Aid To Dying: What Jainism – One Of India’s Oldest Religions – Teaches Us


Published:

On June 9, a law allowing patients with terminal illnesses to end their lives with help from a physician came into effect in California, opening conversations about whether human life should be prolonged against the desire to die peacefully and with dignity.

A similar yet different conversation has been taking place in India for the past several years, but in reverse.

In one of India’s religious traditions, Jainism, those at the end of life can choose to embrace a final fast transition from one body to another. However, a recent court case has challenged the constitutionality of this practice. As an expert in the religions of India and a frequent visitor, I have been following this issue with keen interest.

A rite to final passage

While on a visit to a Jain university in Ladnun, Rajasthan in western India in 1989, I had an opportunity to observe the practice of “Sallekhana” or “Santhara,” a somber rite through which one fasts to death.

A group of enthusiastic nuns rushed me in for a blessing being imparted to an octogenarian nun, Sadhvi Kesharji, who had taken this vow 28 days earlier. The nun had been diagnosed with a fatal kidney disease and been treated, but to no avail.

It was an auspicious moment. Her spiritual preceptor, Acharya Tulsi, praised her six decades as a nun and noted the lightness of her spirit and the strength of her resolve which guaranteed safe passage into her next incarnation.

She passed away 12 days later, in a prayerful state.

This is not the only such case. It is estimated that some 200 Jains, both lay and monastic, complete the final fast each year. Jains living elsewhere in the world observe the practice as well.

For example, two Jain women who were born in India but spent most of their adult lives in the United States chose to fast in the last days prior to death. Vijay Bhade, a Jain woman from West Virginia, entered a fast unto death in 1997. A more recent case was Bhagwati Gada, from Texas, who suffered from advanced stage cancer and decided to fast unto death in 2013, after going through multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

Who are the Jains?

Jainism arose more than 2,800 years ago in northeast India. It teaches a doctrine proclaiming the existence of countless eternal souls who, due to their actions or karma, bind themselves to repeated lifetimes.

These souls could manifest as elemental beings in the earth or water or fire or air. They could evolve to become micro-organisms and plants or eventually take forms as worms, insects, birds, reptiles or mammals.

View of praying monk inside the Jain Temple in Ranagpur, Rajasthan, India.By committing acts of goodness, they might take human form and ascend to a place of everlasting freedom at the highest limits of the universe, from which they continue to observe forever the repeated rounds of existence experienced by the many souls below.

Jains do not believe in a creator God or an external controller. All experiences, good and bad, are due to one’s own exertions. The key to spiritual ascent resides in the performance of five vows also shared by Yogis and Buddhists in India: nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, celibacy and nonpossession.

Jains believe the practice of these vows helps release fettering karmas that impede the energy, consciousness and bliss of the soul. Every ethical success lightens the soul of its karmic burden. Mohandas Gandhi, the well-known leader of India’s independence, who grew up in the company of Jains, employed these vows personally and as a collective strategy of nonviolence to help India overcome the shackles of British colonization.

Freedom yes, but can there be coercion?

Up until recent years, the fast unto death process has been celebrated with newspaper announcements that laud the monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen who undergo this vow. But of late, questions are being raised whether it can result in coercion and cruelty.

In 2006, a young lawyer in Rajasthan, Nikhil Soni, challenged the constitutionality of this act, stating that it violates the anti-suicide laws that had been in put place by the British to stop the immolation of widows on their husband’s funeral pyre. The practice of widow burning has endured, despite many efforts to abolish the practice.

The high court of Rajasthan ruled in favor of Soni in 2015, effectively making the practice of fasting to death punishable by law. However, some weeks later, the Supreme Court of India placed a stay on this ruling. The case is still awaiting its final verdict. Observant Jains claim this is an important part of their faith.

Entering the fast requires counsel and permission from one’s spiritual advisor. And the process of rejection of food is gradual. First, one takes some yogurt, then only milk, then only juice, eventually moving from water to total rejection of any nutrition or hydration.

Physicians state that this is not death by starvation but by dehydration. The body automatically goes into a state of ketosis (when the body starts to break down stored fat for energy), often accompanied by a peaceful state.

Rights versus rites approach

What can we learn from such spiritual practices?

Debates on end of life focus on the “rights” approach, thus appealing to the rational mind. Spiritual traditions on the other hand assert that it makes no sense to prolong suffering. They use a “rites” approach to the inevitable passing of the human body.

Jains believe that the soul has always been here, that the soul cannot be destroyed and that through the process of death, one transitions to a new body.

