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Santhara (also Sallekhana, Santhara, Samadhi-marana, Samnyasa-marana), is the Jain religious ritual of voluntary death by fasting. Supporters of the practice believe that Santhara cannot be considered suicide, but rather something one does with full knowledge and intent, while suicide is viewed as emotional and hasty. Due to the prolonged nature of Santhara, the individual is given ample time to reflect on his or her life. The vow of Santhara is taken when one feels that one's life has served its purpose. The purpose is to purge old karmas and prevent the creation of new ones.[1]

According to the Press Trust of India, on average 240 Jains practice Santhara until death each year in India. [1]


Rationale of Starvation

Jainism believes that each and every action (eating included) may or may not become karma. Jains are strictly vegetarian, but a tree, even if it has only one sense, has life, and hence taking away a piece of it (vegetable, fruit, leaf) hurts it - thereby adding a negative karma to all who encourage this process. Besides, there may be living organisms surviving in that fruit/vegetable/leaf that one eats. So by eating, one hurts the tree/plant and also possibly kills organisms living in it. In fact, since water also has microscopic organisms, even drinking water adds to one's karma.

The basic idea in different kinds of Jain fasting is to acquire a lowest possible negative karma and purify oneself in the process. Santhara, in this sense, is the best way to purification.

Jains claim that Santhara or Sallekhana is the most ideal, peaceful, and satisfying form of death. However, depending upon the person’s general health, certain vitamin or mineral depletion or electrolyte imbalances, along with intolerance for cold temperatures, dizziness, hair loss, and extreme fatigue the starvation process can be excruciating. Jains acknowledge the suffering one endures while in the process of starving but rationalize it by stating that it allows for a better understanding of the inherently painful and flawed nature of earthly existence. To further explain the rationale, Jains claim moral superiority in that they stop sustaining their own life at the cost of the other life forms they might otherwise consume. The supreme goal is to minimize the damage one does to their environment. Asceticism is revered and practicing ascetics are worshipped.

The rationale behind Sallekhana comes from the Jain belief in karma, rebirth, asceticism and spiritual purification. Jainism teaches that the every living creature has an immortal soul called a jiva, which has consciousness and intelligence and which ideally should be able to ascend to the summit of the universe and achieve omniscience. However it is karma that prevents the immaterial soul from achieving liberation. It is important to note that the concept of karma in Jain theology is very different from the understanding of karma in Hinduism and western popular culture. In Hinduism karma literally translates as "deed" or "act", representing a cosmic understanding of cause and effect, the actions and reactions that governs all life. Karma is not understood as fate, rather, in Hinduism man acts with free will creating his own destiny. According to the Vedas, if man sows goodness, he will reap goodness; if he sows evil, he will reap evil. This understanding is not terribly dissimilar from the western popular culture interpretation of “what goes around comes around”, and a generalized belief that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. However, for Jains karma is a much more sophisticated and developed belief system. The physical body is viewed as a prison for the soul and it is believed that karma is responsible for keeping the soul trapped within the body. Karma is understood to be an invisible supernatural substance composed of very fine particles that permeate the soul determining what physical form the soul will take. It is the accumulation of karma that determines the form in which a soul is reincarnated. The deliverance of the soul from karma is achieved through strict asceticism whereby the soul hinders the karmas, or tiny particles of matter, from infusing the soul and purges the old karmas before they are realized in the next life.[2]

Questions regarding legality

Like most Dharmic religious traditions, Jainism considers suicide a wrong that only retains the karma from the current life and does not allow escape from the cycle of births and rebirths. Suicide involves an intentional act of harm against oneself with a known outcome that negatively affects those left behind. With Sallekhana, death is welcomed through a peaceful, tranquil process providing peace of mind for everyone involved.[3]

Because people who take the vow of Sallekhana are elevated to a position of reverence, admiration and worship, it is difficult to parse out the individual’s true intentions in taking the vow of Sallekhana. For some, Sallekhana is probably motivated by belief alone. For others, their decision to end their life may be motivated by reasons ranging from the economic hardship to the desire for redemption for some bad act. Regardless of the motives, speaking out against Sallekhana is rare and it is commonly understood in the Jain community that preventing or interrupting Sallekhana invites social ostracism. Statistically Sallekhana is undertaken by more women than men and some have argued that in this way Sallekhana serves as a means of coercing widows and elderly relatives into taking their own lives.[4]

Legal Controversy

In 2006 human rights activist/lawyer Nikhil Soni and his lawyer Madhav Mishra, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with the High Court of Rajasthan. The PIL claims that Sallekhana is a social evil and should be considered to be suicide under Indian legal statute. The petition extends to those who facilitate individuals taking the vow of with aiding and abetting an act of suicide. For the 5.2 million Jains living in India this is a violation of the Indian Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.[5]

This landmark case sparked debate in India, where bioethics is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, Sallekhana has been accepted because of its religious context, while euthanasia and attempted suicide are criminal offenses. Hunger strikes are a common form of protest in India but often end with forced hospitalization and criminal charges. In the 1996 case of Gian Kaur v. State of Punjab the Indian Supreme Court ruled that human rights guaranteed by the Constitution do not include the right to suicide under any circumstance.

However, it is not clear at present as to on what grounds and statistics, Santhara is to be held illegal. The Indian Penal Code punishes any attempt to commit suicide, but this provision is in itself somewhat contentious, since it would punish only an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. Also, how far this provides deterrence is questionable. The definition of suicide on the Wikipedia Page on Suicide states, "The definition of suicide used from this point on is that the death of the person who commits suicide must be the central component and only intention of the act, rather than a secondary consequence of an act which is centrally motivated by religion, politics, etc"

When a person commits suicide, it is usually in anger or depression. The act of suicide is conducted by isolating oneself from the world and the purpose can be given in a suicide note. Further, the act is instantaneous, however for Santhara the person takes a vow not to have food or water and it is a slow process. He is not forced to commit Santhara but is acting as an individual with his own will. During the fast if the person feels he cannot continue or has a desire to live, an individual can break the vow.

Viewed from this perspective, Santhara cannot be termed suicide and, hence, there should be no question regarding its illegality. However, the court is expected to find better sources placed before it, along with more learned authorities, in order to come to a reasoned judgment.

Santhara/Sallekhana Scholarship

Jain religious suicide is a relatively obscure religious practice that has not received much scholarly attention in Western academia. Three scholars currently researching the practice are British anthropologist and philosopher James Laidlaw[6], Canadian anthropologist Anne Vallely[7] and American bioethicist Whitny Braun.[8]


  1. ^ "Sallekhana". Retrieved 2007-02-18.  
  2. ^ Glasenapp, H. V. (1991). Doctrine of Karman in Jain Philosophy. Varanasi, P. V. Research Institute.
  3. ^ "Sallekhana verus Suicide". Journal of Spiritual and Religious Care. Retrieved 2007-02-18.  
  4. ^ Braun, W. M. (2008). "Sallekhana: the ethicality and legality of religious suicide by starvation in the Jain religious community." Medicine and Law 27(4): 913-924.
  5. ^ See Nikhil Soni v. Union of India and Ors. AIR (2006) Raj 7414.
  6. ^ Laidlaw, J. (1995). Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
  7. ^ Vallely, A. (2002). Guardians of the transcendent: an ethnography of a Jain ascetic community. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
  8. ^ Braun, W. M. (2008). "Sallekhana: the ethicality and legality of religious suicide by starvation in the Jain religious community." Medicine and Law 27(4): 913-924.

See also


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