Thoughts on economics and liberty

Santhara – or voluntary fast to death in Jainism: provisional views.

A gentleman on FB asked me my views on Santhara. First of all, let me note that I had never heard of this is so I searched Wikipedia and found useful information here. Basically about 240 Jainis kill themselves each year through voluntary fasting. Wiki notes that "Like most Dharmic religious traditions, Jainism considers suicide a wrong."

To begin with let me provide a link to my previous blog posts on related subjects:

Now for a discussion of Santhra. 
 
In the current (draft) version of DOF, I've noted the following in relation to mahasamadhi:
A few other methods of self-harm raise particularly prickly questions. A mahasamadhi is (apparently) an event in which someone, as part of religious belief, wills himself to death. Whether this is at all feasible without causing direct violence on one’s body is a question best reserved for another day (noting my scepticism about such events, and that I would need sturdy data that might not be readily forthcoming). The key issue is this – that people with the purported power of mahasamadhi are usually highly revered. Such self-destruction is charged with widely perceived moral and spiritual properties. 
 
[This] acts appear[s] to violate Proposition 1, and yet, undertaken with wide public awareness, [it is] not comparable with garden variety suicide. Proposition 1 aims to maximise life. When people, in following a particular moral path, undertake such acts of self-destruction, their actions raise many questions of justice and accountability. I would think that the key is to prove that such actions are not in someone’s vested personal interest. Should that have happened, or the truth distorted, then placing such a person under arrest and force-feeding him would be perfectly valid. There is a very fine line distinguishing these actions, and calls for the exercise of considerable judgement.
The current version includes a discussion of "fast-unto-death" along with mahasamadhi, but I intend to treat fast-unto-death separately in further revisions, given my review of what Gandhi actually wrote about it, and therefore a better understanding of the nuances involved. I continue to believe that fast unto death as an emotional tool can be justified under one circumstance: when someone tries to directly SAVE lives through a fast (e.g. in communal violence). It can't be justified as a political tool to obtain normal political goals in a democracy.
 
But mahasamadhi is different. I'm inclined to stick with my views in the current draft of DOF. 
 
The conditions met by santhra include:
 
(a) there is no direct violence involved (true, fasting hurts our own body's cells); 
(b) no one is harmed;
(c) everyone knows about what is going on, and in the religious community involved there is recognition of the spiritual properties involved, and this is used as an opportunity to reaffirm the faith of the particular religion; 
(d) it is not intended to achieve a certain political goal (e.g. Lokpal Bill); and
(e) no one feels coerced to DO anything (i.e. no emotional blackmail is involved). Most importantly, no one is coerced into this, as was the case with sati – which is also problematic because of the severe violence involved.
 
Santhra is different to mahasamadhi in that we don't quite know how mahasamadhi occurs (by willing oneself to die?), but we know the precise mechanism of death in santhra: the fasting involved. The key is that is it part of spiritual belief system and used purely for spiritual ends. In that sense, given other conditions noted above, the choice to quietly wither away is not immoral, not violative of the accountabilities arising from such act.
 
I must add the proviso that this should be done with full public awareness and everyone in the nearby Jain community must confirm that the person undertaking santhra is not undertaking this fast under any compulsion (i.e. someone is not withholding food from them, in order to confiscate their property).
 
In some ways (not all) this is close to euthanasia. In that case, too, as I've argued in DOF, when sufficient checks and balances have been put in place (and the standard for sufficiency I've suggested in DOF is very high), it should be possible for a doctor to administer medicine that takes the life of the person who is seeking relief from acute, chronic PHYSICAL suffering through euthanasia.
 
In brief, subject to the it being confirmed that the person undertaking santhra is SPIRITUALLY aware, is very old, is NOT being withheld food, and so on, such action should not amount to suicide in the commonplace sense we mean by it.
 
Apparently a case is going on in the Rajasthan High Court on this matter as we speak. I recommend a common law interpretation of this action. If that is done, this won't be equated with suicide. The law on suicide is intended for the garden variety, emotional, mentally disturbed cases of suicide. It still can't prevent most of them, but it ensures that there is no social sanction given to suicide.
 
In cases like santhra, which has a tradition, history, and a meaning that totally transcends the emotional, garden variety suicide, we must respect the free individual's right to achieve spiritual salvation by non-violent, non-disruptive means. But if any SOCIAL DRAMA occurs as a result of such an action, or it motivates others to copy this action without having the underlying spiritual base, then the state is entitled to step in and force-feed the person. A matter as personal as this can't be allowed to become a public spectacle.
 
Let me end by noting that as with all other views, my views on this matter, outlined above, are provisional, subject to change through further analysis. In this case, though, I believe that my views are likely to remain consistent, since I'm deriving an answer to this question from first principles – by balancing two KEY things that we must always defend: life and liberty.
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