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|Year : 2016
: 58 | Issue : 4 | Page
|Jainism - Its relevance to psychiatric practice; with special reference to the practice of Sallekhana
Ottilingam Somasundaram1, AG Tejus Murthy2, D Vijaya Raghavan3
1 Former Superintendent and Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health, Madras Medical College, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
2 Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Puducherry, India
3 Research Assistant, Schizophrenia Research Foundation, R/7A, North Main Road, Anna Nagar West Extension, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Click here for correspondence address and
|Date of Web Publication||27-Dec-2016|
| Abstract|| |
Jainism is one of the oldest religions of India. Since the founding of the religion, Jainism has given prominence to Sallekhana, death by ritual fasting facing north, as exemplified in the deaths of Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta Maurya. The controversy whether this religious form of starvation is related to suicide is debated since the time of the early Jain teachers. History is replete with instances where kings and warriors who have failed in their duty punish themselves for their sin and welcome death as expiation. Such starvation deaths are referred to as vadakirutthal (literally, facing north) and become quite prevalent during the Sangam age, probably copied from the Jain culture. The present-day thinking on Sallekhana needs to be considered here in more detail which should be brought to the knowledge of current-day psychiatrists. These ideas are relevant to psychiatric counseling of the ordinary people and would be very useful if included in the armamentarium of the mental health professionals.
Keywords: Jainism, psychiatry, Sallekhana, Santhara, Tamil history
|How to cite this article:|
Somasundaram O, Tejus Murthy A G, Raghavan D V. Jainism - Its relevance to psychiatric practice; with special reference to the practice of Sallekhana. Indian J Psychiatry 2016;58:471-4
|How to cite this URL:|
Somasundaram O, Tejus Murthy A G, Raghavan D V. Jainism - Its relevance to psychiatric practice; with special reference to the practice of Sallekhana. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2016 [cited 2021 May 17];58:471-4. Available from: https://www.indianjpsychiatry.org/text.asp?2016/58/4/471/196702
| Introduction|| |
Jainism is one of the oldest religions of India, dating back to the 6th century BCE. According to the 2011 Census, Jains constitute 0.4% of the total Indian population. Maharashtra has the maximum number of Jains (1.3%), followed by Rajasthan (1.2%), Delhi (1.1%), and Gujarat (1%). In South India, Karnataka has 0.72% Jains and Tamil Nadu has 0.12%. In spite of the small numbers, their present-day contribution to trade and culture is remarkable; their contribution to the welfare of the marginalized society by way of munificent charities, especially for the founding and upkeep of educational and health-care institutions, is well-known.
Some of the important chronological events in Jain history could be mentioned:
- Founder of the Jain religion Vardhamana Mahavira's life spanned from 540 to 468 BCE. He is the 24th Tirthankara. Probably, the earlier ones are mythical. After attaining omniscience (kaivalya) in his 42nd year, he preached his religion all over the country for 32 years
- During 322–298 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya accompanied by Bhadrabahu, the eighth master after the passing away of Mahavira, migrated to Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. Here, both of them undertook Sallekhana (death by ritual starvation) facing north (the direction from which the Tirthankaras preached). The meaning of Sallekhana can be translated as thinning of the passions and the body and lying on the sacred dharbai (kusha) grass
- A contingent of monks was sent to Madurai to spread Jainism under the leadership of Bhutabali (66–90 CE). They took abode in the caves of the eight hills surrounding Madurai
- Establishment of Dravida Sangam in Madurai by Vajranandi in 470 CE, to continue the work of the earlier teachers
- The rapid spread of Jainism in ancient Tamil Nadu was especially due to the royal patronage of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I of Kancheepuram (600–630 CE) and the Pandya king Kun-Pandyan (“the hunchbacked Pandyan”) of Madurai (670–710 CE). The profusion of the Jain and Buddhist monks wandering the precincts of the Tamil land is mentioned “painfully” by the great Saivite Nayanmars, Appar, and Sambandar in their Thevaram poems. After the royal conversion of Pandyan to Saivism by Sambandar (after curing his intolerable abdominal pain with the sacred ash), the unsuccessful defeated Jains were put to the stakes. This version is questioned by the later day saivites.
Jainism gives the following five doctrines for its followers:
- Ahiṃsa (nonviolence)
- Satya (truth)
- Asteya (not stealing)
- Brahmacharya (chastity for laypeople and celibacy for Jain monks and nuns)
- Aparigraha (nonpossessiveness).
Accordingly, it also extols the three jewels (Triratna): Right knowledge, faith, and action.
