The Rajasthan High Court recently upheld the controversial Jain practice of Santhara as illegal. Before this judgment was declared, Shekhar Hattangadi, the man behind the documentary Santhara spoke to The Goodwill Project about his film and the practice.
What happens when a traditional religious practice violates the law? This is the central question that Shekhar Hattangadi’s documentary film Santhara addresses. This documentary film, which has been awarded at short film festivals in Bangalore and Kolkata, explores the dimensions of the law-religion conflict by focusing on the controversial Jain practice of Santhara, in which a person gives up food and drink after taking a vow of abstinence, resulting in death by starvation. Based on interviews with, among others, the litigants and their representatives involved in a PIL calling for a ban on the practice, the film also depicts the last moments in the life of a Jain sadhvi (nun) who adopted this practice.
What is Santhara?
Santhara is an ancient practice among Jains (non-Jains have, in a few cases, adopted it too) of total dietary abstinence resulting in death by starvation. Under ideal conditions, it is voluntarily adopted by those who are convinced that their life-mission has been completed, and who have therefore chosen the path of imposing the least possible burden on the ecology around them. This is because devout Jains believe that any form of food consumption willy-nilly amounts to an attempt to disrupt the natural ecological balance of the planet, and is therefore an irreversible, if subtle, act of violence. Santhara may thus be described as an extreme form of non-violence adopted by one who has calmly arrived at that decision through deliberation and experiential realization. I say “ideal conditions” because while senior Jain “munis” (monks) and “sadhvis” (nuns) routinely monitor and supervise the process of Santhara after formal approval from the senior orthodoxy, other non-supervised Santharas are not uncommon. In fact, some have alleged that many of the so-called Santharas in the Jain population at large are actually forced onto people, especially elderly widows, who have no support systems, and point to these reported acts of cruelty as the motivation for them to call upon the country’s courts to ban the practice altogether.
How and when did you first come across the practice?
I used to read with interest and curiosity the occasional newspaper reports about Santhara. These reports would usually describe the ceremony of a person—a monk or nun or lay person—being initiated into the practice by a senior member of the Jain orthodoxy. Earlier, being born and raised in a Hindu family, I had heard legendary stories of “ichcha maran” (self-willed death as opposed to suicide) among enlightened Hindus like Dnyaneshwar and also the mystery surrounding the supposedly self-willed disappearance of Tukaram, but these were individual acts unrelated to any religious practice or ritual. Santhara intrigued me all the more because it is an institutionalized practice in Jainism. It set me thinking about its larger social and legal ramifications, particularly after I got into teaching law and doing law-related research.
Is Santhara still being practiced, on what scale and which pockets of India?
From all accounts, Santhara is still being practised wherever Jains live, and that means largely in India but also in other parts of the world—in the USA, for instance, where Jains are estimated to number close to 75,000 in a three-million-plus strong NRI population living in that country. Within India, five states have significantly large Jain populations. They are—in descending order of numbers—Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka.
Media reports put the total figure of Santhara incidents as high as nearly 200 every year! That number must necessarily include those Santharas which aren’t approved of or monitored by Jain munis and sadhvis, because the latter tell me that, on an average, there could be a maximum of about ten to a dozen Santharas annually which the Jain religious establishment keeps a close track of. As to the scale of practice in various regions, my research leads me to believe that Rajasthan would rank very high in that statistic: Churu district in that state has been dubbed the “Santhara capital of the world” with the largest known per capita incidence of the practice.
When did you decide to film the award-winning documentary SANTHARA? Tell us about the journey.
