Jitendra Shah, who has been studying the origin and evolution of â€˜Santharaâ€™ dating back to 250 BC, said though the recent death of the Jain woman in Jaipur has kicked up a national debate about the ritual with the matter also going to court, Jains from time immemorial have been practising this concept of 'Voluntary Peaceful Death'.
"In Jainism, 'Santhara' is a philosophical concept of attaining 'Samadhi' which dates back to over 2,000 years", said Shah, the Director of L D Institute of Indology which houses some rare manuscripts and scriptures containing detailed references on the ritual.
"On an average, about 240 Jains (both Shewtambar and Digambar sects) attain Santhara, though most of it goes unnoticed and unrecorded", Shah said.
"In Jainism, Santhara means spiritual withdrawal from worldly existence in tune with divinity", he said.
A 2000-year-old Jain scripture 'Samadhi-maran-payanna' at the LD institute specially deals with this concept of 'Santhara' also known as 'Samadhi-maran'.
Similarly, scriptures on 'Acharyasutra', 'Stanagsutra' and 'Vuasagdarshasutra' housed at this Insitute also contains detailed references to this ancient custom.
"As per these scriptures, a person cannot perform Santhara without the permission of their Guru", Shah said.
"A person deciding to attain Santhara first prays, meditates and practices fasting every day. Then the person gradually give up solid food, confines oneself to a bed and finally reliquishes even liquid-diets," Shah said explaining the ritual.
"Though even a 'Stravak' (ordinary person) is permitted to attain Santhara, not everybody can do it," he said adding the ritual requires a lot of dedication coupled with several hours of meditation.
As per the documentary evidence present at LD institute of Indology, the first recording of Santhara deaths began between 250 B.C. and 700 A.D when a total of 24 such deaths were recorded on manuscripts and Jain scriptures.
Between 700-1650 AD over 35 deaths were recorded, while between 1800-1992 three were 37 cases of Santhara.
"As per a PhD thesis done by one of my students D S Baya, in 2004 there were 260 recorded Santhara deaths among Shewtambar Jains while another 90 deaths among Digambar Jains between 1993-2003," said Shah adding most of the Santhara deaths go unrecorded.
According to another Jain scholar and former head of the Department of Sanskrit at Gujarat Univeristy, Dr Tapasvi Nandi one cannot equate 'Santhara' with social evils like Sati or suicides.
"While Sati and suicides are extreme acts of desperation Santhara is spiritual concept where a persons tunes his or her soul with the divinity before voluntarily relinquishing one's body," Nandi said.
"It is not self-killing or self-murder as is the case with Sati and suicides," he added.