Jainism is one of the world’s most complex — and peaceful — religions. While your average American might never have heard of it, Jainism is practiced in nearly every major country in the world. This includes the United States. Because most people don’t understand the religion’s nuances (they don’t worship a deity, for example), Jain law might be something of an enigma. But they have long-standing perceptions of how to approach law. Here are a few things you might find interesting about Jains and modern law.
Many religions — Christianity included — were popularized during a time when wealth inequality was very high (and notably comparable with today’s). That means they acquired new followers by preaching the benefits of poverty, which wasn’t something to be shunned or stigmatized. Rather, it was to be celebrated. Material wealth was the thing to be shunned! That might sound strange considering how many of us seek to add to our material collections even while we preach Christianity to those around us.
Jainism grew to become popular for the same reasons. But unlike most followers of most big religions around the world, Jain followers still hold to those beliefs even today. The concept of bankruptcy, for example, would sound strange to a Jain both a thousand years ago and today, because Jains basically practice bankruptcy as part of their core beliefs.
Jains believe in five types of marriage, which differ somewhat from Hindu marriages. Although most Jains will possess very little wealth, property, or other assets, the assets they do have will pass to the widow if a man dies with or without a son. Passing the wealth to the wife is one of the cultural traditions that deviates from most of the world’s other major religions (and common practice even when religion isn’t a factor).
Jain couples are allowed to adopt when they cannot have children. The rights of succession hold true even when the children are not biological. When a Jain couple has two twin sons, the one who is born first will ultimately be considered the eldest son by Jain law.
One of the strangest Jain practices revolves around death: Sallekhana. This is the practice of fasting oneself to death. This process does not occur all at once, but gradually over time. The Jain will slowly reduce food consumption and drink less water. This is considered a spiritual process in order to increase good karma and reduce passion in the human world.
Interestingly, Jain law does not treat this form of killing oneself as a legal suicide. The reasons why are semantic at best: the killing of oneself in this way does not occur through an act of passion, and the subject does not use poison or other tools.
When we say the process is slow, we mean it! This act of fasting until death can take years.
Modern humanitarian groups have placed a stigma on this practice. Perhaps this is why Sallekhana is rarely adopted in the modern era.