“Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.”
Though fundamental to our existence, life and death are still not well understood; their meanings have many keepers.
Whether a transition or an end, death is illuminated only in the context of life. But life is more easily recognized than it is known or understood.
From the outside, life is evident from its signs (including complex arrangements and processes) and through its smallest units (organisms). In the scientific view, when these indications stop and when the organism itself perishes, life and the consciousness of it ends. From the inside, life is experienced through the body, the mind and their interactions with each other and with the world. In the religious view, even when the indications stop and the organism perishes, life and consciousness of it persists.
There are many debates about what that may mean, and about what exactly happens after the body ends.
In India, across a number of traditions, philosophies and cultures, the sense of duty in different contexts is usually glorified. And after a point, gracefully moving on from life is viewed favourably.
For example, the death Acharya Shantisagar in 1955, the death of Vinayak Damodar ‘Veer’ Savarkar in 1966, and the death of Vinayak Narahari ‘Vinoba’ Bhave in 1982 are similar. In their last days, each of them stopped the intake of food, water and medication; they fasted till the end of their lives. Each of them reasoned that the purpose of their life was served and that they were ready to submit to death.
Their systems of faith, however, were completely different. Acharya Shantisagar was a Jain monk, V.D. Savarkar was an atheist and a nationalist, while Vinoba Bhave was a devout, patient believer and a follower of Gandhi.
These similarities probably reflect the influence of Indian cultural views about the mechanism and purpose of life.
Many lives lead up to liberation
Indic views on the subject often envision a ‘soul’ or ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’ of some kind that keeps undergoing innumerable lives through births and deaths as different organisms or even as cosmic beings. All these flickering lives and the churning cosmos seem to inform an indescribable state which is often associated with bliss. Different schools of thought have different opinions on what that state may be, what it means and how to best access or reach it.
The Jains in particular consider that state to be liberation. Before reaching this state, one must overcome craving and aversion. One’s cravings and aversions are manifested as thought, speech and action, the consequences of which may be varied, including the obstruction of true vision and the attachment to the cycle of birth and death.
The body, which is an assembly of matter, is one such cause and object of attachment.
A good way to live includes a good way to die
In the Jain view, since the body is a temporary vessel, it is also to be given up as one moves on to liberation or to a next life. The appropriate way to do so is called santhara. It is commended for those who at the very least have developed a degree of detachment from life and are in a state to make their confessions and to discuss their concerns.
“Because I could not stop for Death—”
At a stage of life when all duty is considered complete, or when debilitating disease, old age or some catastrophe prevents one from following the Jain vows, one may reduce eating in a gradual way and eventually fast till one’s life ends. This also reflects the Jain ideas about food in general and about fasting in particular.
This may be practiced not only by ascetics, but also by laypeople. It represents a tradition of more than two millennia, which holds that Parsvanatha and Mahavira—the two earliest Jain teachers in a historical sense—also lived by and advocated such principles.
Not a desire for death
Liberation is considered better than the even best life attainable within any realm in the cosmic cycle. However, Jains are not encouraged to violently or motivatedly hasten this outcome. Just as the Jain is taught to neither crave nor resent life, they are also taught to neither crave nor resent death.
Moreover, Jains follow the broader Indic idea that the state of mind during death plays a big role in the journey of the soul. Hence, a calm disposition is considered helpful. Gradual cessation of eating after a particular point is viewed as enabling the natural passage of life to its end in the current body.
“He kindly stopped for me—”
The original for this image was taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The lack of active motivation, the exceptional circumstances of the practice and the lack of an active causation of death indicates that it is unfair to yoke this particular stage of spiritual practice with suicide. Moreover, Jains have a clear distinction between santhara and suicide; a difference that has also been recognized by scholars. This is important since there has been some controversy on the practice being conflated with suicide by some Indian citizens and by some government entities.
Embracing death and killing the self are not the same thing
Jains do not approve of suicide and consider it both a motivated as well as a violent end to life, which has the effect of incurring severe negative karma.
In fact, santhara is also quite different from euthanasia as well. It is a passive fading out of life from the scope of body, an active but unmotivated acceptance of the fruits of one’s previous actions and a meditative embracement of the true nature of the soul. Though a spiritual mentor or peers may be consulted, the decision and performance of santhara is voluntary and individual. By comparison, euthanasia is often associated with motivation, particularly motivation in the form of the aversion to pain and suffering. It is typically an induced and assisted end of the body with no particular meditative or religious injunction attached to it.
For similar reasons, santhara is distinguished from any fasting or death with political or other motivations as well. It should however be noted that Jain monks have on rare occasions combined fasting with political outcomes. More famously, Gandhi was influenced by Jain thinkers and eventually combined the idea of non-violence and fasting with non-violent political resistance.
A shared, indigenous idea
As noted earlier, such practices are not limited to Jains. In India, since death is often not viewed as the end of life in a bigger sense, provisions for a suitable choice of death exists in many Indic traditions.
One of the attainments of advanced yogic practice is thought to be the ability to die by abandoning the body as and when one wills to do so. Even if one entertains the possibility of these claims, these acts may well be outside the ambit of regular legal reasoning and ordinary civil law.
