Is the Jain practice of Sallekhana really suicide?

1
740

sky-clad-monks-at-kundalpur_3

By Nithin Sridhar

The Rajasthan High Court, on Monday, ruled that the Jain practice of “Sallekhana is illegal and hence punishable under section 306 (attempts to suicide) and 309 (abetment to suicide).

Jaipur-based lawyer Nikhil Soni had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in 2006 against the Jain practice of Sallekhana wherein a person in old age or about to die, will voluntarily give up food and water in a gradual process and undertake fast onto death.

The contention was that the practice of Sallekhana is a denial of Right to Life and should be treated on par with euthanasia and suicide.

In the light of the high court judgment that upholds the equation of Sallekhana with suicide, it becomes necessary to examine whether they are indeed same? Or have the activists working against the Sallekhana missed the nuance of religious principles?

The answer to these questions can only be found by diving into Jain scriptures to know what actually constitutes Sallekhana, its philosophy and purpose. Further, this practice must be understood in the larger context of Indian traditions. Only then, any proper examination and comparison between Sallekhana and suicide can be drawn.

What is “Sallekhana”?

Acharya Abhayadevasuri in his seminal work, Sthananga Vritti” defines Sallekhana as an activity by which the body is weakened and the internal passions are overcome. A similar definition is given in Vrhadvrtti” which defines Sallekhana as peeling of internal passions and bodily strength so as to strengthen the spirit.

So, the purpose of practicing Sallekhana is two-fold: to overcome the limitations of the body and to purify the mind. The weakening of the body, and hence overcoming the attachment and dependency on the body is called as drvaya sallekhana” and the control of the mind and the senses resulting in transcending the mental passions like lust, anger etc. is called as “bhava sallekhana

In the Jain philosophy, as in Hindu philosophy, the attachment to the body and the senses, the desires and the internal passions like anger and lust are well understood as the root cause of Karmic bondage. Therefore, the spiritual practice of Sallekhana aims to overcome these factors and attain spiritual merit.

Speaking about the spiritual merits of Sallekhana, “Mrtyu Mahotsava” says that those who die a peaceful death devoid of thoughts filled with passions like fear and anger, neither go to narakas (realms of hell, where one undergoes sorrow), nor take birth as animals. Instead, they attain human or heavenly birth. It further says that those who embrace death with an equanimity of mind through Samadhi marana” (it is end practice taken before death. Sallekhana includes not only the end practice but also the long preparatory practices that may be as long as 12 years), will attain same spiritual merit as attained by those who practice very severe penances in their life.

Who is eligible to practice Sallekhana?

The practice can be adopted by both ascetics and householders. The practice is usually adopted when a person is very old and is approaching death, or by a person who is terminally ill and hence is about to die. It may also be practiced by people in the face of natural calamities that is bound to cause their death.

In other words, people who are on the verge of death and who no longer can practice their obligated duties can undertake the practice of Sallekhana to develop dispassion and equanimity of mind, so that they can die peacefully and gain spiritual merit as well.

But, old age or having diseases as such does not qualify one to opt for the final “Samadhimarana” practices.

Mulachara” lists following competencies: right-belief, control of senses, detachment, dispassion, patience, courage, and absence of pride.It further says that the practitioner must completely renounce violence, untruth, theft, sex, and material and emotional hindrances at physical and mental levels.

Bhagavati Aradhana” says that only those who are able to destroy the four passions of anger, pride, deceit, and greed are eligible to embrace voluntary death. “Maraṇavi bhakti” brings out the nuance between longer practice of Sallekhana and the end practice of Samadhi-marana. It says that those who have weakened the body and the passions using external and internal Sallekhana alone are eligible to embrace voluntary death through Samadhi-marana.

Further, people who have worldly duties and responsibilities are not eligible to take Sallekhana as their goal is running away from those duties and not attaining spiritual merit.

It is necessary to clarify here that the term Sallekhana is often used as synonymous to Samadhi-marana and does refer to the spiritual practice of voluntarily entering death. At the same time, at other places the term Sallekhana refers to the initial practices of gaining dispassion and mind-purification, whereas the term Samadhi-marana specifically refers to the final practices leading to discarding the body.

How is the Sallekhana practiced?

