death with equanimity



(Chapter V, cont.)


5.2 The Concept –

The concept of Voluntary Peaceful Death, without any provocation, pressure or compulsion, is a unique feature of the religious life of various religions in the Indian subcontinent. Jainism has mastered the art of dying as the culmination of the art of living and thus the Jaina way of embracing peaceful death or Samādhimaraṇa with or without the preparatory penance – Sallekhanā is unparalleled amongst the voluntary ritual deaths practised within the Indian religions in general. In the following sub–sections and paragraphs we shall compare various aspects of Voluntary “Peaceful” Death as obtained in the two distinct sets of Jaina scriptures – Arddhamāgadhī and Śaurasenī , the Pali literature of the Buddhists and those of the other religions at home and abroad.

5.31 Sallekhanā –

The concept of Sallekhanā is a unique feature of both – the Śvetāmbara and the Digambara traditions of the Jainas. At volitional level, it means weakening of the passions and overcoming the attachment and aversion and at the physical level the weakening of a spiritually unproductive body to such an extent that it welcomes and meets death with equanimity.

1. The Arddhamāgadhī literature generally distinguishes the preparatory penance “Sallekhanā” from the actual end–practice of Voluntary Death “Samādhimaraṇa” through one or more of its types – Bhaktapratyākhyāna, Iṅginī or Prāyopagamana – by undertaking various kinds of external penance for weakening the body and that of the external kinds for weakening the passions.

According to the Ācārāṅga, the Uttarādhyayana and the Prakīrṇakas, the duration of Sallekhanā or the preparatory penance to weaken the body and the passions can be from a minimum of twelve fortnights to a maximum of twelve years at the end of which the end–practice of Santhārā or Samādhimaraṇa “Voluntary Peaceful Death can be undertaken. However, in an emergent circumstance when an aspirant faces sudden death due to some calamitous affliction or accident, he can embrace death peacefully by calming his passions and assuming a state of mental equanimity.

However, these works also differ a little in the details of various fasting penances to be observed by the aspirant practitioner during these twelve years. While the Ācārāṅga prescribes undertaking of fasts of different durations during the first four years and giving up of nutritious foods in the following four years,i the Uttarādhyayana says that the kṣapaka must give up various kinds of nutritious foods during the first four years itself while observing fasts of different durations in the next four years.ii As far as the practice for the twelfth year is concerned, the Ācārāṅga mentions observance of continuous Ācāmla penance with gradual reduction of food while the Uttarādhyayana also mentions undertaking of fasts of longer durations “a fortnight or a month” towards the end.iii The Prakīrṇakas, too, mention preparatory penances of six months’ duration as the least and that of twelve years’ duration as the longest Sallekhanā and prescribe internal penance for the weakening of passions and external penance for that of the body.iv

2. Amongst the Śaurasenī canonical works the Mūlācāra deals with the question of Sallekhanā very cursorily while it has been fully and completely dealt with in the Bhagavatī Ārādhanā, which mentions a maximum period of twelve years for the practice of Sallekhanā and says that this period must be spent in the observance of various penances of varying durations while gradually reducing and renouncing quality and quantity of food intake so as to weaken body and passions. The regimen for the twelve year long penance has been prescribed, which says that during the first four years the aspirant practitioner must observe fasts of different durations, followed by fasting along with giving up of nutritional foods for the next four years. For the following two years he must subsist on the lean and tasteless foods like rice–soup and others of little nutritive value, during the eleventh year he must take only the rice–soup. For the first six months of the twelfth year he must observe penances of medium severity and that of the severest kind for the last six months of his practice.v

3. Although, conceptually, the embracing of voluntary death by the Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay followers is also for the purpose of gaining liberation, the Pāli canonical works make no mention of the preparatory penance before embracing voluntary death under conditions of extreme old age or incurable diseases. Therein, the instances of bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇis as well as upāsakas and upāsikas embracing voluntary death are found wherein it is embraced, generally by using a weapon at the fit of the moment, without any preparatory penance preceding it. Though the intention of the practitioner may be noble, the means employed are violent and may render the entire process far from being peaceful.

4. In religious traditions other than these two, too, the instances of voluntary death, with a view to seek liberation from the mundane existence, abound but no instances of preparatory penance such as Sallekhanā are found.

