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by Sanjay V. Mehta

In this article the author considers the grounds for a voluntary death vis-a-vis an act of suicide as it is understood in the Jain religion. The author argues that there are conditions and expectations which must be in place if a voluntary death is an acceptable practice. There are also references to the positions of other religious traditions.

Sallekhana (santharo, samadhi, or samnyasa-marana) is the facing of death by an ascetic or house-holder voluntarily when nearing the end of normal life. According to the Jain religion life should continue as long as possible but if, due to unavoidable calamity such as (upasarga), old age (jara), incurable disease (nihpratikara ruja), or severe famine (durbhiksa), then sallekhana is a possibility. This involves, however, subjugation of all passions and abandonment of all worldly attachments, by observance of austerities gradually abstaining from food and water, and by simultaneous meditation of the real nature of the self until the soul parts from the body.

The underlying principle is that the householder or sage should have complete peace of mind after a voluntary acceptance of the vow of sallekhana, consistently with the pious life of self-restraint and austerities. Calmness, patience, and a mind undisturbed by emotions of joy or fear will conduce to purgation of karmas. Mental peace will lead to liberation from karma, new and old, in life, so during the controlled death, one should have equanimity of mind and die while engrossed in deep meditation, as the final step for further liberation from bondage of karma. In fact, the entire spiritual life of a layman is preparation for a sacred death.

Those who adopt the vow should, with a pure mind, give up friendship, enmity, company, and possessiveness. They should forgive relatives, companions, and servants, and ask for pardon. They should discuss frankly with the preceptor all sins they have committed themselves (pratikramana), abetted others to commit, or consent to their commission by others, and abide by the great vow until death (self censure, or alocana). There should be whole effacement from the mind of all grief, fear, regret, affection, hatred, and prejudice.

While samayika and pratima partially prepare house-holders for voluntary termination of life, six-fold essentials (sadavasyakas) take one to the threshold of meditation-unto-death. There should be gradual abstinence from solids & liquids according to individual capacities, before engrossing in meditation of the five salutation mantras. Five transgressions should be avoided:

1. Wishing for procrastination of death
2. Wishing for hasty death
3. Entertaining fear of death
4. Remembering friends and relatives
5. Wishing for particular rewards

Precautions are recommended to ensure external peace during the period of vow. Passions and afflictions should be conquered preliminarily to adoption of the vow. Only those persons who live fully and acquire high ascetic power are authorized to undertake the act. There are three methods of attaining nirvana that increase in expectations:

1. bhaktapratyakhyana marana - fasting unto death
2. itvara/ingita marana - fasting unto death within a limited space and only after twelve preparatory years
3. padapopagamana/paoavagamana - performing sallekhana with more restraint at a higher level of self-control

There are different kinds of deaths:

1. bala marana - death of an individual who has right faith but who does not possess self-control
2. bala-pandita marana - house-holder who has reached the fifth stage of his spiritual progress, who is unable to abstain from himsa of one-sensed beings, but has abstained from himsa of two-sensed beings and is still in state of indecision in matters of self-restraint
3 pandita marana - death of an ascetic who has attained pure knowledge

While Hinduism condones sati (when a wife voluntarily joins her deceased husband on the funeral pyre) and mahaprasthana (the great journey involved in the process expected to go through death), Islam has neither advocated nor sanctioned voluntary deaths. In Hinduism, if the forest hermit suffers from some incurable disease, and cannot properly perform his duties or feels death to be near, he should start on mahaprasthana until the body falls to rise no more. At extremely holy places like Prayaga, Sarasvati, and Beneras, drowning with the desire of securing release from samsara were allowed. Similarly, a man guilty of Brahman murder was allowed to commit suicide by entering into fire or water.

The Quran says "it is not for every soul to die save by God's permission ordained for an appointed time... cast not yourselves to perdition with your own hands." Suicide is seen as a revolt against the will of God. Christianity also forbids voluntary deaths, saying "thou shalt not kill, neither thyself or another". However, earlier Fathers approved of suicides committed to secure martyrdom, avoid apostacy, or protect virginity. Buddhism condemns suicide but there are stories of individual monks having committed suicide in a heat of passion by hanging.

