Life is ebbing away from 83-year-old Badni Devi Daga but her wizened face shows no pain.
There is only contentment, a family member said on Wednesday, as the octogenarian lay on her bed in her home in Bikaner’s Gangashahar town after she opted for ‘santhara’, a Jain ritual of voluntarily fasting to death that the community believes leads to salvation.
Nearly 50 days into her fast, members of Devi’s family have descended from various parts of the country to be with her during her last days at her modest house in Dagon Ki Gali, a neighbourhood of the tight-knit Jain community.
There is also a steady stream of visitors to the household – relatives, people from the community and religious leaders – turning it into pilgrimage of sorts for Jains.
The ritual of santhara had come under the spotlight after the Rajasthan high court on August 10 directed police to register criminal cases under sections of the Indian Penal Code related to attempted suicide and abetment to suicide against those practising or promoting the tradition.
However, the Supreme Court stayed the high court’s order earlier this week, giving relief to Jains amid a raging debate on religious freedom.
Though Devi had started her fast many weeks before, family members announced her santhara decision only after the apex court’s order.
Hindustan Times spoke to members of Devi’s family at Gangashahar, more than 300 km from state capital Jaipur, who are taking turns to be at her bedside.
Relatives visiting 83-year-old Badni Devi Daga(HT Photo)
When she began the fast, her nephew Bhanwar Lal Daga said, her daily water intake was around 400 ml. But now it has come down to less than 100 ml.
It all started when Devi discarded her constant companion, her nebulizer that provided her life-giving oxygen from time to time.
"We thought she was weary of the mask and so wanted a break from it," said Surendra, the youngest of her three sons.
"But then she refused to take breakfast. She said she was fasting. We thought she would fast for a day or two but on the fifth day, she said she wanted to go for santhara. We were against it and tried to dissuade her but she was steadfast," he added.
The family consulted religious leaders of Terapanth, a sub-sect of Shwetamber Jains, in the town.
"When she didn’t listen to anyone of us, we consulted Acharya Mahashraman (the highest religious leader of Terapanthis), who was in Nepal. He told us to consult everyone in the family and the community and allow santhara only when everyone agreed to it," he said.
Family members constantly recite the Namokar mantra, considered the holiest of all religious hymns by Jains.
During the day, six to eight people are at her bedside, chanting the mantra, while at night, her three sons, their wives and children sit near her in shifts of two hours each.
Bhanwar Lal Daga said it’s the second santhara in his family – the first was 30 years ago by a woman.
Two of Devi’s sons – Kiran Chandra (eldest) and Surendra Daga (youngest) – live with her in Gangashahar, where they have a sweetshop.
The third son, Mahendra, is settled at Siliguri in West Bengal, where he runs a departmental store.
The octogenarian’s daughter, her fourth child, Sudha Bothra, is married to a cloth merchant’s family in Guwahati.