At a friend’s home the other evening, I reflexively swatted at a bothersome mosquito, which evaded my hand easily and circled round to attack from a different angle. Sensing I was about to take another shot at it, my friend said under his breath, “This is a Jain house, buddy, could you take it easy?”  Although I do not share his belief system, and have murdered a mosquito or two since that day, I was struck by the nobility of a worldview that considers all life sacred, even that of a paltry yet dangerous insect. That the Jain faith has flourished for over two millennia and shows no sign of fading away is without doubt one of the grandest examples of India’s traditions of ecumenism and non-violence.

While Jains, and to an extent Buddhists and Hindus, value all living beings, they do not believe one’s own life must be clung to at any cost. Jainism (and again, to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Hinduism) condones and even valorises suicide in certain circumstances. In Jain custom, elderly or terminally ill people can choose the path of Sallekhanā (or Santhara), which involves giving up food and water and sliding gently towards death.

The Jain community has been in uproar for the past two weeks, after a Rajasthan high court judge ruled Sallekhanā illegal. The supreme court has now stayed the matter, which means the practice can continue for the foreseeable future. I believe the case was an opportunity lost, for rituals like Sallekhanā have ramifications beyond the specific issues debated in the Rajasthan court. They are important in the revaluation of the basis of legal systems worldwide that is necessary because the systems have outgrown their ethical foundation.

Conceptions of life

As a legacy of colonisation, the laws of most nations are based on a seemingly secular ethics that actually stands at least partly on a Christian foundation. Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, holds that humans are uniquely endowed with souls and therefore capable of salvation, which is denied to animals. Our lives are gifts of god that we cannot ourselves end without risking hellfire. This belief is at odds with many of the major moral issues of our time, such as those related to the environment. Most countries now grant animals some rights which in special instances can supersede rights enjoyed by humans, something impossible to countenance in ethical systems that grant humans dominion over birds and beasts.

A number of nations, India included, have decriminalised or are in the process of decriminalising suicide. A smaller group of states has legalised euthanasia or assisted suicide in specific circumstances. The conflict between these developments and the Christian attitude provides renewed relevance to cultures that do not draw absolute distinctions between human and non-human life forms, and which revere life while also accepting the taking of one’s own life in certain cases. This is not to suggest that any of these ways of seeing, whether Jainism or shamanism, can serve as the foundation for a new ethics, but that they can spur a different perception in the secular world of what life and death mean, whether human, animal, or foetal.

Focusing on misuse

The Sallekhanā case, far from touching upon any of these ideas, was treated as a matter of religious rights. The appellant Nikhil Soni argued that that practice was often misused to rid families of unwanted elderly members, particularly women. In one tragic case described by Soni, when a woman named Bimla Devi,“began screaming in a last-ditch effort to get food and water, her cries were drowned out by loud bhajans sung to the accompaniment of high-decibel percussion”.

I have no doubt that Sallekhanā, like every other practice, is subject to perversion. Instead of laying down criteria to distinguish permissible Sallekhanā from its punishable misuse, thus creating a secular protocol to supplement religious ritual, the judge decided the practice was not afforded any protection because, in his estimation, it was not a central tenet of Jain faith.

I don’t understand the logic of this at all. If an act is unethical and tramples on the rights of any individual, it ought to be prohibited whether it is crucial to a religious tradition or not. Caste discrimination is a central feature of Hindu society, but the modern Indian state has never considered that sufficient ground to uphold its legality. A wiser approach would have involved interpreting section 309 of the penal code in the light of India’s own history of ideas, not because tradition is to be revered for its own sake, but because in this instance it exposes flaws in the established legal framework, and could light the path to innovative solutions.