Hundreds In India Ritually Starve Themselves To Death Each Year

“Hunger is sharper than the sword.” —Beaumont and Fletcher, The Honest Man’s Fortune

In A Nutshell

Each year, up to 500 followers of Jainism in India starve themselves to death. As the process takes place, dozens of people gather around to wait and watch the person die. Taking the holy vow to fast until death is thought to offer salvation, by allowing followers to give up all worldly attachments, including the body. The events used to be publicized so more people could come and watch, but it’s controversial in modern society and often hidden. Sometimes police will prevent the ritual and force feed participants. Many Jains are unhappy that it’s considered suicide, and instead say it’s normal and should be treated with the utmost respect.

The Whole Bushel

Santhara is a practice within Jainism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Participants make an oath to forgo food until they die of starvation. The Jains believe it is a way to achieve Moksha, or escape from the cycle of death and reincarnation. This is ultimately a liberation of their soul.

Hundreds of Jains make the oath each year. Some of them are monks, though the majority are laypeople. It’s more common among women than men, with about 60 percent of participants being female. It’s generally thought that women are more strong-willed and religious than men. While the practice is popular with those that are ill and dying anyway, some healthy people also partake in the practice. In 2009, there were 550 Jains who took the oath in India.

The record (at least in memory) for a person surviving is 87 days. That was achieved by 60-year-old monk Sadhvi Charan Pragyaji in 2009. Before she died, 20,000 followers flocked to see her. Santhara is a very public process—at one point, details of those participating were advertised in newspapers so that people could come and watch the dying.

One Jain described being able to witness the sacrifice as “the greatest blessing we can receive in our lives.” One video captures the final hours, and final breath, of a woman who had taken the oath. The crowd is a mix of men and women. Most wear plain white, though there are a number of men that sit a short distance away, completely nude. Those closest don’t stop touching and holding the starving person. When the crowd senses death approaching, they begin chanting the names of their gods, holding up the head until breathing stops. The death itself is met with muted excitement and a few tears.

In recent years, the practice has become more controversial. Some campaigners believe it should be banned, equating it with suicide. Jains argue that the right to practice religion unimpeded is protected in India’s constitution, and that “any section of citizens having a distinct culture shall have a right to conserve the same.” They also say that the practice is normal and should be treated with respect. Finally, they say that it’s unfair to compare the act with suicide, as people can change their mind and continue living.

Opponents argue that the constitution only goes so far, and that the criminal law still needs to be followed. In addition, breaking the fast partway through would lead to the oath taker being ostracized, making it less of a free choice than many non-Jains are comfortable with. In some instances authorities have intervened and forced participants to eat, which one advocate argues is a violation of constitutional rights.

A comparison has been drawn to sati, the practice of widows throwing themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres to die in the fire. While that is arguably the choice of the woman, the practice is banned in India. Both sides try using this comparison to their advantage. Proponents point out that santhara hasn’t been banned, hence it’s not the same. Opponents say that misses the point, because it should be banned.

It’s an argument unlikely to go away.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: Another India Jain fasts to death
The Times of India: More Jains embracing ancient santhara ritual
The Times of India: Is santhara against the law?

  • Valdez

    Ummmm… No chance of this happening in my house!

  • mae

    constitution is more powerful than religion

  • oouchan

    Well…at least they are just offing themselves and not taking others with them. It’s elective and not forced. If you want to be that crazy…have at it.

    Nutters.

    • Lisa 39

      I agree, but if i were purposely starving myself to death i wouldn’t want an audience.

    • Nathaniel A.

      Would you call a suicide victim a “nutter,” because that seems to be what you are getting at? All of the criteria that you stated for this ritualistic fasting-till-death: A.”just offing themselves and not taking others with them.” B. ” It’s elective and not forced.” C. “If you want to be that crazy…have at it.”

      What are you views on such a similarity to suicide and would you call them “nutters”? It would be nice to hear your views on the subject.

      • oouchan

        The “nutters” are to this list only because they don’t see it as suicide.
        Those that do choose that way to go because of pain of some sort…I feel sorry for. Unless they are some nutjob who wants to take their family with them. Then I lose all sympathy.

