Should choosing to die be a crime? What happens when religion allows a person to give up food and water and walk towards death? Does the state have the right to intervene?

These questions have been in the news for the past two days as the Rajasthan High Court declared the Jain religious practice of Santhara to be illegal. But for outraged Jains across the country, there is no doubt nor debate: no government or court of law, they say, has the right to prevent a person from voluntarily choosing death for a higher spiritual goal.

Jainism’s ancient tradition of Santhara came into question in 2006 when Nikhil Soni, a lawyer from Jaipur, filed a Public Interest Litigation against it in the High Court.

Santhara, also known as Sallekhana, allows Jains to completely abstain from food, water and nutrition in order to wait for death. In India, an average of 200 men and women take up this fast unto death every year, most of them in Rajasthan.

“A person is allowed to take Santhara only in case of old age or if he is suffering from an incurable illness,” said Panachand Jain, a retired Rajasthan High Court judge who filed one of the many replies to Soni’s PIL in defence of the practice. “People who take Santhara do it to shed their negative karma.”

Soni’s petition, however, argued that Santhara is just another form of suicide that cannot have a place in modern society. After nine years of litigation – with the state of Rajasthan fighting as one of the respondents in support of the Jain community – the court eventually ordered that Santhara must be abolished and treated as a criminal offence of attempt to suicide; those who support a Jain’s decision to take Santhara must be charged with abetment of suicide.

Aiming for salvation  

Practices of the Jain community, which was granted minority status by the central government last year, are not new to controversy. In the past decade, there have been multiple litigations and intense debate on the tradition of “bal diksha”, which allows young children to give up worldly life for asceticism. In 2009, the Women and Child Development Department in Delhi recognised bal diksha as a religious right. In 2008, the Bombay High Court had compared the practice to sati. The matter is still being argued in court in Mumbai, but the Jain community has been divided in its views on child rights and bal diksha.

Santhara, however, seems to have elicited a unanimous response from Jains across the board, who are now preparing to take their fight to the Supreme Court.

“Jain philosophy believes that we have been given a human birth only to accumulate salvation, and practicing Santhara is a way of burning away one's sins,” said Ila Shah, a Jain scholar and lecturer from Mumbai. Healthy or young individuals, or anybody who still has familial or social responsibilities, are not allowed to take up this challenging fast. The old and the terminally ill, too, can take Santhara only if they are of sound mind and make the decision themselves.

“Even then, they have to first take the permission of their family members, and then take a vow before a high priest,” said Shah. The priests, she insists, never allow any Jain to take an indefinite Santhara vow. “They will first allow it just for a few days to see how the person fares. And there have been cases when people’s health gets better after a few days of fasting, and they choose to get back to life.”

Not suicide, not euthanasia

Jains are particularly offended by the comparisons drawn between Santhara, suicide and euthanasia.

“People commit suicide when they are fed up with the world or are deeply disturbed mentally,” said Raju Vaiyavach, a Jain businessman from Mumbai. “But taking Santhara required tremendous inner strength. It is about uniting with one’s antaraatma [inner soul], it is not about dying.”

In his petition against Santhara, Nikhil Soni had also invoked the Supreme Court’s 2011 judgement in the Aruna Shanbaug case, which legalised passive euthanasia but emphasised that active euthanasia or assisted suicide is illegal. If such euthanasia could not be allowed, Soni argued, Santhara too could not be legal.

But Dhanwant Shah, president of Mumbai’s Jain Yuvak Sangh, believes there is a fine distinction between the two. “The aim of euthanasia is to be free from misery, which is a desire. Santhara is about the end of all desire.”

What about Hindus?

Some members of the Jain community claim they have reason to believe their faith is being targeted in particular.

In their arguments against Soni’s PIL, respondents had pointed out to the High Court that the choice to die for religious reasons is allowed in Hinduism too. Their response petition cites several instances in Hindu mythology and history of saints undertaking fasts and relinquishing the body through the practice of Samadhi Maran.

The more specific equivalent of Santhara in Hinduism is Prayopavesa, where a person with no remaining desires or responsibilities can undertake a fast unto death. That, too, has been compared to euthanasia and suicide, but the court judgement on Santhara does not mention it.

“This is simply an attempt to target the Jain religion and to defame the community,” said Pushpasen Jhaveri, a trustee of Mumbai’s Prarthana Samaj Jain temple.

Filmmaker Anand Gandhi, whose film Ship of Theseus explores the philosophical and ethical questions behind a character’s decision to choose death by fasting, believes that practices like Santhara, Prayopavesa, suicide and euthanasia are both similar and different.

“These practices are common in intent (being, to die), but could be seen as different from a cause-effect point of view,” said Gandhi. Unlike suicide, Santhara is philosophically-informed; like voluntary euthanasia, it necessitates that the individual be of sound mind, capable of making an informed choice.

In Gandhi’s film, the character of the fasting monk eventually chooses life over death. But to the filmmaker, it is the ethical debate preceding this choice that matters more. “I don’t think the state has any role to play in an individual’s choice to die, beyond asserting that the individual is not being coerced to make that decision,” said Gandhi.