Friday, September 29, 2006

A terminally ill woman in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan has died after fasting for 14 days in keeping with a religious custom

Narayan Bareth:

Vimla Devi, from Jaipur, observed Santhara, a centuries-old Jain practice where one starves to spiritually prepare for death.

Her fast led to a petition in the state's high court by critics who say the practice is similar to suicide.

Vimla Devi was terminally ill and suffering from cancer.

The petition is due to come up for hearing on 5 October.

Her family says that her decision to observe Santhara was sanctioned by a Jain cleric and her family members.

"She had expressed her wish to adopt Santhara and give up her life and for 14 days she did not eat or drink," her husband, Sohan Lal Bhansali, said.

Vimla Devi's family did not mourn or cry at her funeral.

Instead a large number of people from the community took out a procession and chanted prayers along the way.

Nikhil Soni, who filed the court petition, says he tried to break her fast and had even informed the local police asking them to take action.

But police told him they were seeking legal opinion on the issue.

Defending the custom, a female Jain priest, Sadhvi Shubhankar, said, Santhara is centuries-old and cannot be compared to suicide.

"It is not an act of suicide, it is an act of rational thinking and courage."

In the last few years there have been nearly a dozen cases of Santhara, including one some months ago when a Jain cleric starved to death in Sriganganagar.

A Jain lawyer, Rajiv Surana says Santhara should not be perceived as a religious aberration like Sati.

"It is an old tradition and has religious sanction, it is similar to a Sikh carrying a kirpan [dagger]."

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