Death is considered a very frightening and unwanted event because it ends the visible existence of a living being. Since realms other than the physical are unknown or not accepted, death implies total cessation of existence. A big fraction of humanity which believes only in material science as science, tries to avoid the discussion on death itself.
Materialistic science, by its inherent limitation, has no capacity to examine anything other than the physical, and thus it is not expected to know or verify the other realms in existence. Given that it cannot find out the source of life sustaining energy that enters the embryo or fetus when a new living being starts to exist physically, and leaves the body at the time of death, it is irrelevant how sophisticated material science is in the context of having to deal with anything beyond our five senses. All the machines or methods, whether for visualizing details of the brain or for detecting brain physiology (brain waves), suffer from this limitation of being restricted to the physical realm only.
Despite thousands of cases of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and reincarnations being recorded around the globe, physical science tries to deny the existence of life beyond the visible realm. This is utterly futile as the very nature of physical science makes it unable to perceive and analyze such phenomena. Though many physicians and scientists have accepted and tried to disseminate the reality for the benefit of humanity, these findings are usually not considered “mainstream science” and largely excluded from medical science curricula. The result is that most of the physicians who have to deal with dying patients, have no broad insight into the phenomena of death. They are simply unable to discuss the matter with patients or their family in appropriate way making the process of death uncomfortable to all the involved partners.
Inability to discuss about impending death with dying patient and the family in appropriate way is problematic for the physician too. In the name of prolonging life, artificially with machines even when the condition is very much untreatable physicians do not serve the interest of the patients or family mostly making the treatment unavailable for those who may get benefitted from the treatment (as machines like ventilator are almost always have limited availability).
If we look at our Vedic tradition, where life is known to be continuous by nature with repetitions of birth and death, till one becomes one with Paramatma, death is discussed in great detail. We find descriptions of the events that take place during the process of dying after leaving the body in great detail in the Vedas (mainly Upanishad part) themselves. Entire Kathopanishad is based on the dialogue with Yama, a personal representation of death. In this article, we shall discuss the view of Sanatana Dharmic tradition on voluntary death.
Ishavasyopanishad (Part of Yajurveda) says one has to desire living for hundred years doing prescribed duty. कुर्वन्नेवेह कर्माणि जिजीवीषेच्छतं समा:। ( ShuklaYajurveda 40/2 )
There is a statement in Shatapatha Brahmana – यो वा शतं वर्षाणि जीवति स हैवैतदमृतमाप्नोति तस्माद्ये चैतद्विदुर्ये च न लोक्या शतायुतेत्येवाहुस्तस्मादु ह न पुराऽऽयुषः स्वकामी प्रेयादलोक्यं ह । (10.2.6.7) “Therefore, whether they know it, or whether they do not, they say that the life of a hundred years is conducive for immortality( heaven) Hence one must not leave the body by one’s own desire before the full extent of life, because doing so one misses the opportunity for attaining immortality”.
Such statements are understood as general rule for individuals in Grihasthashrama except when done in prescribed way. This cannot be taken as absolute norm as within the Veda we have Yajna specifically recommended for one who wants to die voluntarily. This Yajna known as Sarvasvara (सर्वस्वार) or Shunaskarnastoma (शुनस्कर्णस्तोम. In Tandyamahabrahmana (Brahmana belonging to Samaveda) this Ekaha (Yajna finished in one day) has been specifically mentioned to be done by one who wants to die by entering to the fire of the Yajna.
त्रिवृदग्निष्टोम: स सर्वस्वारो य: कामयेताऽनामयताऽमुं लोकमियामिति स एतेन यजेत। ( 17.12.1 ) “This threefold Agnistoma called Sarvasvara is to be done by one who wants to leave the body for heaven with peace”.
