August 24, 2015

In India, where suicide is illegal, is there an exemption for the Jain ritual of starving oneself to death?

This is a question currently before India's supreme court:
Acts of renunciation are central to many of India’s religions, but no group practices it as radically as the Jains...  No practice is more demanding than santhara [a voluntary, systematic starvation ritual undertaken every year by several hundred Jains]... According to Jain doctrine, the ordeal, which generally must be approved by a guru and the individual’s family members, burns up the film of karma that clogs the soul, allowing the spirit to break free from the cycle of rebirth and death.

In 2006, an activist based in Rajasthan named Nikhil Soni filed a court petition arguing that the practice violated the Indian prohibition of suicide. He contended that people were being encouraged to take the vow when they could no longer properly give consent and that the practice, like suttee, was used to free families of the economic burden of caring for the elderly.

“Why is it that only those people who are ill and on the verge of death are opting for santhara?” he told the documentary filmmaker Shekhar Hattangadi. “Is it that it’s being imposed on them?”...

Jain leaders... argue that the practice is constitutionally protected....
The linked NYT article contains some glowing description of the ritual.

I once gave an exam in my Religion and the Constitution class where I'd made up a religion that had the practitioners murdering each other. I kept my description respectful and couched in spiritual beliefs about death, and not one student wrote that this is murder and of course the government could and should make it illegal.

28 comments:

David Begley said...

You teach at WI; not Marquette.

How did you grade those exams?

Discount for the liberalism and moral blindness?

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I believe this technique is covered in Obamacare's end of life counseling...

Ann Althouse said...

Exams are graded on a curve. If no one perceives something, there's little or no effect on the grades. Students get credit for the sound points they do make and the grade has to do with their performance in relation to the other students.

Ron Nelson said...

So everyone gave radical Islam a pass?

mikee said...

Murder? Self-starvation? Thatcher was denounced for force-feeding IRA convicted terrorists who were on hunger strikes. Make up your mind, and quit flipping the narrative!

JackOfVA said...

Real students in a real exam or was this a dream sequence?

Or perhaps they slept through the discussion in Criminal Law class about consenting to certain things that in the absence of consent (boxing match, for example) would be a criminal act, but that certain other acts e.g., murder as in a death match fight, would not be because the state has an independent interest.

Or, perhaps the law has changed and dueling is now permitted in Wisconsin. If so, it probably would have been the best way to solve the recent Wisconsin Chief Judge controversy.

n.n said...

Suicide, like abortion, like murder, is a "wicked problem". A society may be able to prevent and can discourage it, but it has no hope of stopping people who with sufficient planning can avoid early detection. The problem is exacerbated when society chooses to aid and abet the act through promotion or normalization.

Roy Jacobsen said...

It's the natural fruit of believing that all religions are equally valid. Codswallop.

jr565 said...
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Deirdre Mundy said...

Well, given that the law recognizes the right to kill another human being provided they are very small and you find them inconvenient, why shouldn't it recognize the right to kill another human being who actually wants to be killed?

If it's legal to chop a man's penis off because he requests it, why not his head?

It seems that we're already in a place where it's not obvious that murder must be illegal, as long as it's consensual.

I mean, wouldn't the ritual really be assisted suicide (which is legal in some states?) By an unusual method, sure, but once the right to privacy covers assisted suicide, why should the METHOD matter?

What legal/moral/ethical principle gives you the right to say 'murder is always wrong?" Can you defend a band on consensual killing without resorting to religious ideas?

pm317 said...

The religious idea is not bad in and of itself if it is completely voluntary -- the person choosing to perform the religious act is of sound mind and does it of his/her own volition. Suicide has a clinical pathology associated with it that is not there with this religious practice. It becomes a problem (murder in your words) when it gets abused and the person performing the act is coerced and forced to do it. The gurus who give permission should be the ones to police such a practice but there is always corruption and bad practice. So make a law and make the abuse criminal.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

With all those call centers, you'd expect that India would have some pretty good suicide prevention hotlines.

pm317 said...

I vaguely remember reading that suicide is illegal in India because some people (murderers) have abused it by pushing someone to death and calling it suicide. Make a law and make the abuse criminal -- every suicide will be investigated to see if it is a murder. It is a fucked up world.

pm317 said...

It is no longer 'is the death a suicide or murder?'; it is 'is the so called suicide a murder?' or 'is the so called death by religious practice a murder?' It is a fucked up world.

Eugene said...

In Japan it's called sokushinbutsu and it's illegal, the last known case dating back a century. Some temples still house the mummified bodies of priests who "successfully" completed the process.

lgv said...

"It's the natural fruit of believing that all religions are equally valid. Codswallop."