The Jain tradition shows how we can move without attachment into death rather than clinging to life. In their acceptance of the inevitable, they set an example that death is not an evil but an opportunity to reflect on a life well-lived and look forward to what lies ahead.

Christopher Key Chapple is the Navin and Pratima Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University. Dr. Chapple's research interests have focused on the renouncer religious traditions of India: Yoga, Jainism, and Buddhism.

See also:
What’s A Death Midwife? Inside The Alternative Death Care Movement
EarthTalk: Green Burials

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

October 16, 2018

Hidden stresses come to the surface most anytime today. Remember, human nature predisposes us to look elsewhere and blame problems on others. With this afternoon’s First Quarter Capricorn Moon close to Pluto, projecting suppressed feelings can be…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

October 2018

October 14 - 18 Join the acclaimed Grandmaster William C. C. Chen for an intensive five-day Tai Chi Chuan Fall Retreat. Knowledge of the Yang-style short form is a requirement for participation....

Cost: Please see our website

Where:
Eastover Estate & Eco Village
430 East St.
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Website »

More information

October 14 - November 19 60 PDAs A 36 day retreat in which acclaimed Qigong master, Junfeng Li, will meditate and practice not only Sheng Zhen Gong daily, but will also share traditions that...

Cost: Please see our website

Where:
Eastover Estate & Eco Village
430 East St.
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Contact Name: Yingxing Wang
Website »

More information

Lunare is open to magickal vendors and holistic practitioners wishing to offer their spiritual goods and services to an audience interested in all things mystical. General admission to...

Cost: Free general admission, lecture tickets $15

Where:
Hunt Memorial Building
6 Main St
Nashua, NH  03064
View map »


Sponsor: Lunare Mystics
Telephone: 603-801-2113
Contact Name: Alyssa O'Mara
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join Psychic Medium Diane Lewis for gallery style readings. Diane will be connecting to spirit delivering messages from those who have crossed over. Don't miss this free event sponsored by...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hopkinton Public Library
13 Main Street
Hopkinton, MA, MA  01748
View map »


Sponsor: Hopkinton Public Library
Telephone: 617-645-6415
Contact Name: Diane Lewis
Website »

More information

Break emotional patterns that keep you stuck in the pain of addictive habits. Heal mental trauma through physical practices involving movement, breath, and meditation.

Where:
Yoga at the Ashram
368 Village Street
Millis, MA  02054
View map »


Sponsor: Yoga At The Ashram
Telephone: (508) 376-4525
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
No Events

The class is a combination of qi gong, yoga, meditation, and relaxation followed by a cup of healing tea. The class, developed by Korean enlightened master Ilchi Lee, is based on Sundo, a...

Cost: $10

Where:
Divine Paradigm
58b Macy St
Amesbury, MA  01913
View map »


Contact Name: Brad Fanger

More information

With Carrie Rowan Wednesday evenings at 7pm, a 4-week introductory class that teaches quick energy medicine tools, mini meditations to help moms/dads and caregivers reduce stress and stay calm...

Where:
Fitzgerald Institute
Northboro, MA


Telephone: (508) 273-2610
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

October 18 - 21 Magnetic-harmonic vibrational therapist, Jay Emmanuel, A.K., N.S.,V.M. shares powerful energy techniques that use the forces of sounds produced by the human voice in combination...

Cost: Please see our website

Where:
Eastover Estate & Retreat Center
430 East St.
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Contact Name: Yingxing Wang
Website »

More information

Course participant experiences:  “After this course, I learned how to recognize where I hold my tension and release it.”  “My favorite part of the program is the...

Cost: $650

Where:
CHA Center for Mindfulness & Compassion
26 Central Street
2nd Floor Community Room
Somerville, MA  02143
View map »


Sponsor: CHA Center for Mindfulness & Compassion
Telephone: 617-591-6132
Contact Name: Bridget Kiley
Website »

More information

The H.E.A.R.T. Program® (Health Empowerment and Real Transformation) is an innovative holistic curriculum addressing the current health crisis and epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wilbraham Senior Center
45 Post Office Park, #4502
Wilbraham, MA  01095
View map »


Sponsor: Harmony Way
Telephone: 413-636-2475
Contact Name: Michelle Caron
Website »

More information

Daily practice for peace, healing, Christ mindedness, meditation, awakening.

Where:
Milton, MA


Telephone: 617-696-5685
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

14 CEU Credits for Massage/Bodywork Therapists! Oct 19-21: Chi Nei Tsang And...pre-weekend women only event: Oct 18: Women’s Sexual Ecstacy - 1-6pm/6CEUs Chi Nei...

