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Terminally ill patient fasts unto sainthood

india Updated: Sep 29, 2006 01:29 IST

A 60-year-old Jain woman died on Thursday after observing the ritual of santhara — in which one gives up food and water and gradually starves oneself to death — for 13 days. Vimala Devi Bhansali was called "a pure soul" and anointed a saint by Shvetambar Jains. But in her death, she kept alive the controversy around the Jain ritual.

While Jains say santhara is a route to salvation, a petition in the Rajasthan High Court argues it is a social evil and a crime “similar to suicide or sati”. The court has issued show-cause notices to the state government and Jain institutions.

As news of Bhansali's death spread, her residence at Chatrasal Nagar in Jaipur teemed with people. Her body, draped in a red sari and propped up by cushions, was taken out in a funeral procession in which hundreds of women called her mata and chanted she was immortal. Said Manju Devi, a Jain: "I would also like to attain such a death."

Bhansali's husband Sohan Lal said she decided to observe santhara when doctors said she was a terminal patient. She was reportedly suffering from liver cancer and brain tumour.

Lawyer Madhav Mitra, who argued against the practice of santhara in the court, admitted there was no legal provision to stop it. "The Indian Penal Code does not have a prohibitory law against the ritual," he said.

Jains, meanwhile, tried to distinguish between santhara or sallekhana vrata, which they called "pure death", and suicide. Raj Kumar Baradiya, general secretary of the Shri Jain Shvetambar Mahasangh in Jaipur, said santhara was a level of spiritual attainment while suicide was a result of suffering.