She died the day after
I left. While there, all I could see was the remains of an 82-year-old life, a
crumpled body that needed help to be turned in bed.
She lived in Gangashahar, in one of the more inhospitable regions of Rajasthan—Jangladesh, in the heart of Thar Desert. The area has historically witnessed mass migration because of the harsh terrain, and many of her relatives, including one of her sons have established businesses in faraway West Bengal. There is nothing striking about Gangashahar, with the old architecture giving way for newer constructions. Huddled among mobile phone stores, Internet service providers, grocery shops, dentists, even an ultrasound clinic, is the Daga Sweet Shop, which belonged to her husband.
The town, which is dusty, dry, and hot most of the year, is just 15 kilometres from Bikaner, and 500 kilometres from Udaipur, where the Terapanth order of the Svetambara sect of Jainism took birth, of which she and her family are ardent followers.
The order was founded by Acharya Bhikshu in 1760 and stressed 13 religious principles: five great vows, five regulations, and three controls or restraints, hence the name, Terapantha or “13-panthan”.
Maybe asceticism brings hope in such dire conditions that one finds this sect hugely influential in this region. A Jain monastery, Terapanth Sabha Bhawan—a white-marbled expanse—is 20 minutes’ walk from her house.
Badni Devi Daga lies in her bed, unconscious, surrounded by family, her images broadcast by news channels because she took a vow of Santhara and fasted for 50 days until her death on September 5.
Badni Devi Daga lies in her bed, unconscious, surrounded by family, her images broadcast by news channels because she took a vow of Santhara and fasted for 50 days until her death on September 5.
Santhara—the ritualistic Jain way of embracing death by forsaking food and water—is an ancient practice with a provenience of over 2,000 years. According to inscriptions at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, the founder of the Maurya dynasty (circa 320 BCE), Chandragupta, ended his life this way.
In a more modern time the practice has been questioned in a writ petition filed by human rights lawyer Nikhil Soni in the Rajasthan High Court in 2006. According to Soni, Santhara violated constitutional rights of equality, life and liberty, and he asked the court to declare the practice illegal, and call it suicide under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. He also wanted the court to prosecute supporters and family members as abettors to suicide. Soni contended that the practice unfairly targets old women, and that it should be seen as a social evil like sati.
On August 10, a few days after Badni vowed Santhara, the Rajasthan high court declared the practice illegal, pushing her into the national limelight. Nobody in her family told her about the argument over her decision, though they felt a bit nervous. The Supreme Court stay a few days later came as a relief to the family.
Badni’s second son, Mahender Daga—a talkative man in his late 50s, wearing a T-shirt with trousers—is disturbed by these developments. “We are a recognised minority in this country; our rituals cannot be touched,” he says, his deep-set eyes almost popping in anger.
There was no intervention from the state even after the high court ruling. Nobody from the district or local administration came knocking on their doors, something the Opposition blames on the influence of the Jains in the area.
Soni has lived under the shadow of this fear since the high court judgment. Though Santhara was declared illegal, as he wanted, he has switched off his phone, refused to speak to journalists, and is unavailable to everyone except his lawyer Madhav Mitra.
Mitra says Soni feels threatened by influential members of the Jain community. The stay by the Supreme Court came as a relief for him too. When I met Mitra a couple of years ago, he told me that Soni was offered a lot of money to withdraw his petition, and that he was threatened when he refused.
Shanti Muni, a 68-year-old monk at the bhawan in Gangashahar, is in despair. He would rather believe it’s not true, and is equally pained over media misrepresentations about Jain gurus. He bought a copy of a national political weekly which, according to him, wrongly claimed their revered Acharya Mahapragya and Acharya Tulsi conveniently skipped Santhara, but preached it to the public as the way to salvation.
Shanti Muni says, “Death came to both of them most suddenly. They were not ill. Acharya Tulsi died in front of me, in this ashram. He returned from a trip and felt uneasy, went to lie down in his room, and died within the next few hours. We did not even get to call a doctor.”
Acharya Tulsi’s room have been preserved in the monastery as a museum, kept in the same state as it was when the Acharya died.
Shanti Muni explains what he calls the fallacy of Soni’s argument.“Soniji doesn’t understand Santhara. It is the exact opposite of suicide, which is done in great distress, depression, or anger. We celebrate death as much as we celebrate birth. Death is not the end—it is the beginning of something new. Jainism inspires us to leave everything, desires, and attachments. And Santhara is the ultimate sacrifice. We give up food, water, relations, and other worldly things. The beauty is one does not seek death either. That is the true vow of Santhara.”
