Does Jainism Conflict With Secular Law?

Secular law is defined in relatively simple, yet abstract, terms. Secular law governs the methods through which conflicts between particular groups of people — especially those with radically different religious beliefs, or those between religious and non-religious people — are solved. It seems a strange question, then, to ask whether or not a particular religion by itself conflicts with a concept meant to resolve, well, conflict.

But that’s the question we’ve asked, and so we’ll do our best to unpack the meaning behind it.

Several years ago, an Indian filmmaker named Shekhar Hattangadi made a movie exploring the reasons and ethical quandaries behind Jains who end their lives by purposefully abstaining from food and water over an elongated period of time. While this type of Jain end-of-life journey is somewhat uncommon in the modern world, it still happens from time to time. 

Hattangadi said the film is “about how a faith-based society deals with traditional practices that conflict with secular law.”

In essence, there are many moral questions that surround the practice of starving oneself to death in the name of religion. The act is generally taken when one decides he or she has done all that he or she is meant to do in life — that the journey is over, and it’s time to move on to the next phase of Dharma, or the journey to ultimate enlightenment through reincarnation. Critics of the practice believe that the practice is merely a manner by which the younger generation ensures its elders don’t become a burden on society when they can no longer produce or care for themselves.

One lawyer in the film asks, “Why is it that only those who are near death and terminally ill choose santhara?”

There is no easy answer to that question. But most Jains themselves believe that this end-of-life right of passage is more about spiritual purification.

Assistant Professor Ellen Gough in the Department of Religion is a Jain expert who explains that “Very early doctrine describes santhara as an ideal death. The monk who is tired of his body should lie down and gradually limit food to destroy karma so he doesn’t reincarnate.”

Keep in mind that Jains do not believe in suicide. All worth noting is that the Rajhastani High Court made a 2015 ruling describing some instances of santhara as suicide. The ruling suggested the state end the practice entirely, and treat these cases as criminal. 

Hattangati said, “The Supreme Court will distinguish between a legitimate religious practice and a custom that persecutes the elderly.”

One can see now why the question or whether or not Jain lifestyles conflict with Secular law is often asked. The state says one thing, while Jain practice sometimes orders another. 

Arguably, someone affected by this practice through the death of a loved one could file a lawsuit for wrongful death — especially if someone was persuaded into fasting to death by other family members or those within the Jain community. More info here. Most Jains, however, believe that self-defense from physical attack is unjustified. Defending oneself (or attacking others) through legal means might simply be a slippery slope to others.