If you believe that they are all equally invalid, then you get a much different result.

How about people who die in an exorcism. Is that OK?

Sebastian said...

They should just buy a plane ticket to Belgium. Problem solved.

Next up on AA exam: comparative question about he proper treatment of murder-approving religion vs. SSM-disapproving religion.

Roy Jacobsen said...

"If you believe [all religions] are all equally invalid, then you get a much different result."

Not really. Putting all religions or religious thought into either category (valid or invalid) is erroneous, and leads to further error.

"How about people who die in an exorcism. Is that OK?"

Why would you ask that? Is the death of the subject an explicit goal of the exorcism? You can just as easily ask "What about people who die in an operation? Is that OK?"

clint said...

Absent the religious elements, would this even be remotely controversial?

Sick, elderly people refusing to eat or take their medicine and telling people they're ready to let go?

Isn't the entire hospice movement built around the idea that it's okay at some point to stop fighting and refuse feeding and just accept palliative care until you die?

Don't we write living wills and discuss the end of life with our family in order to make sure "heroic measures" are suspended at some point?

I'm not seeing the controversy.

Are they proposing to strap people down and force feeding tubes down their throats to keep them alive against their will?

I'm all for talking with the patients and making sure the choice really is theirs and uncoerced -- but after that, what's the alternative to honoring their wishes?

Basil said...

That says volumes about the moral bankruptcy of your students, their parents and the society that produced them. How did it all go away so fast?

I guess the Romans might have had the same thought right before the sacking of Rome.

pm317 said...

For people who don't know anything about Jainism, the preeminent message of that religion is non-violence. If you read the article, the cases quoted are of wealthy families and 90+ year-old who of their own volition, choose to practice giving up everything material in life over a period of time and then food and water for the final passage. I subscribe to autonomy in my death and I would have no objection to this practice if done without abuse and is entirely the person's choice. But because of poverty and illiteracy, abuse of this practice can happen. How do you prevent such abuse?

MB said...

"Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs."

Charles James Napier

Sayyid said...

"I kept my description respectful and couched in spiritual beliefs about death, and not one student wrote that this is murder and of course the government could and should make it illegal."

This surprises you? One of the key skills of students, and law students in particular, is writing to the professor/judge in question. Clearly your "respectful" description and/or teaching method and/or blog posts gave the students the impression that they'd be rubbing against your ideology if they went the Scalia "it's a generally applicable law, screw your religion" route. They simply took the context clues.

More generally, the last thing someone wants to do on a law exam (which usually ends up the only meaningful factor in final grades) is shoot themselves in the foot by going out on an ideological limb. Too many zealots out there in academia looking for a chance to screw over disagreeing viewpoints.

pm317 said...

where I'd made up a religion that had the practitioners murdering each other. I kept my description respectful and couched in spiritual beliefs about death, and not one student wrote that this is murder and of course the government could and should make it illegal.

I just read this carefully. Althouse, your religion sucks and it is not remotely the same as Jainism, the topic of this court case. There is no one murdering the other in Jainism. I am an atheist but I don't subscribe to this kind of intolerance about a religion about which you know nothing.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I'm not a lawyer, and googling, all I could get is "Murder is the UNLAWFUL killing of one human being by another."

So wouldn't the religion question be "Is this killing unlawful?"

What makes a particular killing unlawful? Is mutually assisted suicide illegal? (For some reason, I'm picturing the hypothetical as 2 men with swords simultaneously beheading each other in a ritual duel)

Even if it was illegal, if it was successful, there'd be no one to punish. I mean, sure, your life insurance wouldn't pay out, but other than that?

It would certainly be possible to legalize ritual homicide if the political will was there. What would be a compelling reason NOT to, as long as such a ritual occurred between consenting adults? After all, we already have laws in place to protect against NON-consensual killing.

Hmmm... question. I hire a hitman to kill me. Have I committed a crime?

Lem said...
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lgv said...

"Why would you ask that? Is the death of the subject an explicit goal of the exorcism? You can just as easily ask "What about people who die in an operation? Is that OK?"'

Because absent the exorcism, they would not have died.

Anonymous said...

The reaction of your class to the question is face-palm worthy.

This is a somewhat unique circumstance because the practice involves a non-action - that is, instead of committing a direct act of harm to their body, the person instead refrains from performing an act needed to sustain life.

Can the government force someone to eat who is of sound mind? And perhaps more important, how does this practice differ in nature from allowing someone to shut off the machines that sustain their life and allow nature to take its course?

My opinion is that the government is within its rights to suggest the person not do this and make sure that sustenance is available and given should the person change their mind, but that forcing someone to do what they don't want to do crosses a line.