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Sallekhana: For the unaware, fasting to death may seem painful but it is one of the sacred tenets of Jainism.
A tall, lean man with a visible rib cage lies on the bed with his left leg slightly folded towards his right leg. The elderly man is surrounded by Jain nuns who offer prayers, holding brooms (pichchi) made of abandoned peacock feathers in their hands. J Sreepalan has been undergoing Sallekhana (Santhara), a religious death through fasting, at the Visakacharya Taponilayam near Vandavasi in Tiruvannamalai district since April 3.
A devoted Tamil Jain belonging to the Digambar sect, Sreepalan stopped consuming food and water on April 14. Rejecting food, and then water helps one enter the final stages of this traditional practice. It is on the seventh day and scholars feel that he may attain ‘samadhi maran’ anytime.
Sreepalan, who retired as personal assistant to commissioner of Treasuries and Accounts, Government of Tamil Nadu, is a native of Veeranamur, a village in Villupuram district. “After retirement from service, he has been leading a life following the core principles of Jainism. He is an ardent follower of great Jain social worker Jeevabandhu T S Sripal. When he turned 91, he felt that the time had come for him to pursue the life of ascetics. He went to Visakacharya Taponilayam and took a vow for the Sallekhana,” says K Ajithadoss, a Jain scholar based in Chennai.
Sreepalan’s name has been changed to Swathmasagara Digambar Jain Muni, a practice followed in the case of the Jains who have taken the vow of Sallekhana. “He stopped taking solid food first and, since April 14, he has stopped taking even water. This is the final stage and a process of liberation takes place mentally as well as physically,” he said.
At least 18 Jains, including seven male and six female ascetics, have attained Samadhi maran after undergoing Sallekhana in Tamil Nadu since 2017.
Sallekhana is a highly respected practice in Jainism, one the community believes leads an individual to a world of non-violence after rejecting the material world. “Sallekhana is the great contrivance to cross the ocean of transmigration,” according to scholars Jayanti Lal Jain and Priyadarshana Jain. “The physical body is the boat, the soul is the ferryman and the worldly existence is the ocean which the seers cross through the great noble exercise of spiritual absorption called Sallekhana. The purpose of human life is liberation and Sallekhana is the greatest of all tools to achieve this ultimate and blissful state,” they write in their book titled “Essence of Sallekhana: Living while Dying.”
According to the Tamil Digambara tradition, a Sallekhana vow can be taken for maximum 12 years and minimum 48 minutes. Those who undertake the vow can decide on when to start the actual course of renunciation of the material world during this period. One attains samadhi maran after renunciation of food and water and it takes minimum 30 to 35 days in a normal case.
Sallekhana is supreme austerity (tapa) and results in immense karmic annihilation, say scholars Jayanti Lal Jain and Priyadarshana Jain. “In the course of Sallekhana, one observes equanimity, expiration, renunciation, introspection, self-restraint, meditation and detachment through heightened awakening and relinquishment of all that is mundane – be it body, food, medicines, and society etc. Sallekhana is not only a spiritual design but a powerful strategy to uproot materialism and all karmic fetters,” they write.
Jainism in Tamil is called ‘Samanam’ and Tamil Jains are called ‘Samanar’. There are two main sects in Jainism: Digambara and Svetambara. Tamil Jains belong to the Digambara sect. There are around 26,000 Tamil Jains living in various parts of Tamil Nadu today.
At least 18 Jains, including seven male and six female ascetics, have attained Samadhi maran after undergoing Sallekhana in Tamil Nadu since 2017. The rising number shows the return of faith in the religion. “Many elders in the community have come forward with vows for Sallekhana as they think it is the best way to liberate their body from the material world. The trend has gone up after the Supreme Court in 2015 stayed an order of the Rajasthan high court which had banned the Jains from practising Sallekhana,” said Ajithadoss.
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