Sallekhanā (also Santhara, Samadhi-marana, Sanyasana-marana) is the last vow prescribed by the Jain ethical code of conduct. The vow of sallekhanā is observed by the Jain ascetics and lay votaries at the end of their life by gradually reducing the intake of food and liquids. Sallekhanā is allowed when normal life according to religion isn't possible due to old age, incurable disease or when a person is nearing his end. It is a highly respected practise among the members of the Jain community. According to Jain texts, sallekhanā leads to ahimsā (non-violence or non-injury), as a person observing sallekhanā subjugates the passions, which are the root cause of hiṃsā (injury or violence). In 2015, the Rajasthan High Court banned the practise calling it suicide. On 31 August 2015, the Supreme Court of India stayed the decision of the Rajasthan High Court and lifted the ban on sallekhana.

Overview

Sallekhanā is made up from two words sal (meaning 'properly') and lekhana, which means to thin out. Properly thinning out of the passions and the body is sallekhanā. Sallekhanā is prescribed both for the householders (śrāvakas) and the ascetics. In Jainism, both ascetics and householders have to follow five fundamental vows (vratas). Ascetics must observe complete abstinence and their vows are thus called Mahavratas (major vows). The vows of the laity (who observe partial abstinence) are called anuvratas (minor vows). Jain ethical code additionally prescribe seven supplementary vows, which include three guņa vratas and four śikşā vratas.

HeadVowMeaning
Five vows
1. AhiṃsāNot to hurt any living being by actions and thoughts
2. SatyaNot to lie or speak what isn't commendable.
3. AsteyaNot to take anything if not given.
4. BrahmacharyaChastity / Celibacy in action, words & thoughts
5. Aparigraha (Non-possession)Detachment from material property.
Guņa vratas
Merit vows
6. DigvrataRestriction on movement with regard to directions.
7. BhogopabhogaparimanaVow of limiting consumable and non-consumable things
8. Anartha-dandaviramanaRefraining from harmful occupations and activities (purposeless sins).
Śikşā vratas
Disciplinary vows
9. SamayikaVow to meditate and concentrate periodically.
10.DesavrataLimiting movement to certain places for a fixed period of time.
11.ProsadhopavāsaFasting at regular intervals.
12.Atihti samvibhagVow of offering food to the ascetic and needy people.

An ascetic or householder who has observed all the vows prescribed to shed the karmas, takes the vow of sallekhanā at the end of his life. According to the Jain text, Purushartha Siddhyupaya, "sallekhanā enable a householder to carry with him his wealth of piety". Sallekhanā is treated as a supplementary to the twelve vows taken by Jains. Notwithstanding a few Jain Acharyas such as Kundakunda, Devasena, Padmanandin and Vasunandin have included it under the last vow, śikşā-vrata.

The vow of sallekhanā is often explained with a famous analogy:

Sallekhanā is divided into two:

  • Kashaya sallekhanā (slenderising of passions) or abhayantra (internal)
  • Kaya sallekhanā (slenderising the body) or bāhya (external)

Conditions and Procedure

Sallekhanā as expounded in the famous Jain text, Ratna Karanda Sravakachara

Conditions

According to Tattvartha Sutra (a compendium of Jain principles): "A householder willingly or voluntary adopts sallekhanā when death is quite near." According to famous Jain text, Ratnakaranda śrāvakācāra, the sallekhanā can be observed only "on the arrival of unavoidable calamity, distress, senescence and disease."

Procedure

The duration of the practise can be up to twelve years or more. Sixth part of the Jain text, Ratnakaranda śrāvakācāra is on sallekhanā and its procedure. The procedure expounded is as follows—

Giving up solid food by degrees, one should take to milk and whey, then giving them up, to hot or spiced water. [Subsequently] giving up hot water also, and observing fasting with full determination, he should give up his body, trying in every possible way to keep in mind the pancha-namaskara mantra (Namokar Mantra).

— Ratna Karanda Sravakachara (127–128)

Jain texts mention five transgressions of the vow of sallekhanā:-

  • desire to live
  • desire to die
  • recollection of affection for friends
  • recollection of the pleasures enjoyed
  • longing for the enjoyment of pleasures in future

Due to the prolonged nature of sallekhanā, the individual is given ample time to reflect on their life. The purpose is to purge old karmas and prevent the creation of new ones. The vow of Sallekhana can not be taken by a lay person on his own without being permitted by a monk.

In Practice

Sallekhana place for the monks at Udayagiri hills.

