When 60-year-old Vimala Devi Bhansali chose to undergo santhara, she hoped to conquer death. For the Jain community, santhara — a centuries-old practice where a person starves to death — is the ultimate path towards salvation. But a petition in the high court argues it is nothing more than euthanasia, or even sati.
The high court has issued notices to the government and Jain organisations after the petitioner sought a ban on the practice.
Ban, for what, asks Vimla’s family. They said the terminally-ill woman was just performing her “religious duties” before leaving the world. “Santhara is her last wish and we will respect that,” said her husband Sohan Lal.
Vimala, who has gone without food for over 10 days now, lies in her bed at her house in Jaipur’s Chhatrasal Colony, waiting for death, unaware of the legal wrangles surrounding santhara.
A year ago, Vimala was diagnosed with bone cancer, she then developed brain tumor and now suffers from liver cancer too. “She was dying a slow, painful death,” said Lal. “Ten days ago, her doctors gave up, saying she had another three to four hours. That is when she took up santhara. We tried to talk her out of it. But she insisted and we agreed,” he said.
Now the community is rallying round the family. “Santhara cannot be called suicide, least of all sati,” argued Raj Kumar Baradiya, general secretary of the Shree Jain Shvetambar Mahasangh, Jaipur.
“Suicide is committed by a person who has given up on life. Santhara, on the other hand, is taken up by someone who has performed all his duties and wants to purify the soul before leaving the world,” he said.
Another argument in favour of santhara is that, unlike suicide, it is “reversible”. “A person undergoing santhara is free to take food and return to normal life at any stage,” said Panna Lal Pugliya, a former president of the Shree Jain Tera Panthi Akhil Bhartiya Yuva Parishad.