In his thesis “A Critical Study of the Concept of Voluntary Peaceful Death ‘Samādhimaraṇa’ in Prakrit and Pali Canonical Literature”, Dalpat Singh Baya gives the following general steps adopted in Sallekhana:

  1. Detachment from the mundane existence and a strong desire to liberate and do whatever is necessary for achieving liberation.
  2. Premonition of death by the analyses of the Rishtas or realization that for one reason or the other the body has become weak enough to hinder the performance of one’s spiritual duties.
  3. Rise of a desire to embrace voluntary peaceful death.
  4. Search for a supervising monk.
  5. Migrating to the monastic order of the supervising monk or leaving the house and staying in a temple or a prayer hall for carrying out the practice.
  6. To confess, criticize, condemn one’s flaws in front of the supervising monk.
  7. Undertaking external and internal austerities to weaken the body and the passions.
  8. To accept fast unto death when the body and passions have weakened.

The Uttaradhayayana Sutra says that the Sallekhana can be practiced for 12 years, or 12 months, or 12 fortnights depending upon the circumstances of the individual. In the 12 year duration Sallekhana, for the first four years, the practitioner must give up nourishing foods like milk and curd. He must also practice external and internal penances to cleanse the mind and control the senses.

The next four years must be spent in taking fasts for longer durations like 1-day, 2-day, and 3-day fasts. After that, for two years, one must take only one meal on alternate days. The meals taken should be devoid of taste or special nourishment.

In the eleventh and twelfth year, the duration of the fast must be increased. Finally in twelfth year, he must start fasting for a fortnight or a month at a time.

For overcoming passions, “Vyavaharabhasya” suggests practicing forgiveness (to overcome anger), humility (to overcome pride), straightforwardness (to overcome deceit) and contentment (to overcome greed).

The intake of food and water must be gradually reduced in the twelfth year.

Pravacanasaroddhāra Vṛtti” says that when the practitioner attains the stage of taking only one morsel of food and one gulp of water in a day, then he must further start reducing the food and water intake until he reaches the stage wherein only one grain of food and one droplet of water is consumed in a day. After reaching this stage, the person is ready to undertake the final vow to voluntary peaceful death.

Therefore, the practice of Sallekhana is a gradual but rigorous process which helps a practitioner to become fully detached and dispassionate about the body, overcome dependency on food and water, and purify the internal impurities like greed etc. before finally embracing a peaceful release from the bodily limitations.

Is Sallekhana same as Suicide?

The Oxford dictionary defines suicide as “the action of killing oneself intentionally.” It further states that suicide is a course of action that is “disastrously damaging to oneself or one’s interests”. Therefore it is an act of self-killing or self-murder. Hence, it can be considered as much ethically wrong as the murder of another person is.

Within the Jaina tradition, the Purusharthasiddhyupaya” defines “atma-vadha” (self-killing) as an act of severing one’s prana (life force) under the influence of internal passions and through acts such as taking poison, drowning etc.

Therefore, the Jaina tradition recognizes suicide as an act which is very different from that of Sallekhana. The factor that differentiates suicide from sallekhana is that the former is an outcome of internal passions, whereas the latter is the outcome of an equanimous mind devoid of passions. This is the nuance that appears to be missing from the present discourse on Sallekhana.

Various studies across the globe have found that suicides are often related to issues like depression. Many external life events may trigger suicides. People with suicidal tendency are often found with psychological conditions like depression, anxiety etc. Sometimes, work-stress, examination stress, love failure, shame or public dishonor have led people to commit suicide. In other words, suicides are largely an impulsive act guided by factors like anger, frustration, sorrow, jealousy etc. which puts a person under extreme stress. Therefore, the acts of suicide can be clearly established as being rooted in internal mental passions.

On the other hand, Sallekhana, as already shown, is a gradual rigorous process wherein the external attachments on food and water, as well as internal attachment to various desires and internal passions are slowly weakened and eventually removed. After purifying oneself over a long period, the practitioner finally undertakes the fast unto to death with a sound and equanimous mind which is devoid of sorrow, attachment, anger or frustrations.

