Rajasthan high court bans Jain ritual of fasting unto death

  • Lalit Sharma, Hindustan Times, Jaipur
  • Updated: Aug 10, 2015 23:59 IST
Jains praying at the feet of Lord Bahubali, the world's largest monolithic statue. The ban on the Jain ritual 'Santhara' comes after a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by advocate Nikhil Soni a decade ago. The activist claimed the ritual is a social evil and should be considered as suicide. (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Rajasthan high court on Monday banned Santhara, a Jain ritual of voluntary and systematic fasting to death, making it punishable under section 306 (abetment of suicide) of the Indian Penal Code.

The court, which had last reserved its judgment after the completion of arguments on April 23, declared that “Santhara is illegal in the eyes of law.”

The ban on the Jain ritual comes after a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by human rights activist and advocate Nikhil Soni a decade ago. The activist claimed the ritual is a social evil and should be considered as suicide.

"The court observed Santhara as suicide and said if anybody goes for Santhara on account of religion, a case should be lodged according to constitution," Nikhil Soni said to HT.

The ancient ritual, also called Sallekhana, consists of voluntary starvation to embrace death. The Swetambar (white sect) community, which practises the age-old ritual, considers it the ultimate way to attain moksha (release from the cycle of rebirth), when one believes that his life has served its purpose. Practised mostly by elders nearing death or having no desire to live any more, this ritual demands the practitioner to even sacrifice drinking water and is not advisable for young adults or children.

The centuries-old practice of Santhara has been in the eye of a storm since 2006 when the case of 93-year-old Keila Devi Hirawat from Jaipur had international media debating whether there was any place for such a ritual in the modern world.

Later, human rights activist and lawyer Nikhil Soni and his lawyer Madhav Mishra filed a PIL in the Rajasthan high court. One of the concerns raised in the petition was that it is old people, who usually resort to Santhara, and allowing an elderly person to suffer without medical assistance, food and water is inhuman.

Jains, however, argue that it is a voluntary act of rational thinking and marks the beginning of a journey of understanding the inherently painful and flawed nature of earthly existence. For millions of Jains in India, the PIL was a direct violation of the Indian Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.

While opponents of Santhara equate the practice with suicide and argue that it's a fundamental breach of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to life, supporters say that the right to life includes a corresponding right not to live.

Jain saints, meanwhile, have voiced strong opposition to the stance by the Rajasthan High Court.

Pramansagar ji Maharaj said, “I have not read the HC verdict in detail. Therefore, I cannot comment on behalf of Jain community as of now. Santhara is our holy rite and it is a humble way to depart the earthly world. A prohibition on it is subduing our religious freedom."

Tarun Sagarji Maharaj echoed the sentiment. "The decision of Rajasthan high court is quite unfortunate on santhara Samadhi and given without understanding the principles of Jain religion. This decision one of the slave decisions of the Free India," he said.

Acharya Dr. Lokesh Munisagar, spiritual guru of Jain community said, “Santhara is not a way to commit suicide. One opts for suicide when in tremendous frustration.

“This ritual was made for saints who decided to desert their physical body to earn moksha. Mahavir Jain had left his body through Santhara. Acharya Vinobha Bhave did the same. The High Court’s decision is against the sentiments of the Jain community.”

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