LET us heighten the contradictions, as Marxists used to say: a story from India in The New York Times shows just how controversial completely unassisted suicide can be.
Manikchand Loda, a Jain leader, died on 16 August, after starving himself to death, or possibly fasting to the same end: “Mr. Lodha had begun the process some three years earlier, after a fall left him bedridden. First he renounced pleasures like tea and tobacco. Then things he loved, like television. He gave up medicine, even refusing an air mattress to ease his bedsores. On Aug. 10, he took the ancient vow and gave up food and water.”
This was, in one sense, completely unassisted. He was the one who refused food and water. At the same time, it was hugely re-inforced by everyone around him. When he was dead, his daughter-in-law told the paper: “We are celebrating, because one of our family members has achieved something great. We were able to know him. That was our good fortune.”
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the daughter-in-law truly loved her father-in-law, and had no expectation of material gain from his death. You can see, then, how there can be entirely idealistic pressure towards old people dying. What’s much harder to see is why this should always be wrong.
People do want their deaths to have meaning, and it may be a more realistic aspiration than hoping that your life has had one. The story makes it clear that Mr Loda died for entirely idealistic reasons. The practice of Santhara, as his fast to death makes clear, is a deeply spiritual one. It “burns up the film of karma that clogs the soul, allowing the spirit to break free from the cycle of rebirth and death”.
So, since the devout are in favour of this, the people opposing it are secularists. The Indian Supreme Court is expected to rule eventually on a case in which a High Court judge in Rajasthan declared that Santhara was a form of suicide, and thus illegal.
Some Jains blame this on the colonial legacy: the Jain Indian Express columnist (and former Harvard teacher of politics) Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote: “Nation-states and religion are the only two ideologies that both regulate and consecrate the meaning of death. This also makes them competitors.
“The ultimate exercise of sovereignty by the state is its claim to determine the conditions under which death is permissible. It also decides what forms of dying can be given public meaning — death for the nation-state is valorised. Any other attempt to determine the conditions under which we die is a usurpation of sovereignty, and other public meaning or consecration of forms of dying need to be eviscerated.
“Just as English often flattens translations from Sanskrit by describing all nine varieties of love as ‘love’, so it is with death. How can an Indian penal code or a Christian theology make sense of a tradition that emphatically says suicide is wrong, but provides room for the idea that one can reach a state where ahimsa requires you neither prolong life nor court death?
“In Jain texts, [Santhara] is differentiated from suicide by the quality of intent; the Indian Penal Code recognises only form for intent.”
WHAT is fascinating to me is that, within an English context, the same kind of arguments are combined to reach the opposite conclusions, and to form completely different coalitions.
In the Telegraph, for example, Christopher Howse lamented his failure to murder Lord Carey when the opportunity arose. “The last time I saw Lord Carey was in a minibus we were sharing in Gibraltar. It would have been better for the world if I’d tipped him into the sea. Yet, however beneficial the result, I am convinced it is profoundly unChristian and immoral to murder retired archbishops.” Possibly serving archbishops are fair game.
In any case, Howse’s argument appears to be that depressives are kept alive only by the threat of reprobation in this life or the next if they follow their desires: “Some people don’t much like life at the best of times. Those of us given to depression often feel there’d be nothing nicer than to slip out of this life. It would be the worst of all things, of course, to go to hell, but some churchmen don’t believe in hell, or think that no one could go there.”
If it is only, or largely, the fear of hell that has kept Howse from suicide in the past, he has my sympathy; but he won’t persuade anyone that Lord Carey is actually wrong. No: he should have pushed the Archbishop from the minibus when he had the chance. Lord Carey could then have been remembered as a martyr to the pro-life cause: his death would have been given meaning.