The Rajasthan high court judgment declaring the Jain practice of Santhara or Sallekhana (fast unto death) illegal has drawn strong reactions from the community in Indore. While some see the decision as an intrusion of the justice system into what is considered an 'essential tenet' of Jainism, others have lauded the order as “legally and scientifically” justified.
Local resident Sunil Chordia, 51, who owns Rajratan Global Wire Ltd at Pithampur in the neighbouring Dhar district, said when his 92-year-old grandmother Tibu Bai died within five days of undertaking Santhara in 2005, it was a conscious decision.
“She told us that her end was near as she explained how her physical condition was deteriorating. This is how she gave up food and water. It was not suicide,” Sunil said.
His 95-year-old grandfather Rajmal Chordia, who earlier traded in bullion and textiles in Ratlam, undertook Santhara two and half hours before his death in 2008.
According to Sunil, suicide is an impulsive action while Santhara is a spiritual decision. “It is done with chanting of mantras. Moreover, Santhara can be withdrawn if the person realises that he cannot live without food and water or he is getting better,” Sunil said, adding that he sees nothing wrong in the religious practice.
Gautam Kothari, president of Pithampur industries association, said the decision to undertake up the rigorous fast unto death is the result of strong will and spiritual insight. “Even Vinoba Bhave (forerunner of the Bhoodan movement) gave up food and water before his death. Santhara is a religious practice followed from ancient times,” he said.
Indore's Jain community is over one lakh strong and “not even 100 Jains undertake Santhara. It's a very uncommon practice,” Kothari said, stressing how community pressure doesn't play a role in the decision.
There are others, however, who see the high court order as a necessary step.
Dr Rajesh Jain, executive director, CHL Apollo Hospital, Indore, said. “Legally and scientifically, Santhara is (wrong) - it is a suicide type of thing.” On several occasions, people are motivated by their kin to undertake Santhara. “This is not right even on human grounds. Even if a person wants to take up Santhara, he should be discouraged,” he said.
The city had witnessed a similar controversy in 2006 when Chitrasagar Maharaj (previously known as Tejkaran Jain) died after undertaking Santhara at Mangi Bai Kala community hall in Nemi Nagar. Soon after his death, the community's spiritual leader Bhutbali Sagar Maharaj shared the experiences he had with Chitrasagar Maharaj during the course of his Santhara and told devotees that a person achieves 'punya', or salvation, by following the practice.
When Chitrasagar Maharaja died, his sons Rajendra and Lalit Jain observed the event as 'Mrityu Mahotsava' (celebration of death), where the community gathered in large numbers and offered coconut as a sign of respect for the deceased, whose body was set up in the 'Samadhi' position. The body was later taken out in a palanquin decorated with ribbons and glaze paper, with music band leading the funeral procession.