A deadly belief is reborn: Beyond life, beyond death

When Shradha Shri decided to starve herself to death hundreds came to watch. Fasting to achieve nirvana is one of Jainism's holiest rites and is making a revival, reports Justin Huggler from Vidisha
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Shradha Shri was performing sallekhana, one of the holiest rites of the Jain religion: fasting to death. Jains, who, like Hindus, believe in reincarnation, believe that sallekhana can free a soul from the endless cycle of rebirth and death.

When The Independent visited Shradha Shri a few days before her death, she looked far older than her 60 years. Her cheeks were sunken, her teeth all missing. She was so weak she could not sit up without help, and lay motionless on a thin cloth spread on the floor while people crowded round her.

It was easy to find her. Everyone in Vidisha, a typical dusty Indian town with cows and goats wandering the streets, knew where the Jain woman was starving herself to death.

From the outside, the building looked like an ordinary house. Upstairs, you had to push your way through the huge crowd of devotees who came to pray with Shradha Shri. From time to time someone called out a religious mantra and the crowd replied in unison. Through the narrow doorway was the fasting woman being held up in a sitting position to pray by women relatives. Beside her a man was sitting, completely naked. And nobody seemed remotely surprised by his nakedness.

He was a Jain monk who had come to pray with Shradha Shri and help her to prepare herself for death. Jain monks forswear all material possessions, even clothes. All he owns in the world is an elaborate brush made of what look like peacock feathers, with which he gently brushes the ground in front of him before he walks on it, to avoid accidentally stepping on any insects.

A man stepped forward from the crowd. "She is my mother," he said, and then he stopped himself. "No, she was my mother. My mother is dead." He gestured to the woman lying on the floor who was his mother. "Now she has given up everything in this world, she is concentrating fully on uplifting her soul towards heaven. She even has a new name." Her name was Asha Jain before. When she died yesterday, there was little mourning. The devotees celebrated. They believed that by starving herself to death she had achieved salvation.

Her son, Tharmesh Jain, was horrified at the suggestion she was committing suicide. Jains insist sallekhana is not suicide. "Suicide is a heinous sin," he said. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion that dates back to the sixth century BC. Today there are around four million Jains in India, as well as communities around the world, including the UK.

Not every Jain is allowed to undertake sallekhana. They must first get permission from a senior monk, and only those who are suffering from some incurable disease, or the ravages of extreme old age, are allowed to take this death fast. And a Jain cannot perform sallekhana if he or she has any worldly responsibilities, such as children to look after.

Shradha Shri was suffering from a terminal illness. Mr Jain refused to say exactly what it was - he said it was not allowed to discuss her past life once she had begun sallekhana. The furthest he was prepared to go was to say she had "some sort of cyst in her stomach"; when questioned further he politely refused to answer. But it is more than just euthanasia. Mr Jain described what his mother was doing as "trying to give a red-carpet welcome to death" - liberating the soul from the cycle of rebirths to reach moksha, or salvation.

Mr Jain said that by undertaking her fast, his mother was "cured by spiritual therapy" of her terminal illness. "She was in great pain before," he said.

"Look at her now. Is she in any pain?" She lay, absolutely still, too weak even to move, it seemed to Western eyes.

Shradha Shri was considered to have no more "worldly responsibilities" when she began her fast. Her husband died of a heart attack four years ago, and her children, of whom Mr Jain is the second oldest, are all grown up and married with children of their own. All the children kept vigil with her, together with reltives from the wider family. Her husband's brother and sister were there with their children. The women sat by Shradha Shri, gently stroking her weak and emaciated body. The room was completely bare of furniture. All she had to lie on was a thin piece of white cloth, with another to cover her body. She had forsworn home, family, all ties with this world, her son said. But the family were all wearing their best clothes, the women in brightly coloured saris. "We call this mirtoi mahotsba," said Mr Jain. It means a "celebration of death".

"I'm happy," Mr Jain said. "Before we were all weeping, but now we're happy one of our relatives is going to salvation, trying to achieve moksha."

