Santhara not Suicide: Respecting Jains’ Right to Die

On August 24, 2015, thousands of people gathered in Jaipur, India and in other cities around the country. They dressed in orange or white, held large signs, and marched with firm resolve.  About a week before, another group of people gathered in Pune, India in a very different manner.  They observed and supported ninety-two year old Manikchand Lodha for seven days as he fasted until death.

Santhara is the relatively rare Jain ritual of fasting until death, completed by two to four hundred followers each year. It is taken by devout, elderly Jains when death is imminent.  Earlier that month, the High Court of the state of Rajasthan declared this practice to be a form of suicide, igniting protests across the country. The Supreme Court of India quickly lifted the ban temporarily; however, the Supreme Court will consider the practice in greater detail and make the final ruling.

For Jains like me, santhara is a practice to purify one’s soul before reincarnation. The intense penance burns karmas that otherwise bind the soul to the endless cycle of death and rebirth. It takes the individual one step closer to breaking this cycle and achieving enlightenment. It is a voluntary act that must be approved by a monk and the family.

The ancient practice, first mentioned over 1,500 years ago, fits nicely into Jain ethics. It is a practice of complete detachment:  a declaration that 1) I am a pure and everlasting soul and 2) I have no attachments to this temporary body or to the food this body needs to sustain itself. It is also a practice of nonviolence to the highest degree. By practicing santhara when death is inevitable, one is completely minimizing the violence they would otherwise commit to other organisms by eating, to their family members by being a burden, and to their own soul by prolonging the cycle of rebirth and death that is filled with suffering and only transient happiness. There is also no pressure for a Jain to do santhara; even many of the most devout monks do not. It is a deeply personal choice that one makes voluntarily.

This is what the Rajasthani High Court failed to understand. Santhara is not a form of suicide. Although both actions end in the same outcome of death, santhara is not about giving up on life; it is not an action taken when all other hopes are lost. Rather, it is a deliberate choice one takes with a calm and introspective state of mind, supported and praised by the community. It is an inspiring act of free will and an affirmation of fundamental Jain principles.

I believe that in many ways, the Indian legal system is influenced by Western philosophy, a product of British imperialism. For Western philosophers, death means the end of this uniquely human experience. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to protect these bodies as best we can. For Eastern philosophers, death is a part of life. Rather than the grim end of an existence, it is the gateway into our next birth.

We enter this world with such glory. New life is celebrated in all cultures. But we die locked away in hospitals, away from our family and friends, painfully ill or under heavy sedation. For Jains, santhara is a celebration that brings that local Jain community together. It is a celebration of a great conquest over one’s material attachments. It is a celebration of the end of a life, a dignified death.

Conceived by Parth Shah | College Class of 2018


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