India. There is a mountain in the south-west Gujerati city of Palitana with two peaks. Here is the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites: Shatrunjaya Hill.
Built over both peaks and the land bridge which links them are 863 temples. The temples are carved in lustrous white marble. Pilgrims can walk for two hours up the 3500 stone steps which lead to the temple at the apex. Or they may be carried up sitting on a sling chair.
These temples, most dating from the 16th century, were built by wealthy Jains starting in the 11th century CE. The main temple at the summit to commemorate Rishabha, the first of their community to have shown the way to enlightenment (‘crossed the ford from suffering to enlightenment’) was built in 1608 CE.
Nor are these the only Jain temples in Palitana. There are 2,500 others in the surrounding area, their marble domes and spires visible from many places in the city.
Photography within the temples is forbidden. A well-stocked museum on the main road to the hill tells the story of the Jains.
The ascent was crowded when I visited Palitana. At the bottom of the hill were many people, bowing, kneeling and swaying quietly in their rituals. They scattered flower petals in front of them.
I received the greatest courtesy and kindness in Palitana from Jains concerned to welcome a stranger.
The gleaming white of the temple marble, the muted whites of the clothing of Jain nuns and of some of the pilgrims, the white light cotton fabric over the mouths of many Jains to guard against the accidental inhalation and killing of insects are remembrances of that kindness.
We need more subtlety
In the past few days, the Supreme Court of India has temporarily stayed a ban imposed by a court in Rajasthan on the practice of the ritual fasting until death (santhara) undertaken by Jains who believe that their earthly life is done and that the time has come for them to embark on the next step of their spiritual journey.
This post was prompted by a New York Times article about santhara. It failed to explain adequately the cultural and religious context of this practice. People are not killing their elderly or disabled relatives. No-one undertakes this practice without long, voluntary preparation. Nobody anywhere in the world can be forced into the development of a spiritual life. For some Jains, this practice is a a step in that life. Whence the accounts of radiance, of serenity on the part of the person dying. Joy spreading outwards.
The essence of the Jain wisdom tradition is not to injure any living thing (ahimsa). Non-violence.
Starving to death here is a practice embedded in a rigorous life-long learning of an ancient, ascetic wisdom tradition that guides people in the practice of ahimsa so that they evolve their spiritual lives: help their communities and shelter all life forms from injury.