Indian religious group pleads with court for right to starve themselves to death
Followers of an ancient Indian religion have petitioned the country’s Supreme Court for the right to starve to death as a religious freedom.
Leaders of the Jain religion have taken their campaign to the highest judicial body after the Rajasthan state high court declared that the centuries-old ritual of santhara was illegal as it amounted to assisted suicide.
"Santhara is an integral part of the Jain religion and the court can't interfere with its customs,” said the petition asking the Supreme Court to legalise the practice.
Thousands of Jains, who believe in a path of non-violence towards all living creatures, earlier attended a protest in Jaipur carrying banners that proclaimed: "Suicide is crime. Santhara is religion."
The ritual, which is not commonplace and is undertaken by older Jains, is believed to deliver freedom from the cycle of death to the fasters.
With the permission of family and religious leaders, they take a vow gradually to stop eating or drinking.
There are no accurate figures on how many Jains die by santhara each year, but Indian media have estimated it may be about 200.
There are about six million practitioners of Jainism, a religion that dates back to the 6th century BC.
Followers take five major vows: nonviolence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, and non-attachment to possessions.
The ultimate goal of the ascetic belief system is the liberation from rebirth by eliminating accumulated karma (the consequences of previous actions).
But human rights activists brought the case in Rajasthan arguing that santhara was an inhumane ritual with no place in the modern world.
They also raised concerns that elderly Jains might be encouraged to starve themselves to save their families the costs of supporting them.
That claim is strenuously denied by Jain leaders who have launched their appeal citing constitutional protections for religious freedom.