Cost: Please see our website

Where:
Eastover Estate & Eco Village
430 East St.
Lenox, MA  01240
View map »


Telephone: 866-264-5139
Contact Name: Yingxing Wang
Website »

More information

October 19 - 20 (Workshop runs 10-5 both days) When the phase of the Sixth Sun began with the eclipse of July 11, 2010 it was time, according to Sergio’s teacher, for the ancient...

Where:
Natick Mariott Courtyard
Natick, MA


Contact Name: Sandy Corcoran
Website »

More information

With Yogi Amandeep Adi Shakti represents all divine energies. When activated, she manifests herself as creativity, prosperity, wisdom. Rare workshop uniting ancient science of Kundalini...

Where:
Yoga at the Ashram
368 Village St
Millis, MA  02054
View map »


Telephone: (508) 376-4525
Website »

More information

Connect with the ancient wisdom of yoga. Learn how yoga practices are designed to address life’s problems, such as work stress, relationship difficulties, and common mental health issues. Be...

Cost: $40

Where:
Yogalife Institute of NH
6 Chestnut Street
Lower Level
Exeter, NH  03833
View map »


Sponsor: YogaLife Institute of NH
Telephone: 603-867-3969
Contact Name: Alice Bentley
Website »

More information

No previous experience is required for this Friday evening event. It is essential for students who are unfamiliar with using the Pathway Prayer Process© and who plan to attend the 2-day...

Cost: $35

Where:
Circles of Wisdom - New location late Summer '18
386 Merrimack Street
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

Bee Kind Music Class with Carrie Rowan inspires a love to music in little ones. 10am on Fridays for 8 weeks at Playtown Express in Southboro. To register call (508) 480-0022 or...

Where:
Playtown Express
150 Cordaville Road
Southboro, MA
View map »


Telephone: 508-273-2610
Website »

More information

The class is a combination of qi gong, yoga, meditation, and relaxation followed by a cup of healing tea. The class, developed by Korean enlightened master Ilchi Lee, is based on Sundo, a...

Cost: $10

Where:
Divine Paradigm
58b Macy St
Amesbury, MA  01913
View map »


Contact Name: Brad Fanger

More information

“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” — Sanskrit Proverb Join us for an evening of deep exploration and transformation using the healing...

Cost: $40 (limited hardship rates available)

Where:
Museum of Modern Renaissance
115 College Avenue
Somerville, MA  02144
View map »


Sponsor: HolotropicMA
Contact Name: Allen Howell M.Ed. LMHC
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Refresh, refocus, simplify. Discover easy tools and strategies to prepare for an incredible holiday season. 8:00–8:30 Registration open 8:30–8:35 Welcome 8:35–9:20 Circle...

Cost: $99

Where:
Women’s Health Resource Center
9 Hanover Street
Lebanon, NH  03766
View map »


Sponsor: Almstrom Financial, Green Mt. Hypnosis, Patti Friedman, Eva Loomis
Telephone: (603) 650-2600
Contact Name: Women’s Health Resource Center

More information

October 20 - 21 Early Bird Special! Register before September 30 and save $45! Prerequisite: Be familiar with accessing the Akashic Records through the Pathway Prayer Process© either...

Cost: $350 before September 30

Where:
Circles of Wisdom - New location late Summer '18
386 Merrimack Street
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


Sponsor: Circles of Wisdom
Telephone: 978-474-8010
Contact Name: Cathy Kneeland
Website »

More information

See all that is new at Dragonfly! Come and meet our new practitioners and teachers and learn about the innovative holistic modalities that are being offered. Participate in free classes, see...

Where:
Dragonfly Wellness Center
176 Jackson Rd.
Devens, MA  MA
View map »


Telephone: 978-487-7181
Website »

More information

October 20 & 21, 10:30am-6:30pm Practices and Approaches for PTSD, Depression and Anxiety with Erin Byron, MA, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, YACEP, Licensed Mental Health Professional Experiment with...

Cost: $325

Where:
YogaLife Institute of NH
6 Chestnut Street
Exeter, NH  03833
View map »


Sponsor: YogaLife Institute of NH
Telephone: 603-867-3969
Contact Name: Alice Bentley
Website »

More information

The shamanic rattle is a sacred tool that can be used to shift into an altered state of consciousness, sense and track energy, and heal the energetic body, which contains the codes underlying...

Cost: $40

Where:
Akasha Studio
20 Birch Street
Roslindale, MA  02131
View map »


Sponsor: Miriam Katz, Shamanic Healer
Telephone: 617-545-5142
Contact Name: Miriam Katz
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags