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When arguments in the Aruna Shanbaug case were being heard by the Supreme Court, attorney general Goolam Vahanvati had expressed his reservations saying India was not emotionally ready for euthanasia.
But one of the worst kept secrets of our society is the social sanction that backs Hindu monks and Jains who exercise their right to die with a voluntary, systematic fast.
While the Hindu tradition of videha mukti or mahasamadhi where a realised yogi or yogini intentionally and consciously leaves the body at the time of death has existed for centuries, the Jain practice of santhara or sallekhana is also widespread with more than a thousand Jains having renounced the body through fasting since 2009. The philosophy behind both these practices is to break free from the whirlpool of life and death and attain moksha.
According to Babulal Jain Ujjwal, editor of the All India Jain Chaturmas Suchi, the practice is spiralling. "Every single day through the year, a Jain somewhere in the country takes up this holy vow, " says Ujjwal, adding that police crackdown and instances of force-feeding have made the community wary of publicising santharas.
Jain scholars and monks point out that there is a world of difference between suicide, euthanasia and santhara. "Euthanasia applies to a dying person unable to make a decision about his death, while suicide is attempted by a person who cannot bear the pains of his existence. Santhara is different from both: it is accepted by a person who is happy with life and now wishes to have better future lives, " says Shugan C Jain, director of the International School for Jain Studies.
Dr Mehool Sanghrajka, director of the Institute of Jainology, too argues that the Jain vow can be undertaken only by the spiritually advanced. "The participant must request santhara from an Acharya who gives permission if he is of the view that the subject is spiritually capable and of sound mind. The participant goes through a ritual process under supervision and is free to take food at any time, if there is a change of mind, " he says.
According to Jain, the Supreme Court judgment that identifies a legal framework and procedural guidelines that require a case to be heard by at least a two-judge bench and includes seeking the opinion of a panel of three doctors, consulting relatives but not regarding their view as binding is similar to the teachings of Jain theology. "The religion supports prolongation of life of a dying person and believes that pain is the result of past karmas. The vow of santhara too, holds true only when it is established that the vow is not being taken to put an end to pain and the permission of family members, relatives and gurus is sought, " he says.
Sanghrajka says santhara finds mention in ancient Jain scriptures and has been practiced for thousands of years. "It is celebrated rather than mourned as it is seen as the passing of an enlightened soul. The vow of santhara is to be found in the daily Jain ritual of pratikramana and is seen as an ideal for all Jains, " he says.
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