Voluntary Death: Eastern Orthodox Christian and Jain Perspectives

Paper presented in the International Conference and Exhibition on Jain History, Art & Culture, Museum of Asian Art, Corfu/17-18 November 2018

Apostolos Michailidis
PhD in Theology/National & Kapodistrian University of Athens
M.A. in Indian Philosophy & Religion/Banaras Hindu University of Varanasi

Respected Teachers, Dear Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen,

During Alexander’s campaign to the East, the Greeks met with the “gymnosophists” (“gymnosophistés”), as they called them. Namely, the “naked sages”; ascetics who followed a special way of living in accordance with the tenets of their religious tradition. One of them, Kálanos or Kalanós-probably a name derived from “kallāņa”, an Indian word for greeting -followed Alexander on his return to Babylon. However, exhausted by disease and old age, he decided to end his life by self-immolation. The incident took place at Susa, in the year 323 B.C, although Alexander had tried to dissuade him from this course of action. Then, according to the historical references of the time, the Greeks admired Kálanοs’ determination to ascend on the pyre and the stillness of his body throughout the ceremony till it turned to ashes[1].

However, this instance brings to mind that man is a totally free being. In contrast to the irrational animals which are subjugated to their needs and instincts, humans are capable of controlling both. Having free will and moral consciousness they are able to overcome every physical need and act as sovereign persons. Moreover, human beings can determine their lives freely and turn them to an end willingly. As a result, some people, from the ancient times till the present day decide to end their lives, either by love to God or to fellow-beings, or for a noble ideal, while in some cases due to a failure or despair.

Coming back to the historical reference, it should be mentioned that by the end of the Hellenistic period and the rise of the Roman Empire, the majority of Greeks converted gradually to a new religion, namely Christianity. The encounter of this new religion with Greek language and thought shaped a form of Christianity which can be found in the doctrines of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as its cultural expression which took place in the geographical area of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Romanía, or Byzantine Empire, as it is more known. The formation of creed didn’t took place at once, since it was amenable constantly to the need of clarifications and right interpretation of the Holy Bible due to various heretical views.

Proportional to the formation of dogma was its view concerning the handling of human life. For the Eastern Orthodox Church both human life and the existence of the universe is a gift from God. The source of life is God himself, as Creator and Preserver of the whole world. Especially for mankind Ηe is not only considered as its Creator but as its Father as well. Consequently, every human being despite of race, sex, age, nation, and religious denomination is Ηis child.

Given that, man has no right to end life. “God gives life and God takes it”, it’s a common saying among members of the Orthodox Church in our country.

However, taking into account that many times in its history the humankind has turned to violence we must distinguish: natural death which is caused either by old age or disease; unexpected death caused either by accident or sudden lesion; violent death caused on culpability of someone else (meaning death by assassination, war, or by execution). Apart of these kinds of death, there is voluntary death which also varies [2].

Nowadays, the Eastern Orthodox Church classifies voluntary death into three kinds. That is self-sacrifice, suicide, and euthanasia.

Self-sacrifice is treated as the voluntary offering of life either for noble goals and ideals, or as a saving intervention by the motive of love in order to release someone else from a risky situation [3]. The motives of self-sacrifice are held as unselfish and the act in question is held either by love to the fellow being or to prevent an affront to human freedom and dignity. It has been applied in numerous occasions by members of the Orthodox Church in its long-time history, at the example of Christ, who offered his life for the redemption of humanity. Very long is the list of members of the Church who suffered martyrdom during the period of persecutions by the Roman state till our present times, whenever it was demanded to renounce their belief to Christ. They are named and honored as martyrs. Especially in Greece, those who suffered a martyrdom at the period of Ottoman rule are honored as “neo-martyrs” (“neomártyres”); namely the period that begins from the fall of Constantinoupolis (the present-day Istanbul) in 1453 till the foundation of the independent Greek State in 1830.

