Terming birth and death as ‘religious festivals’, members of the Jain community in Rajasthan defended the ancient ritual fast of 'Santhara' as a means to attain salvation and not suicide.
"There is a vast difference between suicide and Santhara. Suicide is
committed in a fit of anger or depression while the decision to observe Santhara is taken with a calm mind," former judge of Rajasthan High Court Pana Chand Jain told a news conference.
Some scholars said that in the Jain community, the rites of passage of birth and death were like a ‘Dharmic
Mahotsav’ (religious festival). They said the ritual fast unto death was often misunderstood by many sections of the society and Santhara was only embraced by ‘terminally ill’ patients.
Facing a lot of criticism from media and human rights activists over practicing the age-old tradition of Santhara or, fast unto death, the Jain community's high priest has objected to this hue and cry, saying it has existed for centuries. Reacting to the hullabaloo over two women committing
Santhara, Acharya Maha Pragyaji, said when millions were dying worldwide of starvation and required immediate help, no one seemed to be bothered.
The attention given to the cases of self-starvation were unwarranted, he said, adding that society is only concerned about the fate of the affluent. He was referring to the public outcry over ninety-three-year-old Kela Devi Hiravat observing Sathara for the past 32 days.
"In Jain community, anyone undertaking the vow of "Santhara" gives up on food when he or she feels his or her life has served its purpose and awaits death, said Kela Devi Hiravat's family members.
A terminally ill and 61-year-old, Vimla Devi, died after undertaking Santhara for ten days.
Practicing Jains say their traditions should not be interfered with. The rituals, they say, are not a modern-day phenomenon. "Why would somebody take the agony of fasting for 30, even 40 days at a stretch? 'Santhara' is just a penance one undertakes when he or she realizes that the body has become defunct anyway. So by undertaking it one wishes to alienate desires associated with the body," said Acharya Maha Pragyaji, while speaking on the issue in Bhiwani town in Haryana.
"Santhara' is a religious act, a spiritual act. It is neither a desire to kill oneself, nor to clutch on to life, otherwise, that would be a suicide. 'Santhara' is just a graceful, courageous and peaceful way of confronting the imminent death and about embracing the death through resolve and penance," Pragyaji added. Meanwhile, the State government has said that it would abide by the Court's orders over the issue.
Santhara or Sallenkhana is a procedure in which a Jain stops eating with the intention of preparing for death. This is different from suicide as it is not taken in passionate mood of anger, deceit or other emotions, but is undertaken only when the body is no more capable of serving its owner as a instrument of spirituality and when inevitability of death is a matter of undisputed certainty.
The intention is to purify the body, and remove all thought of the physical things from the mind.
Jainism was found by Acharya Rishabhdev, who is considered the first Tirthankar (religious teacher). Mahaveer was the last and the most famous. The basic idea behind Jains' fasting is to aquire lowest possible negative karma and purifies one self in the process. Santhara, in this sense, is the best way to purification.
Jain women more often do fasting than men. Fasting also purifies body and mind, and reminds the practitioner of
Mahavira's emphasis on renunciation and asceticism, because Mahavira spent a great deal of time fasting.
The intention is to purify the body, and remove all thought of the physical things from the mind. As well as giving up food and water, the ascetic abandons all desires and dislikes so that they can concentrate exclusively on the spiritual as they approach death.