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Jainism is one of the world's most ancient religions, and Jain monks lead a life of extreme austerity and renunciation. Earlier this month, the high court in Rajasthan, responding to a nine-year-old public interest petition by a lawyer, ruled that the authorities should treat the centuries-old practice as attempted suicide and its abetment, both of which continue to be, controversially, punishable under Indian law.
The judges said that no religious practice, whether essential or non-essential or voluntary can permit taking one's own life.
By one estimate up to 300 Jains die annually across India in such fasts - their deaths are usually celebrated publicly by the community. There are more than four million Jains in India, mostly in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. Fasting is not uncommon in other religions - Muslims go without food and water during the holy month of Ramadan, Christians fast during Lent, Jews go without food during Yom Kippur and Hindus fast on various occasions. Opponents say sallekhana is a fundamental breach of the Indian constitution, which guarantees the right to life - but not death. Shekhar Hattangadi, who made a documentary on the subject, says the controversy is a reflection of the conflict between India's colonial-era criminal laws and its faith-based society.
Mr Mehta says the Jains do need a conversation on the conditions under which santhara should be permitted.


A crackdown in Bihar yields some results, but the epidemic of exam cheating in Bihar continues unabated, writes Soutik Biswas. Scientists are debating whether it's possible to harness the power of gravity for interstellar space travel. The four-year-old boy who has become the centre of a controversy between India and Pakistan - and between his father and mother.
Why, almost 60 years after he first appeared in the Daily Mirror, is a layabout lout from north-east England still so loved around the world? You embrace sallekhana not out of despair with your old life, but to gain and attain something new. Sallekhana or santhara is a controversial religious practice in which a Jain stops eating with the intention of preparing for death. One report says close to 400 Jains have taken sallekhana in two neighbourhoods in the western city of Mumbai in the past seven years.
According to Mr Bhandari, most of the community members who fast to death are in advanced age, and are often suffering from illnesses.
It is seen as the ultimate way to expunge all sins and karma, liberating the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.


In case of santhara, there is a spiritual purpose - it is for self-purification, for self-realisation, and for the uplift of soul," says Mr Bhandari. But the woman monk in Dalrymple's vivid report says her friend decided to take sallekhana at the age of 36 after falling ill, first with tuberculosis and then malaria.
It is another to colonise the various ways in which death can be interpreted, and life be given meaning. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience.
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