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Indian film explores religious practice that conflicts with secular law
By Patti Ghezzi | Emory Law | Nov 18, 2016 10:11:00 AM

Panel discussion:
Silas Allard, Shekhar Hattangadi, Ellen Gough, and Edward Queen discussed Hattangadi's film, "Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism?"

Shekhar Hattangadi, a lawyer, journalist, and filmmaker from India made a short film focused on the Jain practice of santhara – abstaining from food and drink, leading to death by starvation.

But the prize-winning film, “Santhara: A Challenge to Indian Secularism?” is not really about santhara, Hattangadi said during a screening and panel discussion co-sponsored by CSLR, Emory Center for Ethics, and the Department of Religion. “It’s about how a faith-based society deals with traditional practices that conflict with secular law.”

Jainism is an ancient Indian religion practiced by about 7 million people. Its golden rule is nonviolence. But its death ritual has drawn criticism for supporting death while Indian secular law upholds life.

Practitioners say the act is about spiritual purification, achieving the highest state of being by cleansing the self of karma.

Critics say it is a way of coercing elderly people to end their lives so they won’t be a burden on society. “Why is it that only those who are near death and terminally ill choose santhara?” a lawyer asks in the film.

A 2006 lawsuit in the Indian state of Rajasthan contended that santhara should be banned, keeping consistent with the 1996 Supreme Court ruling that suicide violates the Constitution’s right to life. A lawyer for the Jains responded that the Constitution grants an exception by allowing for freedom of religion. “If we can say we have a right to life, why can we not have a right to die?”

The film shows an elderly woman slowly dying from fasting, surrounded by Jains supporting her by chanting.

The Rajhastani High Court ruled in 2015 that santhara should be considered suicide, and the state should abolish the practice and treat any death by santhara as a criminal case. The case was appealed to the Indian Supreme Court, which may not consider the matter for several years. “The Supreme Court will distinguish between a legitimate religious practice and a custom that persecutes the elderly,” Hattangati said, adding that the case will become a footnote in law and religion case law in India.

Ellen Gough, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and a Jain expert, said santhara is an identifying practice of contemporary Jainism, something that distinguishes it from other Indian religions. “Very early doctrine describes santhara as an ideal death,” she said. “The monk who is tired of his body should lie down and gradually limit food to destroy karma so he doesn’t reincarnate.”

She added that Jains are opposed to suicide.

Edward Queen, director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies at Emory’s Center for Ethics, said the case addresses the limits of human autonomy and what limits should be placed on a legitimate religious practice as well as what is a legitimate religious practice. “What is good religion? What is bad religion?”

CSLR Associate Director Silas Allard said the issue highlights the debate over the state’s role. “The state is supposed to protect you, but there is no third-party harm,” he said. “Is there anything for the state to protect? If you believe the loss of your life is not harmful but in fact beneficial, what is the state protecting you from?”

Hattangadi hopes to make other films focusing on practices that challenge Indian society to determine how far the law can go in limiting or legislating a religious practice. “These practices are sanctioned by religion but go against societal norms,” he says. “How much can the law limit a religious practice? To me, this is the more urgent issue.”