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, 2018

An hour before dawn the waxing Aries Moon aligns with the Aquarius Sun to give early birds liftoff. Progress could be briefly interrupted when a lunar square with Saturn soon follows. Expect delays during the morning commute. A secondary route could be…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

January 2018

Note: Tickets must be purchased here: http://bit.ly/2j2U7C4 Do you desire more emotional and physical connection? Does fear of being rejected or looking foolish hold you back from initiating...

Cost: $127/person; $247/couple

Where:
Watertown Center for Healing Arts
22 Mount Auburn St
Watertown, MA  02472
View map »


Sponsor: Conscious Intimacy
Contact Name: Brynn Bishop
Website »

More information

A 3-week Course Taught by Melissa Fountain, CSYT Sundays: 10:30am–12:15pm January 21, 28 and Feb 11 Meditation is a sacred gift you give yourself, and brings new vitality and focus...

Cost: Early Bird Pricing (until Jan 20): $140 for all 3 sessions ($155 after Jan 20)

Where:
Sohum Yoga and Meditation Studio
40 Lyman Street, Suite 108B
Westborough Shopping Center
Westborough, MA  01581
View map »


Sponsor: www.SOHUM.org
Telephone: 508-329-3338
Contact Name: Ritu Kapur
Website »

More information

Are you curious about yoga but don't know where to begin? The Intro to Yoga Series is a great place to start your practice. This series will provide a safe, non-competitive and welcoming...

Cost: $90 for series

Where:
YogaLife Institute
6 Chestnut St, Suite A
Exeter, NH  03833
View map »


Telephone: 603-969-8968
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Qigong and tai chi are 2500+ year old healing arts originating in China. These moving meditations offer unique health benefits that western medicine is...

Cost: $11-$15 per class

Where:
Chelmsford Wellness Center
3 Littleton Road, 2nd Floor
Westford, MA  01886
View map »


Sponsor: Cultivating Qi
Telephone: 978-856-8118
Contact Name: Dave Crocker
Website »

More information

January 8 - February 12, 2018 Intuition + Energy Medicine + Energy Psychology = The REAP Healing Method This 6 week certification training course provides you with the understanding and the...

Cost: $695

Where:
Live Online
Comfort of Your Home
, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The REAP Healing Method
Telephone: 978-877-8651
Contact Name: Pamela Dussault
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

3 Hour Introduction Diet and exercise play a role in managing your weight, but; that isn’t the whole story.   80% of dieters weigh the same or more within three months of starting...

Cost: $49

Where:
The Center for Resilient Living Clearly Coworking
474 Grove St.
Worcester, MA  01605
View map »


Sponsor: The Center for Resilient Living and Adventure Boot Camp
Telephone: 508-963-4786
Contact Name: Ginny Wholley
Website »

More information

Experience the power of singing gospel music with more than 250 others as part of the Mystic Chorale, led by award-winning director and composer, Jonathan Singleton. Join Mystic as we prepare...

Cost: $105

Where:
First Parish Unitarian
630 Mass Ave.
Arlington , MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Mystic Chorale
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur Annamaria
Website »

More information

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

Qigong and tai chi are 2500+ year old healing arts originating in China. These moving meditations offer unique health benefits that western medicine is integrating into treatment plans. By...

Cost: $12-$17 per class

Where:
Dragonfly Wellness Ceneter
176 Jackson Road
Devens, MA  01434
View map »


Sponsor: Cultivating Qi
Telephone: 978-856-8118
Contact Name: Dave Crocker
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 26 - 28, 2017 Journey to the heart, a shamanic sound healing training level 1 Join David Kuhn shamanic sound healer for a transformational weekend. David will share the basics of...

Cost: $222

Where:
Sound
31 Hawleyville Road
Newtown, VT  06479
View map »


Sponsor: David Kuhn
Telephone: 802-579-5771
Contact Name: David Kuhn
Website »

More information

6 Week Series with Sherri Snyder-Roche Start your year with greater awareness. In Kundalini Yoga, we harness the mental, physical, and nervous energies of the body and put them under the...

Cost: $90

Where:
State of Grace Yoga and Wellness Center
104 East Hartford Ave.
Uxbridge, MA  01569
View map »


Telephone: 508-278-2818
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

With Rev. Rita Berkowitz Are you ready to become a professional medium and meet the criteria that would be required of you, ethically and practically? Are you ready to work with the public and...

Cost: $600 (Early Bird $550)

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

All are invited to the 2nd annual Lincoln, MA Holistic Wellness Fair on January 27. We are also seeking holistic practitioners from the locales of Lincoln, MA and surrounding towns, to participate...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bemis Hall
15 Bedford Rd
Lincoln, MA  01773
View map »


Sponsor: Lincoln Recreation
Telephone: 781-738-1920
Contact Name: Jai Kaur Annamaria

More information

Dates: Saturday, January 27 and Saturday, February 3. This two-day class is for those want to go deeper into their personal healing journey with the system of Reiki and who want to strengthen...

Cost: $275

Where:
Bancroft Doggone U
333 Shrewsbury Street
Worcester, MA  01604
View map »


Sponsor: Bancroft Doggone U
Telephone: 508-753-9757
Contact Name: Lisa Ruthig
Website »

More information

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