Elaborating on the differences between suicide and Sallekhana, Dalpat Singh Baya lists following observations:

  1. Sallekhana is not suicide because here the practitioner leaves the body through ritual practice and not by coming under the influence of internal passions and adopting lethal means as done in suicide.
  2. Though both are voluntary deaths, the body is killed in suicide whereas it is respectfully and peacefully left in Sallekhana.
  3. Psychologically, a suicidal person have conflicting desires to live and to die simultaneously. These desires may be conscious or subconscious in nature. On the other hand, the practitioner of Sallekhana, has no such desires. He first overcomes all such desires and only then undertakes voluntary death.
  4. There is a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness in a suicidal person, whereas no such feelings exist in spiritual practitioner. The spiritual practitioner is dispassionate, self-controlled and practices Sallekhana for spiritual merit. He is further at peace with himself, whereas the suicidal person is agitated, depressed or in anxiety.

Also, it can be added that suicide is an act of running away from worldly responsibilities when one is unable to cope with it. But, Sallekhana is voluntary renunciation of the worldly desires in order to attain spiritual merit. Here, there is no running away from world out of failure or fear, but only renunciation of the world due to detachment and dispassion.

Therefore, it is very clear that Sallekhana is a spiritual practice, a tapas (austerity) that a person undertakes to gain chitta-shuddhi (purification of the mind) and vairagya (dispassion towards the body) and not an emotional attempt at killing oneself as in a suicide.

Practices similar to Sallekhana in other Indian traditions:

A practice similar to “Sallekhana” called as Prayopravesha” exists in Hinduism. Even in Prayopravesha, the rules like a person must have approached death or is unable to perform other worldly duties are applied.

Apart from this, many saints and ascetics take voluntary Samadhi usually through voluntary control of breath and discard the body. These are the genuine spiritual practices that have been well recognized and practiced from very ancient times. Therefore, branding these spiritual practices as suicide does a great disservice to the Indian religious and spiritual practices.

It is high time that the philosophy and nuances behind various religious practices rooted in Indian tradition be it Hindu, Jaina, Buddhist, or Sikh are highlighted and people are made aware of them.

But this is not to suggest that voluntary or forceful suicides in the name of religion are to be encouraged. Instead, the need of the hour is to discriminate between voluntary spiritual practices like Sallekhana and acts of suicide committed due to various worldly reasons including forced practice of Sallekhana.

A Sallekhana is no Sallekhana if a person is forced by his/her family to practice it. A true Sallekhana is only that which is voluntarily practiced out of intense dispassion towards material objects and with a burning desire for spiritual emancipation.

It is hoped that governments and the higher judiciary will come to appreciate this subtle difference between Sallekhana and suicide as any indiscriminate equating of both does a great disservice to the spiritual tradition of Jainas.

References:

The works referred for writing this article include-

  1. A Critical Study of the Concept of Voluntary Peaceful Death ‘Samādhimaraṇa’ in Prakrit and Pali Canonical Literature by Dalpat Singh Baya
  2. Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Mediaeval Śrāvakācāras by Robert Williams
Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2015 NewsGram
  • Sallekhanā – the zenith of human life

    All samsārī jīvas are embodied according to their individual spiritual status, and are subject to the cycle of births and deaths. The body, associated with each soul, is subject to growth, old age, decay and death. Death entails that the soul must quit the existing body to acquire a fresh body consistent with and determined by the record of the karmic conditions, of which the soul itself is a repository. One of the most contentious issues in metaphysics is the relationship between the soul and the body. The Jaina metaphysics holds that the two are entirely different entities but live together for a certain period of time and then depart.

    From the point of view of the modes in bondage, owing to the influence of karmas, the soul is corporeal in the embodied state. From the point of view of its pure nature, the soul is incorporeal. Though the soul is one with the body in the embodied state, it is different from the body because of its distinctive characteristics. The corporeal nature of the soul is predicated in the non-absolutistic or relativistic sense only. From one point of view the soul is incorporeal, but from another point of view it is corporeal. A person is deluded when he identifies an animate object, soul (jīva), as inanimate, and an inanimate object, non-soul (ajīva), as animate. A deluded person breeds attachment to the body which is intimately bound to him, and with persons or objects like friends, clothes, houses, riches and geographical territories, which are not so bound to him. He desires their possession, ownership and company, and their separation brings about grief to him. He spends his whole life in acquiring and then protecting them, and their inevitable separation causes unbearable misery to him. He lives under the fear of death.

