A reductive reading of Santhara

The judgment, on the age-old practice on Santhara, has made brief and superficial attempts to make a differentiation between Santhara and euthanasia, sati and suicide. In this abortive act of comparative sociology, the ritual dignity of Santhara has been lost

August 24, 2015 12:44 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:32 pm IST

Courts, as institutions of interpretation, intrigue citizens, and often awe them. The dignity of their ritual, the imprimatur of the official, the detailed litany of textual interpretations before a judgment is arrived at, are often impressive. Judgments often have the moral gravitas and the narrative power of a novel. Yet, a badly done judgment, even if it appeals to the secular mind, lacks conviction. One felt that about the judgments around nuclear energy; equally, one senses these limits in the judicial reading of >Santhara .

I refer to the Rajasthan High Court’s verdict against >Santhara , or the centuries-old Jain practice of voluntarily starving to death. On August 10, 2015, the court’s Jaipur Bench ruled on a public-interest litigation (PIL) filed in May 2006 against the practice. It held that Santhara would henceforth be treated as “suicide” and accordingly made punishable under the relevant sections — Section 309 (attempt to commit suicide) and Section 306 (abetment of suicide) — of the Indian Penal Code. It made its absolute rejection of the Jain philosophy underlying the practice unequivocally clear. An appeal challenging the order has now been filed in the >Supreme Court .

A way of life The word Santhara means a way of life and encompasses a way of dying as well. In Jainism, the body is seen as a temporary residence for the soul which is reborn. One must remember that a word can embrace a multiplicity of worlds and meanings. As a result, translation is one of the most difficult of acts. It demands a delicacy of understanding about words which, in their consequences, can be lethal. Equivalences are welcome when we seek unity but we need a unity that can sustain the multiple senses of difference.

The critical word here is suicide. One is almost tempted to be facetious. I remember that moment of epiphany in the film Sholay when actor Dharmendra, as the character Veeru, standing up on a water tower, tells Basanti (played by Hema Malini) that he will commit suicide. An old man in the crowd asks: “what is suicide?” The answer is profoundly wise. It says when Englishmen kill themselves, the act is called ‘suicide’.

I was struck by this scene as I read the High Court judgment on suicide in the case of Nikhil Soni vs. Union of India . There was an element of irony to it. The scene in Sholay is straight from the 1969 classic, “ The Secret of Santa Vittoria ” and yet, in the very moment of mimicry, the movie emphasises the essential drama of difference. The court judgment, while playing with the cultures of difference, eventually succumbs to a reductive act which is textually disappointing.

There are critical nuggets of information in the initial pages. It claims that the Jain attitude to the body is different from the Christian attitude to the body and that Santhara is a ritual farewell to the body; it is an act of non-violence performed as an ethical act. The court hints that for the petitioners, Santhara cannot be suicide. The etymology and the cosmologies are radically different.

The English word ‘suicide’ means a deliberate killing of oneself. The Etymology Dictionary cites W.E.H. Lecky, in a History of European Morals where he writes of the stigma attached to suicide. He claims that even in 1749, “a suicide named Portier was dragged through the streets of Paris with his face to the ground, hung from the gallows by his feet and then thrown into the sewers.” Right from its origins up to the French Revolution, suicide was a mark of stigma of criminality and pollution.

Different narrative Santhara encapsulates a different narrative. It is a ritual act of purification, done in consultation with a guru, and follows the most detailed of procedures. It cannot be an impulsive act or an egoistic one. It bears the imprimatur of theology and the approval of society.

As India became colonised, many Indian rituals came under the critical Anglo-Saxon lens, and translation and interpretation became a critical part of legal exegesis. Is Santhara a giving up of life or of taking death in one’s stride? For a culture that believes in rebirth, is Santhara philosophically or ethically suicide? The frame widens as the drama becomes sociological because then there will have to be a differentiation made between sati, suicide and Santara.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his Suicide , a groundbreaking book in the field of sociology, basically made a differentiation between three forms of suicide — the anomique, the egoistic and the altruistic genres of suicide (based on the personalities of people). Anomie is a state of normlessness of rootlessness where an individual commits suicide because nothing binds him. It is associated with social disorganisation and imbalance and Durkheim has tried to illustrate this by giving examples from economic life. Egoistic suicide occurs when the individual feels full of himself. These are suicides committed by persons who are self-centred and to whom self-regard is the highest regard. In altruistic suicide, a person sacrifices himself. It is a form of sacrifice in which a person puts an end to his life by some heroic means in order to promote or further the interest of the cause or idea dear to him. In a sociological sense, altruistic suicide comes closest to Santhara. It is a ritual of giving up the body in times of old age, famine or catastrophe or when an individual feels the need to be closer to cosmic cycles.

