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

January 22, 2019

After the intensity of the days leading up to yesterday’s eclipse, this morning brings welcome relief. Venus and Jupiter unite in Sagittarius. This brilliant pairing is an omen of happiness, good news, health and prosperity, in short, all good things…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

January 2019

Join acupuncturist and eastern medicine specialist Linda Davis to: 1) Learn and practice a simple method to access your pendulum’s divination powers; 2) experience various types of...

Cost: $20–$25

Where:
Portal Crystal Gallery
489 Massachusetts Ave
Arlington, MA  02474
View map »


Telephone: 781-859-5373
Website »

More information

Once used as a diagnostic tool for physicians, the palms and hands give us insight into physical health and emotional well-being. Learning to decipher the differences in hands and the meanings...

Cost: $250

Where:
The Soul Purpose
1225 Gar Highway
Swansea, MA  02777
View map »


Sponsor: The Soul Purpose
Telephone: 774-264-1329
Contact Name: Jessica Kozak
Website »

More information

Celebrating the new year, the new you!  Come detox, relax and get your new year readings while you recharge in our sanctuary! We have a fun line up of readers and healers providing...

Cost: $60- 3 Service package special; $25 - single service

Where:
Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Road
Suite A
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Did you know that forgiveness heals? It can reduce depression, ease anxiety, increase our well-being, and facilitate the body's natural healing response. Many of us may get the concept of...

Cost: $60

Where:
private office
North Andover, MA  01845


Sponsor: Diana Harris
Telephone: 978-973-6637
Contact Name: Diana Harris
Website »

More information

The most powerful things in the universe are invisible. Energy which is the most powerful of physical and spiritual forces is invisible. The most precious and important things that matter in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Inner Space Meditation Center & Gallery
1110 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA  02138
View map »


Telephone: 617-547-1110
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Show More...
Show Less...

MBSR: Mindful Based Stress Reduction Mindfulness, as taught in the MBSR program, is recognized worldwide as the gold standard in mindfulness training and is one of the greatest...

Cost: Free

Where:
Life Care PT
38 Southwest Cutoff
Northborough, MA  01532
View map »


Sponsor: The Center for Resilient Living
Telephone: 508-556-7022
Contact Name: Ginny Wholley
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

“Master your breath, let the self be in bliss, contemplate on the sublime within you.” —Krishnamacharya Join us for an evening of deep exploration and transformation using...

Cost: $30 (limited hardship rates available)

Where:
Spontaneous Celebrations
45 Danforth Street
Jamaica Plain, MA  02130
View map »


Telephone: 617-233-6410
Contact Name: Allen B. Howell
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Listen as Lauren channels messages from loved ones to prove you are never alone. An intimate event with tested and endorsed research medium.  Visit website for tickets. Doors open at 6:30...

Cost: $50

Where:
The Spiritual Path with Lauren Bortolami
129 N. Main Street
Mansfield, MA  02048
View map »


Sponsor: Lauren Bortolami Robbins
Telephone: 508-339-8111
Contact Name: Lauren Robbins
Website »

More information

With Sherri Snyder-Roche. This yoga workshop will explore self-compassion, self-love and pushing through discomfort to help your recovery process. Recovery from divorce, eating disorders,...

Cost: $95 for 6 weeks or $17 drop in

Where:
State of Grace Yoga and Wellness Center
104 E. Hartford Avenue, Unit A
Uxbridge, MA  01569
View map »


Telephone: 508-278-2818
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Women Rising Together—Women’s Workshop This workshop is designed for women who are facing a challenge and would like to come together with other spiritually minded women to explore...

Cost: $25

Where:
Apple Tree Arts
1 Grafton Common
Grafton, MA  01519
View map »


Contact Name: Christine Johnson

More information

Intuitive medium Laura Wooster is honored to present this evening of spirit messages from your loved ones on the other side. She will deliver evidential messages of love, hope, and comfort from...

Cost: $25

Where:
Circles of Wisdom
386 Merrimack Street
Suite 1-A
Methuen, MA  01844
View map »


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

More information

Holistic Problem-Solving with Dr. HermanSJr. Tired of missing opportunities that could further your life, your education, even your work? Tired of missing threats that continue to hold back your...

Cost: $100

Where:
Caffe Nero
368 Congress Street
Boston, MA  02210
View map »


Telephone: 321.30.PSYCH(7792)
Contact Name: Soni
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Instructor: Stacey Piwinski Adult Level Spend half a winter’s day working with warm, cozy, and colorful yarn! Each participant will learn to weave their own circular weaving, starting...

Cost: $65

Where:
Creative Spirit
80 Washington Street
Marblehead, MA  01945
View map »


Sponsor: Creative Spirit
Telephone: 781-797-0389
Contact Name: Peyton Pugmire
Website »

More information

Start this intensive January 26 This is an excellent series for those who are on a healing journey of any sort, as we access the Akashic field of energy to clear your path and...

Cost: $860 or three payments of $366

Where:
, MA


Telephone: (978) 835-0005
Contact Name: Nancy

More information

Holistic Problem-Solving with Dr. HermanSJr. Tired of missing opportunities that could further your life, your education, even your work? Tired of missing threats that continue to hold back your...

Cost: $100

Where:
Caffe Nero
368 Congress Street
Boston, MA  02210
View map »


Telephone: 321.30.PSYCH(7792)
Contact Name: Soni
Website »

More information

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