According to a survey conducted in 2006, on an average 200 Jains practise sallekhanā until death each year in India. Statistically, Sallekhanā is undertaken both by men and women of all economic classes and among the educationally forward Jains. Statistically it is done by more women than men. It has been argued that Sallekhana serves as a means of coercing widows and elderly relatives into taking their own lives, but that's a rare case. In both the writings of Jain scriptures and the general views of a large number of followers of Jainism, due to the degree of self-actualisation and spiritual strength required by those who undertake the ritual, Sallekhana is considered to be a display of utmost piety, purification and expiation. In 1999, Acharya Vidyanand, a prominent Digambara monk took a twelve year long vow of sallekhanā.

Historical examples

Doddahundi nishidhi inscription was raised in honour of Western Ganga Dynasty King Nitimarga I in 869 C.E. The king was a devout Jain who observed the vow of Sallekhanā. These memorial stones (nishidhi) were raised in mediaeval India to honour noted Jains who took Sallekhanā.
A sallekhanā inscription at Shravanbelgola. Inscription (130) is in characters of the seventh century.

In around 300 BC, Chandragupta Maurya (founder of the Maurya Empire) undertook Sallekhanā atop Chandragiri Hill, Śravaṇa Beḷgoḷa, Karnataka. Chandragupta basadi at Shravanabelagola (a chief seat of the Jains) marks the place where the saint Chandragupta died. Acharya Shantisagar, a highly revered Digambara monk of the modern India took Sallekana on 18 August 1955 because of inability to walk without help and weak eye-sight. He died on 18 September 1955.

Misconceptions

Jain texts make a clear distinction between the sallekhanā vow and suicide. According to Jain text, Puruṣārthasiddhyupāya:

"When death is imminent, the vow of sallekhanā is observed by progressively slenderizing the body and the passions. Since the person observing sallekhanā is devoid of all passions like attachment, it isn't suicide.

In the practise of Sallekhanā, it is viewed that death is "welcomed" through a peaceful, tranquil process that provides peace of mind and sufficient closure for the adherent, their family and/or community.

In both the writings of Jain Agamas and the general views of a large number of followers of Jainism, due to the degree of self-actualisation and spiritual strength required by those who undertake the ritual, Sallekhanā is considered to be a display of utmost piety, purification and expiation.

In his book, Sallekhanā is Not Suicide, Justice T. K. Tukol wrote:

My studies of Jurisprudence, the Indian Penal Code and of criminal cases decided by me had convinced that the vow of Sallekhanā as propounded in the Jaina scriptures isn't suicide.

According to Champat Rai Jain, "Soul is a simple substance and as such immortal. Death is for compunds whose dissolution is termed disintegration and death when it has reference to a living orgainism, that's a compound of spirit and matter. By dying in the proper way will is developed, and it is a great asset for the future life of the soul, which, as a simple substance, will survive the bodily dissolution and death. The true idea of sallekhanā is only this that when death does appear at last one should know how to die, that's one should die like a man, not like a beast, bellowing and panting and making vain efforts to avoid the unavoidable!".

According to advocate, Suhrith parthasarathy, "Sallekhanā isn't an exercise in trying to achieve an unnatural death, but is rather a practise intrinsic to a person's ethical choice to live with dignity until death".

Legality

In India, suicide remains a crime. The police are allowed to arrest people attempting a hunger strike where there's danger, and to force-feed the person and charge them.

In 2006, human rights activist Nikhil Soni and his solicitor Madhav Mishra filed a Public Interest Litigation with the Rajasthan High Court. The PIL claimed that Sallekhanā should be considered to be suicide under the Indian legal statute. They argued that Article 21 of the Indian constitution only guarantees the right to life, but not to death. The petition extends to those who facilitate individuals taking the vow of with aiding and abetting an act of suicide. In response, the Jain community argued that it is a violation of the Indian Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom. It was argued that Sallekhanā serves as a means of coercing widows and elderly relatives into taking their own lives.

This landmark case sparked debate in India, where national bioethical guidelines have been in place after 1980.

In August 2015, the Rajasthan High Court stated that the practise isn't an essential tenet of Jainism and banned the practise making it punishable under section 306 and 309 (Abetment of Suicide) of the Indian Penal Code.

On 24 August 2015, members of the Jain community held a peaceful nationwide protest against the ban on Santhara. Protests were held in various states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi etc. Silent march were carried out in various cities.

On 31 August 2015, Supreme Court of India stayed the decision of Rajasthan High Court and lifted the ban on santhara. The Special Leave Petition brought before the Supreme Court of India was filed by Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad. Supreme court considered Santhara as a component of non-violence ('ahimsa').

Recent Case

  • 82 years old Jain woman dies in Rajasthan after 50 days of fasting.