Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Month in Review (Part I): Jainism, the National Geographic Channel Show “Taboo”, Semi-automatic Dead People and the Truth Behind the Camera Adding Ten Pounds

So it’s been a little over a month since I have been on the blog and quite a few interesting things have happened.  The first of my interesting experiences (and the first in my four-part blog series “The Month in Review”) in the last 30 days was my primetime cable television debut as an “expert” for the National Geographic Channel’s documentary program “Taboo” on October 30th. 

The episode I was featured in was titled “Unusual Burials” and presented a segment on a company down south called Holy Smoke that packs your loved one’s cremated remains into ammunition cartridges and then another segment on the Jain ritual of fasting to death known as Sallekhana.  I got to give my two cents about both topics and as a bioethicist and scholar of religion who was serving in the role of “Caption Obvious” on the show I weighed in on what the different religious traditions have to say about encasing the earthly remains of the deceased into a shotgun shell.  According to my research, shockingly, none of the religions say anything about it whatsoever. [Insert sound effect of dissapointment…waa-waah]  So just FYI, doing a google search of what the Bible or the Koran or Torah have to say about it probably won’t get you anywhere, though you will probably find some pretty interesting YouTube videos along the way.  The second segment of the show on the topic of Sallekhana was a little more up my alley in that it documented the final four weeks in the life of Mattaji, an elderly Jain nun who was in the last stages of her twelve year long vow of Sallekhana, which would ultimately result in her death as a result of starvation.

For the last six years people have been asking me “Who are the Jains?” and “What in the heck is Sallekhana?”  And now that the show has aired I am getting these questions via text, tweet, e-mail, facebook message and stranger on the street in numbers I simply didn’t expect.  So I would like to take this opportunity to elaborate on some of the themes central to Jainism that just couldn’t be covered given the time constraints of the show.

So without further ado…

Jainism is an ancient Indic religion that teaches followers that the path to enlightenment requires commitment to non-violence and strict asceticism.  Followers of Jainism are known simply as Jains and for nearly three millennia Jains have been one of the smallest but most influential religious minority groups in India.  Currently, they number around 3 million in a country of over 1 billion people and in the last few decades Jain communities have popped up in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Singapore and Thailand.

The religious icon of the Jain faith.

So what do they believe?  Jains do not believe in a supreme omnipotent being.  Instead, they believe that every being on this earth, from a blade of grass to a human contains a living soul, called a jiva. Each of these souls, whatever species it may be in, is considered of equal value and should be treated with respect and compassion.  Thus, 
Jains are strict vegetarians and pacifists and in fact are so careful not to disturb the environment they refuse to farm or pick fruit from trees on religious principle.  I happened to be in Gurgaon, India during the Monsoon season and everyday when it rained hundreds of thousands of very tiny little frogs would hop around on the steppingstones of the temple I was staying at.  None of the Jains would step outside until all of the frogs had hopped back into the grass for fear of accidentally stepping on one.

Like Hindus, Jains believe in reincarnation and seek to attain ultimate liberation – meaning the ultimate goal is to stop the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth and release the soul into an immortal state that knows all and can see all but feels nothing.  They call it moksha but we here in the West might be more familiar with it by another name: nirvana.

Jains believe that 24 individuals have achieved moksha 
and these souls are known as the Tirthankaras.

So how does one achieve liberation?  Liberation or moksha is achieved by eliminating all karma from the soul.  In the West we have come to use the word karma as if it is synonymous with the notion of what goes around comes around.  But for Jains karma is believed to be an invisible physical substance that clings to the soul.  So for every thought or act karmic particles adhere to the soul or jiva.  Thus, the more you think, the more you act, the more life experience you acquire, the more karmic particles stick to you weighing down the soul and making it harder for the soul to break free from the prison of the body and be released.  Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to point out that the Jain view of the body is very different than the Judeo-Christian understanding of the body.  Judeo-Christianity views the body as the temple of God whereas for Jains the body is a prison for the soul.  The soul is believed to transcend the flawed physical form all being take on as opposed to the Judeo-Christian notion of the physical form being corrupted by sin but ultimately created in the image of God.

