Santhara: An acceptable suicide
Abhishek Rathee 30 Mar 2020

Santhara: An acceptable suicide

The practice of Santhara, a custom practiced in the Jain faith, was brought to the social front when the PIL was placed before the Rajasthan High Court, which opened the debate as to whether the practice of Santhara falls within the limits of section 309 of the IPC on suicide, and whether the people who gave their support to the practice can be charged as suicide advocates under section 306 of the IPC.

This topic was not only significant to the Jain community, as it not only contained religious meaning, but also opened the debate whether the right to life also included the right to death and whether this state intervention infringes the freedom of religion.

The Concept. 

Santhara or Sallekhana is a religious practice in the Jain community where it is believed to be a means by which moksha (salvation) can be attained. It includes a person undertaking fast to death when he has fulfilled all the purposes of his life or when his body does not work.

The practice of Santhara shall be carried out in the following manner:

  1. The person willing to commit Santhara must first discuss this with his priest before taking the vow of Santhara.
  2. Further, he has to announce it publically.
  3. He also practices michhami dukkadam, where he apologizes to people for the hurt he has done during his lifetime, and then takes meditation for introspection.
  4. He then gradually begins to detach himself from food and water, whereby his soul finally leaves his body and attains moksha (salvation).

According to Jains, this is a way of purging oneself from bad karma and achieving moksha. Within the Jain community, the tradition of renouncing all impulses and desires and taking death in its own footsteps is highly regarded. While there is no mention of a specific age for pursuing santhara, as it needs an end to all purposes of life, it is taken only by elderly people.

The Controversy

It was claimed in the PIL that Santhara amounts to self-destruction and hence amounts to suicide under section 309 of the IPC and that it also violates the right to life as a right to death is not provided for in Part III of the Constitution. In the present case, however, there were reasons for separating Santhara from suicide

“The main psychological and physical features of suicide are: (1) The victim is under an emotional stress; (2) He or she is overpowered with a feeling of disgrace, fear, disgust or hatred at  the time when suicide is resorted to; (3) The main intention of committing suicide is to escape from the consequences of certain acts or events; disgrace, agony, punishment, social stigma or tyranny of treatment etc. (4) The kind is far away from religious or spiritual considerations (5)The means employed to bring about the death are weapons of offence or death; (6) The death is sudden in most cases unless the victim is rescued earlier; (7) The act is committed in secrecy (8)it causes misery or bereavement to the kith and kin.”

Therefore, on the basis of a contrast between these features and the steps involved in Santhara, the disparity between the two can easily be reported.

In addition, the judgments of Gian Kaur, in which the Constitutional Court of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 309 of the IPC by overruling P. The case of Rathinam and the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution do not include the: ‘right to die’ or the ‘right to be killed’ and Aruna Ramchandra Shambhaung still exists a void that needs to be filled with respect to the idea of suicide and the' right to die.' Gian Kaur who invalidates the wrongful termination of life while Aruna Shambhaung only accepts passive euthanasia but, in both cases, the death in question was favoured due to escape from life and to guilt and escape from life. If one deals with situations where, out of guilt and frustration with life, a person makes a sudden decision to bring an end to life and the latter deals with a situation where, out of constant and intolerable pain and misery, death is assumed to be a relief rather than a continuation of life in this way, and not only by passive means and not through active termination of life. The case with santhara does not fall in any of the two realms, since either here or the decision to end life is a sudden decision to escape life out of frustration, and neither is the decision taken out of persistent and intolerable pain and misery, i.e. it is not a case of' mercy killing.' It is a situation where a person who believes that all his or her worldly tasks are finished and that he or she must also celebrate death and embrace death in his or her own footsteps.

Not an essential practice

The judgment of the High Court also finds that Santhara is not an integral practice of the Jain faith and hence the security of the Constitution cannot be provided on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The court holds that there is no integrity whatsoever in the act of fasting and that, therefore, there is no freedom to practice Santhara as an extension of one's right to life under Article 21. Since the 1960s, the court has reviewed individual religious canons on a case-by-case basis to decide what constitutes an important religious activity. “We do not find in any of the scriptures, preaching, articles or practices followed by the Jain ascetics, the Santhara has been treated as an essential religious practice, nor is necessarily required for the pursuit of immortality or moksha.”

The Jain community disagreed, however, that the Santhara was not an exercise in the search of an unnatural death, but rather a custom inherent in the ethical decision of a person to live with dignity until death. It is a ceremonial act of purification, carried out in consultation with the guru, and follows the most thorough procedures. According to religious scriptures, this is allowed and is an integral part of Jainism. 


In its appeal, the Supreme Court was satisfied that the crime of Santhara was distinct from that of suicide under section 306 of the IPC and that the decision of the High Court of Rajasthan to declare Santhara an offense remained.

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