The Rajasthan high court ruling banning the practice of Santhara (fast unto death) and terming it abetment of suicide has met with mixed reaction from members of the Jain community with some welcoming it and others saying the tradition is aligned with Indian philosophy.
Santhara is a controversial practice wherein a person gives up food and drink, and slowly dies of starvation. It is common in Rajasthan and Gujarat, with reports pegging the number of deaths at 200 per year, but is practiced in Mumbai too.
“At least five or six Santhara deaths happen in Mumbai – at home and in ashrams. We know this as obituaries mention it as the means of death, if such is the case,” said Dhiren Nandu, advisor to Kutchi Visa Oswal Sthanakwasi Jain Mahaangh. “The ban is not proper. As far as allegations of forced Santhara is concerned, there are exceptions in every tradition.”
Of the four major sects of Jainism, Santhara is most common in the Sthanakwasi sect.
Vipul Shah, committee member of the 200-year-old Shree Shantinath Jain Temple, said the ruling would not be met with approval from the community as it is a matter of religious belief and personal choice.
Rohit Parikh, member of Shree Zalawad Swetamber Murtipujak Jain Samaj in Ghatkopar, welcomed the ban. “In many cases, it is forcefully done. I have come across cases where patients and the aged are forced to give up food. Nowhere in Jain scriptures is there a mention of this practice.”
Dr Bipin Doshi, who teaches Jain philosophy at the University of Mumbai, said Santhara is in line with the Indian philosophical tradition of sacrifice, which includes similar practices such as “Samadhi”.
He added that Santhara did not involve giving up of food and water alone, but total sacrifice of passion, desires and physical belongings. “A person going for it must also meet strict requirements such as absence of a severe illness. It is not akin to suicide.”
Mumbai-based journalist-filmmaker Shekhar Hattangadi, whose recent film on Santhara won accolades, said the ruling is simply because the prevalent legal system in the country is not compatible with the ancient tradition of the land.