Each soul has to achieve liberation or nirvana, if you like, through its own efforts.  Remember there is no god to go to for advice or to curry favor with.  In the life of a Jain, one reaps what one sows.  A person’s physical form is a direct representation of the karma they accumulated in their past lives.  For example, physical characteristics such as being tall, having fair skin and an athletically proportioned body are the result of karma just as short stature, a bad complexion, and physical disability are believed to be punishment or rather the result of karma accrued from transgressions in previous lives.  Also the family you are born into is seen as either a karmic reward or punishment for the actions you performed in a previous life. 

This is the demi-goddess Padmavati

So in order to prevent one’s soul from accumulating karma there are five supreme mahavrates or vows that a Jain must take.  The chief vow is that of ahimsa, or the practice of non-violence.  The others are non-attachment to possessions, truthfulness, not stealing and sexual restraint with celibacy as the ideal.  For those who do not choose to become monks or nuns and instead opt to become householder the five vows are modified to allow for the possession of property and the act of intercourse for procreation and these vows are called anuvratas rather than the mahavrates.  It is believed that these principles when practiced diligently lead to the three pillars of Jain faith: “right knowledge, right conduct and right belief.”

Now on the question of “Who are the Jains?  There are four basic kinds of Jains.  There are Jain monks (sadhus), Jain nuns (sadhvis), Jain householder men (shravakas) and Jain householder women (shravikas).  One of the most revered symbols in Jainism is the svastika, with the four quadrants of the svastika representing the four stations of the Jain soul through the cycle of life.  This svastika should not be confused with the Nazi party’s swastika, which is the ancient Indic svastika’s reversed image and was in fact adopted by Adolf Hitler for its association with the theory of a pre-historic Aryan invasion of the Indian sub-continent.  But that is a whole other blog post for another time.

Is there a hierarchy to the four types of Jain people?  Supposedly no, but spend some time in Northern India and read some of the Jain histories and it becomes fairly clear that the lay women occupy the bottom wrung of the Jain social and spiritual ladder.  For example it is believed among certain Jain sects that a woman must be reincarnated as a man before she can even hope to try for the possibility of achieving liberation or moksha.

Depending on the family a child comes from Jain boys and girls can select their life path or have it selected for them by around the age of eight, which is the age at which the boys and girls can enter the monastery and become sahdus and sahdvis.  Those that do not become holy men and women thus become householders.  The basic rules for monks and nuns and householders are all the same, it is just that the monks and nuns are expected to adhere to them more strictly.  For example, monks and nuns can never have sex, but householders are permitted to engage in a limited amount of intercourse for the purposes of procreation and ideally only to produce one or two children, enough to replace themselves. 

Jain monks lead especially austere lives.  Jain monks of the Svetambar sect wear only a single piece of white unstitched cloth while monks of the Digambar sect live out their lives completely naked.  The rationale is that to have clothing is to possess material wealth and since one of the five vows of Jainism is non-possession clothes don’t make the cut. 

Monks renounce all possessions but are allowed a feather
broom (pictured here) to sweep the ground before them so
they don't step on any little creatures. 

I would imagine at this point that some of you are thinking, “this is really interesting Whitny but what do naked monks and reincarnation have to do with that Sallekhana thing and the old lady starving herself to death?”  Well if you will indulge me a little further, we have learned a little about how Jains live, now let us discuss how they die.

I am going to make a bold statement here.  The ideal death in the Jain faith is ritual suicide by means of starvation.  Only they don’t call it suicide, they call it Sallekhana, and they are very quick to point out that the act of starving oneself to death is the most natural, normal and peaceful way to die and is in no way suicide, as suicide means inflicting injury on oneself.  In their view slow starvation is simply allowing nature to take its course and facing death bravely.

