At the time of writing this, a 85 year-old jaïn woman has entered her 29° day of fasting. For the past seven days, she has even stopped having a drop of water leave alone a grain of food. And she is still conscious and can recognise her relatives and friends. She is visited by jaïn nuns several times a day, who recite sacred texts to her. Many women and men also see her with reverence. They too recite sacred texts to her. There is a feeling of joy around, soulful joy : death is no longer a spectre but it’s being happily invited by Veerabaï, the old jaïn woman.
Jaïnism is an ancient indian religion. Already known 4000 years ago at the time of the Indus valley civilization. Its adherents follow a strict moral code; they emphasize on truthfulness and non-violence. Because killing any animal is prohibited, they are vegetarians, they even refuse eating potatoes, onions,… because to harvest such vegetables, a hole has to be digged in the ground, and digging would kill small animals like worms, ants,… In the country, there are 6.000.000 jaïns ( less than 1% of the indian population), educated and wealthy people who belong to a religion that has had since centuries a great influence on the indian religion, philosophy and cuisine.
So, why has the old woman been fasting so rigorously ? ” Her health was perfect except her eyesight that was weakened because of age. She really pondered before taking the decision of meeting death at will, in complete peace, listening sacred texts and in the presence of ascetics. She has now no wordly desires, no attachment, nor does she possess anything material for herself except the clothes she wears. And they are minimal” says her son. The woman’s face is calm and peaceful. Yama, the hindu god of death, doesn’t frighten her and the jaïns who take the vow of “sallekhana”, facing death.
What is “sallekhana” ? It’s fasting unto death, it’s completely voluntary. This is a tradition, a vow normally taken when a jaïn is near his end due to old age, incurable disease, severe famine,…after controlling the passions and worldly attachments, by observing austerities, abstaining from food and water, and meditating. The basic concept is that the human being is the master of his life, then he can chose the way he dies.