The second kind of voluntary death is suicide [4]. The Orthodox Church condemns this choice as self-destruction, denial of God and his Providence and lack of Christian hope. Suicide denies the gift of life; it separates man from God, and eliminates the possibility of repentance. In order to guide its members to the right way and protect every man of weak character from such a desperate step the Church takes strong measures: it forbids the chanting of funeral service and the presence of any priest at the burial of a suicide victim, unless a medical certificate testifies that the perpetrator was suffering from a mental illness. Especially in our days, the Church, taking into consideration the variety of causes that may guide a person to such an action, responds pastorally by offering a funeral service and burial to suicide victim whose capacities for judgment and action were found to be significantly diminished. In addition, it takes into consideration the burden carried by the living, the family and friends of the deceased, and the support and love they themselves urgently need.

The third kind of voluntary death is euthanasia; the “good death” or “easy death”, as it is translated from Greek. It may sound strange that Church not only accepts an “easy death” but also wishes for it. During the Holy Mass the following verse is chanted: “[Let’s have] a Christian ending to our life, painless, without same, peaceful”. Besides that, the Church honors a painful death, not only when it happens for the confession of faith to Christ, but whenever man suffers diseases or painful circumstances with patience and hope to God. Consequently, the “good” or “bad” death is not defined by the easiness or the difficulty it comes through, but by the internal condition of man through which he or she faces it. A “bad death” for the Church is not a painful one, but a death in sin. So, from a Christian point of view euthanasia is unacceptable, for the following reasons: Firstly, as an intentional intervention for the deliverance of man from incurable disease or from unbearable physical or mental pain, and secondly, as an intentional termination of supportive technical devices for the continuation of life. The first kind of euthanasia, which is known as active euthanasia, is a form of suicide when it comes about with the patient’s consent or a murder when it happens without it. The latter kind of euthanasia, which is described as passive euthanasia, could not differ from the former [5].

Today, after the lapse of such a long time, we are pleased to meet representatives of Jain tradition in the context of the present conference. However, to the majority of the present-day Greeks, Jainism is unknown. It is known only to some graduates of University Departments of Theology and Ecclesiastical Academies, and to a few scholars of eastern religious traditions. Much less known remain some aspects of Jain tradition, as its concept of sallekhanā, a kind of voluntary death; a concept which is very familiar to its present-day members. Nonetheless, whenever it happened to mention it to a fellow Greek, I detected a slight reaction of surprise. A surprise which is probably a result not only of ignorance of Jain tradition but also due to the different cultural and religious environment in which he lives. Yet, granted that human mind does not differ from place to place and virtually is one and unified, I think that an exposition in brief of Jain world-view would be adequate and necessary for a better mutual understanding.

The Jain Dharma does not support the existence of a creator God [6]. According to it, the universe, the whole world, is eternal and self-existent, liable to periodical recycling. The cosmic reality consists of two ontological categories: animate and inanimate entities. Every animate being consists of soul (jīva) and material substance (ajīva). The souls or jīvas are innumerable, eternal, conscious, distinct and independent entities that motivate the activity of animate beings. In the case of the latter the correlation of jīva with material substance prevents the realization of jīva’s true nature which by itself is characterized by unobstructed perception, pure intelligence, and bliss. The correlation between jīva and ajīva is without beginning and eternal, but not incapable of modifications. It is maintained due to the activity of karma. The latter is thought as a subtle form of matter which is attached to jīva veiling its inherent qualities, but incapable to transform them. The veiling of jīva’s qualities causes its successive embodiment in various living beings. As a result, the ascetic endeavour in Jainism aims at liberation which is perceived as a release from the bonds of karma and rebirth and the consequent entrance of jīva to siddha-loka, the uppermost reaches of the universe. Then jīva, by regaining its real nature, abides on its innate perfection, bliss, and perfect knowledge (kevala-jñāna). However, the release of jīva from karma-storing may demand many repeated rebirths and ascetic endeavours. So that an elder ascetic or a layman, following Mahāvīra’s [7] example, may choose to end his/her life at will by abstaining gradually from food and liquids.