Jain soteriology (salvation theory) actively promotes giving up the world, detaching oneself from worldly possessions, and discourages forming bonds with people to attain salvation. Santhara is a final act in this process, during which one consciously breaks ties.
Arguments in the
Supreme Court on behalf of the Sthanakvasi Jain Shravak Sangh by senior counsel
Abhishek Manu Singhvi further detail the theology and explanations on Santhara.
Citing scriptural material in support of Sallekhana/Santhara (S/S), Singhvi argued that taking one’s life is violence in extreme and absolutely forbidden in the Jain religion, and therefore, Santhara cannot be equated to suicide.
Soni had genuine concerns when he filed the petition. He said he witnessed the death of an old woman in his neighbourhood, deprived of food and water in the name of Santhara. In his petition, Soni alleges that family members start playing kirtans loudly so that neighbours couldn’t hear the subject’s wails or cries for help. Traumatised, he wanted to do something to stop the practice.
Many Jains refuse to believe that some people may be misusing the practice, and that some deterrents are in order. Rajkumar Fattawat, convenor of Udaipur’s Terapanth Sabha, says: “There are no cases of misuse. People take the pledge of their own volition, as it is the biggest vow in our religion.”
He does not seem bothered by the possibility of “rare” instances of misuse.There is no definite number on how many people decide on Santhara, but in 2010, Babulal Jain Ujjwal, editor of the All India Jain Chaturmas Suchi, said 550 Jains took the vow in 2009, and 465 in 2008.
In the Supreme Court, Singhvi’s arguments didn’t rule out checks, but he said “the mere possibility of abuse will not render a constitutional or statutory provision unconstitutional. To do otherwise would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
The pledge of Santhara
is complex and difficult. The person making the vow needs to seek forgiveness
from all family members, community members, anybody who they may have done any
harm, and from oneself. In Badni’s case, a 31-year-old monk, Maneesh
Kumar, was given the duty of administering Santhara and helping her take
Kumar explains the process. “We have to ensure that the person is in his/her senses when they take the vow. There is no Santhara if the person is unconscious. It is our duty to take them through their past so that they can revisit their misconducts and seek forgiveness. We focus on five main topics—ahimsa (non-violence), lies, theft, matters pertaining to property, and if the person has had an extra-marital affair or entertained such feelings. Once they seek forgiveness, they have to take a vow for 12 vrats. Only then do we help them with the final vow. The whole process may take half an hour to 45 minutes.”
We have to ensure that the person is in his/her senses when they take the vow. There is no Santhara if the person is unconscious. It is our duty to take them through their past so that they can revisit their misconducts and seek forgiveness.
Badni had already gone through a 10-day Santhara to prepare herself before she took her vow, and sat with folded hands throughout the process.
Kumar visited Badni a number of times before and during her Santhara. According to him, her mind was clear and she was determined. However, it can be an excruciating process for the person and their family.
William Dalrymple in his book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, writes of a nun who had already spent 24 years of her life in diksha and the painful process of mourning and detachment after her partner of 20 years in the ashram died. He quotes her saying, “I wept, even though we are not supposed to. Any sort of emotion is considered a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment. We are meant to cultivate indifference—but still I remember her.”
If a person living under such extreme discipline finds it difficult to detach herself from another human being’s companionship, the breaking of bonds with blood relatives during Santhara is close to unbearable. According to Jainism, rising above these bonds brings ultimate peace.
To understand the concept of Santhara and why so many people are willing to take it, it’s important to look at the underlying philosophy. Braun, in her dissertation, writes, “The rationale behind Sallekhana comes from the Jain belief in karma, rebirth, asceticism and spiritual purification. Jainism teaches that 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 different from the understanding of karma in Hinduism or Buddhism. For Jains, karma is a much more sophisticated and developed belief system.”
Dalrymple explains this in his chapter on the young nun: “Jains, however, conceive of karma as a fine material substance that physically attaches itself to the soul, polluting and obscuring its potential for bliss by weighing it down with pride, anger, delusion and greed, and so preventing it from reaching its ultimate destination at the summit of the universe. To gain final liberation, you must live life in a way that stops you accumulating more karma, while wiping clean the karma you have accumulated in previous lives.”
The only way, according to Jain gurus, is self-denial and meditation.
