Philosophy

THE ART OF DYING: Vanaprastha, Sanyaas and Santhra 

 

“Punjabis know how to live and Jains know how to die.” I said to my close friend Pankaj, and he looked at me with pleasant  admiration. “You nailed it. How I wish I could hear it from a Jain. I think you are getting it now.” These words coming from him meant a lot to me, as he is the most evolved soul in my friend circle. 

Friends for 20 years now, we are a study in contrasts. Pankaj is a true Jain, a peaceful, philosophical and disciplined man who won’t eat after 7 pm. He is always clam and looks decades younger than his real age. I (used to be) a copybook Punjabi big, loud, passionate and can eat at even 1 a.m.

During our younger days, I would often tease him “While we celebrate even death anniversaries with a huge meal, you guys would fast at every festival of yours.” He would smile and laugh it away. To his credit, he never asked me to give up my ways and I never forced him to join mine. 

Thankfully, in my Ketu dasha I moved more towards his side. I turned vegetarian (he was the first person I informed about my decision). I became more philosophical, studied various religions including Jainism. 

Pankaj was my guide in the study of Jainism. With his guidance, I read some preliminary books, visited Jain temples and took blessings of Jain saints. I found a new kind of understanding and peace which had eluded me since a very long time.

 

My appreciation of the Jain way of life only grew with study, but what I liked the most was the Jain way of dying. One practice that I was totally wowed with, was Santhara also known as Sannlekhana, the practice of giving up food, water, medicine when one approaches the end of life. 

NOW SANTHARA IS NOT SUICIDE…IN FACT THE POALR OPPOSITE OF IT. 

I am totally against suicide and have written an entire article about it. Suicide takes a soul to lower realms. While Santhara takes it to higher realms. 

Santhara has a special way to it. There are rules governing it, an Acharya has to approve it and it has to be practiced with special rules and regulations only under strict conditions like terminal illness or body giving up due to old age. This provides one with a peaceful and holy ending, with guidance and blessings of a Guru.  The great Osho has called it the best way to die. This is not for the weak as it needs loads of discipline and self control.

Now this is in sheer contrast with the way most modern people die, especially in India. We have a way of clinging to life which makes us pathetic in the old ages. When I hear stories about old people who are immobilised to the point that they can’t even walk to the washroom, it horrifies me. That is a sub human existence. A human being immobilised and covered in his own filth. If that is not hell, I don’t know what is. Death of a distant old relative in this condition forced me to think more and more about it. 

What is the use of clinging to such a life? There has to be a better way. The search for this better way, as usual, lead me to the ancient scriptures. Where I realised that most of the great souls either died in a glorious battle or died peacefully in forests while observing Sanyas. There are hardly any mention of a great man dying in his bed covered in his waste.   

In fact our ancient sages had given the beautiful way of living one’s life to the fullest, and then ending life in a dignified way. They knew that life is nothing but a preparation to die well. 

They created 4 stages of life: 

 

Stage 1: Brahmacharya: Age 5 to 25: Till 25 one was to observe Brahamacharya…celibacy while being a student, living in Gurukul, serving the guru and learning his craft at feet of the master. There were no teenage pregnancies or heart-broken 14 year olds. The students were great at their crafts when they came back. And unlike most students of today, they were employable and started making money from day one. 

Stage 2: Grihastha Ashrama: Age 25 to 50: From 25-50 one was to observe Gristha ashrma…one would get married enjoy sexual union, father children, make money, and take care of household duties, and even marry their children. Everything at the right time. 

MOST OF US INDIANS ARE STUCK IN GRIHASTHA ASHRAMA AND THAT IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF MOST MISERIES…! 

The so called spiritual Indians can’t let go of the worldly possessions. 

I am horrified by the life which most elderly people live in India.  Old men die after suffering a difficult existence including hospital bills, dialyses, household politics, sibling rivalries, marital problems of children, and the all time favourite: mom-in-law vs. daughter in law issues. Most men develop heart problems and diabetes through sheer tension and stress. 

Some men turn out to be tyrannical patriarchs, controlling every penny and every movement of the household. Every member of the family secretly wishes that the old man dies. He is resented and creates stress wherever he goes. I know of a few people who daily wish that their father died today. What a pity.

But most men, I would say 80% of them turn into wimpy grumpy old men good only for running small errands. He feels spent and unemployed, off and on, has to ask the son for money, he is  often tormented by the ladies of the household, particularly his own wife, who blames him for everything. One day he gets a heart attack and leaves a bitter widow and an exhausted son behind, who is condemned to repeat his history. 

Old women have it even worse. Most live longer than their husbands and enjoy the initial phase of old age. They feel that they have been “promoted” as mother-in-law, and often try to dominate the newly wedded daughter-in-law. The petty politics carries on for years, but ultimately they lose.

Once they reach a stage when their minds and bodies give up, they continue to live a sad existence in some far corner of the house where the daughter-in-law throws them. The bitter old woman slowly dies (at times it takes decades), finally liberating the rest of the household, and herself. But by this time the daughter in law is old enough for her “promotion” and is condemned to repeat her history. 

Talk about blind leading the blind. 

All this makes me sad, what a waste of human life and what a waste of human death. 