Though details of the Yajna vary slightly in different Shrautasutras (texts under Kalpa which are second among Vedangas and give details of for Shrauta Yajna for respective Shakha of Vedas), this Yajna is described in most of the Shrautasutras. Generally the Yajna consists of Yajamana entering the Yajna fire towards the end of the Yajna ending his physical existence. This is clear evidence that Vedic tradition though strongly against haphazard suicide, recognizes that one may decide to die voluntarily in very much dignified way and entry to fire is the method that has been recommended by the Vedas themselves.
In some of the Upanishads including Jabalopanishad, different ways of voluntary death including entry to fire have been mentioned.
वीराध्वाने वाऽनाशके वाऽपां प्रवेशे वाऽग्निप्रवेशे वा महाप्रस्थाने वा। -जाबालोपनिषद् 5 “(This rite also applies ) in dying by going in front of war, fasting, entering to water (drowning), entering fire or Mahaprasthana (Walking to north till one dies)”
In Mahabharata there are several instances where voluntary death has been talked or exemplified. The vivid description of how Dhritarastra, Gandhari and Pritha (Kunti) chose to die in the fire of the forest is found in 37th Adhyaya of Ashramavasika Parva (45th in Satavalekar Edition and 39th in some editions) where Narada describes this to King Yudhishthira.
Narada narrates – “Then king (Dhritarastra) seeing the great fire reaching him, told Sanjaya to walk away to safer place beyond the reach of fire. He told that they (with Gandhari and Kunti) will go to Sadgati burnt by the fire. Very much worried Sanjaya told him “Your majesty, this type of death by forest fire is inauspicious for you but I do not see any way to escape from the fire, so you should order me whatever I should do”. Hearing this Dhritarastra again says “This type of death is not at all inauspicious for us who have left our homes (have become Vanaprastha i.e. forest dwellers) because dying with water, fire, wind or fasting are all very much auspicious for those doing penance. So you should leave us here and move away immediately. Having said this King sat in mediation facing east together with Gandhari and Kunti. Seeing this Sanjaya did Pradakshina (going around in respect) asking him to be in deep union with self. Following his advice the king controlled his breath and become just like lifeless wooden log. Thus your father (father’s brother), Gandhari and your mother Kunti were engulfed by the huge fire.”
“ततः स नृपतिर्दृष्ट्वा वह्निमायान्तमन्तिकात्।
इदमाह ततः सूतं सञ्जयं जयतां वरः।।२२।।
गच्छ सञ्जय यत्राग्निर्न त्वां दहति कर्हिचित्।
वयमत्राग्निना युक्ता गमिष्यामः परां गतिम्।।२३।।
तमुवाच किलोद्विग्नः सञ्जयो वदतां वरः।
राजन् मृत्युरनिष्टोऽयं भविता ते वृथाऽग्निना।।२४।।
न चोपायं प्रपश्यामि मोक्षणे जातवेदसः।
यदत्रानन्तरं कार्यं तद्भवान्वक्तुमर्हति।।२५।।
इत्युक्तः सञ्जयेनेदं पुनराह स पार्थिवः
नैष मृत्युरनिष्टो नो निःसृतानां गृहात्स्वयम्।।२६।।
जलमग्निस् तथा वायुरथवाऽपि विकर्षणम्।
तापसानां प्रशस्यन्ते गच्छ सञ्जय मा चिरम् ।।२७।।
इत्युक्त्वा सञ्जयं राजा समाधाय मनस्तथा।
प्राङ्मुखः सह गान्धार्या कुन्त्या चोपाविशत्तदा।।२८।।
सञ्जयस्तं तथा दृष्ट्वा प्रदक्षिणमथाकरोत्।
उवाच चैनं मेधावी युङ्क्ष्वात्मानमिति प्रभो।।२९।।
ऋषिपुत्रो मनीषी स राजा चक्रेऽस्य तद्वचः।
गान्धारी च महाभागा जननी च पृथा तव।
दावाग्निना समायुक्ते स च राजा पिता तव।।३१।।” (महाभारत,आश्रमवासिकपर्व अध्याय ३७)
In Vanaparva, there is mention of place called Plakshavatarana in Yamuna river where people used to come for voluntary death entering to Yamuna river: “Those who leave body here go to heaven, thousands of people who want to die come here.”
