It’s about a year ago that Santhara, the Jain practice of fasting till the body drops became the center of controversy, with the Supreme Court of India banning the practice. Here’s an article that sets the whole practice in context, and explains why it is can eb an important instrument for one’s spiritual growth. Taken from Encyclopedia of Jainism, under CC-BY-SA.
Sallekhanā (also Santhara, Samadhi-marana, Sanyasana-marana) refers to a natural practice of giving up food when death is very near. In Jainism, it is prescribed both for the householder and ascetics. Sallekhana is made up from two words sal (meaning ‘properly’) and lekhana, which means to thin out. Properly thinning out of the passions and the body is ‘Sallekhanā’. Sallekhana is allowed only when a person is suffering from incurable disease or great disability or when a person is nearing his end. It is a highly respected practice among the members of the Jain community. According to Jain texts, sallekhanā leads to ahimsā (non-violence or non-injury), as person observing sallekhanā subjugates the passions, which are the root cause of himsā (injury or violence).
In Jainism, both Jain ascetics and householders (Sravaka) have to follow five major vows (vratas). Ascetics must observe these vows more strictly. Jain ethical code also prescribe seven supplementary vows, which include three guņa vratas and four śikşā vratas.
1. Ahiṃsā Not to hurt any living being by actions and thoughts
2. Satya Not to lie or speak what is not commendable.
3. Asteya Not to take anything if not given.
4. Brahmacharya Chastity / Celibacy in action, words & thoughts
5. Aparigraha (Non-possession) Detachment from material property.
6. digvrata Restriction on movement with regard to directions.
7. bhogopabhogaparimana Vow of limiting consumable and non-consumable things
8. anartha-dandaviramana Refraining from harmful occupations and activities (purposeless sins).
9. samayika Vow to meditate and concentrate periodically.
10.desavrata Limiting movement to certain places for a fixed period of time.
11.upvas Fasting at regular intervals.
12.atihti samvibhag Vow of offering food to the ascetic and needy people
13. sallekhanā Vow to adopt sallekhana when death is very near