Indian court to consider whether religious fasting is suicide

JAIPUR, India — JAIPUR, India -- Kaila Devi Hirawat is killing herself slowly, starving her way to salvation as her neighbors and family members watch.

Hirawat, 93, a frail, birdlike woman, has eaten nothing in more than a month, attempting to free her soul from its bad deeds, part of the Jain religious tradition, which says that fasting can lead to nirvana.


"I'm very happy," said her son, Shantichand Hirawat, 70, smiling. "It's good for her, and it's good for the whole family."

Her fast has landed her in the middle of a controversy pitting the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian Constitution against a law banning suicide. Human-rights activists sued last month to have such fasts declared illegal. Jain leaders, a powerful group in India, say the constitution protects the fasts and people have the right to decide to die with dignity.


The argument has led to a debate of sorts over the right-to-die issue in India, where euthanasia is banned and suicide is a crime. People who try to kill themselves are jailed. Hunger strikes are allowed to go only so far. In India, such strikes are a common form of protest. But if someone fasts to the point of danger, that person is sent to the hospital, given a feeding tube and slapped with a criminal charge.

That's not the case if the person is a Jain attempting santhara, or fasting until death, a practice said to be 2,000 years old. Like Hindus, the largest religion in India, Jains believe in reincarnation. But Jains also believe that salvation can be reached by an individual's effort to follow an ascetic, nonviolent life. Fasting and self-control are seen as part of that effort.

The practice of fasting until death is supposed to be reserved only for Jains facing an unavoidable calamity - old age, disease or severe drought, for example. It is thought that by fasting a Jain can free his or her soul, ending the cycle of reincarnation. A Jain wishing to fast until death must receive permission from family members and gurus. About 200 Jains die in India from such fasts every year, according to scholars.

"This is not suicide, because suicide is impulsive," said Pana Chand Jain, a lawyer and retired judge, who will argue the case for Jains in front of the high court in the western state of Rajasthan, where Jaipur is the capital. "This is an action taken with a conscious mind, with the permission of family and of gurus. It is not secretly done. It is a religious practice."

Jaipur, known as the "Pink City" because most buildings are painted pink, is the heart of the Jain community, which makes up about 0.4 percent of India's population but holds enormous economic power, often through the jewelry business. Many high-ranking Rajasthan government officials are Jains.

The community holds such sway that many were shocked when the Rajasthan High Court decided to accept Soni's legal petition and ask the Jain community to prove why these fasts are legal.

The lawsuit aimed to stop the fast of Vimla Devi Bhansali, 61, who started fasting Sept. 14 after receiving a diagnosis of liver and brain cancer.

Despite the suit, she died after two weeks, one of four people in Rajasthan to die from fasting in the past five weeks. The other deaths were of a 46-year-old woman who had cancer, a 94-year-old woman suffering from old age and a 75-year-old man who had pneumonia and gangrene.


Their deaths have been celebrated; advertisements and news stories have praised them. "The atmosphere in the house was not sad," proclaimed a headline on a story in the Jaipur newspaper about the death of Bhansali. "There was happiness on the faces of her family members," the story said.

After Kamla Devi Mehta, 46, died in early September, her family took out an advertisement praising her as "loving, simple-hearted, cultured, religious, sensitive and a philanthropist."

Her husband, Mansingh Mehta, said he was upset that the court system might interfere with a religious practice. He said his wife decided to fast after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer and died two days later.

"What she did was correct," said Mehta, 51, a jeweler and Jain community leader who beamed when he talked of his wife. "Whatever is happening is for the good. You can see it on my face."

The 93-year-old Hirawat, one of two women now publicly fasting in Rajasthan state, suffered from no disease. Despite her age, she still walked a block to her temple and back home three times a day. Hirawat started her fast in late August but didn't declare it until Aug. 31, after meeting with her gurus and family members, they said.

Hirawat lies in her bed, clutching her prayer beads in her right hand, occasionally muttering something indecipherable. She sometimes drinks a cup of boiled water, nothing else.


Over her mouth, Hirawat wears a cloth painted with the swastika, a holy symbol for Jains and Hindus, to keep her from sharing germs with others. At first, she talked and repeated her prayers the required 108 times, counting each time off on her string of 108 prayer beads.

Now she does not do much, lying in her bed, trying to touch the feet of her gurus when they visit, twice a day. Her daughters-in-law pray over her and try to make her repeat the prayers.

Hirawat is surrounded by a steady stream of visitors, who sit cross-legged on the floor in front of her.

Everyone knows she is dying. Visitors sing prayer hymns, which ring out into the crowded alley below. A banner in front of the house proclaims the number of days that Hirawat has fasted. And her family is ready for the next step.

Family members have already published pamphlets with Hirawat's photograph, outlining her life and listing special prayers. Soon, these will be handed out at her funeral.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.