Life and death in the times of democracy

Democracy has emerged as the preferred form of civil governance in the modern times. After experimenting with different forms, humanity settled with peace with democracy because it guarantees all humans their basic rights to live and to live with dignity. However, India being a crucible of various religions which have been practiced for several millennia, is a unique case for democracy where religious practices and centuries old traditions and customs have been taken into consideration before making a common oatmeal that is democracy. The recent judgment of the Rajasthan High Court by the Hon’ble Chief Justice Mr. Sunil Ambwani and Hon’ble Mr. Justice Veerendr Singh Siradhana has decreed that the age old Jain practice of Santhara or Sallekhana be considered illegal and against the law of the land. It has been equated to suicide which is a willful destruction of one’s life with violent means and is punishable under section 309 A of the Indian Penal Code. In a country where every religion has been guaranteed its rightful place and its followers the freedom to practice the same, this judgment comes as a shock for all devout Jains the world-over.

Bella Vista Belagavi

Jainism has, for long, been hailed as a religion that espouses non-violence, detachment and pluralism. It’s a matter of great concern that an age old practice finds an interpretation which is far stretched from what the learned Justices are perceiving it to be. Several ancient texts, stone tablets ( called Nishidhi stones or stones erected after a person has departed after he’s taken the vow of Sallekhana ) stand testimony to the fact that this practice was followed for centuries as part of the three key principles of Jainism. It must be noted here, that Sallekhana differs from suicide in numerous ways, the first one being that the person who vows for this ritual does not do it owing to utter disgust, despair or helplessness or because he has faced tremendous pain, loss or dishonor in his current life. Almost all people who take the vow of Sallekhana, do so towards the end of their life, with ample thought going towards their family’s opinion. It is not a decision taken on the spur of the moment but one which has to be ratified by the family as well as by the gurus of the person in question.

In a monumental work of literature published by Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, Dharwad, author S. Settar, in his book Inviting Death, articulates the age old practice of renouncing one’s body to attain the highest order of peace, moksha, by Jains. In this book, Settar says “ In all these instances, the decisions were made voluntarily, under conditions which did not ruffle their emotional, physical and mental balance.” He also makes a note that Sallekhana could be embraced at the end phase of one’s life span but it is recommended that the penance should be practiced throughout one’s life time and its severest observances should come at the closing stage of the life span. ( Pg: 113). It should be noted here that Jainism lays great emphasis on renunciation as a way to attain moksha. Jain Munis, Acharyas, Sadhvis and Shravaks (householder) lead a life devoid of all the worldly pleasures, including extremely limited consumption of food, water and in specific cases where men take Diskha, even renunciation of clothes as a means of shedding all the material aspects that could bind a person to this world. These holy men and women lead such a life for many years where their desire for the good things in life diminishes and the only thought that remains is to attain moksha.

At a later stage when they feel they have exhausted their desire for anything on this earth, is when they take the vow for Sallekhana. One must spare a kind thought and respect the personal desire of such a person when he himself, voluntarily desires to shed his body and peacefully leave this earth. Sallekhana is not a vow which is taken and implemented overnight. The process has already begun where the person has fasted for long stretches, kept himself limited to a few food items or has even went without food and water for days. At the end, when he leaves food and water altogether, his mind and body are used to the thought of fasting and he experiences little or no pain in the process.

Seen in the light of all this, the religious practice of Sallekhana or Santhara obviously looks devoid of any coercion or force. Many religions espouse the saints who have voluntarily taken Samadhi which is again a form of slowly shedding the body and liberating the soul. A religion like Jainism, which cares to avoid the minutest form of violence or pain to any living body, would never inflict such humongous pain to a person who desires to live and have food and enjoy the pleasures of life. Sallekhana is not a forceful ending of life but a voluntary, gradual and peaceful process which is solely at the discretion of the person whose body and life it is. A democracy which upholds life, must, instead, leave the religious aspects alone and focus instead on providing food, water and clothing as also basic amenities to the people who remain devoid of the basic dignity of life at various places. India has always respected religious laws and hence has a dual system when Hindu Law, Mohemmedan law and Civil law coexist peacefully. Just because Jains do not add up to a significant number in the scheme of population, does not mean that their religious practices and rituals can be weighed in the scale of civil law and be deemed criminal offences. Understanding a religion’s rituals in the proper context is of utmost importance in such cases.

Thousands of Jains will take part in the rally with black ribbons on shoulders and submit memorandum to the deputy commissioner Belagavi, addressing to Rajasthan CM and prime minister on Monday. On the day, all the Jains in city will keep their commercial establishments, factories and educational institutions closed.

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