If only we would move to the next stages of  ashrams, it would make life much better for ourselves as well as our children. 

The least talked about but the most important part of the ashram system in my view, is the VANAPRASHTA. People talk a lot about Sanyaas, but we hardly see anyone take it, reason being the missing link Vanaprastha has been forgotten. 

VANAPRASTHA: 50-75: VAANAPRASHTA was a lovely hybrid of Grashta ashram and Sanyas, which prepared all parties involved for times to come. And I would take some time to explain it. 

The ancient sages understood that you just cannot jump from Grashta to Sanyaas ashram, one had to take time and slowly get accustomed to it. People are often deterred by Sanyas because they cannot imagine living without the comforts and family. And of course the newly married children need some hand holding to be done. There are business and life issues that makes them look for guidance towards their parents. 

Vanaprashta provides for all this and much more. In my view EVERY parent should move to vanaprastha ashram the day their children get married.

Vanaprastha loosely translates to “on the way to the jungle” this is a period when the old person accustoms himself or herself to the absence of family, home, and bodily pleasures, slowly and gradually. Usually it starts within months of the new couple taking charge. While the old couple are around to guide them when needed, they are often away visiting holy places for months. 

In old days people used to travel on foot or on bullock-carts, so it would take months for them to visit a holy place. They would come back after months, stay for a few weeks, sort out any pending matters, and the again make a move for another pilgrimage. They learn to be hands off regarding the household and business matters, imbibing a sense of detachment. They are no longer directly involved with day to day worldly affairs. 

Their life involves less tension, more walking, pure and holy food, and long stays around rivers and mountains, (as most holy places are situated either around mountains or rivers). All this keeps them healthy and peaceful through their old ages.

Now compare this with those who go to hospitals thrice a week and then rush to their shops and offices after a dialysis. The double whammy of modern life is that while it has added years to our life, it has taken the life out of our years.

Vanaprastha would do away with this foolishness. A Vanaprasthi would be around to see his sons and would even have the joy of seeing his grandchildren. However, there was no way that he would turn in to a tyrant or a burden on his children in his old ages. 

The detachment and peace that he feels during Vanaprastha for 25 years slowly and gradually takes his attachments away and he is built up to a point that he does not enjoy the household anymore, he is more comfortable at holy places. 

Now the younger generations barely notices his absence. They are self sufficient. Whenever he comes home, which is less and less, he becomes more like a welcome guest to his family instead of a terrible burden. Now that’s a happy scenario and builds up for a happier ending. 

 

Sanyaas: It is hard to jump from ghristha ashram to sanyaas ashram but for a Vanaprasthi, it is the simple logical and comfortable order of life. He/she is no longer attached to his family. Now he feels like a guest at his own house, and even in this world. He is 75 and his body, while purified during Vanaprastha, starts to fail him now and then. He knows that he is no longer useful to his family, neither can he travel so much. 

Now he must settle, but not at his house or a hospital, but in an Ashram in a forest. He will not be a bitter frail old man, but as a wise old teacher or Guru. Now it is his time to pass on the last of his knowledge to young children, and give something back to society. He spends his final days praising the lord, teaching children, reading, writing and enjoying nature. 

And when his body would no longer be able to sustain itself, he won’t be a bed ridden stinking helpless piece of meat.  He would move towards Santhara or a similar practice.

With permission and guidance of a Guru, he would abstain from taking medicines, food (in some cases later on even water) and would pass his last days in quiet dignity imbibed in meditation, and soon he would breath his last with god’s name in his heart. 

Here are a few short steps:

  1. He/she publicly declares the willingness to end his/her life
  2. He/she asks for forgiveness from all for any hurt caused by him and forgives EVERYTHING to all others
  3. He/she takes a vow of not eating after discussion with a Guru
  4. He/she keeps meditating on the soul
  5. He/she gives up any medicine, food and later even water
  6. He/she leaves the body in deep meditation and peace

Isn’t that a beautiful ending? 

 

God Bless,

G. Vijay Kumar 

 

 

11 Comments on “THE ART OF DYING: Vanaprastha, Sanyaas and Santhra 

  1. Dear Sir,

    I am always waiting for your articles. They bless us with a lot of wisdom and guidance.
    Please keep writing and sharing your knowledge.

  2. Yes it is true.It is always better practice vanaprasta , sanyas, sandra instead of living like vegetable.I totally agree that living on life supporting equipment is totally waste.It is always good to have natural death instead of prolonging life artificially.

  3. There are many ways to give up the vasanas, the five senses before going to the art of dying via santhara. What good is a body with a mind craving for food or water or any of the other sensory perceptions? Even an old person who has not list jihva-chapalya cannot practice santhara.

    Some gurus suggest first making peace/giving up the sensory perceptions before moving to complete state of giving up. That was the reason for days of fasting in the calendar months, the days of silence (mouna-vrat) etc.,

    Slowly….slowly the mind and body adapt to lack of food, water, and other elements….before one let’s go off their breath, voluntarily involuntary.

  4. Hi sir.
    I have a question : If my venus is exalted in the 8th house, will i have a good venus mahadasha ? Hope you can clear few things…
    Thank you so much !

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