Fasting To The Death: Is It A Religious Rite Or Suicide?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's turn now to a thorny legal issue in India. Suicide is illegal in India, which is the basis for a court challenge to an end-of-life practice followed by one of India's smallest religious groups. NPR's Julie McCarthy has the story from New Delhi.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Members of the Jain religion assemble at their 450-year-old temple Friday evening in Old Delhi for an aarti, a fire ceremony offered to the deities. The Jains recognize 24 Gods. Before stepping inside the inner sanctum, I was asked to leave behind anything made of leather. The central tenet of Jainism is nonviolence, and the slaughter of animals is forbidden. The female sadhu, or saint, who resides in the temple, told me that she had plucked out all of her hair to avoid any infestation of lice that would need to be destroyed. The percussion in this music is no other leather drum but a metal box.
Jains are a distinct minority in India. They number four and a half million people out of 1.2 billion Indians - about half a percent. The most devout Jains may perform what's known as santhara or sallekhana - fasting until death. Instead of being a mournful end, Jain philosophy views death as a welcome gateway to the next birth. Like many of India's great religions, followers of Jainism believe in reincarnation and karma. A.K. Jain (ph) runs a foundation to promote understanding of the religion. He says not eating is a nonviolent way to detach from this life and prepare for the next while purifying the soul.
A.K. JAIN: We are thinking of the next journey. You see, in all religions, the art of living is dark - hope will live a good life. But in new religion, it is taught how to die. So santhara is basically art of dying.
MCCARTHY: The art of dying is to take death in stride, says Bramachari Pandit Dharam Chandra Shashtri, a Jain holy man. He has assisted dozens of other holy men in performing santhara. Through an interpreter, he describes the act as the ultimate test of spirituality and self-discipline.
BRAMACHARI PANDIT DHARAM CHANDRA SHASHTRI: (Through interpreter) You need to be a brave heart, and you need to have a very, very strong conviction and determination. Only then can you perform sallekhana or santhara.
MCCARTHY: Santhara is rare, performed only when death is imminent because of incurable disease or old age. It's estimated that some 200 Jains fast to death each year, many of them monks. Last month, the High Court of Rajasthan banned the fasting as attempted suicide, only to have the Supreme Court this week freeze that ban until a full hearing, which could take years thanks to the court's backlog. Until then, retired Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju says the Jains are free to continue a ritual that he says is the illegal taking of one's life.
MARKANDEY KATJU: You're aiming at death. Ultimately, suicide means putting an end to your life. How can you say it is not suicide?
MCCARTHY: Shekhar Hattangadi has made a documentary on the practice of santhara. He says in contrast to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, in Jainism, there is not the sense that God has a claim on life. Jains accommodate a willing renunciation of the body and the best way to leave it. And therein lies a basic incompatibility, says Hattangadi. Eastern religions are being judged by the standards of Western law inherited from Britain, including the statute that makes suicide a crime.
SHEKHAR HATTANGADI: And that contradiction is between a statute founded largely on a Christian-inspired bioethic and the essentially Eastern variant of the idea of spiritual advancement through abstinence and denunciation.
MCCARTHY: The fast is exposing cracks within the community, where younger Jains, such as 40-year-old account Pratik Jain, question its place in the modern world. Pratik Jain says the end-of-life ritual isn't helping what is already one of India's slowest growing religions.
PRATIK JAIN: So that extreme, which has not allowed this region to flourish in the manner that it could have. And therefore, it's time that we look at it and try and put a stop in this.
MCCARTHY: Nothing in the Supreme Court's order temporarily lifting the ban on fasting to death indicates how the bench will ultimately rule. In a 2011 case on the termination of life support, retired Justice Katju ruled that the constitutional right to life does not include the right to die and tightly restricted any withdrawal of life support. Retired Supreme Court Justice Gyan Sudha Misra.
GYAN SUDHA MISRA: We attach absolute sanctity to the importance of life, even the remotest sign of life because after all, no human is God.
MCCARTHY: But Pandit Dharam Chandra says fasting till death is the last great act of life the Jains have been choosing for centuries.
DHARAM CHANDRA: (Foreign language spoken, claps).
MCCARTHY: With a clap of his hands, the holy man declares, ban or no ban, 100 percent I will perform santhara. And adds, I will not be committing suicide. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.