    All human beings who have not met with an untimely death pass through eight experiential stages in life – birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, old age, and death. We are mostly dependent on others till we reach the stage of youth. In these formative years, most decisions pertaining to our upbringing are taken by others. As we reach adulthood, we become aware of our inherent likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and start pondering over matters like our objectives and goals in life. We take decisions on our career, family, and social life. By the time we reach the stage of advanced adulthood we have enough experience to look back to and vision to look forward to. We are mature enough to understand the meaning of life, its pleasures and pains. We are able to observe the ups and downs in the lives of people around us. More importantly, we are able to reflect on whether there is something we must do regarding the direction of our life, or live life just as it comes.

    In our worldly life we seek pleasure and try to avoid pain and suffering. No sooner do we make headway in acquiring and then using an object of pleasure than a feeling of its inadequacy creeps into our mind. We want something superior in terms of both, the quality and the quantum of pleasure. We become slaves of pleasure. Typically, we over-indulge at night, get a terrible hangover the next morning, but crave for the same thing again at the fall of night. We get overpowered by the senses and become addicted to pleasure. As the harmful effects of this addiction on our mind and body surface in due course of time, the realization dawns that perhaps we have moved too far ahead in the wrong direction. We get disheartened to see that pleasure is short-lived and is followed, sooner or later, by pain and suffering. Despondency sets in; we wish to do something about it but it is too late by then. Stark reality that we must leave behind, voluntarily, all material possessions strikes in our face. There is no escape from this plain truth; if we do not volunteer to do it ourselves, death will perform the act for us, rather ruthlessly. The idea of separation from our prized possessions leaves us in great pain and misery. Enjoyment of a few pleasures in the past is no solace to a grieving soul. Realization of this basic truth early in life can save us from much hardship and agony later on.

    Wise men start looking at the realities of life and ways to cope with these as soon as the realization dawns that they have just one or two score years of the present life left. They clearly apprehend that the worldly existence is full of misery; disease, old age, separation from kith and kin, accident, natural disaster, failure, and death are but some of the realities of life that one has to run into. They take corrective actions to make the best use of the remaining years. While they commiserate with people living in conditions of poverty, deprivation, impairment or disease, they do not allow despondency to set within themselves. They are not particularly attracted towards the pleasures that worldly objects have to offer. They realize that pain and suffering are inextricably linked to the worldly life and are attributed to our karmas.

    Our virtuous karmas in the past have provided us with whatever good and enjoyable we have in this life and we must now make efforts to engage ourselves only in actions that will provide us with joyous feelings in the remaining years of this life, and the next.

    When a man turns his consciousness exclusively to the Ideal of the pure soul, he is saved from indulging in activities that result in perennial entrapment in the world. Knowing the body as unconscious, mortal, and a product of karmas, one who does not undertake activities pertaining to the body performs the essentials of detachment from the body. The soul has the intrinsic attribute of darting upward and the body, being physical matter, is an instrument of pulling the soul downward. The body, being a direct outcome of karmas, is absolutely worth dissociation and detachment for anyone who is treading the path to liberation. Only with such discrimination between the soul and the body can one develop interest and inclination towards the soul and disinterest and disinclination towards anything that is antithetical to the soul.

    The way to make human birth meaningful is through renunciation of worldly pleasures, meditation, austerities, propagation of true faith, and finally attaining a pious and passionless death by relinquishing the body through the method of sallekhanā.

SHARE
Previous articleIndian, Pakistan troops clash in Kashmir
Next articlePakistan MPs demand harshest possible punishment for child abusers
sridhar.nithin@gmail.com'
Staff-Writer at NewsGram. With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India.
  • Sallekhanā – the zenith of human life

    All samsārī jīvas are embodied according to their individual spiritual status, and are subject to the cycle of births and deaths. The body, associated with each soul, is subject to growth, old age, decay and death. Death entails that the soul must quit the existing body to acquire a fresh body consistent with and determined by the record of the karmic conditions, of which the soul itself is a repository. One of the most contentious issues in metaphysics is the relationship between the soul and the body. The Jaina metaphysics holds that the two are entirely different entities but live together for a certain period of time and then depart.