At this point, it should be mentioned that Jain tradition, distinguishes, as Christian tradition has already done, the afore-mentioned three kinds of voluntary death. Nevertheless, a proportional kind to sallekhanā does not exist in Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition except in the case of a monk and saint, “the great senior” Varsanoufios (6th cen. A.D.). He, as Prof. Panagiotis Christou wrote in one of his articles, after the death of abbot Seridis and well on in years “he did not reconciled to the new abbot, he was not replying to questions and he was not consuming food anymore. As a consequence, he died after a short time” [8].

I suppose that while the most of you know what sallekhanā is, some others may know in part. Yet, for reasons of mutual comparison and understanding between both religious traditions on the issue in question, let me say in brief what sallekhanā is and what are its prerequisites.

Sallekhanā (in Sanskrit: sallikhita) means to properly “thin out”, “scour out” or “slender” the passions and the body through gradually abstaining from food and liquids. It is also known as samlehna, santhara, samadhi-marana or sanyasana-marana. It is viewed in Jain tradition as a supplementary vow to the ethical code of conduct described as “facing death voluntarily through fasting”. In addition, it is another means of destroying rebirth-influencing karma by withdrawing all physical and mental activities. According to Jain texts, sallekhanā leads to ahiṁsā (non-violence or non-injury), as a person observing it subjugates the passions, which are the root cause of hiṁsā (injury or violence).

Sallekhanā is divided into two components: Firstly, kashaya sallekhanā (that means weakening of passions) or abhayantra (internal) and secondly kaya sallekhanā (slenderising the body) or bahya (external).

Sallekhanā could be applied by both men and women, laymen and ascetics. It is always undertaken after public declaration, and never assisted by any chemicals or tools. It is supplementary to the list of vows prescribed to the followers of Jain Dharma. Firstly, there are five great vows: that is ahiṁsā (non-violence, that means not to hurt any living being by actions or thoughts), satya (truthfullnes), asteya (not to take anything if not given), brahmacharya (chastity or celibacy in action, words and thoughts) and aparigraha (non-possession or detachment from material property). A further seven supplementary vows are also prescribed, which include three guņavratas (merit vows) and four śikṣāvratas (disciplinary vows). The three guņavratas are: digvrata (restriction on movement with regard to directions, or limiting one’s area of activity), bhogopabhogaparimana (limiting use of consumable and non-consumable things), and anartha-dandaviramana (abstain from purposeless sins or refraining from harmful occupations and activities). The śiksavratas include: samayika (vow to meditate and concentrate periodically), desavrata (limiting movement to certain places for a fixed period of time), prosadhopavāsa (fasting at regular intervals), and atithi-samvibhag (offering food to the ascetic and people in need). Although sallekhanā is treated as a supplementary to these twelve vows, some Jain teachers such as Kundakunda, Devasena, Padmanandin, and Vasunandin have included it under Śikṣavratas.

As for the prerequisites of proceeding to sallekhanā, the Tattvartha Sūtra states: “A householder willingly or voluntary adopts sallekhanā when death is near” [9] and according to Ratnakaranda Śrāvakācāra, sallekhanā can be observed only “on arrival of unavoidable calamity, distress, senescence and disease” [10].

With the words of Justice T. K. Tukol: “[…] the person adopting the vow must have subjugated all his passions and given up all attachments and possessions. […] He should put an end to all family or friendly ties by disclosing his intensions and by asking their forgiveness with an open mind. He has also to discuss all his acts of commission and omission with his Guru. He should forgive everybody and must have developed full faith in religion and acquired clear knowledge of its principles” [11].

The duration of practicing sallekhanā could be up to twelve years or more. The procedure of it, expounded in the sixth part of Ratnakaranda Śrāvakācāra (127-128), is as follows: “Giving up solid food by degrees, one should take to milk and whey, then giving them up, to hot or spiced water. [Subsequently] giving up hot water also, and observing fasting with full determination, he should give up his body, trying in every possible way to keep in mind the pañca-namaskāra mantra”.

During this procedure he or she should avoid five transgressions, which are: 1) wishing death to come a little later, 2) wishing for an early death, 3) entertaining fear as to how he would bear the pangs of death, 4) remembering friends and relatives at the moment of death, 5) wishing for a certain reward as a result of this vow [12].