When we compare the concept of Sallekhanā in various intra religious and inter religious traditions, we find that while the Arddhamāgadhī literature of the Śvetāmbara Jainas clearly distinguish between the preparatory penance “Sallekhanā” leading to embracing voluntary peaceful death “Samādhimaraṇa”, the Śaurasenī literature of the Digambara Jainas takes it synonymously with the end–practice. Procedurally, too, the works like Ācārāṅga, Uttarādhyayana, Maraṇavibahkti and Bhagavatī Ārādhanā mention a twelve year long regimen for this practice while Mūlācāra makes no such mention. Also, there are differences in the type of penance to be practised at different periods of this practice – for the first four years of Sallekhanā practice, Ācārāṅga, Maraṇavibahkti and Bhagavatī Ārādhanā mention undertaking fasts of various durations while the Uttarā–dhyayana also recommends giving up of nutritious foods as well, in the next four years, too, Ācārāṅga and Bhagavatī Ārādhanā mention undertaking fasts of various durations and breaking the fasts with tasteless food without much nutrition, the Uttarādhyayana recommends myriad fasting only. In the following two years the Ācārāṅga and the Uttarādhyayana recommend observing fasts on alternate days while Bhagavatī Ārādhanā mentions subsisting on rice–soup and other less nutritive foods. In the eleventh year, too, Ācārāṅga and Uttarādhyayana recommend different regimens for the first and the second halves and say that during the first half the aspirant practitioner must observe fasts of one or two days’ durations only and reserve severe observance for the second half. Bhagavatī Ārādhanā makes no such distinction and recommends that for the entire year the kṣapaka must subsist on rice–soup only. For the twelfth year also Ācārāṅga and Uttarādhyayana recommend gradual reduction in food intake till one takes only one grain of food and on drop of water per day. Bhagavatī Ārādhanā recommends medium penance for the first six months and severe penance for the second half of the year. The Buddhist and other religious traditions, per se, make no mention of any preparatory penance to precede embracing of voluntary death.

5.32 Samādhimaraṇa –

The concept of Samādhimaraṇa or the end–practice of “voluntary” peaceful death, in a state of mental equanimity, is essentially the same in both – the Śvetāmbara and the Digambara traditions of the Jainas. Both – the Arddhamāgadhī and the Śaurasenī canonical and explanatory works mention it under one name or the other. Pāli works of the Buddhists and those of the others also mention of voluntary deaths, under various circumstances, as means of attaining nirvāṇa.

1. Among the Arddhamāgadhī works, the Ācārāṅga hails Samādhimaraṇa as the most desirable end–practice for the ordained ascetics of the faith and prescribes three different regimens of increasing order of rigour under the names of Bhaktapratyākhyāna–maraṇa in which the aspirant has to undertake fast unto death with no other restrictions placed on his movements and looking after himself or receiving assistance from the others, Iṅginī–maraṇa in which besides the fast unto death the aspirant practitioner also limits his movements to a predecided area and looks after his own needs but receives no assistance from the others and Prāyopagamana–maraṇa in which he renounces all four kinds of foods and neither moves from the place at which he lies down for his end–practice nor looks after his own needs nor receives any service from the others.vi The Samavāyāṅga also mentions Bhaktapratyākhyāna and Prāyopa–gamana.vii The Uttarādhyayana lists Samādhimaraṇa under the category of Voluntary death or Sakāmamaraṇa and mentions its three kinds without naming them as such.viii Conceptually, all these works mention these forms of voluntary death as peaceful forms of deaths to be undertaken when the aspirant practitioner is either very old and feeble or suffering from an incurable terminal illness or when he is in an inextricable situation facing imminent death. Nowhere do they say that a hale and hearty person may embrace voluntary death in the prime of his/her youth.

2. Though the Śaurasenī works like Mūlācāra and Bhagavatī Ārādhanā mention the term Samādhimaraṇa or Santhārā as synonymous to Sallekhanā, they too describe the three kinds of end–practices under the names of Bhaktapratyākhyāna–maraṇa, Iṅginī–maraṇa and Prāyopagamana–maraṇaixwith the regimens similar to those mentioned for these types of voluntary deaths in the paragraph above.xBhagavatī Ārādhanā also mentions similar grounds for embracing voluntary death as mentioned in the Arddha– māgadhī canons.xiMūlācāra also mentions three types of fasts unto death – Bhakta–pratyākhyāna, Iṅginī and Prāyopagamna.xiiIt also contains detailed descriptions of the form and practice of Samādhimaraṇa including the eligibility of the aspirant practitioner as well as his enthusiasm for undertaking and maintaining this critical practice. This work attaches so much importance to this practice that it “Mūlācāra” calls it the Nirvāṇadvāra or the door to liberation.

