09/29/2006, 00.00
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Pressures to ban Jain suicide ritual in Rajasthan

by Prakash Dubey

Jain religious authorities are to appear before High Court to defend Santhara, a ritual causing death. The issue became front page news after a woman, Vimla Devi, died after 13 days of fasting.

Gorakhpur (AsiaNews) – An ancient Jain ritual that goes back a thousand years has become a major controversy in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, where a Hindu lawyer has petitioned the local High Court to ban this "social evil".

Vimla Devi, a 63-year-old Jain, died yesterday after 13 days of self-imposed fasting as required by the ancient religious ritual of Santhara. Ms Devi was a member of the Shwetamber [White] sect, which, according to a Jain religious leader, "preaches voluntarily stop taking food, water and medication to save the soul. Oftentimes the ritual is undertaken by the elderly or the sick who seek to separate the soul from the body".

In Ms Devi's case, fasting began on September 15 after she was diagnosed with having a tumour in an advanced stage. By refusing medication, White sect members believe she began "to distance herself from earthly sorrow and achieve her soul's salvation".

Her decision has led to a legal battle now before the High Court of Rajasthan. Madhav Mishra, a Hindu lawyer, has filed a petition describing Santhara as a "social evil" that ought to be considered a "crime".

For him, the law that bans the Hindu ritual of Sati in which a widow immolates herself on her husband's funeral pyre should apply to "such kinds of deaths. And the practice of Santhara".

The High Court admitted the petition and issued notices to the Union and state governments as well as Jain groups to "explain why Santhara should not be declared illegal".

Jains did not wait long before reacting. Many followers responded angrily to the lawyer's petition and the judges' response, "all Hindus who judge on the basis of prejudices".

For Abishek Jain, a Jain businessman, "Santhara is one of the most ancient and venerated tradition of our religion. I wonder how anyone could compare it to Sati, which is nothing more than violence against women. We are not prepared to have Hindus interfere in the matter. It is an attempt to reduce our religion to theirs."

The Court will hold its first hearing on the matter next October 5 saying that would be the best venue to settle the issue.

A local Catholic who chose to speak anonymously for security reasons told AsiaNews that the ritual "should not be considered spiritual because human beings do not have the right to kill themselves. Still it has strong appeal among Jains and the court's intervention will only whip up the controversy. In any event as Christians we cannot accept such an act of violence against human life."

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