It is believed that the only way to purge karma from the soul is through asceticism, which means that monks and nuns deny themselves the pleasures of the world in order to attain spiritual bliss.  The idea is that if you deny yourself all sensual pleasures, feel nothing, fear nothing, live for nothing then you can focus on the soul and either attain enlightenment or at least be reincarnated in the next life in a better physical form.  This might be an appropriate time reiterate that a woman (in certain sects) who adheres to the strict rules of asceticism can only hope to improve her physical being to the level of a man in the next life.  In the original and traditional texts only men are able to attain liberation.

Jain scriptures are addressed mainly to the monks.  It could be argued that this focus on the monks has resulted in a great deal of improvisation and variation in the spiritual rituals of nuns and householders.  But the importance of asceticism occupies the central place in Jainism and regardless of the existence of a spiritual hierarchy monks, nuns, and the lay members of the Jain community ideally all meet death the same way.  So regardless of whether or not they practiced extreme asceticism for the majority of their life or were a housewife until the death of their husband and then became a nun at age 80 they will practice asceticism when nearing death.  And they will meet death via Sallekhana.

Sallekhana, in Jain thought, is embracing death voluntarily.  When both householders and ascetics foresee that the end of life is very near either due to old age, senility, incurable disease, severe famine, attack from an enemy or a wild animal, etc. they take the vow of Sallekhana, meaning they commit themselves to slow starvation.  And the vow can be taken in three different forms representing three different levels of rigor. 
1.     The longest vow of Sallekhana is twelve years in duration
2.     The medium vow is one year in duration
3.     The short vow is anything up to six months in duration

At the point that a person decides to take the vow of Sallekhana they must ask permission from their guru.  To clarify, a guru would be a monk who serves as a preceptor and advises the person on spiritual matters.  Increasingly Jains are seeking the permission or at least an opinion from their physician as well as their guru.  Assuming that permission is granted the person either decides independently or consults with their physician as to the approximate amount of time they have left and then they develop a program of fasting to coincide with their vow of Sallekhana.

According to Jain teaching, a householder, who accepts this vow with pure mind, should gives up all personal relationships, friendships, and possessions. He or she should forgive relatives, companions and servants or acquaintances and should ask for the pardon of all the sins (they don’t really have the concept of sin per se…but the terminology will have to suffice here) he or she committed in his or her lifetime.  He should then discuss honestly with his preceptor or guru all the transgressions committed by him including morally wrong acts which he asked others to commit. During the period of this vow he should eliminate from his mind all the grief, fear, regret, affection, hatred, prejudice, passions, etc., to the fullest extent.

I will read to you an English translation by the Hermann Jacobi of the original Prakrit passage in the Acarangasutra describing the process of Sallekhana:

“Knowing the twofold obstacles (i.e. bodily and mental), the wise ones, having thoroughly learned the law, perceiving in due order that the time for death has come, get rid of karman (2)
Subduing the passions and living on little food he should endure hardships.  If a mendicant falls sick let him again take food. (3)
He should not long for life, nor wish for death; he should yearn after neither life nor death. (4)
He who is indifferent and wished for the destruction of karman, should continue his contemplation.  Becoming unattached internally and externally, he should strive after absolute purity. (5)
Whatever means one knows for preserving one’s life when too severe penance brings on sickness and the probability of instant death, that a wise man should learn and practice in order to gain time for continuing penance. (6)
In a village or in a forest, examining the ground and recognizing it as free from living beings, the sage should spread the straw and commence the suicide by rejecting food. (7)
Without food he should lie down and bear the pains which attack him.  He should not for too long a time give way to worldly feelings which overcome him. (8)
When crawling animals such as live on high or below, feed on his flesh and blood, he should neither kill them nor rub the wound. (9)
Though these animals destroy the body, he should not stir from his position.
After the asravas have ceased he should bear pains as if he rejoiced in them. (10)
When the bonds fall off, then he has accomplished his life.