It is not just coincidence that Thirukkural considers these aspects extensively and appropriately. This has made some scholars opine that Saint Thiruvalluvar is a Jain.
Giving education, shelter, food, and curing illnesses are considered important and these qualities are reflected in the Jain tradition of encouraging education, medical, and protective dwellings for the common humanity. Chola epigraphs refer to anjuvaan pugazhidam (literally shelter for the fearful).
Sallekhana – death by fasting (religious)
Since the founding of the religion, Jainism has given prominence to Sallekhana, death by ritual fasting facing north, as exemplified in the deaths of Bhadrabahu and Chandragupta Maurya. The criteria which must be met to qualify for this practice are:
- Intolerable personal problems
- Old age
- Incurable disease.
During this period, the subject should not desire for a better status in the next birth or a place in the heavenly abode but meditate only on Arugan (the Jain God).
There is also reference to this procedure in the 2nd century CE Sangam literature Sirupanchamoolam. The poem pleads for compassion to be shown to persons undertaking this procedure.
The popular view among Western cultures about Jainism (and Buddhism) is that they are pessimistic in their outlook and fundamental philosophy. The mention of Jainism/Buddhism brings to the Western mind, thoughts of monks and nuns clad in robes, leading austere lives characterized by asceticism, undertaking extreme penances, shunning the pleasures of the worldly life, and turning away from it. All these appear like a nihilistic attitude toward the world. In this background, the practice of Sallekhana logically appears to be a suicide equivalent. However, the aim of this current article is to try to correct this misunderstanding of the fundamental spirit and basic tenet of these Eastern religions. These religions prescribe certain morals, ethics, and values which are very general desirable human virtues which are applicable to people of all walks of life, which include the maximum proportion of the population constituted by householders. Whereas, the more severe forms of asceticism, tough rituals, and so on were reserved only for the monks and nuns who formed a significant minority. Now coming to the accusation that Sallekhana is equivalent to suicide, we must note that the practice was not sanctioned easily to all and sundry. The person who desired to undertake this “fasting unto death” would be interrogated by learned men whom he would have to convince regarding his religious and self-transcendent motive for pursuing the same. Definitely, they would not have allowed any person to take his/her own life for any reason which they found clearly unworthy of the ritual.
This controversy whether this religious form of starvation is related to suicide is debated since the time of the early Jain teachers. The early Buddhist Tamil epic Kundalakesi (the date and the author are unknown and the work is available only in parts; scholars date it to the sometime in the first millennium CE) equates this practice to suicide. However, this idea is refuted forcibly in the Tamil Jain literature of the same period, Neelakesi, as to how the stalwarts of ahimsa, i.e., the Jains could approve death by suicide. The historical time frame and author of this incomplete Jain literature are also unknown.
The “Epic of the Anklet” (Silappadikaram), by the Jain prince-turned-Jaina ascetic, Ilango Adigal, refers to this ritual fasting by the Jain nun, Kaundi Adigal. The nun provided companionship to the unfortunate Kovalan and his wife Kannagi in their arduous journey from Puhar (the Chola capital) to the fateful city of Madurai, where Kovalan was unjustly executed, which infuriated Kannagi leading her to burn the city.
In the open space smeared with cow dung
And covered over with pollen: Cowherds! No wrong
Has Kovalan done. Only the king has erred.
And I have lost her who was in my care.
Have the king's parasol and sceptre fallen
From the true path? With those words,
She leaped into the fire in the dead of night.
Enraged was Kaundi of the great penance.
She calmed down when she heard of the death
Of the king, renowned for his upright sceptre.
And she moaned: Was this the fate of those
Who were my companions? She vowed to starve
Herself to death. So ended her life.
Canto 27, Lines 85–97
Death by fasting (secular)
The above-mentioned deaths by starvation are also seen in the well-known Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Kings and warriors who have failed in their duty punish themselves for their sin and welcome death as an expiation.
Such starvation deaths are referred to as vadakirutthal (literally facing north) and become quite prevalent during the Sangam age, probably copied from the Jain culture. Sangam anthologies such as Puranaanooru are replete with such poems  [Table 1].
It is of relevance to mention here that though Sallekhana and vadakirutthal are similar in many respects, vadakirutthal should be considered as a form of suicide and very different from Sallekhana.
The present-day thinking on Sallekhana needs to be considered here in more detail which should be brought to the knowledge of current-day psychiatrists. Now, we can proceed to pay attention to the research done in this regard by the present-day jurists, Jain philosophers, and scholars. This is extensively discussed by the Karnataka jurist Justice Tukol in his masterly survey of this Jain traditional practice. Justice Tukol, in his seminal writing on Sallekhana: “Sallekhana is not suicide,” has advanced his views regarding how this religious fasting is not equivalent to suicide of laypeople. He has listed this behavior from ancient times by the great religious teachers, both men and women.
