Sallekhana is the Jain practice of conscious dying, where a person wilfully embraces death at the end of a full life. It is a brave way to die, by embracing the inevitable in awareness, instead of running away from it Sallekhana is inspired by the need to turn within at the time of death. Death is thus made into a time for contemplation and celebration A friend’s mother passed away a few months ago. A schoolteacher in her 70s, she spent her time after widowhood and retirement giving tuitions at home. She was struck by cancer last year, and hurried surgery followed to excise the affected organ. When it was discovered some months later that the disease had silently spread its tentacles, the old lady firmly put her foot down and refused to undergo chemotherapy. Her family had no choice but to give in to her wishes, negotiating with her to at least try out doses of natural medicine. As her health steadily deteriorated over the next few months, resulting in her suffering from pain, there was ample time for her close-knit family to come to terms with her condition. She prepared them well, so that when the final moment arrived, her emotionally sensitive son and daughter faced it with remarkable calm. It was as if she had bestowed upon them all her wisdom and serenity in the moment of death. Those who knew her were also touched by the grace of her simple and dignified passing away.Kusum is a working class adivasi woman with young children who works in people’s homes. I offered my condolences when she resumed work two days after her mother’s death, but she surprised me with her matter-of-fact attitude, despite the obvious sadness. Her mother had been ill for some time, and in the last week or so, she had consciously given up food and water, preparing her large brood for the fact that her demise was imminent. It was a natural parting for her, surrounded by all her loved ones.Ba, from a wealthy Gujarati family, part-Jain, died an octogenarian, in a strong-willed manner of her own choosing. Over a three-month period, she had gradually given up food, and also water in the end, to die peacefully as the matriarch of a large and loving family spread all over the world. There are many others I have personally known or heard about dying in this manner, with a calm acceptance of death, facing it with grace and equanimity, so that the event marked a station of wisdom and peace for those left behind, rather than an unresolved, grievous fracture in relationships. I am thankful that here in India, most people still manage to escape overly medicated, mechanised and sanitised dying as occurs in the West, with our deep connections to traditional wisdom still intact. Death in samadhiThe sallekhana practice of dying in Jain culture, especially as prescribed for ascetics, has been an inspiration for all Indians from times immemorial, through legend and widespread observance. It is similar in tone and tenor to Krishna’s retreat into the forest after the fulfillment of his work as an avatar, to offer himself as a sacrifice to the unknown hunter’s arrow. Sallekhana is sacred death observed only at the end of a full life, chosen with dignity, when faced with imminent departure through old age or sickness, with the sanction of religious authority and one’s family. It involves fasting unto death, with the choice of quitting the fast at any time if the person has changed his or her mind. The place of undertaking this rite is usually a sacred site where many in the past have similarly embraced death as a conscious and controlled spiritual act. It calls for meditation upon the true nature of Self, until the life force merges into the unknown, in what is known as ‘samadhi’ death, or dying while immersed in meditation. Such demise is undertaken with the permission of near and dear ones, after begging their forgiveness for causing injury to them in the course of living, and making peace within themselves, so that there are no negative feelings and unresolved issues in the end. All ties to the living, and mental attachments, are given up before undertaking the vow of sallekhana. The fasting is a gradual process, whereby food intake is drastically reduced at first, then given up altogether, followed by a refusal of water intake also. Death may occur at any time from within a few days to a month or more. In that period, gradual withdrawal of senses from external objects occurs, leading to detachment and inner purification, with a strong and increasing focus on meditation. Anything in the environment that may create an obstruction to the solemnity of the occasion or cause disturbance is to be avoided, and this may involve the knowledge and legal sanction of government authorities. The muted surrender of attachment to life itself is seen as a great sacrifice that not only helps resolve old karma for the person concerned, but also prevents the egress of new karma at the time of death, so that it may be possible to go beyond the cycle of death and rebirth and attain liberation of the soul. At the same time, it is also asserted that the person performing sallekhana must not be attached to its outcome, which is unknown.Some of the earliest Jain tirthankaras (chief preceptors), long before the advent of Bhagavan Mahavir, are known to have embraced death in this fashion. They set an example for innumerable ascetics, mu nis, monks, nuns and even householders to follow in their footsteps for thousands of years. It is this observance of conscious and wilful dying in total acceptance of death and whatever that comes in its wake, which has inspired generations of Indians to face the final merging with grace and equanimity. sacred siteNear the famous Jain pilgrimage site in Sravanbelgola in Karnataka, where the megalithic statue of Bahubali is located, is a place sanctified by the samadhi deaths of many Jain ascetics. This place is in Chandragiri, named after Chandragupta Maurya, the famous king who unified India and extended its boundaries westwards under the guidance of Chanakya. In his later days, the emperor took up Jainism under the great guru Bhadrabahu, abdicating the throne in true spiritual tradition to become a renunciate.There are many references to Bhadrabahu in esoteric legends not only among the Jains, but also among the Himalayan yogis—realised masters who continue to perform their work in higher realms. Warned of imminent calamity in the form of prolonged famine, Bhadrabahu, along with his band of disciples including Chandragupta, left north India to travel southwards until they reached the flourishing region of Sravanbelgola. Within a short period, Bhadrabahu, aware that the time of his departure was drawing near, retreated into solitude for meditation in a nearby cave, eventually undertaking sallekhana to attain mahasamadhi. Twelve years later, around 297 BCE, Chandragupta also chose death in similar fashion in the same place, with due ascetic observances. That sanctified spot became a favourite place for observing vows and penances to attain samadhi death for many Jain ascetics thereafter. An inscription from 6th century AD found on the Chandragiri Hill at Sravanbelgola reads as follows: “Bhadrabahuswami…dismissed the sangha in its entirety, and in the company of a single disciple, mortifying his body on the wide expanse of cold rocks accomplished samadhi.… And in course of time 700 rishis similarly accomplished samadhi….” Not suicide
At times people tend to confuse sallekhana with suicide, whereas in reality, they are two completely different matters. Suicide is a sudden and impulsive termination of life, often through violent means. It happens in a depressed or disturbed emotional state, because of frustration of desires and attachment to worldly goals, or through great despair over perceived lack of meaning in one’s life. It implies a strong negation of life itself. Thus suicide is a self-destructive act of delusion sometimes even undertaken in revengeful infliction of punishment on the living. It is condemned in most spiritual traditions, and is believed to result in the degradation of the soul entity. Sallekhana, on the other hand, is an uplifting example of personal sacrifice as the result of a well thought out and planned culmination of a life well lived, undertaken with detachment, calmness and contentment. The difference in attitude is striking. It follows a well-laid tradition of penance and meditation, is a slow process that allows an individual to withdraw at any time should there be doubts or misgivings in his mind. It not only ensures purification of the mind-body system before death, it also enables survivors to face the parting with calm acceptance, so that there is gain in wisdom by witnessing this supreme act of asceticism. Above all, this form of sacred death is also thought to purify the environs through the wholly positive spiritual vibrations at the time of the final merging, and the blessings of the departed soul. Celebration of deathThere is no discrimination against women as such in the observance of sallekhana, and many women ascetics are known to have willingly embraced death in this manner. At the same time, samadhi deaths of nuns and male householders are simple and personal affairs, compared to the recognition and veneration accorded to monks who may have made a major contribution to the sangha in life, as in death.Facing death with a detached attitude, mind wholly fixed on a spiritual purpose, there are five transgressions to be strictly avoided. Persons undertaking sallekhana must not seek to delay death; there must be no desire to hasten death; death must not be feared; there must be no remembrance of friends and relatives at that stage; and above all, there must not be hankering after particular rewards after death.
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