As one looks at the colonial interpretation, the critique of sati, where a woman sacrifices herself for her husband, brought condemnation. Santhara was read in a different way as an act of non-violence tuned to the deepest norms of Jain culture.

Language and interpretation Experts cited indicate that it adds a dignity to dying, where death is in continuum with rebirth. Shekhar Hattangadi, a Mumbai-based professor of constitutional law, has sought to outline some of these conflicts in his award-winning documentary, Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism? But one cannot reduce it to an encounter with colonialism. To place it in the alleged opposition of religion and secularism fails to read it as a failure of language. There is a flatness, a narrowness to the English language which even the presence of James Joyce, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Shakespeare could not contain. For example, the word ‘corruption’ lacks the multiple senses and the flair of society which invents words like upari , dakshina , seva for a bribe. Santhara is a multivalent term which cannot be reduced to the dreariness of suicide as closure or a termination. The English term cannot comprehend Santhara in terms of being a ritual exit and a rite of passage to a different world. Santhara, performed correctly, is ritual non-violence. In fact, I would feel that the court’s judgment misinterprets both the word and world.

There are doubts about Santhara. Many people have pointed to the coercive, even aspirational aspects of the practice. Witnesses claim that families whose reputations are at stake often refuse to let a person change his mind. There is an aspirational aspect as families of the individual who wishes to observe Santhara get respect and status, so they often tend to advertise the act. Here, Santara is often presented as sati. Its voluntariness is forgotten.

The court had to make a differentiation between Santhara and euthanasia, sati and suicide. It has made brief and superficial attempts to do so. And in this abortive act of comparative sociology, the ritual dignity of Santara has been lost. In the confusion between the literal and the symbol, between a construction of fact and celebration, the meaning is lost.

A narrow view The court — after its abbreviated move through philosophy, ethics, language and law — has reduced the whole to one narrow issue, namely the test of essentiality. It asks where Santhara is an essential tenet of Jainism and declares that it is not. Such a litmus test might work in textbook chemistry but it fails to work in the contextuality and polysemy of culture. The court could have been strict about aberrations or deviations from Santhara but to reduce the ritual act to suicide amounts to an exhibition of illiteracy. The court seems more worried about the debates on euthanasia and sati than about looking at Santhara as a cultural practice with its own repertoire of meanings.

The court claims that some rights can encompass their opposite. The freedom of speech does not compel one to speak. Yet, a right to life does not include the right to die under certain circumstances. Ethics and religion loose out to the wooden definitions of Santhara, which, as a ritual, has qualities of a controlled experiment. The court has held that extinguishing life, sacrificing it or effacing it cannot be considered as acts of dignity. A right to die cannot be a part of a right to life. In constructing such a judgment, the court’s ethno-centricity becomes obvious. It enshrines a piece of Christian theology and Anglo-Saxon law in its response to the logic of Santhara. Eventually, the judgment creates a monologic sense of life and a standardised sense of what death and dying is. In fact, it has missed an opportunity to look at life and death and the ethics of dignity and dying in a creative way. In creating such a standardised theology, the fact of justice becomes secondary. This has wider implications because words in one culture cannot lose their meaning in translation. Language and justice die or are diminished when language is deprived of its right to polysemy and to a multiplicity of meaning. When language is rendered captive, justice loses out in the long run.

The aridity of a reductive secularism often comes out in displays of language. In fact, translation becomes a test of justice. This is the epic tragedy of the Santhara judgment. It conveys the fact that nation states that can inflict and adjudicate death, often feel lost in the complexity of the phenomenon.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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