Renowned Indian lawyer and scholar Rishabh Gandhi explores the ethical and legal dimensions of Samadhimaran at a prestigious international conference

New Delhi: The Fourteenth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society, held at the esteemed Institute of Religious Studies, Universidad Complutense Madrid, welcomed scholars, researchers and practitioners from around the world to explore the complicated relationship between religion and society. Among the distinguished speakers was Rishabh Gandhi, a leading legal scholar, who delivered a compelling oral presentation entitled ‘Ethical Legal Dimensions of the Samadhimaran Religious Death Practice in Jainism and Hinduism’.

Founded in 2011, the conference is part of the Religion in Society Research Network, which delves into the evolving nature of spirituality and its impact on society. This year’s event, which took place from May 23 to 24, 2024, provided a platform for thought-provoking discussions and cutting-edge research.

Gandhi’s presentation focused on the ancient practices of Samadhimaran in Jainism and Prayopavesa in Hinduism, both of which involve voluntary, peaceful fasting until death. His exploration of these practices touched on ethical, legal and bioethical considerations, sparking deep interest and debate among those in attendance.

Jainism and Hinduism: ancient practices of fasting unto death

Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion, focuses on the belief in Karma and the pursuit of Moksha – liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Devotees strive for ultimate spiritual freedom and union with the divine through various paths including devotion, knowledge and disciplined practices. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, emphasizes extreme ahimsa (non-violence), anekantavada (non-absolutism) and aparigraha (asceticism) as the paths to Moksha.

A central focus of Gandhi’s presentation was the Jain practice of Sallekhana-Santhara-Samadhimaran, a centuries-old tradition of deep meditation and fasting unto death. This practice, originating from Jain Aagamas, involves a voluntary, gradual reduction in food and fluid intake, performed with a peaceful, detached mindset. The goal of Sallekhana, usually observed by elderly or terminally ill persons, is to attain death with equanimity. Remarkably, it is estimated that one person in India practices this practice every day.

Legal and ethical controversies

Gandhi highlighted the legal controversies surrounding these practices. In India, the Rajasthan High Court banned the practice of Sallekhana in 2015, deeming it punishable by imprisonment as attempted suicide. This decision sparked significant protests from the Jain community, leading to an appeal to the Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court has temporarily stayed the Supreme Court’s ruling, while the final decision is still pending.

The Hindu practice of Prayopavesa, while less common today, also involves a voluntary, gradual abstinence from food and drink, performed with a peaceful, spiritual attitude. This practice is performed by individuals who feel that their life purpose is complete and seek Moksha. Gandhi shared moving case studies, including that of Acharya Vidyasagar, who reached Samadhi Maran in February 2024 at the age of 77 after a decade-long gradual reduction in food intake.

Case studies: personal journeys of Samadhimaran and Prayopavesa

A notable case discussed was that of Robert Hansen, a California native who converted to Hinduism and adopted the name Shivay Subramaniyaswamy. Diagnosed with advanced, metastatic colon cancer in 2001, Hansen undertook Prayopavesa and finally reached Samadhimaran after a 32-day fast. Such stories underscore the deep spiritual commitment and ethical considerations involved in these practices.

Right to Die: Balancing Rights and Regulations

Gandhi’s presentation also explored the broader implications of the right to die as part of the right to life, privacy, religion and bioethical prerogatives. He emphasized the need for balanced regulations that respect religious freedoms while protecting individual rights and public health.

The presentation concluded with a call for further dialogue and research into the ethical and legal dimensions of religious death practices. Gandhi emphasized the importance of understanding these practices within their cultural and spiritual context while addressing contemporary legal and ethical challenges.

Conference highlights and future directions

The Fourteenth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society provided a dynamic forum for exploring the multifaceted relationships between religion, spirituality and society. Attendees praised Gandhi’s presentation for its depth, accuracy and sensitivity in tackling complex issues.

Looking ahead, the Religion in Society Research Network aims to continue to promote scholarly dialogue and collaboration on pressing issues at the intersection of religion and society. The insights provided by this conference will contribute to ongoing efforts to navigate the ethical and legal landscapes of religious practices worldwide.

In summary, Rishabh Gandhi’s exploration of the ethical and legal dimensions of Samadhimaran and Prayopavesa made an important contribution to the conference, highlighting the need for nuanced understanding and thoughtful regulation of these profound spiritual practices.

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