The Jaina way of dying

Print edition : March 02, 2018

Jain monks at the foundation day celebrations of Bahubali in Sravana Belgola in Karnataka. A file picture. Photo: Shamasunder

The two volumes are about the unique Jaina tradition that sanctions self-killing for spiritual ends.

LIVING in violent times as we do, where the cavalier loss of hundreds of human lives the world over is daily news, reading a book on death can be at once discomfiting and strangely salutary. The sense of discomfiture and finding a perspective are amplified when the book is about a spiritual tradition that actively prescribes death, that too for spiritual ends. Inviting Death and Pursuing Death are two such books—twin volumes actually—by S. Settar, the veteran historian of Jainism and of the region in India where it flourished, Karnataka.

The volumes were first published in 1986 and 1990 respectively. The editions under review have been reprinted by a different publisher. Both the volumes deal with the theory and practice of the Jaina concept of self-termination in medieval times. Sallekhana (death by starvation) is the most well-known term for this but is only one of several ways that Jainism prescribes for putting an end to one’s life to facilitate liberation of the soul ( atman).

The difference between the two volumes, however, is that Inviting Death is based almost exclusively on the vast inscriptional record of actual self-killings or ritual deaths performed by believers and devotees between the sixth and 14th centuries at Sravana Belgola, “the only centre in the ancient world whose history was shaped by death-seekers” (p. 6). The famous site, located 144 kilometres from Bengaluru, is home to the monumental monolith carved in the 10th century. The statue called Gomateshvara represents Bahubali, the foremost Jina. This book traces the early history of Sravana Belgola and its evolution from a single, sacred hill (Katavapra) and pond ( belgola, meaning white pond) to the greatest Jaina tirtha (pilgrimage centre) in India.

Along the way, it tells the story of how the changing nature and growing popularity of Jainism among a laity of elites (kings, feudal chiefs and big merchants) wrought a change in the character of the site. Sravana Belgola went from the preferred choice of monks and pious pilgrims wishing to quietly give up their lives in devotion and solitude to the busy hub of temple building, lavish patronage and celebratory festivals.

The author correlates this with the decline in the number of monks (now busy with running religious establishments), who opted for ritual death as compared to laypersons who predominate the epigraphical record from the 11th century onwards. Remarkable among such lay devotees was a family called Hire Avali. Multiple members of this family across generations religiously courted death at the feet of the Tirthankara, one after the other.

Pursuing Death, on the other hand, while its contents are anticipated to a considerable extent by the first volume, focusses more on canonical texts in Sanskrit and Kannada to elaborate the meaning, purpose, types, methods, and steps involved in this uniquely Jaina practice of bringing on one’s death. Lucidly laying out Jaina metaphysics, the author quotes from texts such as Bhagavati Aradhana and Acarangasutra, to write:

“The Jains take a pessimistic view of life and denounce the body as well as all that is enslaved to it. … The body drives one into samsara [worldly pursuits]. The more one sinks into samsara, the greater is the encrustation of the karmans on the soul.… The body is the enemy of the soul because it produces only miseries. The wise one knows very well that the one who helps destroy the body is a friend, not the one who helps preserve it…. The process of realising the paramatman [eternal state of liberation where the cycle of births and deaths ceases] warrants punishing the body. This is a means by which the karmans are conquered and the soul cleansed of its karmic encrustation” (pp. 3-6).

The idea that breaking the bonds of samsara, or sensory attachments, is central to self-realisation is to be found in streams of Indian philosophical thought other than Jainism, most notably Vedanta and Buddhism, though they use somewhat different and supplemental terminologies and understandings.

Vedanta speaks of samsara as a veil of illusion ( maya), which must be pierced by the knowledge of the true nature of reality, which is non-duality ( advaita) or the unity of the individual ( atman) and universal ( brahman) soul. Similarly, the Buddha identified desires ( trishna) as the root of all suffering ( dukham) and prescribed the giving up of all desire to achieve the cessation of suffering and, thereby, the attainment of the equanimity of enlightenment ( nirvana). There is, thus, a fundamental similarity underlying these three supposedly antagonistic schools.

The point to note, however, is that while Vedanta and Buddhism conceptualise liberation as attainable during one’s lifetime ( jivan-mukti), Jainism is the only tradition to insist on death as the precursor to liberation. Even before death, it is the mortification of the human body that is seen as essential to ridding the soul, which resides within the body, of the dirt of karmans that has accreted in and on the body and via actions performed by the body.

This emphasis on self-mortification, to be achieved by acts such as giving up nourishment on the one hand and tearing out all bodily hair on the other that lends Jainism the edge of extreme austerity, is not to be found in any other Indic philosophy or religion. It also confounds the stress on non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion for which Jainism is otherwise known, for violence is inherent in any mortification.