Not everyone would appreciate this exposition or agree with it, and it is certainly open to misuse. But the arguments in court are simplistic and revolve strictly around whether Santhara as a practice should continue or not. For the second concern, there is a simple enough remedy: surveillance.
Maneesh Kumar says the state is welcome to keep strict watch on cases of Santhara. Kumar, who took diksha at 14, belongs to Gangashahar, and travelled to various other Terapanth centres for years before returning to the town He explains they have a central committee which looks after the functioning of ashrams and monks. Like government jobs, monks are assigned various postings from time to time. He has been posted in Gangashahar for the past six years.
Kumar agrees that not all people are saintly and misuse is a possibility. “I think there can be a system of safeguards, where an IAS officer and a government doctor can approve of the state of mind and intention of the person taking Santhara, before it is allowed,” he says. “All Santharas undertaken can hence be on record. I don’t have a definite structure in mind, but something can be worked out, instead of banning the ritual.”
Kumar says Badni’s case was different because there is a monastery right in town, not far from her place. He admits “the checks available in her case may not be available for someone in a remote place”.
Many young Jains feel the same way. Thirty-five-year-old Valay Gada is a talented and popular product designer at Cobalt Designs and a practising Jain. When he was 12 and his elder sister 20, they were made to take a vow to never eat any root vegetables till their death, unless they really do not have a choice. Many practising Jains do not eat root vegetables for they fear that many organisms are killed when roots are pulled out.
Gada has a modern lifestyle. He graduated from the country’s leading fashion institute, NIFT, with a degree in fashion, lifestyle, and accessory designs, and his work is regularly featured in design and fashion magazines. But religion is part of his life and his work is defined by his religious sensibilities.
For example, he never uses materials that may have caused harm to an animal, like leather and silk. He says his college never understood his stand and he was made to go through a course on leather treatment or he would have failed, even if he stood against the practice on ethical grounds.
Gada says, “This whole conversation about equating Santhara with suicide is rubbish. It is a personal choice, but I do have fears about misuse. Anything can be used both ways—good or bad—and government intervention wouldn’t be the worst thing.”
While he would like the practice to continue, he doesn’t think he will be able to go through it when he gets old. “I have a very hard time fasting. I cannot stay sane if I miss a meal. For the sake of people around me, I don’t think I will opt for it personally,” Gada laughs.
In any case, Santhara is not undertaken on a whim. There is a whole process of preparing body and mind before taking the vow.
daughter-in-law Sarita Daga, lives in Siliguri. She came to meet Badni one last
time after being told of her near-death situation, before the vow had been
Sarita offered her tea, biscuits, and medicine one morning, and Badni refused all three. Instead, Badni asked her to help take the vows of abstinence from food and water on an hourly basis. This then extended to two hours, then eating on alternate days—a process of preparing the body for complete renunciation. This process is called Sallekhana, often confused with Santhara.
Braun explains in her dissertation, “The linguistic origin of the word Sallekhana in Prakrit has the commonly accepted definition of ‘properly thinning out the passions of the body’. It is the combination of the prefix sam meaning ‘proper’ and lekhana that translates as ‘reducing the physical body’.”
Badni was allowed to take the vow on the 12th day, the 24th anniversary of the day her husband died. She gave up food completely and accepted a few spoonfuls of water only between dawn and dusk. Once she had taken the vow, even the trips of the doctor came to an end, for you do not seek to repair the body anymore.
An elderly monk at Gangashahar monastery, Vimal Vinari, agrees with the process. He took diksha in his late 50s, after getting his eldest daughter engaged. He was married with four children but the pull of religion was too strong. His family wanted him to postpone his diksha till the daughter’s wedding, but he refused.
“I told them that you will keep asking me to postpone for some or the other purpose, this will never end,” says Vinari. Now 68, he is happy, and carefree.
Vinari was a regular at Badni’s house. Vinari says, “This is the scientific process, as approved in our canonical works, of building resilience to withstand moments of deprivation and be at peace. It ensures a conscious and pleasant passing.”
Though rare, he says there’s a higher chance of not being able go through Santhara if Sallekhana is not observed before. And to break the vow of Santhara is a great sin for the soul to bear.
The conversation on
Santhara has mostly revolved around whether it is a religious practice or
suicide, but is actually part of the debate on end-of-life choices.
Soni’s lawyer, Madhav Mitra, has firm views on the topic and points to earlier judgments in Gian Kaur v State of Punjab, and Aruna Shanbag where, according to him, “the court categorically refused ending of life”. Though he considers Santhara an outdated and evil religious practice, he has created his own dogmas; no conversation around the “right to die” is possible with him.
