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Is the Jain practice of Sallekhana really suicide?

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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

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