Sallekhanā, the Jain Fast Unto Death

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Sallekhanā, the Jain Fast Unto Death
By Jonathan Dickstein, PhD

Heated debates concerning an ancient Jain practice reached a high point on August 10th, 2015 when the Rajasthan High Court issued a ban on sallekhanā, the Jain ritual fast unto death. The court ruled that the Constitution of India “does not permit nor include under Article 21 the right to take one's own life, nor can include the right to take life as an essential religious practice under Article 25 of the Constitution” (D.B.Civil Writ Petition No.7414/2006). Shortly thereafter, the Indian Supreme Court issued a stay on the ban, permitting the practice to continue unobstructed by law. The “Is sallekhanā suicide?” question became somewhat of a moot point on, April 7th, 2017, if only from a legal perspective, when the Indian Parliament decriminalized suicide through the passage of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017


From a nonlegal perspective the issue remains sensitive for Jains and is integral to a holistic understanding of ritual in Jainism. If sallekhanā is interpreted as a type of suicide and, according to the Act, “any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress…” then the assumption is that Jains who knowingly hasten the end of their lives through self-deprivation do so owing to “severe stress.” However, the Jain tradition not only rejects the interpretation of sallekhanā as suicide[1] and prohibits the act of suicide itself, but it also maintains that the absence, rather than the presence, of “severe stress” is a precondition for the “spiritual purification” effected through sallekhanā.


Sallekhanā (see also: samādhi-maraṇa, santhara, paṇḍita-maraṇa, and others) literally means “thinning out” or “emaciating.” It is a terminal fast undertaken by both ascetics and laypersons. The late first millennium BCE Ācārāṅga Sūtra (1.7.5-6) prescribes the practice for monks, and another canonical text from the same era, the Tattvārtha Sūtra, encourages the practice for non-ascetics (TS 7.17). There is a sizable inscriptional record for the ritual, especially in south India where hundreds of memorials (niṣidhis) were erected for those who completed the fast.[2] Numerous Common Era texts pertaining to proper conduct for laypersons (śrāvakācāras)[3] describe the ritual in detail, such as Samantabhadra’s Ratnakaraṇda Śravakācāra (RKS) and Śivārya’s Mūlārādhanā. 


Sallekhanā is performed gradually, with the participant renouncing emotions and asking forgiveness (RKS 124), reflecting on the three ways (i.e., performed oneself/kṛta, performed for others/kārita, approved of/anumodana) they have acted unrighteously (RKS 125), and giving up additional negative mental states and focusing on Jain scriptures (RKS 126). The individual then initiates the fasting ritual proper, beginning with the renunciation of solid foods, then fatty liquids (snigdha-pāna), then hot and/or pungent liquids (khara-pāna) (RKS 127), and finally all liquids. While fasting, the participant should, with determination until the moment of death, fix their mind on the pañca-ṇamokāra/Namokar Mantra (RKS 128). Ideally the process is supervised by a Jain monk to assist the participant and ensure its ritual consistency. 


Why fast unto death?


In Jainism, the core existential problem is not that one will die at the end of their one and only embodiment. Rather, due to the karmas that one accumulates in this life and has accumulated over previous lifetimes, their soul (jīva) will be propelled into a succeeding birth that itself will end, predictably, in death. This cycle repeats ceaselessly unless all karmas are exhausted, avoided, and shed, a process culminating in liberation (mokṣa) from the phenomenon of rebirth. Relevantly, while the term sallekhanā signifies the diminishment of the physical body from fasting, it also refers to the “thinning out” of the passions (kaśāyas) and karmas of the aspirant. Fasting is a—if not the—principal austerity in Jainism, and as the Tattvārtha Sūtra succinctly states: tapasā nirjarā ca, or, “And [in addition to inhibiting karmas (aśrava)] austerities shed karma (nirjarā)” (TS 9.3). As a fast, sallekhanā dovetails with foundational Jain beliefs about saṃsāra and karma, a fact that—along with its historical precedent—troubles the Indian Supreme Court’s claim that it is not an “essential religious practice.” 


Texts such as the Ratnakaraṇda Śravakācāra express that if significant—and eventually inevitable—material conditions, such as old age or an incurable and debilitating disease, dramatically hinder one’s ability to follow Jain dharma (i.e., the Three Jewels/ratna-traya: right view/samyak-darśana, right knowledge/samyak-jñāna, and right conduct/samyak-cāritra), then it is preferable to undertake sallekhanā to continue the path of “thinning out” passions and actions that generate new karmas and prevent the shedding of extant karmas. 


The noble ones call [the practice of] liberation from one’s body ‘sallekhanā’, [undertaken] for the sake of righteousness (dharma) in the case of calamity, famine, old age, or incurable disease. (RKS 122).[4]


The vow to undertake sallekhanā should not be motivated by a fear of death or a desire for death itself. In fact, Ratnakaraṇda Śravakācāra 129 includes thoughts about living and dying and the fear of death among the five transgressions (aticāras) of a legitimate sallekhanā. Rather the fast is adopted because one’s external and/or physical circumstances impede their ability to effectively practice other aspects of Jain dharma, or, to borrow the words of James Laidlaw, because their life is now, from a karmic perspective, “a life worth leaving.”[5] 


The fast unto death is not, and probably never was, a dominant practice among ascetics and certainly not among laypersons. The practice is almost wholly a feature of Digambara Jainism even if explicitly supported by the Śvetāmbara sect. Nevertheless, on February 18, 2024, revered Digambara monk Acharya Shri Vidyasagarji Maharaj, having previously taken the vow of sallekhanā, left his body. The event was celebrated and publicized. Sallekhanā has endured for millennia, is far from an aberration, and continues, supported by the Jain community, into the 21st century. 


[1] For a modern defense cited in the 2015 Rajasthan High Court case, see Tukol, T.K. Sallekhana is Not Suicide. Ahmedabad: Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Institute, 1976. 

[2] Desai, Pandurang Bhimarao: Jainism in South India and Some Jaina Epigraphs. Sholapur: Jaina Samskriti Samrakshaka Sangha, 1957; Kothari, Namrata. Santhara: A Jain Ritual of Fast Unto Death. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2022; Settar, S. Inviting Death: Historical Experiments on Sepulchral Hill. Dharwad: Karnatak University, 1986; Settar, S. Pursuing Death: Philosophy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life. Dharwad: Karnatak University, 1990. 

[3] Williams, Robert. Jaina Yoga: A Survey of the Medieval Śrāvakācāras. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. 

[4] Balcerowicz, Piotr. Early Asceticism in India: Ājīvikism and Jainism. London: Routledge, 2016; Jain, Champat Rai, trans.. Ratnakaranda Shravakachara of Samantabhadra: The Spiritual Life of the Householder, edited by Jagdish Prasad Jain. Delhi: Kaveri Books, 2022. 

[5] Laidlaw, James. “A Life Worth Leaving: Fasting to Death as Telos of a Jain Religious Life.” Economy and Society 34, no. 2 (2005): 178–99.



Jonathan Dickstein, Assistant Professor at Arihanta Institute, completed his PhD in Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He specializes  in South Asian Religions, Animals and Religion, and Comparative Ethics. His current work focuses on Jainism and contemporary ecological issues, extending into Critical Animal Studies, Food Studies, and Diaspora Studies. 


Professor Dickstein's course Jain Approaches to Animal Sentience is available now in the self-paced, online course catalogue. 


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