It was an unusual sale. Hemratna Suri Maharaj, a Jain monk, died in deep meditation. 15,000 devotees bid to perform his last rites.
Worse, the several rituals were being auctioned for separately. The person who bid the highest amount, what the reports described as “the perfectly symmetrical sum of Rs 1,11,11,111 (Rs 10.1 million)”, got to light the funeral pyre. The second highest bidder circled it with a pot of water on his shoulder; four families carried the bier; another carried the body to the pyre.
All the money will be used to build a temple. Apparently, other social causes are also supported.
What bothers me about this ritual that goes back 450 years is that it was started to get the believers to donate money to the temple boxes. This was the bait. You bid for a favoured guru’s last rites, begin to feel you are specially blessed and the religion is spread. People with big bucks become the most prized individuals because they imagine they are keeping the faith alive. All it takes are a couple of deaths a month, and here too there is a hierarchy. Dead gurus who are not so famous aren’t put up for auction; the ones with a small following manage a few lakh.
These facts and figures are openly flaunted. It is a great lesson in social dynamics. The concept of abjurance is embedded in almost all religions. If a community is wealthy, then austerity can be experienced by proxy. One member decides to give up everything. Should this person become one of the respected acharyas he will be up for bidding. No one has thought about using this money directly for the causes that the community wishes to promote.
Death is a fascinating concept. Although mortality is written in human destiny, choosing mortality – or giving up worldly desires – anoints the person with martyrdom.
In the days when religions were striving to find themselves, prophets and seers took their time and there was a message in the deaths – whether of Christ, or Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Husain, or Lord Buddha or even the Jain saint Mahavira.
Today, it appears to be a commercial enterprise, whether it is photo-ops at the Ajmer Sharif dargah or the Siddhi Vinayak Temple or Tirupati. About a thousand Jains take diksha (giving up of the material world) every year amidst much fanfare. Is there a need for such publicity?
The concept of Santhara - reaching salvation by starving to death – is undertaken “when a person feels his or her earthly life has served its purpose”. Last year 250 monks died. There could be a lot of brainwashing going on here. The religious leaders are adamant. They are at pains to state that this is not suicide. They often talk about dignity of life when they are called upon to explain such deaths. Isn’t it possible that the bare minimum that they have to subsist on could be the cause of ill-health and this samadhi (complete fasting or testing the body in other ways) is seen as a way out?
By supporting such deaths, we are giving a slap to scientific endeavour. Can modern medicine not provide relief, if not a cure? Besides, how progressive are we really if we find every debility reason enough to feel undignified? Are we teaching the world that dependency of any kind is anathema and it is better to quit than suffer such humiliation?
Let us get this clear. Death is humiliating. It is an end to your striving, the final blow to a useful life. A corpse has grace because it is immobile, and not because of any quality that it possesses.
Many of those who enter this phase are women (the ratio is 3 women to one man) who might be seen as a burden on their families. How different is it from sati (the practice, now illegal, of the widow jumping into her husband's funeral pyre)? A couple of years ago, television flashed images of one such female monk being carried to her funeral seated on a throne-like palanquin. This is the romanticisation by the living: To be blessed by a few such deaths.
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This appeared in my column of the June 1 issue of Covert magazine.