South Asia Guest Lecture Series - Claire Maes (Tübingen)
CERES Palais, room "Cordoba" (3.06)
South Asian Section - Guest Lecture Series
Guest Lecture by Prof. Dr. Claire Maes, Asian Orient Institute, Indology Department, University of Tübingen
Sallekhanā and the End-of-Life Option of Voluntarily Stopping of Eating and Drinking: An Ethical Argument to Consider the Jain Practice of Fasting to Death as Different from Suicide
Jains have 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. Declaring death by sallekhanā as an unnatural death, 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 also, does the support of a sallekhanā-aspirant constitute assisted suicide? In this lecture, I make an ethical argument to consider the Jain practice of fasting to death (known as sallekhanā) as different from suicide. To this end, I bring the Jain fast into conversation with the practice of ‘Voluntarily Stopping of Eating and Drinking’ (VSED), an end-of-life option, available in various countries for competent adults, to hasten the end of life by consciously choosing to not eat and drink. From a medical and legal point of view sallekhanā can be considered a form of VSED. Although differing in terms of intent and historical context, the two practices are similar insofar that they relate to capable and sound individuals who voluntarily forego food and water until death. Showing the critical similarity between VSED and sallekhanā, I argue that the grounds put forward by major medical associations and legal societies to differentiate VSED from suicide are equally applicable to the case of sallekhanā.
Claire Maes studied Indian Languages and Cultures at Ghent University, Belgium, and Indian Philosophy at the University of Mysore in India. She earned her Ph.D. degree in 2015 from Ghent University with a dissertation that examines the influence of Jain thought and practice on the Buddhist monastic community in early India. Soon after, she joined the University of Texas at Austin where she worked for several years at the Asian Studies Department, first as a postdoctoral fellow of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies, and subsequently as a Sanskrit lecturer. Since September 2021, she is an assistant professor at the Department of Indology at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Her principal research topics are the Jain understandings of what constitutes a good death and the development of the Buddhist monastic community in ancient India.