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The Hindu way is off the Western highway
For many in India, the judiciary has no role in deciding when it's time for someone to 'walk to the other side'. Quoting scriptures, they say our laws are governed by Anglo-Saxon thinking on death that has no concept of samadhi
Four years after the Kerala high court rejected his petition seeking permission to voluntarily put an end to his life, CA Thomas Master, a retired school teacher from Thrissur, hung himself in his house in April 2004. A note taped to his neck said: "Bondage was worse than death. Let this fate not befall any other. "
The 86-year-old school master had petitioned the court five years earlier for the right to die which he clarified was not a plea for euthanasia but the right to choose the time, place and mode of death. In his petition he likened this concept to the idea of samadhi in ancient India, choosing one's death after one had fulfilled all one's earthly duties.
The plea that Indian laws are based on Anglo-Saxon judicial system and Western jurisprudence without taking into account the influence of Indian customs and cultural practices on society and people's thinking is not a new one. It has been used in several of the right to die petitions that have reached our courts. In 1999, yet another petitioner from Kerala, 69-yearold N Mukundan Pillai of Kollam, had taken recourse to similar arguments when pleading for the right to die. In his plea, Pillai, a retired headmaster, said he was sound in body and mind and being an absolutely contented person who had fulfilled all his duties and obligations, he had no further motivation to live longer. His only desire was to have an 'honourable exit' from life while he was mentally and physically fit.
In his petition he also made a distinction between voluntary death and suicide, saying suicide is an impulsive act done under severe emotional stress, whereas voluntary death is the consequence of a wellconsidered decision taken by an individual in full possession of his or her faculties.
He pointed out that in many ancient civilizations, including in India, voluntary death was accepted. In fact, in the Mahabharata, there is a reference to the Pandavas giving up their kingdom and embarking on mahaprasthana, or the last journey, to meet death along with Draupadi. The notion of kashi yatra and mahaprasthana (the great departure) needed to be understood in this sense, said his petition, adding that the concepts of samadhi and nirvana too formed a part of the heritage of Indian thinking. Merely because these words did not exist in the English dictionary did not mean they did not exist for the people of India.
Many such petitions even quote Manusmriti which says: "When a householder sees that he is wrinkled and grey, and when he sees the children of his children, then he should take himself to the wilderness. The householder should set out in a north-easterly direction and walk straight ahead, diligently engaged in eating nothing but water and air, until the body collapses. "
In modern times, the most well known example is of freedom fighter and spiritual teacher Acharya Vinoba Bhave who, when he fell ill in 1982, decided to end his life and refused to accept any food or medicine during his last days. He starved himself and died on November 15, 1982.
While the concept of voluntary death might be ancient in India, it is a concept that is finding increasing acceptance across several countries, especially in the West. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies, founded in 1980, consists of 45 right-to-die organisations from 26 countries. The federation provides an international link for organisations working to secure or protect the rights of individuals to self-determination at the end of their lives. In the Netherlands alone, about 2, 300 people opt to die by assisted suicide each year.
Dr Philip Nitschke, director of Exit International, an Australia-based end-of-life choices information and advocacy organisation, says Exit has expanded rapidly to over 50 chapters, including 35 in Australia, 5 in New Zealand, 4 in the UK. He adds that Exit has reached out to over 4, 000 people through workshops in Australia, UK, and New Zealand.
The numbers of this minority may be growing, but granting such a right is so fraught with problems of feasibility, theological complications and fears of misuse out of greed for inheritance that the acceptance of voluntary death both by society and the judiciary in India and abroad seems a long way off.
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