Hundreds of Indians fast themselves to death every year in a ritual called Santhara.
These are Jains, followers of Jainism, an ancient religion from India that teaches that the way to liberation and bliss is to live a life of harmlessness and renunciation. They believe in achieving the ultimate liberation of the soul and that means escaping the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth so that the immortal soul lives forever in a state of bliss.
They achieve that by Santhara (also called Sallekhana or Samadhi-marana) the ritual of fasting till death. When a Jain feels that he/she has entered the final stage of life, with no meaningful work left to complete, they may seek the permission of her friends, family, and religious leaders to take up Santhara. Once their request is approved, they take the oath to gradually give up food and liquids as well as all worldly attachments and make peace with death. Failure to do that means giving up the fast.
It goes something like this:
“When all the purposes of life have been served or when the body becomes unable to serve any purpose, I wish to be able to adapt Santhara, a religious fast to death. Then I would abandon all eighteen types of sins and four types of foods. I would also abandon my body, which is very dear to my mind, the abode of my faith, like a box of ornaments containing precious stones. I would not care for the body in spite of feeling cold, hot, hungry, thirsty, or undergoing insect bites, troubles by other people, diseases including those which may cause delirium, or other severe physical suffering. I wish to be able to abandon my body to my last breath. In this case, I would remain indifferent to death, to the extent of my ability…”
The practice is seen as a high achievement and is glorified far and wide. It is believed to be a form of sacrifice and being able to witness it isconsidered a great blessing. Throngs of people visit someone who is on the fast, seek their blessing celebrate their death.
The longest known Santhara is known to have been kept by a 60-year-old Rajasthani monk called Sadhvi Charan in 2009. It lasted 87 days.
Not everyone approves of the extreme ritual. Many consider it to be akin to suicide and hence a criminal offence. But the Jains differ and consider it their right as protected by India’s constitution. For them it is a voluntary act.
"In most cases, Jains have successfully elevated themselves after embracing santhara,” says Vimal Sagarji maharajsaheb, a Jain monk. "But in certain instances, people have faced immense mental and physical test while observing santhara and have not easily felt peace with themselves. So, whether santhara is suicide or a holy practice to attain moksha, I feel, is for the person embracing santhara to answer for himself."
After all is said and done. Santhara may give many people the creeps but would remain a tenet of faith for the Jains.