Although it is certain that all religions condemn suicide as unethical and opposed to religion, different faiths have their own reasons to approve of voluntary deaths in different forms motivated by acquisition of religious merit or hopes of having a better life in the next birth. Most Eastern religions allow escape from the cycle of births and rebirths, and, in fact, it is the aspiration of religiously-conscious individuals to free themselves from fetters of karma by leading life of nobility, austerity, and meditation.

Faiths have different beliefs over what stage and manner life can reasonably be considered to have attained spiritual purity so as to permit individuals to resort to austerities for release from the physical body. The ultimate decision for whether any particular voluntary death is suicide depends upon the motive, means adopted, and consequences ensuing thereafter.

Suicide (atmaghata or atmahatya), on the other hand, is killing oneself, by means employed by oneself. This includes all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from positive or negative acts of the victim themselves where the result is known. All living beings have fondness for their bodies and take care by adopting methods or modes to keep sound health. Suicide is often a misfortune of one's own making, whereby there is victimization by mental weakness or from uncircumventable external circumstances. Psychological and physical features often include emotional stress, overpowering feelings, hope to escape from consequences, lack of religious or spiritual considerations, use of weapons, suddenness, secrecy, and subsequent misery and bereavement.

Changing societies encompass changing notions of objectionability. The purpose of law is not to secure or safeguard inner goodness or spirituality (ie. ethics) but to ensure safety and certainty of public conduct and co-operations. Not all countries regard suicide as an offence punishable under local law, and, in fact, state and church have often held opposite views on the subject. Law is dynamic and changes with concepts, forbidding revolting and immoral sentiments of society.

Euthanasia (good death) refers to deliberate and direct killing of a sufferer (mercy killing) in order to relieve pain. However, distinctions should be made between voluntary and involuntary, active and passive, omission and commission, and acting and refraining. Assisted suicide is controversial, yet proponents argue that distinctions are spurious; they feel termination of treatment and direct killing are morally the same. They feel autonomous individuals should have moral authority and means to end their lives, with assistance as needed. Those who relieve burdens of pain and suffering are acting out of compassion and respect for autonomy, and hence should provide careful, circumscribed support.

In argument, opponents argue that taking of human life, consensual or not, is not a defense against charge of homicide. They feel that a violation of the Hippocratic oath upsets ethical standards of medical practice. Dedication of the medical profession to welfare of patients and promotion of health may be seriously undermined. Death requests are often made under distressful circumstances, and may progress from those incurably ill, to extremes such as genocide.

Suicide refers to death in the nature of self-destruction, rather than just that other than homicide. Death can be with or against one's will. However, knowledge of the deadly consequences of the action should be the fundamental factor in deciding that death is suicide. Before judgement is passed, intentions, situation, adopted means, and nature and outcome of actions need to be determined.

Adoption of the vow should be spiritual and non-temporal. The vow itself should be a religious duty, voluntarily adopted and joyfully observed. There must be full faith in religious and acquired clear knowledge of the principles. The moment of death should be awaited for calmly, with engrossment in deep meditation, complete detachment, and inward concentration. Consequences of death should be neither hurtful nor sorrowful, as all ties have been terminated with common consent. Holy death (ie. that without an increase in build up of passions) is considered free from desire, anger, or delusion, and hence, is not suicide. Hence, the only similarity between sallekhana and suicide is death.


1. Tukol, T.K., Sallekhana Is Not Suicide. L.D. Institute of Indology, Shivlal Jesalpura Swati Printing Press, 1976; pp. 1-112.
2. Settar, S., Inviting Death: Indian Attitude 2. Towards the Ritual Death, E.J. Brill, 1989; pp. 1-324.
3. Settar, S., Pursuing Death: Philosophy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life, Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, 1990; pp. 1- 414

Sanjay Mehta is a pediatrician currently studying emergency medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children as well as continuing a Masters in Education at the University of Toronto. He has been involved in Jain Organizations at the local, national and continental level.

Posted by editor on September 30, 2003 10:41 AM