Hundreds of Indians die each year in ancient ritual



Fasting is a common religious practice in several cultures across the world, but few are as hardcore as ‘Santhara’. The exacting ritual is a part of Jainism, one of the oldest religions in the world, and it involves participants making an oath to stop eating until they literally die of starvation. According to the Jains, this is a surefire way to purge oneself of bad karma and achieve ‘Moksha’ – liberation from the worldly cycle of death and reincarnation.

Every year, hundreds of Jains across India take up the onerous oath – some are monks, others are ordinary people. Interestingly, over 60 percent of the participants are female, and it is believed that women are more strong-willed than men. The practice is more popular with Jains who are ill or dying, but healthy people are also known to participate.

When a Jain feels that she has entered the final stage of life, with no meaningful work left to complete, she may seek the permission of her friends, family, and guru to take up the practice of Santhara, a.k.a Sallekhana or Samadhi-marana. Once approved, the Jain is permitted to gradually give up food and liquids. During this time, she must learn to give up all worldly attachments and make peace with death. If she is unable to do this, it implies that she has failed the vow and must give up the fast.

The longest that a Jain has managed to stay alive on the oath is 87 days – it was achieved by 60-year-old Rajasthani monk Sadhvi Charan in 2009. Since the followers of Santhara are publicly glorified, thousands of Jains flocked to see Sadhvi in her last moments. Over 20,000 people celebrated her passing from the whirlpool of life and death.

Santhara is such a significant event for the Jains that information about its participants is published in local newspapers so that people can come to witness the final hours of staunch believers. The spectators are often dressed in white, or are sometimes even nude, out of respect for the dying person. When they sense death approaching, they begin to chant the names of their Gods. The death itself is met with tears and muted mourning.

The spiritual fast has become embroiled in controversy in recent years. Those against it equate it to suicide that elderly Jains are compelled to commit. They call it a criminal offence and ask for it to be banned. But the Jains argue that they have the right to religious freedom according to India’s constitution. They insist that the practice is normal and must be treated with respect. It isn’t suicide, they say, because the people have the option change their mind during the fast and continue living instead.

Above all, Jains believe that Santhara is a form of sacrifice and being able to witness it is ‘the greatest blessing’ of a lifetime. “Every single day through the year, a Jain somewhere in the country takes up this holy vow,” said Babulal Jain Ujjwal, editor of a Jain publication called All India Jain Chaturmas Suchi. The 2000-year old practice continues to be a idealized as a graceful way to embrace death within the Jain community.

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