Sallekhana and the Decision to Die

“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.

The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:

When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.

Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.

When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.

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What Can You Teach About Religion?

When I first started teaching this class, I was really nervous that I would get frequent calls from parents, or the principal, or the superintendent for that matter. I wanted to be clear about what I could and could not teach, and I decided to share that pretty openly with the students as well. We spend a day at the beginning of each year reviewing the first amendment clauses protecting religion, their religious rights in school, and the school’s limitations in terms of what it can and can not do. I figure if we all know the rules, than we can call each other out if we are not following them! The following resources have been extremely helpful in planning and creating those lessons:

Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion

Your Right to Religious Freedom: an ACLU published guide aimed at students

Religion in the Public Schools: a guide from the Anti-Defamation League

Religion in the Public Schools: Center for Public Education overview (this one has some interesting scenarios that we use as discussion points in class)

Religion in the Public Schools: Pew Forum Report

I hope these are helpful to you! For the record, the only complaint that I have ever recieved in regards to this class was from a parent after we did some yoga stretches to warm up one day before a lecture on Hinduism. Based on my understanding of the law, my understanding of yoga (can you really force someone to do yoga, really?) and the fact that it is totally optional, we still do the stretches. One of the golden rules of teaching: you will always be surprised.