        • Nathaniel A.

          “The “nutters” are to this list only because they don’t see it as suicide. ”

          No, they think of it is the Hinduistic equivalent of “going to join my God,” which is what many suicidees think of it as.

          “…because of pain of some sort.”

          Who can tell what the underlying reason for them doing this fasting, it may be similar to the underlying reasons for a suicide. My main point is that you calling them “nutters” may have been too hasty.

          • oouchan

            Correct….they don’t see it as suicide. They are fanatical about their devotion to their gods and give up their lives for it. To me…that is crazy….so hence the “nutters” part.

            I cannot put these people in the same category of someone with a terminal illness who decides to end it all. That I consider noble….not because you want to be closer to some deity.

          • Stranger

            Why so judgmental? You have not walked a mile in their shoes. Everyone has opposing beliefs. Their choice and beliefs do not affect you in any way. They may consider you a “nutter” for believing the opposite. To call someone names because you do not understand or believe in their choice is hubris.

          • oouchan

            I can have an opinon about anything on this planet. The beauty of having a free mind. I think people who like Beiber’s music to be nutters as well….and that view is shared by millons.
            I don’t give a rats ass if someone thinks I’m crazy…because I am. And I know it. 🙂
            We all have different views and different tastes. That is what makes this world so awesome. Otherwise we’d be the same. And that is crazy.

          • Stranger

            That wasn’t my point. I had already stated that everyone has different opinions and that is a blessing. My point is there isn’t a need to name call people who think differently than you.

          • oouchan

            Which is exactly my point. It doesn’t affect me in any way and I still think they are nutters. Which is my opinion. Didn’t say that others had to like it or agree with it. I’m making an observation and letting others know how I feel about it.
            And you don’t have to like it.
            Just had a similar discusssion with someone about the word ‘fag’. I hate that word and I have a problem with people using it. I won’t stop someone from using it however. If they want to be like that, let them. Free speech and all.
            Bascially it comes down to this…we all have the right to be offended and do the offending. Free will and all that.
            That’s all I have to say on the matter. Cheers.

          • Stranger

            Yes, everyone does have the right of free speech. And a person will always be held accountable based on those words.

            Kind regards.

    • HugginonBubba

      Your words are unnecessarily disrespectful, just because you don’t understand their practices doesn’t make them crazy or as you put it “Nutters.” It’s not “offing” themselves, and if that is what you gathered from reading the article then I strongly encourage that you have another read. Also click the link and watch the video that is provided in the article, and then tell me what you think.

      • oouchan

        I did and as I stated before…they are nutters. Which is my opinion of them. On top of that, respect is something earned to each individual. Practices such as this will never earn my respect.
        Have a nice day.

        • HugginonBubba

          It’s called having some compassion, and part of your issue is, is that you feel you’re so important that your lack of respect for these people takes away from what they do. . .it doesn’t. I know that will come as a shock to you, but. . .now you know. Have a nice day.

          • oouchan

            lol! Too funny! What a laugh riot you are. Way off base there, hun.
            I have no respect for people who are so wrapped up in their religion that they hurt themselves or even others. That is crazy. I respect people who deserve it. They don’t. Which is my opinion and others share that while others don’t. No need to get yourself all up in arms over it.
            Also I’m not important…no one is. Never said anything to that degree, but hey…feel free to assume as you please.

          • HugginonBubba

            False, you have said things to that degree, all your comments say that very clearly. Your “No need to get yourself all up in arms over it.” comment is just one more example. Speaking of assuming. LOL Nice try on trying to cover up being an egotistical self important arrogant disrespectful troll. Try harder. . .hun. Have a nice day. 🙂

            Postscript: I’ll continue to be the mature one in this conversation so feel free to have the last word, I’m done speaking to children.

          • oouchan

            hahaha! Mature one, yet you leave with an insult. Funny.
            You assumed incorrectly and are backpeddaling now.
            You can’t stand that someone has a different opinion than you.
            Cheers, mate!

    • Edward Sung

      Here’s another good prospective on how they come about to vow to such a ritual by acknowledging the following fact:

      A life is sustained by an expense of another.

