Tablets left in honor of family members who practiced Sallekhana

Ancient tablets reveal whole family underwent Sallekhana, ritual fasting unto death

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Archaeologists in the state of Karnataka, in South West India, have discovered a set of ancient tablets with inscriptions that reveal a family of six people underwent the sacrificial rite of Sallekhana, the Jain religious ritual involving voluntary death by fasting.

Sallekhana is a practice that is believed to lead one to spiritual liberation. Its purpose is to purge old karmas and prevent the creation of new ones. It resembles the Hindu practice of Prayopavesa (suicide by fasting), and the Buddhist practice of Sokushinbutsu (self-mummification). The vow of Sallekhana (or Santhara) is taken when a person has no responsibilities remaining in life and when they feel their life has served its purpose and they wish to go on to another existence.  The basic idea is to purify oneself with the process of fasting during the last few days of remaining life.

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The body of Shinnyokai Shonin, found in Oaminaka, Japan. He had practiced Sokushinbutsu (self-mummification).

The body of Shinnyokai Shonin, found in Oaminaka, Japan. He had practiced Sokushinbutsu (self-mummification). ( self-mummified monks )

In the Jain tradition, it is rare for more than one person of the same family to undergo the ritual of Sallekhana. However, the Bangalore Mirror reports that researches have found evidence of six people of the same family, who lived in the 12 th-13th century AD, that underwent the sacrificial rite.

The ancient tablets erected in memory of those who performed Sallekhana were found in two different sets of three. The first set was found a few decades ago in Henuru village, and the second set was found just two months ago in Haveri, both in the state of Karnataka. The relationship between the family members was established through the decipherment of the inscriptions.

The Doddahundi memorial stone was raised in honor of Western Ganga Dynasty King Nitimarga I in 869 C.E. The king was a devout Jain who committed Sallekhana (ritual death).

The Doddahundi memorial stone was raised in honor of Western Ganga Dynasty King Nitimarga I in 869 C.E. The king was a devout Jain who committed Sallekhana (ritual death). These memorial stones were raised in medieval India to honor noted Jains who committed Sallekhana. ( Wikimedia Commons )

“What is exciting is the fact that it is very rare to find more than one person of the same family performing the Sallekhana ritual,” reports the Bangalor Mirro, “whereas here they are armed with proof of six persons of the same family who performed the ritual at different times all those centuries ago.”

Another rare feature of the discovery is that the family members who undertook the ritual appear to have been regular citizens. Generally, if more than one family member has undertaken Sallekhana they have been members of the royal lineage.

Jains claim that Sallekhana is the most ideal, peaceful, and satisfying form of death. It is done in full consciousness, not suddenly, sadly or ignorantly, and is governed by a strict set of regulations. In order to be allowed to undertake the vow of Sallekhana, the following conditions must be met:

  • Old age or terminal disease must be present such that death appears imminent.
  • There is an inability to perform normal bodily function.
  • The condition is so bad that life's pleasures are nil.
  • There are no remaining responsibilities towards family/relatives.
  • The person must be fully conscious and in good mental and emotional health.
  • There is a strong desire to remove karmas by fasting.
  • There is a strong belief in god, a spiritual teacher & religion.
  • Permission has been granted from family members and relatives.
  • There is a strong desire for Moksha/Nirvana.

According to the Press Trust of India , on average 240 Jains practice Sallekhana each year in India. In recent years, it has become a subject of controversy with many claiming there is no difference between Sallekhana and committing suicide. However, Jainists say that suicide involves an intentional act of harm against oneself which negatively affects those left behind, while Sallekhana is a tranquil process committed with the blessing of one’s family.

Featured image: Tablets left in honor of family members who practiced Sallekhana. Credit: Bangalore Mirror

By April Holloway

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