NEW DELHI – When 80-year-old Indian widow Kanwri Devi Surana suffered a mild heart attack last year, she pledged to fast herself to death in a religious practice known as “santhara”.
Her distraught family says she gave up food and then water, and passed away in Kolkata 62 days after making her vow.
“It was very distressing for us,” said her granddaughter-in-law Ankur Surana, a fashion designer. “She said god had come to her in a dream and told her to do this.”
Santhara, a custom in India's minority Jain religion, is now at the heart of a court case that pits some modern attitudes against a tradition that has been likened to assisted suicide.
Lawyer Nikhil Soni approached the high court in the northern state of Rajasthan calling for a ban on santhara in 2006, describing the practice as unconstitutional and immoral.
Although fasting is a part of Indian culture, made famous by independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who took up hunger strikes in protest against British rule, laws do not permit euthanasia or suicide.
But santhara has evaded legal intervention so far for being a religious custom dating back thousands of years.
Jains practise a strict pacifist creed, eating only selected vegetables, and taking care not to harm any living creatures.
Some wear masks across their mouths to avoid accidentally inhaling insects, and among devout Jains taking up santhara is held in high esteem.
The Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya is believed to have ended his life by observing santhara in 298 BC.
More recently Vinoba Bhave, a community leader often seen as Gandhi's spiritual successor, practised santhara during his final days in November 1982.
“Santhara is not suicide,” explained Jitendra Shah, director of the L.D. Institute of Indology in the western city of Ahmedabad. “People don't adopt it out of unhappiness, they do it consciously to attain enlightenment.”
Recalling her grandmother-in-law's last days, Ankur Surana said her death was seen as “a religious achievement”.
“She was semi-conscious, surrounded by religious-minded people, who sang to her and performed ceremonies in her honor. There was no mourning.
“Her body was carried in a huge procession with all the women wearing red instead of the customary white worn at funerals. We were told to celebrate her passing, not grieve it.”
But Soni, who is seeking to have santhara terminated, called it “a cold-blooded practice.”
“There is no right to death in the constitution,” he said. “Anyone who assists in santhara is actually assisting in an act of murder.”
Soni compared santhara to the outlawed Hindu custom of sati when widows would fling themselves on their husband's funeral pyres and burn to death.
“That used to be justified like this, as a religious procedure and a means to attaining sainthood,” he said. “Santhara has become a way for families to avoid taking care of the aged, and win some religious prestige along the way.”
Those about to undergo santhara often make a public declaration of their intent by printing announcements in the local press and their families open their homes to visitors and religious figures wishing to pay tribute.
Many Jains insist that any ban would violate their religious rights.
Politicians in Rajasthan, where Soni's case is being fought, are reluctant to enter the fray, with one MP from the state, said Arjun Ram Meghwal, “santhara is a religious matter, government has no role to play in it.”
As Soni waits for the final hearing date to be announced shortly, he said he hoped the verdict would show that “nothing, no religion gives a person the right to end their life.”
But Surana has come to accept how her grandmother-in-law chose to die.
“We never wanted her to do this, but she was such a stubborn person and so religious, that there was no point arguing with her,” she said.
“We had to accept the fact that she did not want to live any longer.”