The Bioethics of Euthanasia in India: Past and Present

Hinduism’s response to the question of euthanasia

By Purushottama Bilimoria|December 18, 2014

The Los Angeles Times carried an article (January 2013) on the elderly citizens of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who, perhaps ailing and suffering from debilitating pain, are being quietly sent off to their deaths, often with the use of a potion known as thalaikoothal.
But what is Hinduism’s response to the question of euthanasia? How have the majority of Hindus been dealing with this issue? This becomes a critical question especially when confronted with, on the one hand, the availability of technologically advanced medical treatment regimes and, on the other hand, a significant lack of resources for the palliative care of a the subcontinent’s rapidly aging population of 1.1 billion.
Surveys of ancient scriptural sources on the issue yield several ambiguities and contradictions. Hindu legalistic prohibitions against taking one's own life appear in Manusmriti, II. 90-91, V. 89; Yajnavalkyasmrti III.253, among other corpus known as Dharma Shastras Manusmriti also mentions fasting in order to draw attention to an injustice in a situation, human or cosmic, which might lead to one's death. These sources constitute the classical pronouncements on temporal law for Hindus, and are considered to be authoritative even today.
Ancient Brahmanic-Hindu lawmakers (attributed with authorship of the aforementioned shastric texts) made self-killing an exception for a lower-caste man guilty of the murder of a Brahmin, who may thus throw himself into a fire (Manu XI.73: Yajna. III.248) as well as for those who committed other heinous crimes against themselves (like taking liquor) or against others (e.g. adulterous relationships with higher caste members, incest, theft, perjury, etc.).
Might there be limits and other sanctions, however, for a conditional intervention in circumstances which call for the swift release of the soul of the dreadfully injured individual, marking a turning point in the individual’s karmic cycle? Or, is the reverence for life balanced by the principle of dignified death, an implication derived from the inevitable decay of all creatures?
For answers scholars often turn to historical instances and recorded practices, such as ascetic atmaghata or jauhar (mass suicide in the face of impending calamity, natural or human-made), the controversial sati ("suttee," though more needs to be said about the element of involuntary homicide involved here), fasting to death (that Mahatma Gandhi adopted as a political strategy and that Vinoba Bhave used to find release from his incapacitating illness).
Instructively, there are parallel practices in India’s Jaina religious tradition such assallekhana, prayovesana, santhara (voluntary fasting to death). Secular Hindus—Hindus and Jains who are less committed to their religion than to the culture and to the political ideal of India as Hindu, hence, like Gandhi, “secular” in Charles Taylor's sense of secularity—often cite the Jaina practice as evidence of a humanist approach toward empathic care for the severely ill, or toward those who are deprived of their "fundamental rights" to work, to a living wage, to equality and to the decent standard of life decreed in the Indian Constitution (articles 14-21). Secular Hindus argue that from the latter juridical rule a negative entailment can be derived (as indeed Indian courts have argued). To whit: when one of these basic rights is not forthcoming or abrogated by the state, the aggrieved citizen may exercise the right to die or resort to non-culpable auto-homicide.
In recent times cases involving attempted suicide have come before the secular courts. A landmark case was of a vendor whose licence to sell vegetables on a street-side stall was revoked by the city administration; he there-upon took the drastic step of setting himself on fire in public, only to be arrested and charged by the police with criminal offence under section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.
It is interesting that the state’s High Courts and, in at least two instances, the nation's Apex Court have compared such acts of attempted suicide to euthanasia (in the medical context) and adjudged the former to be constitutionally defensible–even though euthanasia is not yet protected under the law, and the analogical reasoning might therefore be a trifle over-determined.
All of these considerations suggest a preparedness on the part of Hindus and of a large number of secular Indians to adopt an open (though cautious) attitude toward euthanasia based on the particularity of the case. Hindu and non-Hindu Indians alike ask whether euthanasia is, in a given situation, a humane means of minimizing the sufferer's immense pain and continuing harm to her potential good hereafter—rather than bend to an the ideology of deterrence inscribed in the outmoded colonial penal system still prevalent in India. 

Magnier, Mark. “In southern India, relatives sometimes quietly kill their elders.” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 2013, News.
Bilimoria, P. “Jaina ethic of voluntary death, A Report from India.” Bioethics 331-355 (October 1992), Vol 6 No 4, pp. 331-355.
Bilimoria, P. “Legal Rulings on Suicide in India and Implications for the Rights to Die.”Asian Philosophy (Nottingham) Autumn 1995, Vol 5, No 2. pp. 159-180.83.
Bilimoria, P. “The Debate on Euthanasia in India.” Indian Ethics. Volume II. Edited by P. Bilimoria, Renuka Sharma, J. Prabhu, Amy Rayner. Indian Ethics vol II Gender, Justice and Ecology. Dordrecht: Springer; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Image Credit: Zuhair A. Al-Traifi / flickr creative commons.

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Author, Purushottama Bilimoria, is Honorary Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Studies at Deakin University in Australia and Senior Fellow, University of Melbourne, Visiting Scholar and Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Shivadasani Fellow of Oxford University. His research focuses on classical Indian philosophy and comparative ethics, Continental thought, cross-cultural philosophy of religion, diaspora studies, bioethics, and personal law in India. Recent publications are Indian Ethics I (Ashgate 2007, OUP 2008), Sabdapramana: Word and Knowledge (Testimony) in Indian Philosophy (revised reprint, Delhi: DK PrintWorld, 2008); Emotions In Indian-Thought Systems (with A. Wenta) (Routledge 2015), and Indian Ethics Vol II (Springer 2015).