“इह मर्त्यास् तनूस् त्यक्त्वा स्वर्गं गच्छन्ति भारत। मर्तुकामा नरा राजन्निहायान्ति सहस्रश:।।” वनपर्व 130/1
Various Puranas have also recommended voluntary death in specific situations by different ways including entering fire or water. In Skanda Purana, Kashikhanda –“Who leaves the corpse (body) afflicted by old age and diseases with patience (without fear) enters into heaven” जरारोगाभिपन्नं तु कुणपं जाह्नवी जले। धैर्येण तृणवत् त्यक्त्वा प्रविशेदमरावतीम्।। स्कन्दपुराण,काशीखण्ड 28/113
Vishnudharmottara Purana- “Who enters fire gets into desired Loka and who enters water to leave the body goes to the Varuna Loka” वह्निप्रवेशान्नियतम् अभीष्टं लोकमश्नुते। वारुणं लोकमाप्नोति त्यक्त्वाम्भसि तनुं नर: ।। विष्णुधर्मोत्तरपुराण 3/237/45
Skanda Purana Avantyakhanda- “One who is suffering from incurable disease, old age of handicapped can attain to Sadgati if gets into fire with proper rites”. व्याधिग्रहगृहीतो वा वृद्धो वा विकलेन्द्रिय:। आत्मानं दाहयित्वाऽग्नौ विधिना सद्गतिं लभेत् ।। स्कन्दपुराण ,आवन्त्यखण्ड 3/43/15
Fasting till death referred as Prayopaveshana or just Anashaka/Anashana or Nirashana, is relatively less drastic measure for voluntary death. We have seen it mentioned in Jabalopanishad too as a method of voluntary death. In Manavashrautasutra, Mahabharata and various Puranas we find fasting till death as one of the esteemed method for voluntary death.
Garuda Purana says –“Even at home if one dies doing fasting, he travels to Devaloka alone leaving behind the lineage” व्रतं निरशनं कृत्वा स्वगृहेऽपि मृतो यदि। स्वकुलानि परित्यज्य एकाकी विचरेद् दिवि।। गरुडपुराण 2/36/15)
Fasting as method of voluntary death has also been widely practiced and unlike other methods some of which e.g. Mahaprasthana, have been considered Kalivarjya (not to be followed in Kaliyuga) by some authorities or texts has not been considered so. Fasting is considered purifier of the body and those who have finished their worldly duty or suffering from incurable diseases who fast till death are considered very pious.
Mahakavi Kalidasa in his very famous epic Raghuvamsha (8/94) describes voluntary fasting by King Aja (Father of Dasharatha) as he wanted to abandon his diseased body when he was confident on well trained prince Dasharatha that he will govern with ease, directing him to protect the people with all effort.
“सम्यग्विनीतमथवर्महरं कुमारमादिश्य रक्षणविधौ विधिवत् प्रजानाम्।
रोगोपसृष्टतनुदुर्वसतिं मुमुक्षु: प्रायोपवेशनमतिर्नृपतिर्बभूव।।” रघुवंशम् ८/९४
Thus the tradition of taking one lifetime as a step in continuous way towards Moksha without neglecting Artha and Kama (Prosperity and physical enjoyment) as applicable in various stages of life (Ashramas) is in perfect alignment with tradition of voluntary death in specific situations. This is mostly applicable for Vanaprastha and Sannyasi. But as exemplified by Sarvasvara Yajna, even a householder who has finished his worldly duty or suffering from incurable diseases is eligible for it.
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Sammod Acharya (Sammodavardhana Kaundinnyayana) is trained traditionally in Madhyandineeya Shakha of Shukla-Yajurveda. His areas of special interest are Grihyasutras, Vyakarana and Jyotisha among the Vedangas and Ayurveda among the Upavedas and life enriching education in general. He is formally trained as a physician with specialization on clinical pharmacology.He tweets at @sammodacharya