A few days ago, the BBC reported on the ritual death of Vimla Devi in Jaipur, who committed Santhara, sanctioned by Jainism, where a person voluntarily gives up food and prepares for death. Vimla Devi’s fast was challenged and now the courts are considering whether Santhara should be considered suicide. The argument for not considering it suicide states that committing Santhara is a rational decision that requires the sanction of a cleric, and the person’s family, and is not an impulsive private act like suicide (though I doubt if suicide is impulsive). Those who oppose Santhara are worried about it having a resemblance to Sati, and the possibility of sick and old persons being pressured to voluntarily starve themselves.
The period of the fast that leads to death varies. Harchand Surana of Sardarsahar in Bikaner starved himself for 103 days before breathing his last and Surajkanwar of Ajmer did not drink even water during the last 11 days of her life. And it is not only the aged who go for it. The youngest reported case in recent times was of Kiran, 20, for whom death came 38 days after beginning her fast. When her body was subsequently tied to a pillar, devotees thronged the small town of Ladnu to pay their respects.
The requirements of a Santhara are pretty extensive. The director of the LD Institute of Indology quoting 2000 year old scriptures says ( Outlook):
“As per these scriptures, a person cannot perform Santhara without the permission of their Guru”, Shah said. “A person deciding to attain Santhara first prays, meditates and practices fasting every day. Then the person gradually give up solid food, confines oneself to a bed and finally reliquishes even liquid-diets,” he said explaining the ritual. “Though even a ‘Stravak’ (ordinary person) is permitted to attain Santhara, not everybody can do it,” he said adding the ritual requires a lot of dedication coupled with several hours of meditation.
I’ve always loved going to Jain temples, which have a genuine air of peace and sense of grace. The religion itself has a sort of severe beauty, which always intrigued me, given that all the Jains I knew growing up were very materialistic, the only concession to their religion being strict vegetarianism. Therefore it was surprising to learn that more than 200 people commit Santhara every year, the first chronicled case being from 250 BCE. I don’t think India is unique in having concepts of a ritualized death or a death in the context of religion, the Japanese have Harakiri, Christians and Muslims have their martyrs, and of course there is always Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But some of the ideas of Santhara seem very particular to Jainism. Jainworld.com has an account of the vow one takes for the fast, whose violations include:
1. Desiring worldly status like becoming an emperor, or wealthy after death, 2. Desiring to become a divine personality after death, 3. Desiring prolonged life with the view of becoming popular, 4. Desiring early death, in order to cut short the physical pains, etc., or 5. Desiring sensual pleasures of the world.