3. The Buddhist Pāli literature is replete with the instances of voluntary deaths embraced by a number of their monks and lay followers under widely varying situations. However, neither have the Pāli canons conceptualised the philosophy of voluntary deaths nor have they prescribed any procedure for undertaking it. In a stated policy on death the pāli literature is unequivocal in condemning human killing including self–killing. The rule given in the Vinayapiṭaka, the most important work on the conduct rules of the Buddhist clergy, states that a Bhikṣu that knowingly kills a human being or seeks weapons for committing suicide, or praises death and encourages or forces someone to die by tauntingly hinting at his flaws and maintaining that his death is better than his life, is a Pārājika or the one that commits gross violation of monastic conduct.xiii The Viśuddhimggo says that the death is inevitable; therefore, it must be contemplated and thought about variously. The reflection about the inevitability of death relieves one from the misery of the deaths of the near and dear ones and from the fear of own death.xivDhammapada does not support the concept of voluntary death directly, it has certain elements that convey Lord Buddha’s thoughts to the effect that a day’s righteous life devoted to the pursuit and practice of right–conduct is better than a long but useless life. When life cannot perform the requisite spiritual duties due to illness or extreme old age and it may be pertinent for the aspirant monk “Bhikṣu” or lay follower “Upāsaka” to take recourse to seek voluntary death and if such death can be in the state of mental equanimity and equilibrium “Citta– samādhi”, so much the better.xv

In the instances cited, most of the practitioners of voluntary deaths have embraced it when moved by extreme pain and embraced it by using a weapon at the spur of the moment. In none of the cases reported therein there seems to be a deliberate decision to die in a state of equanimity of mind so essential for it to be called Samādhimaraṇa. However, when these instances were brought to the notice of Lord Buddha, he termed some of them as noble deaths and that the practitioners had attained nirvāṇa by embracing such deaths.xvi

4. Amongst the other religious traditions, the Hindu tradition mentions embracing of voluntary death by the seekers of final deliverance in various ways such as the grand departure “Mahāprasthāna” in which the seeker goes to the hills or a place of pilgrimage and walks on without food and water till he drops dead or by entering an underground place of meditation “Bhūsamadhi” where he meditates without food or water till the death visits him and these can very well be compared with Samādhimaraṇa of the Jaina tradition. The other ways of embracing voluntary death by the Hindu seekers – by drowning in water “Jalapraveśa”, by jumping from a mountaintop or from atop a tall tree “Giripatan or Tarupatan”, by entering the fire “Agnipraveśa”, by imbibing poison “Viṣapāna”, etc are, of course, violent in nature and may be far from being peaceful. However, it may be mentioned that the Hindu tradition also does not advocate voluntary ritual death as an escape from the mundane miseries but prescribes certain essential qualifications – such as extreme weakness, incurable illness and very old age and feeble health in people who are deeply religious and feel that they have acquired peace of mind through their lifelong religious practices and are likely to attain nirvāṇa rather sooner than later by so embracing voluntary death – for the seekers of nirvāṇa by embracing voluntary death. When viewed from this angle, it compares well with the concept of Samādhimaraṇa. The Christianity considers voluntary death as suicide and is generally opposed to it but advocates embracing it in the defence of own faith or under circumstances where one is forced to convert to another faith or in order to uphold ones ethical virtues such as purity, celibacy and morality and praises such deaths.xvii However, it differs from Samādhimaraṇa in that while Jainism recommends fasting unto death, Christianity is not candid about the procedure to be adopted for embracing voluntary death and is open to means such as self–immolation, use of weapons etc. The same can be said of hara–kiri practised by the ancient Japanese Buddhists and other forms of violent deaths.

On comparing the concept of Samādhimaraṇa in these traditions we come to realise that mostly it is the Jaina tradition that believes in embracing voluntary death by fasting unto death while meditating on the means of controlling the passions, attachment and aversion and thereby meeting death when it comes in a state of absolute equanimity. To a certain extent the ritual deaths of Mahāprasthāna and Bhūsamādhi come close to the concept of deliberate Samādhimaraṇa. All other forms of voluntary deaths in the Hindu tradition and the others that employ violent means to die can hardly be termed as peaceful deaths.

iSection – 5.2

Ibid, Sec 2.41 ‘1a’ and endnote 46.

ii Ibid, Sec 2.41 ‘2a’ and endnote 48.

iii Ibid, Sec 2.41 ‘2e’ and endnote 55.

iv Ibid, Sec. 2.41 ‘3’ and endnotes 56–60.

v Ibid, Sec. 3.21 and endnotes 31–33.

vi Ibid, Sec. 2.71 and endnote 116.

vii Ibid, Sec. 2.21 and endnotes 6, 7 and 21–24.

viii Ibid, Sec. 2.21 and endnote 27.

ix Ibid, Sec. 3.11and endnote 5.

x Ibid, Sec. 3.11 ‘Ser 14–16’.

xi Ibid, Sec. 3.1111 ‘Ser 1’ and endnotes 48–51.

xii Ibid, Sec. 3.71 and endnotes 261–62.

xiii Ibid, Sec. 4.41 and endnote 14.

xiv Ibid, Sec. 4.42 and endnote 16.

xv Ibid, Sec. 4.43 and endnotes 19–24.

xvi Ibid, Sec. 4.44 to 4.46 and endnotes 26–54.

xvii The History Of Suicide In India, Upendra Thakur et all, Oriental Publishers, Delhi, 1962, p. 196, Q. Samādhimaraṇa ibid, p. 35.

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