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death with equanimity

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(Chapter VII, cont.)

7.5 – 7.51

7.5 Suicide And Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa –

Suicide is the ultimate act of self–destruction “Ātmaghāta” in a state of extreme desperation to take away one’s own life by one’s own means. Before we look at the reasons of desperation, I must state what the term ‘suicide’ implies. According to the Oxford dictionary suicide is ‘self–murder’.i Chambers Dictionary Of Synonyms And Antonyms defines suicide as ‘self–destruction’, ‘self–murder’ and ‘self–slaughter’.ii According to Encarta encyclopaedia, suicide is “intentional, self–inflicted death, which is a uniquely human act.”iii Justice T. K. Tukol has defined suicide as “killing oneself by means employed by oneself”.iv Encyclopaedia Britannica defines suicide as “act of voluntary and intentionally taking one’s own life and goes on to say that with regard to its outcome it can be either fatal or attempted suicide”.v In the Jaina context, Ācārya Amṛtcandra defines suicide as, “one really commits suicide when one severs one’s vitality “prāṇa”, under the influence of passions, with fatal practices like stopping to breathe, drowning “in wells, rivers or ponds”, “burning in” fire, by taking poison and with the help of weapons”.vi

Suicide occurs in all cultures and ranks as a leading cause of death worldwide. As far as the reasons of desperation that drive a person to commit “attempt and complete” suicide usually suffer from extreme emotional pain and distress and feel unable to cope with their problems. They are likely to suffer from mental illness, particularly severe depression, and to feel hopeless about the future. Suicidal behaviour has numerous and complex causes. The biology of the brain, genetics, psychological traits, and social forces all can contribute to suicide. Although people commonly attribute suicide to external circumstances – such as divorce, loss of a job, or failure in school – most experts believe these events are triggers rather than causes in themselves. The majority of people who kill themselves suffer from depression that is often undiagnosed and untreated. Other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders may also contribute to suicidal behaviour. Research indicates that suicidal behaviour runs in families, suggesting that genetic and biological factors play a role in one’s suicide risk.vii

Methods of suicide vary from culture to culture. Hanging is the leading method of suicide worldwide. Firearms and poisoning by an overdose of medication account for a majority of suicides. Very few who commit suicides leave suicide notes.viii

Psychological Theories – In the early 1900s Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud developed some of the first psychological theories of suicide. He emphasized the role of hostility turned against the self. Other psycho–social dimensions of suicide include the following: ix

  1. A sense of unbearable mental agony and psychological pain and disturbance,

  2. A sense of isolation from others, and the perception that death is the only solution to problems about which one feels hopeless and helpless. According to psychologists, many suicide attempts are a symbolic cry for help, an effort to reach out and receive attention. Social integration or the degree to which an individual feels part of a larger group affects his attitude towards suicide. Well adjusted individuals are less likely while those that lack social bonds or have relationships disrupted through a sudden change in status, such as unemployment, etc are more prone to suicide. Married people are less likely to commit suicide than divorced, single or widowed people, proves the value of social bonds. People who live alone or lack close friends may not receive emotional support that would otherwise protect them from despair and irrational thinking during difficult periods of life.

  3. Inflexible thinking or tunnel vision of thought process like, “life is awful, death is the only alternative” and an inability to generate solutions to problems. It is not that suicidal people have greater life stress but that they find themselves unable to circumvent or cope with it. Modern civilization has brought with it number of problems that the weak and meek cannot solve.

  4. Fluctuations in social and economic conditions also affect suicidal tendency of an individual. Unemployment and sudden loss of fortune are major triggers.

  5. People also commit suicide as a protest against government policies.

  6. Mass suicides are rare but the examples of Jauhar are illustrative of the fact that people who value honour and liberty prefer to die en–mass rather than to risk dishonour and enslavement.

  7. Suicides are more common amongst women than amongst men. Ill–treatment of the daughters–in–law in joint families, disappointment in love affairs, failure in examinations and consequent chastisement by the elders in the family, starvation, and pregnancy due to illegitimate contacts are some of the causes.