To elaborate on this process…Initially, he or she should gradually give up food and drink boiled water only.  Ultimately he will give up liquids as well.  He or she should also give up all the passions they once had as they are considered mental weaknesses.  The person should then become engrossed in the meditation without paying attention to the body and should avoid the five transgressions which are:
1) wishing to postpone death
2) wishing death would come sooner
3) fearing death
4) thinking of friends and relatives at the time of death
5) hoping for some sort of reward after death

It is recommended that a person who has taken the vow of Sallekhana select a place to sit for the fast where the government does not object to such a vow.  Ideally it should be a place where other people do not visit and are unlikely to interfere with the process.  Traditionally a person taking Sallekhana should find a quiet place in the forest, preferably under a tree and then focus on nothing and nothingness and allow themselves to be overtaken by the natural forces around them, their body reclaimed and their soul released for either reincarnation or released into the cosmos if it has attained liberation. The translations of the original texts say that in order for Sallekhana to commence properly the person must sit in silent meditation and bear all discomfort.  It says that if insects and vermin bite him he must not defend himself or rub the wound because that would interfere with natural process.  In India Sallekhana is sanctioned as a religious death and so it is acceptable to perform Sallekhana in the home or in a monastery or in the wilderness.

An adherent carrying out the ritual of Sallekhana.

According to the Sadhus, Sadhvis and Jain scholars Sallekhana is a pleasant death.  You leave the world without a care and a great euphoria is experienced followed by a peaceful death.  Many eyewitness accounts tell of the person taking Sallekhana laughing and smiling during the final stages of their death.  There is debate as to what causes this euphoria.  Some say it is the person experiencing spiritual enlightenment and others say it is the result of the shrinking of white and grey matter in the brain.  Many proponents of Sallekhana say that it is not really starvation in the classic sense at all in that the actual cause of death is renal failure.  In the final stages of the ritual the adherent forgoes water and shuts down their kidneys, which essentially allows them to just drift off to sleep, just like many elderly people in rest homes do the world over.

But all that debate over the mechanics and biology of death aside, Sallekhana is an ancient and sacred practice and has profound spiritual meaning for the adherents and their family members.  A person doesn’t just happen into Sallekhana…and once they are committed there is no going back.  This is serious business.

Right now I am researching the current legal battle in India where human rights activists have filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the High Court of Rajasthan arguing that Sallekhana should be classified as suicide and not protected under the religious freedom legislation of the Indian constitution.  We shall see how this all shakes out and I will keep you posted as to how the court rules.  But in the meantime, at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I would encourage anyone who can to watch the episode of “Taboo” on the National Geographic Channel entitled “Unusual Burials” to get a glimpse inside the world of Jains and perhaps gain a broader view of what end-of-life means to different people.  

Post Script:

As happy as I am to see Sallekhana in the spotlight and be able to share information about the Jain religion and culture it came at the price of having to see myself on camera in High Definition on my parent's 50 inch flat screen.  Let me just say for the record that no one should have to see themselves with that tight a shot on their face on such a big screen.  It's like you're in an episode of The Twilight Zone seeing your own doppelgänger.   And it's not a matter of thinking I should have looked more attractive on's a matter of seeing someone who was supposedly me but in no way was a person I recognized.  The episode plays my voice over footage of the ritual before it shows my face and as I was watching the episode my initial thought was "Why is my mom on tv?"  I sounded just like my mom but in my head I don't sound a thing like her.  Further, in my mind I am more pigmented than I appeared on camera, and I am not used to seeing myself talk on camera.  Seeing still photos of yourself and then seeing a moving image of yourself makes you aware of all of the facial ticks you weren't previously conscious of.  So the lesson to be taken from this is that in the future if you ever do television...don't watch yourself back.  You'll just become convinced that you have a rounder, doughier, more monotone and somewhat creepier doppelgänger out there doing your job.   


Nicole Izvernari said...

Thanks again for sharing your experiences. I remember the first time I heard my own voice after adulthood. I thought "Who's annoyingly high and squeaky voice is that?". It's crazy that human right's activists want to curb one's freedom of religion, especially as it doesn't hurt others.

Anonymous said...

I was surprise to find out there is a religion having a view that 'letting' oneself die (if it doesn't want to be called 'suicide') is allowed for the purpose of soul purification. I watched the NGC, and I also saw you giving your explanations there. Thanks for the post you share here.