But even in the absence of such abilities, many Hindus have a provision known as prayopavesa, which is also characterized by a final fast unto death. In all Indic cultures, conditions and disciplines leading to death are in place to ensure that the being is calm and centred at the junctions of mortal life and whatever may lie beyond it.
There are other exceptional provisions for more induced deaths as well, such as setting oneself ablaze on a pyre. Though it appears disquieting, to masterfully embrace such a death is considered a hallmark of equanimity and yogic practice. It indicates complete stillness while everything falls apart furiously. This practice recurs in anecdotes as well as in recorded history amongst early Indians as well as amongst later Hindus and Buddhists.
Photo by Malcolm Browne. This image was taken by Anveshan from Flickr, where it is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
A particularly well-known and documented case of yogic self-immolation is from 1963, Vietnam. A senior Buddhist monk called Thich Quang Duc sat down and set himself on fire at the junction of a busy street in Saigon. Quang Duc’s heart survived the burning and a second cremation. The anti-communist dictatorship he was addressing, however, collapsed.
It should again be noted that tying such practices with political outcomes is rare, and even the political contents of Quang Duc’s protest were not hostile demands or a call to violent rebellion. His message was an appeal for consideration and compassion on part of the government.
Such ideals of a life of duty leading to an acceptable death are fairly consistent not just in India, but in many Asian traditions.
Agreements from an observer of death
Certain kinds of life and death may be viewed more favourably in a cultural sense. But the reasonings and the bases for them usually come from religious cosmologies which elicit little interest amongst contemporary practitioners of science and medicine. This also includes the ideas that the individual can somehow ‘cling on’ to life or that they can intuitively ‘know’ the onsets of irreversible decay or death. There is, however, support for such ideas in the work of the famous psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who worked extensively to understand dying patients.
“The Carriage held but just Ourselves—”
The original for this image is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
In her book, On Death and Dying, she notes that in dying patients, hope—even blind hope—seems to be related to staying alive and even to eventual recovery. She later summarizes that ambitious, materially successful people who try to control their environments and live in relative luxury have a hard time dealing with death, while people with simple lives who undergo suffering and find gratification in hard work can accept death with peace and dignity.
She also notes that even without any medically significant indication, patients are keenly aware of impending death and are also able communicate this to others. However, what signal or combination of signals triggers such awareness is not known.
A good death by many names
In Jainism, there are many ways in which death is viewed and categorized. While santhara itself refers to the vow and to the process of a final submission to death, there are many other names which refer to the same inner ideal. These names include ‘pandita-marana’, ‘sallekhana’ and ‘samadhi-marana’. The terms capture slightly different aspects, but they (and other similar terms) are sometimes used interchangeably with ‘santhara’ in both contemporary as well as historical literature.
Considering the state of wisdom of the dying individual, the kinds of death which are considered ideal are called ‘pandita-marana’ or ‘wise man’s death’. From this view, there are approximate gradations, which span from the death of an omniscient (the most sublime passage into liberation) to the death of one who has no inkling of spiritual awareness (the worst kind of ‘fool’s death’).
The term ‘sallekhana’ refers to the actual ‘thinning out’ of materials. The inner and outer dimensions of this process mirror each other; the adherent lets go of internal desires and reduces the consumption of external objects and sensations. Unlike santhara, which has a certain finality to it, sallekhana is a practice that may span many years.
When viewed from the perspective of the state of mind, the ideal death is known as ‘samadhi-marana’ or ‘death in detached, meditative equanimity’. In fact, all favourable deaths are thought to be some kind of samadhi-marana. Violent deaths such as by accident or from brutal attacks by people or animals are not favoured in Jainism. But as exceptional examples, Jain anecdotes and legend glorify yogic adepts who not only maintain vows but also quickly adopt the final rites of santhara and let the body go with complete equanimity throughout the event of a violent or unexpected death.
An essential component
In a manner of looking at it, santhara is a rare practice. However, this does not mean that it is not essential. For a successful pursuit of Jainism, one should have legal provisions to follow this method.
The practice is mentioned in one of the oldest extant scriptures of the Jains, the Acharanga Sutra. The Sanstaraka—one of the major texts followed especially by the svetambara Jains—is entirely dedicated to this subject. It is also mentioned in the Tattvartha Sutra, which is a scripture that is accepted by all Jain sects. Moreover, it has been discussed in later manuals, including contemporary texts. But there is more to this practice than just textual prominence.
The original for this image is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Based on Jain teaching itself, it may be said that Jainism is not just in the faith and cultural identity but also in the practice of Jainism. And the practice of Jainism entails gradual detachment. On the basis of both teaching and reasoning, it may be argued that to attain or to even approach liberation, any being at the very final stages of life should not be doing anything to keep the body actively alive.
What is essential is invisible to the eye
Jains view food as merely the materials from which the body is eventually created and renewed. The body and these materials are not that important, but the soul and its liberation are essential.
Alluding to a Jain metaphor, one may recall that a house shelters one from the elements, but it is best to leave a crumbling house to prevent injury. For someone who is merely departing from such a house, it makes little sense to keep adding bricks and mortar. At the threshold of an inevitable collapse, the Jain prizes the ability to walk away gracefully.
Images: Anveshan and Wikimedia Commons
The cover image of this article is taken from Wikimedia Commons. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Image captions are the first four lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson.
Please click here for a list of references for this subject.