Fasting is very common in Jain spirituality.
Although a Jain may take it upon him or herself to fast at any time, most Jains will fast at special times during the year, at festivals and holy days.
The monsoon period (in India) is a time of fasting, and fasting is a feature of Jain festivals.
Fasting is more often done by Jain women than men.
The aim of fasting
Jain fasts may be done as a penance, especially for monks and nuns. Fasting also purifies body and mind, and reminds the practitioner of Mahavira's emphasis on renunciation and asceticism, because Mahavira spent a great deal of time fasting.
Fasting in mind as well as body
It is not sufficient for a Jain simply to not eat when fasting. They must also stop wanting to eat. If they continue to desire food the fast is pointless.
Types of fast
There are several types of fasting:
- Complete fasting: giving up food and water completely for a period
- Partial fasting: eating less than you need to avoid hunger
- Vruti Sankshepa: limiting the number of items of food eaten
- Rasa Parityaga: giving up favourite foods
Some Jain monks fast for months at a time, following the example of Mahavira, who is said to have fasted for over 6 months. Even today there are Jains who fast for over six months like Hira Ratan Manek. Others have fasted for an year like Sri Sahaj Muni Maharaj who completed his record-breaking 365-day fast on May 1, 1998.
Santhara - fasting to death
Fasting to death
Santhara or Sallenkhana is a procedure in which a Jain stops eating with the intention of preparing for death. This is different from suicide as it is not taken in passionate mood of anger, deceit or other emotions, but is undertaken only when the body is no longer capable of serving its owner as a instrument of sprituality and when inevitability of death is a matter of undisputed certainty.
The intention is to purify the body, and remove all thought of the physical things from the mind.
As well as giving up food and water, the ascetic abandons all desires and dislikes so that they can concentrate exclusively on the spiritual as they approach death.
The human rights debate
There is an ongoing debate in India about whether santhara has any place in modern society. The case of 93-year-old Keila Devi Hirawat alerted the world's media to the debate. Keila Devi undertook santhara early in September 2006. Her family did not oppose her actions.
Those who undertake santhara are revered by fellow Jains and their deaths are celebrated publicly. Local newspapers praise them and families often take out full page advertisements of the practice. Santhara is seen as the ultimate way to expunge all sins and karma, liberating the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
In September 2006 five people died after undertaking santhara. Experts estimate that over 200 people die annually across India from such fasts. Human rights organisations say santhara is comparable to suicide and euthanasia and must not be allowed to continue.
In India euthanasia is banned and suicide is a crime. People who try to kill themselves are jailed and people who help them in the act are charged with abetting a suicide. If there is a hunger strike and someone fasts to the point of danger, the police are allowed to force-feed the person and charge them with a criminal offence.
But opponents say santhara is a fundamental breach of Article 21 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees the right to life - but not death. After human rights activists filed a writ in the Rajasthan high court, the Jain community faced a court notice asking them to answer the allegations.
Justice Pana Chand Jain says that, unlike suicide or euthanasia, those choosing santhara have ample time to reconsider their position and are free to eat at any time. Critics disagree and say that once a fast is declared it's impossible for someone to change their mind, because of family pressure and the risk of shame.
Pilgrimage in Jainism
Temples on the Shatrunjaya hills, Gujurat - an important Jain site
Pilgrimage plays an important part in Jain life for Digambaras and some Svetambaras, although there are no compulsory pilgrimages.
When lay Jains go on a pilgrimage they take on some of the lifestyle and attitudes of a Jain ascetic (a monk or nun).
Jains may visit any number of temples or other locations that are associated with the lives and deeds of the Tirthankaras.
One of the most famous and holy sites of pilgrimage for Jains is in Shatrunjaya in Gujarat. It is one of five holy mountains and contains many temples.