In conclusion, we could say that sallekhanā is a very special vow. The principle behind this vow is that a person when giving up his body, with complete peace of mind, calmness, and patience, without any fear at all, not only prevents the influx of the new karmas but also purges the old ones which are attached to the soul.

Considering that sallekhanā is not a practice by means of chemicals or tools, without use of external violence, it is not treated as a suicide by Jain tradition.

After exposing both the Eastern Orthodox Christian and Jain world-views, I would mention that a great difference lies between them concerning the creation and preservation of the world. Due to this difference there could not be an essential comparison on the issue of voluntary death.

Apart of that, towards the issue of sallekhanā, an Orthodox Christian respecting the freedom of his/her fellowmen who belong to a different religious tradition than his/her own, and taking into account its basic principles, he/she could not regard the application of this vow with a strain of condemnation nor to consider it as something strange. Just as Jesus respected free will, without imposing the meaning of his Gospel, an Orthodox Christian could not but react to sallekhanā with sincere and deep respect.

1] VELISSAROPOULOS, D. K., pp. 159-165, 182-185, 196.
2] BEGZOS, M.P. & PAPATHANASIOU, A. N., pp. 114-118, 125-129..
3] Ibid. p. 127.
4] BEGZOS, M. P., Psychologóntas ten Threskeia, pp. 89-95; MANTZARIDIS, G. I., pp. 629-630.
5] MANTZARIDIS, G. I., p. 654.
6] MICHAILIDIS, A., “Tzainismós”, p. 531; SALTER E., p. 175.
7] MICHAILIDIS, A., “Mahavira”, p. 368.
8] CHRISTOU, P., column 653, cited by VOULGARAKIS, EL., p. 42. Translated from Greek by me.
9] TUKOL, T. K., p.10.
10] JAIN, C. R., pp. 58-64.
11] TUKOL, T. K., p. 88.
12] Ratnakaranda Śravakācāra 122-129.

BEGZOS, MARIOS P., Psychologóntas ten Threskeia, Ekdóseis Gregóre, Athéna 2011.
BEGZOS, MARIOS P. & PAPATHANASIOU, ATHANASIOS N., Themata Christianikes Ethikés, ITYE “Diofantos”, Athéna 2016.
CHRISTOU, PANAGIOTIS, “Varsanoufios”, Threskeytiké kai Ethiké Egyklopaideia, vol. III, Athénai 1963, column 653.
IERA SYNODOS TES EKKLESIAS TES HELLADOS-EPITROPE VIOETHIKES, Epísema Keimena Vioethikés (Metamosheuseis-Euthanasía-Hypovoithoumene Anaparagogé), Apostoliké Diakonía tes Ekklesías tes Helládos, Athéna 2007.
JAIN, CHAMPAT RAI, “The Ratna Karanda Sravakacharā”, (1917) Internet Archive, The Central Jaina Publishing House, pp. 58-64.
MANTZARIDIS, GEORGIOS I., Christianiké Ethiké, vol. II, Ekdóseis P. Pournará, Thessaloniki 2004.
MICHAILIDIS, APOSTOLOS, “Mahavira”, entry in Marios Begzos (ed.) Threskeiologikó Lexikó, Helleniká Grámmata, Athéna 2000, pp. 367-368.
MICHAILIDIS, APOSTOLOS, “Tzainismós”, entry in Marios Begzos (ed.) Threskeiologikó Lexikó, Helleniká Grámmata, Athéna 2000, pp. 529-532.
SALTER, EMMA, “Tzainismós”, entry in Christopher Partridge (ed.), Oi Threskeies tou Kósmou, transl. in Greek by Vasilis Adrachtas, Ouranós, Athéna 2006, pp. 165-187.
TUKOL, T. K., Sallekhanā is Not Suicide, L. D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad, 1976.
VELISSAROPOULOS, DEMETRIOS K., Héllenes kai Indoi-E synántese dyo kósmon, vol. I, Vivliopoleio tes “Estías”, Athéna 1990.
VOULGARAKIS, ELIAS, Autoktonía kai ekklesiastiké tafé, Ekdóseis Armós, Athéna 1992.