On Monday, the Indian Supreme Court lifted a ban that it had implemented earlier last month on Santhara, a religious practice in Jainism which consists of preparing for death by stopping the consumption of water and food. It is commonly practiced amongst very old or terminally ill Jain followers as a form of purifying the body. The ban was reversed after a petition stated that unlike suicide, which Santhara is usually equated to, this practice is “a conscious process of spiritual purification where one does not desire death but seeks to live his life, whatever is left of it, in a manner so as to reduce the influx of karmas.”
In more ways than one, Santhara can be compared to euthanasia, another highly debated practice. Both of these practices suggest that, in some cases, death is not only humane, but also logical. If deliberately causing someone pain is discouraged, then deliberately allowing someone to live in suffering should also be discouraged. While Santhara and euthanasia might fit into the explicit definition of suicide, they are very different from the suicidal acts society seeks to prevent. The practices of Santhara and euthanasia are not impulsive acts of erroneous hopelessness. Santhara and euthanasia, however, are different in one fundamental way: there is no religious connotation in the practice of euthanasia.
In today’s day and age, there is often a clash between the laws concerning human rights and the beliefs of a particular religious group. There is often a stigma around religious beliefs and the general population is predisposed to be skeptical about practices such as Santhara. After years of advocacy, euthanasia is more understood and accepted today. After years of being practiced, Santhara is still questioned.
Do human rights conflict with religious beliefs? That question will never be answered in a straightforward way. Many issues being debated today turn into a war between human rights and religion. More often than not, the religious standpoint is incoherent or extreme, never really arguing a clear and logical point of view. However, once in a while, a religious argument like Santhara comes along that is cohesive and coherent. Because of this, it deserves a chance.
Santhara provides us with the only important characteristic in a debate of human rights, regardless of religious affiliation: reasoning. For today’s generation to limit sometimes ancient religious and cultural practices simply because they correspond with a different way of thinking is wrong. Ultimately, regardless of culture or religion, perceptions of right and wrong are complicated and deserve to be debated, analyzed and considered from all sides. Because that is how things are supposed to be.