Singhvi’s interpretation of the Gian Kaur judgment in his submission in the Supreme Court is different. He says paragraphs 23 and 24 in the (Gian Kaur) judgment “categorically recognises the right to life with dignity and holds that article 21 includes the right to dignified life till death, including a dignified procedure of death.” He points out that it is specifically stated “that the right to a dignified life and a dignified procedure of death may well include the right of a dying man to die with dignity when his life is ebbing out”.
Also, “Gian Kaur (para 25) specifically notes that cases of terminally ill or vegetative states may well fall under the right to die with dignity. It also specifically recognises a fundamental difference between extinguishing life and accelerating the process of death.”
According to Singhvi, this judgment fits perfectly for people who want to take up Santhara, because they are terminally ill, have no intention of ending their life, and have the right to die with dignity.
Justice (retd.) Panachand, Jain from the Rajasthan high court supports this. In a meeting a couple of years ago, Jain said, “Euthanasia and Santhara are the same thing—we have unnecessarily created confusion by adding terms like active and passive. Doctor’s assistance should be discouraged when death has already set in. There is no question of active or passive in that.” He feels poor people are fleeced by doctors because of such confusions.
In a detailed chapter on “Suicide to Active Euthanasia” in the Journal of Indian Law Institute (Vol 53:3), V. R. Jayadevan contends that while talking about the right to passive euthanasia,recent decisions regarding passive euthanasia by courts in India, the US and the UK have “exploded certain myths regarding the legal concept of life”. Jayadevan writes, “All of them accepted that the sanctity of life could not be disassociated from its quality. The court also categorically held that the interest of the state in the life of its people was not unlimited.”
These decisions can open the ground for Santhara, euthanasia, and even suicide. There are strong pleas for suicide to be decriminalised.
Maneesh Kumar disagrees. “Passive euthanasia is very close to Santhara, but we (Jains) do not support active euthanasia. The biggest reason being you would be unconscious at your last moment. According to our philosophy, it is important to be conscious in your last moment and pass through with positive thoughts,” he says.
This conversation on religious matters has become a political issue. Mitra alleges there were hardly any arguments presented in the Supreme Court and a stay was granted within a minute. He suspects pressure from the central government because of the strong Jain lobby. According to another observer, the recent ban on animal slaughter in Maharashtra during Jain festivals is evidence of Jains using their political clout.
On the other hand, while the BJP-led Rajasthan government had stayed quiet till now, chief minister Vasundhara Raje has now welcomed the stay on the Rajasthan high court ruling. Abhishek Manu Singhvi asked why the state government had not filed an appeal and kept mum till the Supreme Court announced a stay.
Singhvi in his closing arguments also asked the Supreme Court, as an alternative, to refer the matter to a constitutional bench as was done in the Aruna Shanbaug case.
The first case of
Santhara I witnessed was of Gumanmalji Chordia in Jaipur in 2008. He came from
a prominent family of diamond importers and his vow lasted 39 days, during
which his home turned into a place of pilgrimage for Jains of the city.
Since Chordia belonged to the Digambara sect, the rules were different from those at Badni’s house. Women, even of the house, were not allowed into his room. Ironically, it was his sister-in-law who read out the vows for him because his condition was deteriorating and their guru was travelling and thus unreachable. The water used for any purpose for Chordia was not to be fresh–-the water used for washing dishes with ash was given for his purposes, and he was given special clothes to wear. After his passing, Chordia’s room was turned into a private family temple.
In complete contrast, Badni layon a temporary bed among relatives. She wore an everyday sari throughout her vow.
Even before Badni passed, her family seemed almost excited about it. Her son informed me they had arranged for a band, a caterer for the party, a tent, and everything else required for a celebration. Women of the house had bought pink saris, the colour of festivity in Rajasthan.
What did not change
for either is the funeral procession. Even before Badni passed, her family
seemed almost excited about it. Her son informed me they had arranged for a
band, a caterer for the party, a tent, and everything else required for a
celebration. Women of the house had bought pink saris, the colour of festivity
The same was true at Chordia’s. What may seem like morbid procession to the uninitiated is the ultimate goal in the life of all Jains. Both Chordia and Badni were tied to chairs so people could look at them and cleanse themselves. Their processions had beautifully dressed women (who otherwise don’t go for funerals), cheering children, music bands, and singing by men and relatives.
In death, in the successful completion of the ultimate vow, was celebration.