All these causes can be summed up in the words of Justice T. K. Tukol as, “Disappointments, frustration in personal life, emotional or sentimental breakdown in married life or love affairs, unexpected financial loss in trade or business, sudden and heart–breaking grief brought about by the death of the nearest and dearest, appearance of some disease which is incurable or socially reprehensible, sudden development of melancholia or depression either due to heredity or other hidden causes, public disgrace or dishonour of one’s self or the family, an unexpected shock due to failure to realise an ambition and many other factors may be regarded, either individually or cumulatively, as causes driving an individual to commit suicide under a sudden impulse.”x

Prevention

Because depression precedes most suicides, early recognition of depression and treatment through medication and psychotherapy are important ways of preventing suicide. xi

Impact On Others –

Suicide has a devastating emotional impact on surviving family members and friends. The intentional, sudden, and violent nature of the person’s death often makes others feel abandoned, helpless, and rejected. A family member or friend may have the added burden of discovering the body of the suicide victim. Parents often suffer exaggerated feelings of shame and guilt. Because of the social stigma, or shame, surrounding suicide, survivors may avoid talking to others about the person who died, and others may avoid the survivors. Despite these extra problems, research has shown that suicide survivors go through the same grieving process as other bereaved people and eventually recover from grief. xii

Attitudes Toward Suicide – 

Many people feel uneasy talking about suicide, in part because of a social taboo on talking or learning about suicide. One popular myth is that suicide should not be mentioned around depressed people because it would plant the idea in their minds. But most mental health professionals agree that people who have suicidal wishes can benefit by talking about their feelings. xiii

In many societies suicide has been strongly condemned or made illegal. Jainism, Buddhism, Hindu tradition, Christianity and Islam all have condemned suicide as a failure to uphold the sanctity of human life. The Indian law does not define suicide but makes attempt to suicide as a punishable crime.xiv However, according to Justice Tukol fasting cannot be construed as an act of attempted suicide under this statute.xv Today, with more modern views of mental illness and concern for the rights of survivors, most major religions offer compassion and traditional funeral rites in cases of suicide. The law in many counties also no longer considers suicide a crime. Helping someone complete suicide, however, is criminally punishable.

7.51 Sallekhanā is Not Suicide –

This detailed exposure on suicide brings to the fore the following points of contrast between suicide and Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa: –

  1. According to Pt. Āśādhar, “It is not suicide when an aspirant practitioner “kṣapaka” leaves his body by observing the ritual of Bhaktapratyākhyāna “a form of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa” on account of the emergence of such factors that can destroy his very righteous conduct, because suicide is committed when, coming under the sway of passions, the life–forces “prāṇa” are severed with the lethal means like taking poison, piercing weapons, drowning or entering fire”.xvi

  2. Both – suicide and Sallekhanā are voluntary deaths. However, body is killed in suicide whereas it is respectfully and peacefully left in Sallekhana.

  3. Psychologically, the suicidal person reveals ambivalence – conscious and/or subconscious desire to live and to die present at the same time, the kṣapka reveals no such desire. He first overcomes such desire and only then proceeds with his practice of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’.

  4. The suicidal person suffers from a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness, futility and inadequacy to handle problems, the kṣapaka suffers no such hopelessness as he has subdued his passions and desires and is constantly hopeful of spiritual emancipation, which is his sole goal of undertaking this practice. He is not at all helpless because he is constantly guided and helped in his practice by the niryāpakas.

  5. The suicidal person suffers from a feeling of either physical or psychological exhaustion or both as well as from unfounded anxiety, tension or depression, the kṣapaka may be physically weak but psychologically he is at peace with himself and in a state of equanimity of mind.

  6. The suicidal person suffers from a feeling of chaos and disorganisation with inability to restore order, the kṣapaka is perfectly orderly in his practice and is constantly assisted to maintain orderly practice.

  7. The suicidal person suffers from mood–swings – from agitation to apathy or withdrawal, the kṣapaka is ever alert and under supervision to avoid any such possibility.

  8. The suicidal person suffers from cognitive constriction, inability to see alternatives or possibilities, the kṣapaka leaves behind all alternatives except his spiritual endeavour and concentrates on the spiritual goal only and, so, does not suffer from any such problems.

  9. The suicidal person loses interest in usual activities like sex, hobbies and work, the kṣapaka already has no such distractions.

  10. The suicidal person suffers from physical distresses such as insomnia, anorexia, psychosthenia and psychosomatic symptoms, the kṣapaka maintains his peace of mind by constantly contemplating desirable reflections “śubha bhāvanā”.

An analysis of the process of undertaking the practice of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ reveals the following characteristics of this practice: –

  1. The sole intention of the kṣapaka is spiritual and definitely not temporal. The adoption of the vow is preceded by purification of the mind by a conquest of passions spread over some years. The kṣapka wants to liberate from the bondage of karma, which has been responsible for all his ills in the world and his worldly transmigrations from one species to the other. Clearly, there is no intention to put an end to life immediately by some violent or objectionable means. There is no question of escaping from any shame, frustration or emotional disturbance. There is no intention to harm one self or the others.xvii