      This is truth in this universe. If living being wants to continue on living, one must eat. And what is food?: an expense of another living being. Let it be plants, or animals; but all those beings have a life force within them, just like you do. And that is what makes an entity a “being.”

      What Jains believe is that they regard every living entity as equal as themselves. Hence they “choose” to starve knowingly to not cause any more harm to any other living entity.

      I would call them the great heroes who have surpassed all instincts and innate desires. You would call them nutters simply because you do not understand.

      • oouchan

        I understand it just fine. They are still nuts. But as long as it’s only themselves, no harm.

  • Stranger

    I personally believe in the right to die. Be it suicide, euthanasia, or something like this. If it is the individual’s own choice, then let it be, they will find a way regardless. In the above report, I do like that the person is held until death comes.

    • Gh Puiu

      I agree, but only if the person is sane. Pain and sadness are not reasons enough. One could find death a quick escape from pain but a medical expertise should be asked. Again, about the women who throw themselves in the funeral fire because of sadness (or religion constraint?), but what about the children (if any)?

      • Rapadura Jones

        Who is sane in this world for god’s sake? I respect and understand their ritual

    • Nathaniel A.

      And it certainly does great justice to them to be called “nutters.”

  • Scott

    I can respect their devotion. The government has no business telling them what to do.

  • Clyde Barrow

    To each their own, I reckon.

    That just means more steak and potatoes for the rest of us…

  • Andyman7714

    I would never commit suicide. It’s against the law.

    • shmabai

      What law?

  • SeanBouffard

    Religion can make people do crazy things. Even though I don’t agree with this I believe they should be allowed to do it as long as they are not being coursed into doing it.

  • chinchanflanman

    this is crazy! Id rather die than commit suicide!

  • Rijul Ballal

    Hey cool, I’m a Jain.

  • Redboy.apbt

    Less foreigners to worry about GOD BLESS AMERICA vote up if you agree

  • yass gaga

    This makes me sad ;(

  • Sarah Pounders

    I would like to go to India and die with them. Where do I go and when? Does anyone know? I do not want to be a human on Earth anymore.
    [email protected]

  • Nitin Jain

    Keeping Sallekhna/Santhara(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sallekhana) in same category with suicide/Euthanasia is foolishness. It doesn’t share any traits with suicide.
    http://www.ibnlive.com/…/rajasthan-hc-bans-starvation-ritua…

    Following study provides a good comparision with suicide and Euthanasia:
    http://www.vpmthane.org/Publications(sample)/Bio-Ethics/Kokila%20H.%20Shah%201.pdf

    The peculiar points to be noted in case of Jaina
    concept of Sallekhana are:
    1. It is that intense penance which is undertaken
    by a person at the last moments of his life.
    2. The undertaking of the penance at the time
    of death contains full reviewing of whole past activity
    with the purpose of weakening the bonds of worldly
    attractions and one’s body so as to have the best form
    of peaceful and perfect happy ending. At this time,
    no excitement is felt, no pain is experienced, but under
    perfect self control, complete ecstasy is enjoyed and
    one breathes one’s last happily under santhara. (9)
    3. Thus, as is said, Sallekhana is voluntary
    death without feeling pain of any sort.
    4. The person controls all his passions and
    abandons all worldly attachments, observes all
    austerities, gradually abstains from food and water
    and lie down quietly, meditating on the real nature of
    the soul until the soul parts from the body
    5. The basic concept underlying it is that man
    is the architect of his own destiny and he should face
    death in such a way as to prevent the influx of new
    karmas and liberate the soul from bondage. Penance
    is capable of burning old karmas, reducing them to
    ashes.
    6. “Those who adopt the vow immediately
    become self-reliant and self composed and they cease
    to be agitated by personal considerations and
    suffering, and rise above the longings of the flesh.
    The soul is lifted…To be able to control one’s conduct
    at the moment of death is the fruit of asceticism. (12)
    The state of mind of the person who performs
    Sallekhana is free from fear, grief, regret, affection,
    hatred etc., and he is prepared to embrace death with
    strength of mind and enthusiasm.