By Satish Kumar
In the Jain tradition of sallekhana, death is made into a conscious, even celebratory event. An account of a mother’s sallekhana
The fear of death seems to be the greatest fear engulfing the human mind. We try to do everything to avoid or push away the death, but in spite of all our efforts, fears and anxieties, in the end we die.
My first and most abiding memory is the death of my father. I was only four years old and I saw him dead, lying in state and all my family members coming and crying. My mother too was sad and tearful, but there was a kind of calm on her face.
“Why is everybody crying? Why is Daddy not speaking to me? Why are you taking all your jewellery off? What has happened?”
My mother said: “Your father is dead. He will never speak to us again.”
“What is death? Why is he dead?”
I was only four years old then; I could not understand what had gone wrong.
Father died young, Mother lived a long life afterwards. She got a new lease of life; she became active in community affairs and practised the lifestyle of a Jain with deep devotion and commitment.
At 80, she was frail and failing. She could not do all the things she was used to doing. So she decided to leave the body and go.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, the soul changes the body when it is old in the same way as the body changes clothes when they are worn. Death is not the end of life; it is a transition to new life. Death is the door to evolution of soul and consciousness. For my mother, death was a way of liberation from this body and all the worldly knots which were so tightly tied. Death gives you the opportunity to bring an end to a chapter and start afresh and anew.
So one fine morning, she took her stick in her hands and went to see some of her neighbours and her daughters and her grandchildren to say goodbye.
“From today I will go on a fast unto death, only boiled water I will drink, a couple of times a day, otherwise I will pray, meditate, reflect.” She continued: “If I have offended anyone please forgive me and I too forgive all offences. I forgive and beg forgiveness of my sons and daughters, my grandchildren, my neighbours, my friends and everyone I have encountered. I ask forgiveness from the animals who I have used for milk or ploughing, from the land which I have cultivated, from the trees that I have taken fruit from. May all beings forgive me, may I forgive all,” Mother declared.
This was a strong witness to her lifelong practice of non-violence and Jainism. In the Jain religion, non-violence is the supreme principle. It comes before truth, before happiness, before celibacy.
Renunciation of food unto death, in Jain tradition, is called sallekhana, which is an old tradition. Many from among the Jain monks, nuns and laity prepare themselves to reach a stage when they can bring their courage to bear and be free of the fear of death so that they can embrace death in a positive manner.
The news of Mother’s sallekhana spread on the grapevine far and wide. People began to come to see her, to give and receive forgiveness and to pray. There was continuous chanting and singing of inspirational, religious mantras, songs and hymns. It was a celebration of Mother’s life. There were expressions of gratitude from her children and grandchildren. Her friends came to bid farewell and give thanks. Mother looked happy, serene and calm. After 35 days of exuberant celebration and fasting, Mother passed away peacefully.
This was a very different death than my father’s. Even though there were tears in many eyes, there was no crying and no feeling of loss. Mother lived well and died well.
Satish Kumar, a Gandhian and former Jain monk, has edited UK-based environmental magazine, Resurgence, for 30 years. His autobiography, No Destination, is published by Viveka Foundation, New Delhi.
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