But he admits the family was not always so reconciled to his mother's decision. "It was very hard for us to accept at first," he said. "We're an upper middle class family. We had all the resources to pay for her treatment but she decided to leave. But now we have all been inspired by her example. I want to do this myself in the future." After she made her decision, she went to a Jain monk to seek his permission. Once he was satisfied her illness was terminal, and that she was serious about undertaking the death fast, she began.

At first she gave up all solid food. Then, gradually, she gave up fruit juice, milk, medicine. For the last 25 days of her life she took nothing but water. By the end she made no effort to drink at all, just swallowing a few drops of water her children poured on her lips each day.

When she was praying with the monks, she seemed animated. But after they left she appeared completely detached. We sat a few feet from her, discussing her impending death, but she did not register our presence. It was as if her mind was somewhere else. That is because it was, according to Mr Jain, who said she was deep in meditation and detached from this world.

Jainism is often compared to Hinduism, but it is a separate religion with different beliefs. One of its central tenets is ahimsa: absolute non-violence to all living things. Some Jains follow this belief so completely they wear face masks to prevent themselves from accidentally inhaling tiny insects. Mahatma Gandhi expressed great admiration for the Jain devotion to non-violence. Despite the asceticism of their faith, in India Jains have a reputation for hard work and practicality and are one of the country's wealthiest communities.

Mr Jain may believe his mother has been cured of a terminal illness by "spiritual therapy", but he is also very much a man of this world. He is a lecturer on the MBA course at Samrat Ashok Technical Institute, near Vidisha. Today the practice of sallekhana is rare. Which makes Shradha Shri's death just over a week after another Jain woman, Ratan Bai, starved herself to death a few hours' drive from here, all the more remarkable. Two cases in such rapid succession are very rare. It appears there is a mini-revival of the practice taking place in this district. It took Ms Bai, who was 75, much longer. She fasted for six months, living on fruit juice before embarking on the final fast and drinking only water.

There has been some controversy over the practice, with Indian secularists saying it amounts to suicide, and that the authorities should intervene. Even though suicide is illegal under Indian law, the police do not interfere with sallekhana because it is considered a sacred practice by the Jain community. Local authorities fear that to intervene would cause serious strife with Jains.

Because women adherents are covered with a white sheet throughout sallekhana, you do not see their extreme state of starvation clearly. Four years ago, a 72-year-old man, Uttamchand Jain, died by sallekhana in the same district, and the pictures of him in his final days are disturbing. You can see the shape of his rib cage sticking out from his shrunken torso, the skin stretched tight around it. Like Shradha Shri, he was suffering from a disease doctors said was incurable, and he did not have long to live.

In an upstairs room at the Jain centre where the monks were staying in Vidisha, one of the monks, Muni Sri Ajit Sagarji Mahotstav, was completely naked. Talking with a naked monk is a somewhat unsettling experience for a Westerner.

"Everybody has to die," he said, sitting on a raised wooden platform with his legs carefully arranged to shield his modesty. "They die with their wishes, feelings, with something in their mind still to do. Sallekhana means to embrace death without any feelings, without any concern for the world. Feeling happy to embrace death. It is one of the steps to get rid of rebirth. The body is dispersed but the soul remains."

"It is like when water gets muddy," interjected a second monk, Ailak Nirbhay Sagarji Mahotstav, who was wearing a loin-cloth. He is sitting on a slightly lower wooden platform, while we and the devotees sit cross-legged on the floor at their feet. "You have to separate the mud from the water. When you think bad thoughts it is like the mud interacting with the water. It takes perseverance to make them separate." While the monks speak, devotees come in and touch their feet. Monks are held in high regard in Jainism; the devout believe they will receive blessings by touching their feet.

"We do not give permission for anyone to undertake sallekhana," said the first monk. "They are only permitted if they are full of enthusiasm for it, and if they are free from worldly responsibilities. First we get a diagnosis from the doctors. If the doctors say there is no cure for their disease then they can perform sallekhana. Or if they are very old and their body is no longer functioning properly."

Shradha Shri was given the special funeral rites yesterday for those who die by sallekhana. Her body was set on the funeral pyre sitting upright, instead of lying down, which is the more usual practice in India. And she was consigned to the fire still sitting upright, while her family celebrated and devotees revered her for the way she chose to die.