By Justic T. K. Tukol, L.D. Institute
Sallekhana is embracing the death volunterilly when both householders and ascetics foresee that the end of the life is very near either due to the old age, incurable disease, severe famine, attack from the enemy or wild animal, etc. At such time one overcomes all the passions and abondons all the worldly attachments by observing austerities such as gradually abstaining from the food and the water and simultaneously meditating on the true nature of the Self until the soul parts the body. An approximate assesment of the remaining span of the life is necessary in order to adjust to the nature of the fasting. He should endure all the hardships, but if he falls ill or for any other reason can not maintain the peace of mind, then he should give up Sallekhana and resume taking foods and other activities.
Accepting to perform Sallekhana is a very special vow. The principle behind this vow is that a person while giving up this body with complete peace of mind, calmness, and patience, without any fear at all not only prevents the influx of the new karmas but also purges the old karmas which are attached to the soul.
Sallekhana is also known by the other names like Samnyas-marana, Samadhi-marana, etc.
A householder, who accepts this vow with pure mind, gives up the friendship, enimity, and possesiveness. He should forgive his relatives, companions and servants or acquaintances and should ask for the pardon of all the past unpleasant deeds against them. He should discuss honestly with his perceptor all the sins committed by him or sins, which he asked others to commit, or sins he encouraged others to commit. During the period of this vow he should eliminate from his mind all the grief, fear, regret, affection, hatred, prejudice, passions, etc., to the fullest extent.
Initially, he should gradually give up the food and take the liquids only and ultimately give up the liquids and take only the boiled water and fast according to his capacity. He should also give up all the pasions and mental weaknesses. He shall engrossed in the meditation without paying attention to the body. He should avoid the five transgressions. They are: 1) wishing the death would come a little later, 2) wishing for a speedier death, 3) entertaining fear that how he would face a death, 4) remembering friends and relatives at the time of death, and 5) wishing for a certain reward as a result of this vow.
It has been advised that to successfully observe this vow an ascetic or householder should select such a place where the government does not object to such vow and people have the respect and understanding for such decisions. This is for the precaution against disturbances or obstructions of any kind during the observance of this vow. Such a precaution is necessary to ensure the external peace and the internal tranquility during the period of the vow.
There are clear and definite directives against the adoption of the vow of Sallekhana without realizing that the death is very near or emminent. A classical example for this is that of Acharya Samantabhadra himself. He wished to take this vow due to the impossibility of living a life in accordance with the religious restrictions as he suffered from an incurable disease called Bhasmaroga. He approached his preceptor (guru) for the permission. His preceptor with his intuitive knowledge realized that he was going to live a longer time and he had the potential to make a very significant contribution to the Jain literature. Therefore, he declined the permission.
For many Sallekhana is confused with the suicide since the word suicide covers all self-implicated deaths. The suicide is killing oneself by the means employed by onself. The cooresponding word for the suicide in the Sanskrit is Atmaghata or Atmahatya (self-destruction). Suicide is normally a misfortune of one’s own making. A victim of suicide is either a victim of his mental weakness or of the external circumstances which he is not able to circumvent. In the modern times, the mental and ethical strength has been deteriorating rapidly individually or in any social group. Our civilization has brought large number of psycological and social problems, which only strong individuals can survive. The disappointments and frustration in the personal life, emotional or sentimental breakdown in married life or love-affairs, unexpected and unbearable economic loss in the trade or business, sudden and heart-breaking grief due to the death of the nearest and dearest, appearance of the disease which is incurable or socially reprehensible, sudden development of the depression, public disgrace or dishonor of one’s self or the family, an unexpected shock due to the failure to fulfill an ambition and many other unusual factors may be regared, either individually or cumulatively, as causes driving an individual to commit suicide under the effect of a sudden impulse. Frequent repititions of situations, which bring about the feelings of disappointment, depression, mental and emotional conflicts irresistably drive the victim to the horrible step of the suicide.
On the other side in Sallekhana none of the above psychological or sociological charecteristics are found either in adopting this vow or in its fulfilment. The same way there is a big difference in the intentions, or the situations, the means adopted and the outcome of the action or its consequences.
The sole intention of the person adopting this vow is spiritual and definitely not temporal. The adoption of the vow is preceded by purification of the mind by the conquest of all the passions by practicing for a few years. The person adopting this vow wants to be liberated from the bondage of karma, which has been responsible for all his ills in this world, and for the cycle of rebirths in different states (Gatis). Contrary to the suicidal intention, there is no desire to put an end to life quickly by some violent or objectionable means. There is no question of escaping from any shame, frustration or emotional excitememnt. There is no intention to harm oneself or any member of one’s own family. The situations under which the vow should be adopted are well defined. The vow has to be adopted only with the permission of the spiritual preceptor (Guru).
What are the means adopted towards the fulfilment of this vow? They are not the violent means like hanging, poison, stabing, shooting, or drwoning in deep waters or jumping from the height. He has to fast according to well regulated principles. He has to incerase his days of fasting gradually. He has to change from the solid foods to liquids until he even gives up drinking water. He has to spend time in reading or listening to scriptures, meditation and self-introspection. Ascetics or the learned householder can devote part of his time in preaching religion to such devotees who may be present there. He should neither hasten nor delay the death. He should wait for the natural time calmly, getting engrossed in deep meditation with complete detechment and inward concentration.
The consequence of death by Sallekhana is neither hurtful nor sorrow to any, because before adopting this vow, all kinds of ties have been terminated with the common consent. The immediate consequence is the one of evoking reverence and faith in religion. The atmosphere around and about the dead body is the one of good venerations. There is neither sorrow nor mourning. The occasion is treated as a religios festival with pujas, bhajans and recitation of religious mantras. There is no place for grief but there is joy. Many admire the spiritual heights reached by the departed, the calmness and peace with which death was faced and the new inspiration and devotion awakened by that supreme event.
Some of the Western writers have stated that Sanllekhana is a suicide by starvation. In the opinion of Justice T. K. Tulok, “They are born and brought up under a religious philosophy which speaks of the world as the creation of God and that death by fasting, though, in accordance with the principles of an ancient religious philosophy which does not recognise any creator-God, is self-destruction agaist the will of God. They don’t seem to have paid any attention to various points of distinction between Sallekhana and suicide.”
Thus, there is nothing in common between a suicide and Sallekhana except that in both cases there is a death. In the case of suicide, death is brought about by objectionable means because harm is caused to one’s own body and to interests and feelings of the relatives and friends. In Sallekhana death is embraced with a very peaceful, tranquil process maintaining the peace of mind all along for everyone involved.
It is impossible for each and everybody to adopt the vow of Sallekhana because it requires the devotee to possess an unshakable conviction that the soul and the body are separate. The vow is adopted by a person who has purifeid his mind and body by austerity, repentance and forgiveness; has freed himself from all the passions and the afflictions; and has ceased to have any attachment for the friends and relatives. He greets the death with joy, and tranquility.