When atheists criticize religion, they sometimes have a soft spot for the faith I grew up with: Jainism. It’s a religion that extols non-violence (ahimsa) and self-control, so you can see why it has its fans. But Jainism also has its supernatural beliefs — some of them pretty harmful — and realizing that is why I left the fold a long time ago.
One of those harmful beliefs is fasting. While religions like Islam say that, during Ramadan, you’re not supposed to eat during daylight hours, some followers of Jainism promote fasting for long stretches at a time. I’ve known people to eat nothing (except boiled water that’s cooled off) for more than a week. I know someone who ate food one day, then nothing the next day, for a full year. My mom still has days when she limits herself to eating only once. It’s a way to show you’re in control of your body and that your mind is focused on prayer.
That said, I’ve never heard of the practice of sallekhana (also known as santhara) until now. But it does fit into that Jain logic in a weirdly perverted sense.
Sallekhana is when you fast yourself to death.
Yesterday, in India, the Rajasthan High Court ruled that the practice would be considered suicide and anyone who tries it (and, I suppose, fails), along with family members who go along with it, would be punished with jail time.
Justice Sunil Ambawani made Santhara a punishable offence under penal code sections 306 (abetment of suicide) and 309 (attempted suicide), punishable by up to 10 years and one year in jail, respectively.
The abetment tag is meant for family and approximate community members of someone resorting to Santhara, which activists allege is sometimes a way of getting rid of elderly relatives and grab their share of property.
Jain activists are arguing this is an assault on their religious freedom, but the Court said that sallekhana wasn’t a requirement in Jainism, so their decision doesn’t infringe upon Jain rights.
A former judge of the high court, Justice Panachand Jain, insisted that Santhara had nothing in common with suicide or forced Sati.
“Suicide is usually done when people are in depression. Here people are not in depression — they give up food of their own accord, for days on end, to attain spiritual salvation,” Justice Jain said.
One of the reasons this even became an issue involved a woman who starved to death… apparently against her will:
[Activist Nikhil] Soni alleged that Bimla Devi’s relatives had publicly announced it was her own decision but in her final hours, the frail woman appeared to make a last-ditch request for food and water. Her voice was drowned out by the bhajans [hymns] being sung around her, he said.
“It shook me up. It convinced me that Santhara is suicide in the cloak of religious practice,” Soni said. “To me, Santhara is a way devised by the family to get rid of the economic burden of caring for its elderly.”
I’m not familiar with Indian law, but there is an argument to be made from the euthanasia angle. If you believe people have the right to die on their own terms — as some terminally ill people have fought for and many atheists support — shouldn’t Jains who want to starve to death have the right to do so without their family getting punished for it?
(To be sure, I don’t know how you’d prove it was voluntary. Whatever the answer, people who want to kill off their elderly relatives could probably find a workaround.)
Some Jain groups said they would appeal the Court’s ruling.