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death with equanimity

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(Chapter IV, cont.)

4.5

4.5 Critique –

From a critical study of the referenced Buddhist Pāli canonical and explanatory literature it becomes evident that the Buddhist tradition does not support the concept of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ as a part of its spiritual practices to attain nirvāṇa. On the contrary, it is quite opposed to the idea of embracing death voluntarily for achieving eternal peace.

From the entire Buddhist thought, which supports the middle path as opposed to the Jaina thought that prescribes extreme forms of penance as means of spiritual purification, it is only to be expected that it would not prescribe the voluntary death, the extreme form of penance, for its followers.

However, there are passages in the Dhammapada that maintain that a short but spiritually productive life is better than a long but unproductive one.

The Visuddhimaggo prescribes contemplation about death, variously, for overcoming the fear of death and maintaining one’s equanimity “Samādhi” in the face of death but stops short of prescribing voluntary death, even the peaceful one, for the Buddhist clergy as well as the lay followers.

There are, however, instances where the Lord held the embracing of voluntary death by certain monks and lay followers, under extremely exceptional circumstances, as correct. The examples of Sīṭha, Sappadāsa, Godhika, Bhikṣu Vakkali Kulaputra and Bhikṣu Channa, who were suffering from incurable diseases and embraced voluntary deaths prove this point. When Tathāgata Buddha came to know of the voluntary deaths of Bhikṣu Vakkali Kulaputra and Bhikṣu Channa, by the use of a weapon, He held that they were free of any blemish and that both the monks had attained nirvāṇa.i

Even in the medieval times, the practice of Hara–kiri, voluntary death by the use of a weapon, was prevalent amongst the Japanese Buddhists as a means of saving their honour.

However, there are some differences of procedure in the case of voluntary deaths in the Jaina and the Buddhist traditions. As opposed to the Jaina tradition, the Buddhist tradition permits the use of a weapon for embracing voluntary death instantly. The Jaina thought is opposed to such prescription as it smacks of desire to die, which is a flaw of the voluntary peaceful death, and due to which reason it may be termed as suicide rather than Samādhimaraṇa. According to them, “if there is no desire to die then why such a haste?”

However, in most of the instances the voluntary death was caused, instantly, by use of a weapon rather than waiting peacefully in full consciousness for the death to come naturally. Apart from this departure from the practice of Samādhimaraṇa, these fitted the frame of peaceful deaths and could be considered as voluntary deaths in peaceful frame of mind. Even the use of weapon does not make them unacceptable as Samādhimaraṇa. Even the Gṛddhapṛṣṭamaraṇa form of voluntary death permits the use of a weapon under exceptional circumstances.

An analysis of various forms of voluntary deaths practised, from time to time, by the Buddhists brings out the fact that they were generally violent in nature and used external means to embrace death.

We can conclude this critique by saying that though the Buddhist thought does not support the concept of voluntary death under ordinary circumstances, it is not opposed to the idea under extremely exceptional circumstances. In addition, in some cases, especially those approved by Lord Buddha, the volitional dispositions of the practitioners were such that they very nearly embraced Samādhimaraṇa as far as their states of equanimity at the time of death were concerned, not withstanding the means employed.

i Sisodiya Suresh, Santhāraga–paiṇṇayaṁ, Āgama Saṁsthāna, Udaipur, Ed. I, 1995, Preface by Dr. Sagarmal Jain, p. 10.

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