast, in order to ensure that they are acquiring as little bad karma as possible.
  • In this manner, Santhara is seen as a process where an individual acquires minimum negative karma because they do not consume anything as they slowly reach their final breath.

Arguments against Santhara

  • The most important argument against Santhara is that it falls under the category of suicide which is illegal.
  • It also violates an individual's right to life which is safeguarded by the constitution. Those against the practice have also compared it to the banned Hindu practice of Sati, where a woman immolates herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.
  • Those favouring the ban go further to argue that the practice offers a justification to escapism. People who have suffered failure or disappointment in life may choose to end their life and misuse this religious ritual.
  • Santhara has also been linked to euthanasia, where a person voluntarily decides to end their life so as to end their suffering. Euthanasia is also illegal in India.

Arguments in support of Santhara

  • The proponents of Santhara argue that it cannot be termed as suicide because it is not a decision which is taken in a haste. The fasting period may go on for more than a month at times. According to them, psychologists suggest that a person cannot retain suicidal thoughts for a very long period of time.
  • In response to the Sati argument, they say that there is no external pressure and it is an individual's decision to take on Santhara. The practice is also forbidden for young and capable persons.
  • Santhara supporters argue that the euthanasia and escapism angles cannot be justified since this is a deep spiritual experience, which ends up increasing the person's suffering, rather than reducing it. Even medicines cannot be consumed during this time.
  • An individual choosing to enter into Santhara requires the permission of those who are dependent on him/her before they can go ahead with it.
  • For years now the ritual has been practiced without criticism and supporters find no reason why it needs to be challenged now.
First published: 31 August 2015, 2:18 IST
Namit Hans @HansNamit

Namit works as a sub-editor at the Speed News desk. He is an economics graduate who stumbled into social work after college. His interest in social issues and desire to write sensitising stories led him to journalism. In his free time, he mostly reads about religion and mythology.