Debating Santhara: The Right to Death

What is Santhara?

Santhara also called as Sallekhana, Samadhi-marana, Sanyasana-marana, is the Jain ritual practice of facing death voluntarily at the end of one’s life.

What’s so significant about this practice?

  1. From Jain community, Santhara, is believed to have been practised since the foundation of Jainism and finds mention in its agams (religious texts).
  2. The Pratikramana Sutra in Shravaka Anuvrata (the code of conduct for Jains) clearly explains santhara, saying that when all purposes of life have been served, or when the body is unable to serve any more purpose, a person can opt for it.

Then, why do some people oppose it?

  1. Human rights activists alleged that it’s a social evil, and old people are made to undertake Santhara by family members who don’t want to look after them for a variety of reasons.
  2. The petition in the High Court compared the practice with that of Sati.

Okay, so how did it all started? When did the case come up before the Rajasthan High Court?

  1. In 2006, Jaipur-based lawyer Nikhil Soni filed a public interest litigation and sought directions under Article 226 to the central and state governments to treat Santhara, the fast unto death practised by Swetambara Jains (Digambars call it Sallekhana), as illegal and punishable under the laws of the land.
  2. Calling it suicide and, therefore, a criminal act, the PIL also sought prosecution of those supporting the practice for abetment to suicide.
  3. The PIL argued that death by Santhara was not a fundamental right under Article 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion), because it violated the right to life guaranteed under Article 21. It argued that religious freedom is subject to public order, morality and health.

What did the High court say in its order?

  1. The Bench said that it was not established that Santhara or Sallekhana is an essential practice of the Jain religion. Jain scriptures or texts don’t say that moksha (salvation) can be achieved only by Santhara.
  2. According to the judges, it was one thing to argue that Santhara is not suicide, and quite another to say that it is a permissible religious practice protected by Articles 25 and 26.
  3. The court asked the state to stop the practice in any form, and directed that any complaint made in this regard be registered as a criminal offence in accordance with Section 309 (attempted suicide) or Section 306 (abetment to suicide) of the IPC.

So many articles cites, so much legalities brought into the picture! So, what did the Jain Community say?

  1. Jain community defends that, Santhara is an ancient religious practice aimed at self-purification.
  2. The vow of Santhara/Sallekhana is taken when all purposes of life have been served, or when the body is unable to serve any purpose of life. It is not the giving up of life, but taking death in their stride.

How did the Jain community react to the judgment? What line have the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and central governments taken?

  1. No government has articulated an official line, but politicians, including ministers, have criticised the judgment.
  2. Members of the Jain community took to the streets immediately by organising protest rallies.
  3. On August 24, the community took out massive silent rallies in several cities and towns. In meetings held before the rallies, members of the community openly criticised the judges, calling them ignorant and disrespectful of religious practices.

How does constitution interpret this issue? <and this is the part which should be important for an IAS Aspirant>

  1. The preamble to the Constitution states that the Constitution secures to all its citizens liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.
  2. Article 25 guarantees that every person in India shall have freedom of conscience and a right to profess, practice and propagate religion.
  3. Article 29 goes further and declares that any section of citizens having a distinct culture shall have a right to conserve the same. If any law comes in conflict with constitutional rights, it will have to yield.”

Relief from SC judgement?
The Supreme Court restored the Jain religious practice of a ritualistic fast unto death by staying an order of the Rajasthan High Court, which compared it to an act of suicide.

Some philosophical issues which spring out of this debate

This has been a debate that pits state versus individual; law versus custom; and the right to life versus the right to choose the outcome of one’s own life.

  1. In the context of law the issue is presented as a conflict of rights, that is, between the right to freedom of religion and the right to life. When posed in this way, Santhara comes to be cast as a ritual or a religious practice, an action, rather than a way of knowing and being.
  2. It is framed as a choice to die rather than as a fast unto freedom, expressed in terms such as “she left her body” as opposed to “she died” or that “she is dead.”
    The practice exemplifies how the subject or self is regarded as continuing to exist and flourish long after it leaves the body, rather than as coming to an end.
  3. This practice cannot be compared to Sati, as some have done, arguing that it is coerced and mainly forced upon women. Not only is the vow made by both men and women in the Jain community, the fast is undertaken by the concerned subject for self-realisation, and not for some dead husband or for the sake of honour, self sacrifice, and all the other hugely problematic reasons given to justify violent acts towards women through the language of familialism and sacrality.

Have other religious practices faced legal challenges earlier?

  1. Bal Diksha, the controversial practice in which children as young as 8 years take diksha to become ‘Bal Munis’, a role that requires them to observe a strict, regimented lifestyle, has been challenged in the courts.
  2. Case was filed in Goa against a naked Digambar monk for obscenity. When an amendment in the Wildlife Protection Act was proposed to ban domestic trade of peacock feathers, the community feared that monks would be stopped from carrying peacock feathers.
  3. The community is also against a ban on open defecation because that is the way some monks answer nature’s call.

So, what’s your opinion on Santhara ritual? It’s curse or sacred in fundamental nature of ritual?


Published with inputs from Arun

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