The topic of Santhara, in a sense, chose itself. It all began when I was assigned, as a part-time professor in a Mumbai law college, to teach my favourite subject—constitutional law. Now that’s a subject most law students dread because they’ve psyched themselves into believing it’s heavily theoretical and esoteric, with no real connection with everyday life, and therefore beyond easy comprehension. That’s not true at all. And so, to counter this misperception, I made it a point to bring to class newspaper clippings containing stories with seemingly no obvious “constitutional” connect, and then by the Socratic method of questioning, I would ultimately get the students to discover the constitutional provision underpinning that particular incident or policy or even a court judgment in the news story. One such clipping reported an incident of Santhara, and another mentioned the PIL against the practice in the Rajasthan High Court. The class discussion was fascinating; for one thing, we realized that both the opponents and the defendants of Santhara were invoking the same constitutional provision (Article 21) to make their points! Subsequently, I on my own began researching the practice as well as the religious philosophy from which it stemmed, and went across to Rajasthan to interview persons associated with it, and then to New Delhi to interview constitutional experts. In all, it took me about five years to research the issue before I began scripting and shooting, which comparatively took very little time.
Apart from the litigants in the PIL—i.e. supporters and opponents of Santhara—we interviewed Jain scholars, munis and sadhvis, and also medico-legal experts and eminent jurists with a good grasp of the broader law-versus-religion conflict. The journey has been long, arduous but mentally enriching.
Let it be known that as an alumnus of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, I’m also a trained filmmaker and a lifelong student of cinema, with some experience in feature film-making. I’ve collaborated as Chief Associate Director on Kundan Shah’s Hindi feature film “Teen Behenein” (Three Sisters), which unfortunately hasn’t yet been released in theatres.
Let it also be known that even while researching the Santhara controversy, I wrote about it in several leading journals, both scholarly and popular ones. The Commonwealth Lawyer, an internationally renowned legal journal published by the London-based Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, featured a long detailed article by me on the legal and constitutional aspects of religious suicides in India, which centred largely on the practice of Santhara. I wrote a similar cover story on Santhara called the “Freedom to Die” for the USA-based Little India magazine. It was short-listed for a national award in journalism.
However, after taking into account the amount of time, energy and financial resources I’d expended in the research, I realized the profound limitations of the print medium. Even with technological innovations like the Net and other social media coming into our lives, the best-written and the most persuasive articles enjoy only a limited life-span in the public discourse and therefore in the public consciousness. Whether we like it or not, we have to accept the audio-visual as the most efficient and efficacious format for modern-day mass communication. The other argument is that since the Santhara controversy involves a complex web of social, cultural, medico-legal, constitutional and obviously religious factors, it might be best to deliberate on such a “serious” subject through the more conventional and seemingly cerebral medium of the written word. I disagree. The challenge of course was to make this serious subject watchable on the screen. But I also wanted to explore its potential as a discussion topic with live audiences. It’s no secret that people respond with so much more passion and urgency to the moving image than to the printed word, and consequently are more prone to express their opinions in a post-screening group discussion than they are to put pen to paper and write letters to some faceless newspaper editor. Those days are long gone.
Do you see any merits in the Santhara practice?
I’m not an expert on religion to be able to comment with complete knowledge and authority on a practice that’s centuries old and so deeply entrenched in the belief system of the Jain religion, much less to make a value judgment on its merits or otherwise.
What are the social ills it covers up? You have spoken about “forced Santhara” to avoid looking after aged parents.
The allegation of “forced Santhara” comes from the petitioners who filed the PIL calling for a ban on the practice. The main petitioner Nikhil Soni says he grew up in Churu district as a mute witness to such “forced Santharas” which finally drove him—among other things like its perceived violations of penal and constitutional law—to drag the practice to court. Frankly speaking, it is not entirely inconceivable that avaricious and devious minds would try and exploit the religious nature of the practice to further narrow personal ends, like getting rid of aged parents who are seen as an economic burden on the family. Interestingly, this is not an issue before the court in the PIL but a matter of police action and investigation because the defenders of the Santhara practice are clear about their unequivocal opposition to “forced Santharas”—they too want such criminal acts to be severely punished. But getting police complaints lodged has always been problematic, according to the petitioners, what with the police loath to act in the face of that big bogey of our country: religion. As for the alleged abuses of Santhara, the court, even if it ultimately rules in favour of the validity and continuance of the practice, might want to put in place some institutional safeguards to protect potential victims.
