Fasting and the Ethics of Dying. Comparing the Jain Practice of Sallekhanā with the end-of-life option of VSED (Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking)

25.11.2022 15:15 - 16:45

Claire Maes | Asien-Orient-Institut, Abteilung für Indologie, Universität Tübingen

Jains have conceived a wide constellation of different types and lengths of fasts. Within this constellation, sallekhanā, or the soteriological practice of fasting to death, is the summum bonum. While the rite went uncontested for over two millennia, in recent years it became a matter of the courts. The Rajasthan High Court criminalized the practice as illegal on 10 August 2015. Soon after the Supreme Court of India stayed the ban on sallekhanā. While the final ruling is still pending, the Rajasthan Court case brought to the foreground pertinent questions around fasting and the ethics of dying. Is, for instance, sallekhanā a form of suicide? Or does the support of a sallekhanā-aspirant constitute assisted suicide?

In this lecture, I seek to discuss these ethical questions by bringing the case of sallekhanā in conversation with the end-of-life option, known as the “Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking” (VSED), a legitimate and widely available option to hasten death in various countries, including Austria. I will begin by elucidating the principal characteristics of VSED and show how it has several important aspects in common with sallekhanā, while also differing on others. In the next step, I will map out the main grounds on which VSED has been differentiated from suicide and the core principles that have been put forward to anchor an individual’s right to VSED. To this end, I will analyse a 2010 South Australian court case deciding on the legality of a VSED request and the directives on VSED of a major medical society. I will conclude with an open-ended reflection, asking to what extent the reasons employed to differentiate VSED from suicide and the principles that protect an individual’s right to VSED could equally apply to the case of sallekhanā.

Institut für Südasien-, Tibet- und Buddhismuskunde
Seminarraum 1 des ISTB, Universitätscampus, Spitalgasse 2, Hof 2.7, 1090 Wien