What a 13-Year-Old Girl's Death Teaches Us About 'Voluntariness' in Jainism

Aradhana Samdariya died because of a religious ritual that was forced upon her by the practices of an entire community.

It is not uncommon for a disturbing incident in the present to take us back in time to our own similar experiences. The death of Aradhana Samdariya did that for me. I do not want to speak of my narrative as a way of making this about me. But I find it a necessary digression, in order to contextualise how I see what happened, and explain my response to it.

My  years of growing up were characterised by all the marks of being raised in a religious Jain family – not only in terms of belief, but also practice. My initiation into the world of religion is something I can never trace back; it is a memory inaccessible to me. But of what remains, I want to revisit a few instances.

I grew up in a building in which only Jain Marwaris lived. The flat I lived in was rented and had been so since 1960. When I think back to specific memories, or recollect those that are often spoken of at home, I can’t ever remember a single incident that mentions Dhondiba, the owner, who was a Maratha. Despite him being the owner, his religion and caste kept him out of our household conversations. The only people we spoke of, invited to our house and who felt comfortable visiting were people from the same religion and caste. None of this has changed much for my family and community, even today.

My first memory of an explicit interface with religion, outside of home, was when I was taken to the temple to perform a puja. Jainism, I would later learn, is a religion that does not believe in the existence of a god/gods. But it still had its ‘gods’ to be prayed to. I was bathed and given a new set of clothes that were kept separately on that day and every day since, for a specific purpose. I could not eat or enter the toilet with those clothes on; had I done so, the clothes would be defiled and would be as ordinary as all my other clothes.

By the time I was about seven or eight years old, the Paryushan (an eight-day festival that culminates with the celebration of Mahavir Jayanti) became another period of worship, forming my experience with religion and shaping my understanding of it.

The Paryushan comes about two months after the commencement of the Chaturmas, which coincides with the four months of the monsoon season. In the contemporary practice of Jainism, one can pick from a variety of rituals to observe the Chaturmas:

  • Duvihar – consume any amount of food in the day, but only medicines and boiled water post sunset until 10 pm latest (some Jain munis would permit us water until midnight).
  • Tivihar – consume any amount of food in the day, but only boiled water post sunset until 10 pm.
  • Chauvihar – consume food in the day, but no consumption of water or food post sunset
  • Byasna – consumption of food only twice in the day, with only boiled water, before sunset
  • Ekashna – Consumption of food only once a day, with only boiled water, before sunset.
  • Upvaas – No consumption of food at all, only boiled water until before sunset
  • Chauvihaar Upvaas (fasting) – No consumption of food or water
  • Attham – Upvaas for 3 days
  • Atthai – Upvaas for 8 days
  • Upvaas for 15 days
  • Maaskhaman – Upvaas for 30 days (no consumption of food at all)

Many elders in my family fasted diligently. Seeing them, I too was inspired. To begin with, I observed small fasts and at most, an ekashna.

The first time I kept an upvaas, I was in the 8th standard and did so out of my own ‘choice’. It was not very difficult, apart from from the many things I dreamt of at night, including orange juice. The following year, I fasted for eight days.

What is important to understand in all this is not just what happens, but how it happens. This becomes clear to me when I think of what transpired in the years before I started fasting. The children of my community were sent to pathshala, a school of religious grounding. I was taken there by my mother and aunt, as were my cousins. At the pathshala, an older woman taught us the dos and don’ts of a good life. I remember one particular instance when we were shown pictures from a book which had humans cut into pieces, fried in oil and the like. It was a depiction of hell.

At the pathshala, the Chaturmas celebrations were marked by a contest based on trust and some preliminary surveillance. We would be given a card with a grid printed on it. The first column had many sub-heads – ‘performed puja’, ‘went to the temple’, ‘did not eat at night’, ‘did some charity’ and the like – and each of us had to mark whatever we had observed. Each of these acts were linked to points and we would receive gifts based on our final score. This practice continues, shamelessly so.

I go into these micro details as the only way I know of refuting each of the claims by those who have said Aradhana’s death was an accident and that she fasted voluntarily.

She did not. Just as I, and every child around me, did not. The fast was based on a fear insidiously built, little by little, about how one would fare in the next life; rewards given on the basis of ‘how religious you can be’. I am told my birth in a Jain family is because I have, incidentally, done such good deeds in my past life, “to be lucky enough to be born in the best religion in the world”.

The indoctrination in the name of culture begins early, in ways and acts of living everyday life, forming and influencing belief right from our youngest, most pliable years.

Without elaborating on another controversial but related topic – that of the practice of santhara, or fast unto death based on a religious dimension – I refer to the arguments presented in a recent case, Nikhil Soni vs. Union of India, by the state of Rajasthan. The state made a distinction between ‘religion as practiced under coercion’ and ‘religious practice’. The religious imposition of every Jain family on its children, apart from those who choose Jainism after understanding it, is an act of coercion.

Aradhana’s parents may say they did not coerce her into a 68-day fast, but a 13-year-old child fasting for that long is the victim of an act of coercion by the practices of the entire community. Instances of inter-religious and inter-caste marriage are extremely few in the Jain community, owing to the fact that an average practicing Jain does not experience any other culture. Instances like these are an everyday occurrence, all of which go unchallenged. Thus, a girl will not be allowed to oppose menstrual exile, she will not be allowed to say no to going to the temple if she chooses not to, a boy will not be allowed to have a meat-eating friend (forget choosing to eat meat, that would be blasphemy), but the 68-day fast of a 13-year-old girl will be considered voluntary because a monk tells her father that his business will boom if she does so.

Aradhana’s death calls for a re-look at all the practices of ‘secularism’ with respect to the Jain community. Jainism has a culture of men and women, boys and girls who take up deeksha, almost like sanyas, and sacrifice all wants, needs and desires of the material world. There have been multiple instances of young boys and girls, some younger than 15 years old, who have been accepted into this fold. Exactly how voluntary is their act? This incident also calls for a re-examination of the relationship between the state and religion, especially one like Jainism, which enjoys the benefits of being a minority religion and is hence able to conserve and preserve its ‘culture’. The death of a 13-year-old girl is not a culture we need to preserve.

Shrenik Mutha studies law at ILS Law College and is based in Pune. He has been associated with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan and the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat in Pune.