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.