  2. The situations under which the vow should be adopted are well–defined. The vow is to be adopted, as a religious duty to earn religious merit, during a calamity, severe famine, extreme old–age, or illness from which there is no escape or against which there is no remedy.xviii Besides, the vow has to be adopted only with the consent of the spiritual master or guru. It is a vow which has to be most voluntarily adopted and most joyfully observed.xix

  3. The mental condition of the kṣapaka is one of absolute freedom from passion, attachment and possessions. To ensure purity of mind, he has to seek forgiveness from all the members of his family and friends or the members of the monastic order and discuss all his acts of commission and omission with his guru. He must forgive everybody and must have developed full faith in the religion and acquired clear knowledge of its principles.xx

  4. The means adopted towards the fulfilment of the vow are not the violent means of hanging, poison, stabbing, shooting or drowning in deep waters or jumping from the precipice. The kṣapaka has to fast according to a well–regulated regimen and increase his days of fasting gradually and changing from solid food to liquid until he even gives up drinking water. He has to spend his time in scriptural study, preaching religion to those present, introspection and meditation. He neither hastens death nor delays it but patiently and calmly awaits its arrival with complete detachment and inward concentration.xxi

  5. The consequences of ‘Voluntary Peaceful Death’ are neither hurtful nor sorrowful to any, because all kinds of family and group ties have already been severed, with common consent, before taking the vow. The immediate consequence is one of evoking reverence for the dead and the other of strengthening the faith of the devotees in religion. The atmosphere around and about the dead body is that of veneration. There is neither sorrow nor mourning. The occasion is treated as a religious festival, with pūjas, bhajans, recitation of religious mantras. There is no place for grief but only for joy. Many would be admiring the spiritual heights reached by the departed soul, the calmness and peace with which the death was faced and the new inspiration and devotion awakened by the supreme event. xxii

  6. Suicide is an offence under the law of most countries of the world. Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code deals with suicide and prescribes punishment of imprisonment up to one year or fine or bothxxiii for an ‘attempt to commit suicide’ However, according to Justice TK Tukol practice of Samādhi–maraṇa does not fall under the purview of this law as to be an offense an act must cause injury to others and Samādhimaraṇa causes no such injury. Also, in September, 1987, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition demanding to stop Muni Shri Badriprasadji from undertaking a fast unto death as a part of his Santhārā–practice, which clearly shows that Santhārā is not suicide.xxiv

7.52 Conclusion –

We can conclude this exposition on ‘Suicide and Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa’ on the note that there is nothing common between the two except that the voluntary death occurs in both. In the first case the death is in a highly passionate and emotionally disturbed state and is brought about by highly violent and objectionable means while in the other it is in a state of complete mental equanimity, peace and calmness and is brought about be peaceful and non–violent means. It will only be right to conclude that ‘Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa Is Not Suicide’.

i Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Ibid, p. 865.

ii Chambers Dictionary Of Synonyms And Antonyms, Martin H. Manser, Chambers Cambrige, 1995, p. 341.

iii Encarta Disc Encyclopedia 1991, Microsoft Corporation, entry on suicide.

iv Sallekahanā Is Not Suicide ibid, p. 70.

v Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002 deluxe edition, CD Rom, entry on suicide.

vi “Yo hi kaṣāyāviṣṭaḥ kumbhakajaladhūmaketuviṣaśastraiḥ |

Vyapariyati prāṇān tasya ayātsatyamātmavadhaḥ ||”

Puruṣārthasiddhyupāya ibid, verse 178.

vii Based on the entry on suicide in Encarta Disc Encyclopedia 1991, Microsoft Corporation.

viii Ibid.

ix Ibid.

x Sallekahanā Is Not Suicide ibid, p. 71.

xi Based on the entry on suicide in Encarta Disc Encyclopedia 1991, Microsoft Corporation.

xii Ibid.

xiii Ibid.

xiv Sec. 32 Indian Penal Code.

xv Sallekahanā Is Not Suicide ibid, p. 83.

xvi “Na ca ātmaghato`sti vṛṣakṣatau vapurūpekṣituḥ |

Kaṣāyāveṣataḥ pr-aṇān viṣādyaihiṁsataḥ sa hi ||” – Sāgāra Dahrmāmṛta, ibid, 8.8.

xvii ‘Sallekahanā Is Not Suicide’ ibid, p. 88.

xviii Ratnakaraṇḍa Śrāvakācāra ibid, verse 178.

xix ‘Sallekahanā Is Not Suicide’ ibid, p. 88–89.

xx a. Ratnakaraṇḍa Śrāvakācāra ibid, verses 123–25.

b. ‘Sallekahanā Is Not Suicide’ ibid, p. 89.

xxi Ibid.

xxii Ibid.

xxiii Ibid, p. 83.

xxiv Maru Manakchand ‘Advocate’ in Sramanopasaka.

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