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death with equanimity

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(Chapter VII, cont.)

7.4

7.4 Euthanasia And Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa –

The question of the right of the humans, the most thoughtful and intelligent beings on planet Earth, to decide for themselves as to when and how to die has been debated ever since they suffered intolerable and incurable maladies and wanted no more of it. However, the advocates of Euthanasia or gift of death to the suffering and terminally ill people to mitigate their misery considered the human life as a personal affair and disregarded its religious and socio–cultural aspects. In any cultured society a human life is not only a personal matter but a social one. Human death does not affect only the dying and the dead but also his family, friends, kith and kin and the whole society at large. When a person dies he leaves behind bereaved survivors with whom he has emotional relationships, who feel his absence and mourn for him. There are funeral rites that are attended by others. He leaves behind a society – his business associates, co–workers, those with whom he has had financial dealings like the lenders, borrowers, bankers, etc. that are affected in one way or the other. However, the question arises that how much is his obligation to the society at large and to what extent he should suffer for its sake. All his obligations except the emotional ones can be taken care of with due planning and there must come a time when even his near and dear ones and the society must feel that he has suffered enough and call a halt to it by allowing him to get a gift of a painless, peaceful and dignified death.

Painless, peaceful and dignified death to the incurably diseased and immitigably suffering is what is intended by ‘Euthanasia’, which means ‘good death’ or ‘dying well’. The Oxford Dictionary defines euthanasia as ““bringing about of a” gentle and painless death for a person suffering from a painful incurable disease, extreme old–age, etc”.i Yet another definition says, “Euthanasia is simply to be able to die with dignity at a moment when life is devoid of it. It is a purely voluntary choice, both on the part of the owner of this life and on the part of the doctor who knows that this is no longer a life.ii When the gift of death is made, with all good intentions, at the sufferer’s own request it is referred to as ‘voluntary euthanasia’ or ‘active euthanasia’. However, good intentions not withstanding, the term is also equally applied to what is known as ‘mercy–killing’ or ‘involuntary euthanasia’ or ‘passive euthanasia’. In this sense, too, it is intended to ease the sufferings of those sufferers such as the mind–dead victims of accidents, physically deformed and mentally incapacitated babies and others who are not in a position to make a request. On the other hand the tyrannical regimes apply it to take the lives of the old, the mentally retarded and other unwanted members of society, which are nothing but culpable homicides amounting to murders.

Not withstanding all the hype and hoopla, this issue is not as simple as it looks on the surface. This issue has two clear cur sides each with their own very strong arguments. In what follows, I have tried to present a balanced view on its two sides and compared the practice of euthanasia with the practice of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa.

The Arguments For “Voluntary” Euthanasia –

  1. It upholds the sufferer’s right to die a painless and dignified death as and when he chooses to die.

  2. It shortens the life but also shortens the suffering, which is of vital concern from the sufferer’s point of view.

  3. It is applied only on voluntary specific request from the suffering when the doctor also feels that the disease is incurable and the suffering is immitigable.

  4. It is applied in the cases of extremely old and persons suffering from incurable diseases like advanced stages of AIDS, Cancer, Kidney failure, Alzheimer’s disease, Nervous disorders, etc only.

  5. It upholds human dignity, which is compromised in the cases of old–age and suffering.

  6. It is voluntary on the parts of both the sufferer and the doctor to whom the request is made.

In The Case Of Passive Euthanasia “Mercy–killing” –

  1. It is the case of humane killing and when applied with discretion in the case of the brain dead persons etc, it is an act of mercy to end the suffering of those who cannot even tell.

  2. In most cases the doctor just has to discontinue the life support systems such as the ventilator, feeding tubes etc and the patient passes away without any suffering and pain.

The Arguments Against Euthanasia –

  1. The God giveth and the God taketh’; no one else has a right to intervene in the divine process of life and death. The man cannot give life so he must not take life, voluntarily or otherwise.

  2. Though humane it is still killing.

  3. It does not enjoy any religious approval.

  4. It has legal implications.

  5. It can be grossly misused by the vested interests and irresponsible regimes.

    1. Comparison –

This description of voluntary and involuntary euthanasia and the arguments for and against its practice give us enough grounds to draw a comparison between this practice and the practice of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa. They are as follows: –

    1. Euthanasia is practiced from purely personal and medical points of view while Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa from that of spiritual emancipation point of view.

    2. In euthanasia the person surrenders to the pain and suffering and wishes to die while in the practice of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa he braves the suffering while patiently waiting the death to visit him.

    3. The seeker of euthanasia is not at all calm and composed while that of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa is in a state of peace and equanimity of mind.

    4. Euthanasia is pure desire to die while Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa is the practice of immortality.

    5. The practice of euthanasia is aided by the doctor who simply administers the lethal dose of chemical to ease life out “he is least concerned about the psychic state of the patient at the time of death” while the practice of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa is aided and assisted by the Niryāpakas who constantly endeavour to maintain the kṣapaka’s peace of mind.

    6. The practice of euthanasia is attended by despondence and anger “Ārta–dhyāna and Raudradhyāna” while that of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa. is attended by pious thoughts “Dharmadhyāna”.

    7. The practice of euthanasia is sought by the cowards that cannot bear the fruits of their karma while that of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa by those brave and patient aspirant who bear them with courage and fortitude.

    8. The result of euthanasia is spiritually unrewarding death while that of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa is spiritually rewarding one.

    9. In the case of passive euthanasia the subject cannot make a decision for himself he is simply killed, albeit mercifully, while the practice of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa cannot proceed without the voluntary consent of the aspirant practitioner.

    10. The practitioner of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa sets his sights on the ultimate good of achieving nirvāṇa or immortality while euthanasia aims at a very narrow concept of painless death, which may also be only an euphemism.

    11. The concept of euthanasia is only about dying well while that of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa is also about living well. “One who lives a pious life, dies a peaceful death”, it proclaims.

    12. The practice of euthanasia is fraught with legal complications while that of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa is not.

    13. Killing how–so–ever painlessly is a violent activity so euthanasia may look merciful at the surface but it is violent in nature. Sallekhanā–Samādhi–maraṇa, on the other hand, is non–violent from the beginning to the end.

    14. The practice of euthanasia does nothing to improve the quality of life of the subject by way of de–addiction, psychological strengthening, prayers etc while these are a part of the practice of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa.

This comparison clearly shows that there is nothing in common between the practices of euthanasia and Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa except that both may be voluntary. No spiritual benefit can ensue from the practice of euthanasia.

i Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Of Current English, Oxford, 1990, p. 411.

ii Face To Face, John and Perry, p. 515. ‘Q. Philosophical Study Of Sallekhanā ibid, p. 221.’

Section – 7.5

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