And yet, as the author clarifies, liberation was achieved not just through self-mortification but meditation ( samadhi) for which detachment from not just the cares of one’s own body but also the cares and norms of society was required. Nudity or shedding of clothes (digambara, nirgrantha) was the supreme symbol of this detachment; it is best associated with Jaina ascetics (p. 8). But external nakedness without a concomitant inner purity of mind was no use. The inner revolution was the end goal, preparatory to liberation.

Gender prejudice

Interestingly, the principle of nudity brings out a social contradiction within Jainism. Although a precondition for spiritual pursuit, nudity was not to be adopted by female ascetics or nuns, let alone laywomen. It was enjoined only on male devotees or monks (p. 28). The reasons for this discrimination are not hard to guess, since in a patriarchal society, naked women would have presumably been more vulnerable to assault and violation than naked men.

But the significance of this proscription seems to have run deeper than a desire to protect women from others. It reflects an in-built prejudice about the nature of women themselves. Witness what the Sutta Pahuda and the Pravacanasara have to say about them, as cited by the author: “Their mind is fickle and devoid of purity, they have monthly courses… they cannot concentrate undisturbed… liberation is not possible for women in the self-same birth…. They are pramadah (negligent) and are susceptible to infatuation, aversion, fear, disgust and crookedness. There is not a single woman in the whole world without one of these … faults” (p. 28). Interestingly, this tallies with the fact that there do not seem to be any recorded instances from this period of a woman managing a [Jaina] religious establishment, and even nuns and laywomen are seen having to take initiation more often from monks than nuns (pp. 30, 44).

What is striking is that this bias against women, down to the very language used in the quotation above, is encountered in early Buddhist texts as well, as the scholars such as I.B. Horner and Uma Chakravarti have shown. While reflecting a typically monastic anxiety over females, this also shows that misogyny cut across ideological or sectarian barriers or those between the so-called orthodox (Brahmanical) and heterodox (Buddhist/Jaina) faiths. Curiously, Settar does not comment on any of this.

Ritual death

The rest of the book describes in great detail every step on the way to ritual death. These steps are spelled out in the canon—such as the 48 kinds of death, the final 10 observances and the different postures for meditation. (Notably among these is the inclusion of sati, or burning oneself on the pyre of a husband, as one of the ways of ritual death. This is striking since sati has typically been associated by historians only with Hinduism.) This compilatory aspect of the book, where it mostly paraphrases the texts, makes it a remarkable work of reference, almost a manual on Jaina voluntary death for the Anglophone world. An excellent and extensive glossary (in both volumes) adds to this effect.

Every chapter includes a section on “In Practice: Historical Instances”, which, however, essentially harks back to the inscriptional evidence that Inviting Death, the first volume, already provides. This reality check, as it were—cross-checking textual rhetoric with epigraphic “reality”—is always a valuable exercise in history writing, especially for a practice as exceptional as courting death, which the volume documents. After all, invoking one’s own death is so counter-intuitive a human undertaking that it is natural to wonder if, prescription aside, people actually bravely went forth and gave up their lives, step by ritual step. This comparison with the inscriptions suggests they certainly did in fair numbers. However, apart from the fact that it is repetitive of volume one, this citing of data that almost always corroborates the prescriptions tends to reinforce the bare, compilatory nature of the work as a whole rather than take a critical approach. While this would make for a comprehensive introduction for non-specialists, students of history, one imagines, would be interested in the whys as much as, if not more than, the hows.

The first question that arises in one’s mind when contemplating the concept of voluntary death is, Is it not the same as suicide, and does this mean one of the great traditions of Indic belief endorsed that dire resort of distressed individuals? The author, advisedly, is at pains to underline that Jainism did not approve of suicide as we understand it conventionally. He says it is in fact enumerated among those deaths that are described as foolish and immature ( bala marana) (p. 10). Whereas ritual death, performed with Right Knowledge ( samyaka jnana), that is, full understanding of the motivation and purpose, is described as wise death ( pandita marana).

While this is a convincing and important distinction, it is confounded by the citing of the list of what were accepted as legitimate prompts or reasons for adopting ritual death. These included factors such as the grief born of the death of a loved one and the inability to bear bodily pain and illness or adversities of fate (pp.23-24, 106, 146). The inscriptions even record instances of people, especially women, committing ritual death in this manner after a beloved daughter, and in one case the daughter-in-law (surprise, surprise), passed away (p.24).

Self-annihilation through this kind of emotional escapism sounds a great deal like what we call suicide. The author, however, cannily hints in passing that the acceptance in later Jainism of any death as an achievement was meant to help laypeople access spiritual merit under a relaxed regime and a wide range of circumstances (p.15). This is perhaps the familiar dilution that comes with the popularisation of rigorous spiritual movements the world over. It does not take away, however, from the sheer wonder and uniqueness in history of the Jaina pursuit of sanctioned self-killing.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Associate Professor in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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