The practice of santhara has Jains renounce food, water and earthly pleasures in order to pave their journey toward the afterlife.
MUMBAI, India — The Jain religious minority won a significant legal victory Monday when India’s Supreme Court upheld the practice of fasting until death.
The court temporarily shelved a lower-court ruling that outlawed the ritual, which is observed by a few Jain community members.
Jain groups had strongly protested the earlier ruling by a court in the northern state of Rajasthan, which said the practice of santhara — under which Jains renounce food, water and earthly pleasures to pave their journey toward the afterlife — was akin to attempting suicide.
The Supreme Court granted a stay of the judgment as it considers appeals filed by groups who advocate for Jainism, an offshoot of Hinduism.
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Praduman Jain, who helped draft an appeal, said India’s constitution “clearly gives us the right to practice our religious beliefs.”
“Jains are a peace-loving community, and it was wrong of the (Rajasthan) High Court to term our age-old tradition illegal,” said Jain, a member of a community group called Akhil Bharat Varshiya Digambar Jain Parishad.
The group’s appeal to the Supreme Court said santhara was not an act to terminate one’s life, but “a conscious process of spiritual purification.” Its proponents have sought to differentiate it from suicide, which they say is often an emotional and impulsive act, while the ritual fast on one’s deathbed is a voluntary, rational act.
It is typically carried out by the elderly and infirm. He estimated that 0.2 percent of India’s 4.5 million Jains — who observe an extreme form of nonviolence that eschews even root vegetables because they are deemed to have been alive when harvested — opt for santhara.
India has sanctioned austere practices by other religious minorities, including a ritual by the Zoroastrian Parsi group in which its corpses are laid out in the sun to be devoured by birds of prey.