What other discoveries did you make during your five-year-long research on the Jain community and about the extreme measures some members continue to adopt?
Like any other organized religion or a breakaway sect from any religion, Jainism too has its share of extremists. The “munis” of the Digambar Jain sect take worldly renunciation to the extreme of not wearing a stitch of cloth on their bodies, which restricts their movements. After all, a naked man walking the streets is bound to raise eyebrows and stop traffic anywhere in the world, except, of course, in a nudist colony! Even among other Jain sects, the by-the-book followers of Lord Mahaveer adhere to strict codes. For instance, when we were filming Sadhvi Sampoorna Yasha, a nun from the Shwetambara Jain sect for our documentary during a shoot in Jaipur, this woman—a doctorate in Jain Studies and a pracharak or discourse-giver in the making—was not too comfortable with artificial lights shining directly on her (so we had to use the bounce-lighting technique to light her up for the interview) and she was absolutely insistent that nothing connected to electric power would touch her person (so we couldn’t clip the wired lapel microphone to her clothing as is normally done, but instead clamped it to a boom which was then hand-held just out of the range of the camera frame). And to think that the Shwetambars are considered more liberal as compared to the Digambars!
Whatever their sectarian adherence, Jains by and large are expected to follow some rather quaint food preferences and lifestyle choices based on what could be seen as a rather convoluted theological rationale.
Going strictly by the essential Jain philosophy of ahinsa or non-violence, a Jain should prefer mangoes to strawberries. Reason: eating a single-seed fruit (like a mango) is considered less “sinful” than chomping on a multi-seed strawberry because of the latter’s natural potential to procreate several more “lives” in the flora. So you’re effectively “aborting” several more life-creating possibilities by eating strawberries!
The same philosophy prompts Jains to shun vocations like farming, which are believed to cause “violence” to plant and micro-organic life in the soil, and to opt for relatively “non-violent” commercial pursuits such as banking and trading in diamonds.
You see this kind of extremism being reflected even in the practice of Santhara. Muslims fast during the month of Ramzan, there is Lent for Christians, and fasting during Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av is prescribed for Jews. Hindus, of course, observe a host of astronomy- and astrology-related fasts. Tell me which religion—other than Jainism—takes a fast to the point of death?
Any progressive Jains you met during the course of making or screening the documentary? What is their opinion of Santhara?
It would be unfair—and not particularly helpful—to make this black-and-white binary distinction between “progressive” and “non-progressive” persons not only because human beings exhibit different characteristics and facets of their personalities when faced with different life-situations, but also because the categorization itself would invariably be based on subjective and therefore unsound parameters. For instance, if you hold Santhara to be an “obscurantist” practice like some others do, you would automatically brand its supporters as non-progressives, right? But can you allow for a delicious paradox here, and conceive of any progressive reason to defend Santhara? Meet Panachand Jain. At a lively 88, this retired judge of the Rajasthan High Court in Jaipur, is the foremost legal advisor to an assortment of Jain Samaj organizations in the country and the brain behind the legal defence of Santhara in the PIL against the practice. His reason for defending Santhara is simply that it is the fundamental right of a Jain to practice his religion in a manner which is endorsed by his religious philosophy as long as it does not harm or adversely affect any other person. He believes whole-heartedly in the principle of self-determination and autonomy for every single individual, irrespective of his caste, creed, colour or any other characteristic—clearly a liberal, progressive and forward-looking thought! Interesting to note also that Justice PC Jain co-wrote the 1987 Rajasthan HC judgment against Sati, and represented India at the 2014 UN Conference on Climate Change in Lima, Peru.
(Shekhar Hattangadi is a Mumbai-based writer-journalist, lawyer-law professor, and filmmaker. To know more about his film Santhara, contact Shekhar at +919820601784 or email him at email@example.com.)