Katherina Poggendorf-Kakar calls this practice as a Celebration of Death, a process of liberating the soul by fasting oneself to death. She describes that the practice is highly respected in the Jain tradition and is prevalent not only among Jain ascetics but also among its laity. Regarding the current-day prevalence of this practice in India, the author mentions that numbers around 200–600 Jains in India are fasting to death each year – reported in Indian newspaper articles, encyclopedias, and the Internet.
Similar views are expressed in recent Jain tradition-related articles by Hotta Kazuyoshi  and Kokila.
| Conclusion|| |
Sallekhana has been in news in recent times. On August 10, 2015, the Rajasthan High Court had passed the judgment that Sallekhana or Santhara is illegal and equal to suicide, and had directed that FIRs be filed against individuals undertaking this ritual death. However, this judgment was challenged in the Supreme Court, following which the Apex Court stayed this judgment on the 31st of the same month, stating that the equating of this practice to suicide and banning it was “unconstitutional.” Following this, an octogenarian Jain woman from Bikaner announced that she was undertaking the ritual fast and gave up her life.
The Jain community in Tamil Nadu had welcomed this decision. Following this, it was not very long before an 83-year old Jain woman from Tiruvannamalai District ended her life by this procedure.
Hence, in conclusion, in the context of the present day, we need not agree with Durkheim when he says Buddhism and Jainism are pessimistic religions.
It is also a matter which concerns us that some of the material on Sallekhana has not been discussed by the present-day Indian psychiatrists including suicidologists.
We would like to discuss in brief a few other significant aspects of Jainism. The strict vegetarianism of the followers of this religion is well known. The origins of this astute shunning of the eating of animals by these peoples can be found in the times of origin of this religion. The Vedic rituals of those days demanded the sacrifice of many domesticated animals. These people feared that the rampant mass killing of livestock would lead to severe reduction in their numbers leading to serious problems in continuing agricultural and animal husbandry which was the backbone of their civilization. Hence, they might have promoted vegetarianism.
Another notable aspect is the descriptions available regarding transgender individuals, transvestism, and related subjects in those times. There is a description of a pedi koothu, i.e., a dramatic performance by a hermaphrodite, in the classic text, Silappadikaram. It was an epic written by the Tamil Jain poet Ilango, who was a close friend of Sathanar (the Tamil Buddhist poet who wrote the epic Manimekalai). This koothu is performed by the great dancer Madhavi, in the city of Puhar, in front of her lover Kovalan.
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Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
| Further Reading|| |
- Sharma RS. India's Ancient Past. Oxford India Paperbacks. Twenty-First Impression; 2015
- Rao SK. Jainism in South India. Bangalore: Suramā Prakāshana; 2009
- Vengadasaamy MS. SamanamumThamizhum (Book in Tamil). Chennai: Poompuhar Pathippagam; 2009
- Vengadasaamy MS. Kalappirar Aatchiyil Thamizhagam. Chennai: Poompuhar Pathippagam; 2010
- Kaumaareeswari Sirupanchamoolam (Book in Tamil by Kaari Asaan, c. 2nd Century CE) Saradha Pathippagam. Chennai; 2009
- Somasundaranar PV. Neelakesi. Chennai: Then India Siva Siddhantha Noorpathippu Kazhagam Ltd.; 1973.
| References|| |
Raghavan DV, Tejus Murthy AG, Somasundaram O. Treatment of the mentally ill in the Chola Empire in 11th
centuries AD: A study of epigraphs. Indian J Psychiatry 2014;56:202-4.
Parthasarathy R. TheCilappatikāram – The Tale of an Anklet. New Delhi: Penguin Books; 1993. p. 241.
Hopkins W. On the Hindu custom of dying to redress a grievance. J Am Orient Soc 1900;21:151-3.
Jotimuttu P. Pura Naanuuru – Translated into English. Madras: The Christian Literature Society; 1995.
Tukol TK. Sallekhana is Not Suicide. 1st
ed. Ahmedabad: LD Institute of Indology; 1976.
Poggendorf-Kakar K. Celebration of death: A Jain tradition of liberating the soul by fasting oneself to death (Santhara). In: Kakar S, editor. Death and Dying. Gurgaon: Viking/Penguin Group; 2014.
Holmström L. Silappadikaram-Manimekalai. Madras: Orient Longman; 1996.
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