The Art of Dying – Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar Etteth“Society has always been afraid of what it cannot fathom. Though holding all life sacred, it perceives unnatural death as a moral faultline; a dark passage to a private hell, deserving stigma. Which is the reason why, many nations outlaw euthanasia. In India, the Hindu understanding of life is based on karmic progression, where an evolved being gives up its breath to merge with the Divine.” -  Ravi Shankar Etteth

Aruna ShanbaugDeath is a grim business and life can be even grimmer. Mankind’s obsession with death and pain is governed by two principles—closure and the expectation of a better afterlife. Last week, the Supreme Court referred the question of making euthanasia legal to a Constitution Bench. It was a change of heart that signifies the evolution of law and society, when the court noted that its previous judgment in March 2011 rejecting a painless farewell for Aruna Shanbaug was delivered on a “wrong premise”. Strangely, passive euthanasia for a person in a permanently vegetative state is already permitted through Regulation 6.7 of the Code of Ethics Regulations, 2002. Society is evolving. Recently, Belgium made euthanasia legal even for minor children suffering unbearable pain.

Pinki ViraniFor 40 years, Shanbaug has existed in a vegetative state in a hospital after violent rape. For mercy activist Pinki Virani, who has been a relentless campaigner for Shanbaug’s release, much hinges on what the Constitution Bench will rule. The law on painless death as an act of compassion is confusing. A 1996 Supreme Court judgment had laid down guidelines to allow “passive euthanasia”—which the Bench led by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam noted lacks clear conclusions, active or passive. Now, the Constitution Bench will examine the issue in its entirety and lay down definite guidelines on assisted death.

Ever since Cain killed Abel, murder has been defined as a subversion of society. One who took the life of another, whether by violence or by the cowardice of poison is declared a threat to society. The right to order death was the exclusive privilege of kings and emperors. Only governments have the right to take a life, acting on behalf of the people. Hence, ironically, one who takes his own life is considered a criminal, and therefore deserves to be imprisoned. The agony caused to a human being is punished for the larger good, goes the theory.

Thomas Babington MacaulayFor this bizarre law—like the many which find pride of place in the Indian Penal Code—we can thank the Christian ethos of the British who ruled India for almost two centuries. The missionary wave that came after the 1857 Mutiny and the Victorian moral blindness the Empire imported to India dictated a colonial life protocol that obeys the Biblical commandment—“Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Earlier, Christianity did not permit suicides to be buried in hallowed ground. No mourning was allowed, and prayers for the unfortunate soul were forbidden. The corpse would be thrown into a pit at the crossroads at midnight, and a wooden stake would be hammered through the body—a treatment usually meted out to suspected vampires and witches. In the mid-13th century, suicide was perceived as “self-murder”; a crime under English common law. Such a death was declared a “Felo de se”—a “felon of himself”. To discourage suicide, the methods were brutal; the Crown took away all belongings and property of family of the victim reducing them to penury.

Society has always been afraid of what it cannot fathom. Though holding all life sacred, it perceives unnatural death as a moral faultline; a dark passage to a private hell, deserving stigma. Which is the reason why, many nations outlaw euthanasia. In India, the Hindu understanding of life is based on Sallekhana : Death by Fastingkarmic progression, where an evolved being gives up its breath to merge with the Divine.

The Victorians had a death guide—The Ars moriendi or The Art of Dying, which was originally written in the 15th century, complete with woodcuts illustrating the rituals and procedures of a ‘good death’—how to ‘die well’. It is now time for a good death for those like Shanbaug. To inherited retrograde Imperial laws, it’s time to say, “Go, for God’s Sake, Go!” And let hopeless ones like Shanbaug go in peace. – The New Indian Express, 2 March 2014

» Ravi Shankar writes a Sunday column for The New Indian Express. Contact him at ravi@newindianexpress.com

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