    From the point of view of the modes in bondage, owing to the influence of karmas, the soul is corporeal in the embodied state. From the point of view of its pure nature, the soul is incorporeal. Though the soul is one with the body in the embodied state, it is different from the body because of its distinctive characteristics. The corporeal nature of the soul is predicated in the non-absolutistic or relativistic sense only. From one point of view the soul is incorporeal, but from another point of view it is corporeal. A person is deluded when he identifies an animate object, soul (jīva), as inanimate, and an inanimate object, non-soul (ajīva), as animate. A deluded person breeds attachment to the body which is intimately bound to him, and with persons or objects like friends, clothes, houses, riches and geographical territories, which are not so bound to him. He desires their possession, ownership and company, and their separation brings about grief to him. He spends his whole life in acquiring and then protecting them, and their inevitable separation causes unbearable misery to him. He lives under the fear of death.

    All human beings who have not met with an untimely death pass through eight experiential stages in life – birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, adulthood, old age, and death. We are mostly dependent on others till we reach the stage of youth. In these formative years, most decisions pertaining to our upbringing are taken by others. As we reach adulthood, we become aware of our inherent likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and start pondering over matters like our objectives and goals in life. We take decisions on our career, family, and social life. By the time we reach the stage of advanced adulthood we have enough experience to look back to and vision to look forward to. We are mature enough to understand the meaning of life, its pleasures and pains. We are able to observe the ups and downs in the lives of people around us. More importantly, we are able to reflect on whether there is something we must do regarding the direction of our life, or live life just as it comes.

    In our worldly life we seek pleasure and try to avoid pain and suffering. No sooner do we make headway in acquiring and then using an object of pleasure than a feeling of its inadequacy creeps into our mind. We want something superior in terms of both, the quality and the quantum of pleasure. We become slaves of pleasure. Typically, we over-indulge at night, get a terrible hangover the next morning, but crave for the same thing again at the fall of night. We get overpowered by the senses and become addicted to pleasure. As the harmful effects of this addiction on our mind and body surface in due course of time, the realization dawns that perhaps we have moved too far ahead in the wrong direction. We get disheartened to see that pleasure is short-lived and is followed, sooner or later, by pain and suffering. Despondency sets in; we wish to do something about it but it is too late by then. Stark reality that we must leave behind, voluntarily, all material possessions strikes in our face. There is no escape from this plain truth; if we do not volunteer to do it ourselves, death will perform the act for us, rather ruthlessly. The idea of separation from our prized possessions leaves us in great pain and misery. Enjoyment of a few pleasures in the past is no solace to a grieving soul. Realization of this basic truth early in life can save us from much hardship and agony later on.

    Wise men start looking at the realities of life and ways to cope with these as soon as the realization dawns that they have just one or two score years of the present life left. They clearly apprehend that the worldly existence is full of misery; disease, old age, separation from kith and kin, accident, natural disaster, failure, and death are but some of the realities of life that one has to run into. They take corrective actions to make the best use of the remaining years. While they commiserate with people living in conditions of poverty, deprivation, impairment or disease, they do not allow despondency to set within themselves. They are not particularly attracted towards the pleasures that worldly objects have to offer. They realize that pain and suffering are inextricably linked to the worldly life and are attributed to our karmas.

    Our virtuous karmas in the past have provided us with whatever good and enjoyable we have in this life and we must now make efforts to engage ourselves only in actions that will provide us with joyous feelings in the remaining years of this life, and the next.

    When a man turns his consciousness exclusively to the Ideal of the pure soul, he is saved from indulging in activities that result in perennial entrapment in the world. Knowing the body as unconscious, mortal, and a product of karmas, one who does not undertake activities pertaining to the body performs the essentials of detachment from the body. The soul has the intrinsic attribute of darting upward and the body, being physical matter, is an instrument of pulling the soul downward. The body, being a direct outcome of karmas, is absolutely worth dissociation and detachment for anyone who is treading the path to liberation. Only with such discrimination between the soul and the body can one develop interest and inclination towards the soul and disinterest and disinclination towards anything that is antithetical to the soul.

    The way to make human birth meaningful is through renunciation of worldly pleasures, meditation, austerities, propagation of true faith, and finally attaining a pious and passionless death by relinquishing the body through the method of sallekhanā.