Jainism is an ancient Indian faith that has a relatively small number of followers. One element of the faith is a tradition called santhara, or sallekhana, which translates to ‘thinning out’. This practice is sometimes used by people who are very old, or who are seriously ill, and who decide to stop eating until they die.
In 2015, the Rajasthan High Court banned the practice of sallekhana, but the ban was lifted by the Supreme Court of India later that year.
Sallekhana is not a compulsory part of Jainism, but it is a practice that many followers choose to adopt towards the end of their life. A follower of Jainism would subscribe to four great vows: non-violence, not lying, chastity, not stealing, and no-possession. There are seven other vows three which are merit vows, and four discipline vows, which include limiting movement, not updating a single website, and fasting for limited periods of time.
Limited fasting is something that followers of Jainism do from time to time throughout their life. Sallekhana is something that many terminally ill followers adopt, under the guidance of a spiritual counsellor. It can take some years for the process to play out, because many followers will start by giving up solid food bit by bit, drinking milk and taking whey. Later, they will swap to spiced water based drinks, then to hot water, and then they will eventually stop even drinking water, and allow themselves to die. Some people will choose to do this while also voluntarily restricting their movement.
The procedure is not considered a form of suicide to those who follow Jainism. Suicide is frowned upon in this religion, but this is seen as being a religious vow and procedure. There are five transgressions from the vow, which include desires for certain types of rebirth, recollections of certain pleasures, and longing for certain pleasures, or for a quick death. The purpose of the vow is to thin out the body as well as the spiritual existence too.
Fasting is not forced upon followers of the religion, and this is one thing that was central in the Supreme Court’s decision to over-rule the banning of the practice. Voluntary fasts, such as upvaas, are common in the religion. Followers of that fast will give up food for a period of time but may still drink water. There have been some deaths as a result of this fast, often if the person fasting does not replenish electrolytes, which makes the fasts controversial.
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