--> Skip to main content

Thoughts On Ideal Way Of Death Without Prolonging Painful Life In Hinduism

Aim of the medical profession is alleviation of suffering, and at times one is obliged to choose between the two aims, preservation of life and alleviation of suffering. Hence, enhancement of the duration of life cannot be an absolute, unqualified goal of life. What we want is enhancement of a useful, happy, peaceful life, rather than that of a painful life, which is as much a burden on society as it is to the individual.

Ethical questions arise while making use of medical means to prolong a painful and useless life. In such cases the socio-psychological importance of the suffering person and his desire to survive must be taken into consideration. Sometimes the very presence of an aged, dependant and invalid grandparent may be a source of great strength and stability for the whole family. Such a life is worth prolonging.

At the other extreme are cases of unnecessary spending of large amounts of money and resources on terminal care when no reasonable expectation of a useful life is possible. There can hardly be a more terrible reflection on the futility and indulgence of modern medicine than this; of our roles as physicians to struggle so pointlessly, so cleverly, and so expensively to keep people alive; and of our roles as patients to refuse to accept that ultimately we too must die. In our determination to grasp a few more days or even hours of life, we use resources that are badly needed elsewhere.

Hindu religion and culture teaches not only an ideal way of life but also the ideal manner of death. In fact, a devout person in India prepares throughout life for an ideal, peaceful death as described in the scriptures.

Traditionally monastic communities in Hinduism do not encourage medical intervention in the process of life and death. During illness minimal intervention is sought and a monk prefers to forbear pain and suffering as part of penance and surrender to the will of God. So also is death accepted as a welcome deliverer of the soul from its imprisonment in the human body. Many monks are known to patiently forbear intense and prolonged pain of diseases like cancer without taking analgesics and without wishing for an early death. This religious approach of a monk towards life and death has also influenced society at large and many lay people too adopt a similar attitude towards them.

Voluntary termination of life by fasting or by other scripturally prescribed means is allowed for Hindu and Jain monks under certain conditions. Under normal conditions it is undertaken if there is a terminal or incurable illness or in old age when the body has lost all its usefulness. For all those who are not ready to face death so heroically as described above, medical intervention should be sought to ensure as painless a death as possible.

On the philosophical side, the concept of enhancement of life, its duration or quality, takes for granted that life alone is desirable and death undesirable. But life and death are both great facts of existence and equally important. And while we attempt an enhancement of life, we must also learn to accept death. This has been the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita and all other scriptures. Atman alone abides, and both life and death are mere phases.

Excerpts from article titled ‘Life Enhancement’ by Swami Brahmeshananda in Prabuddha Bharata Magazine April 2006 issue.