“Blessed those who shall in peace endure, for by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned. Praise be my Lord for our sister, the bodily death, from the which no living man can flee.” Thus, Saint Francis concludes his most famous poem, the “Canticle of the Sun.” While Catholicism teaches that death is to be embraced by those who love God, Catharism (which is derived from the same root word as catharsis, or “purification”) went so far as to encourage the endura, in which souls endure matter until they can cast it off forever by means of the ritual fast to the death. The death-fast of this medieval Albigensian heresy contemporary to Saint Francis is more akin to the ancient practice of sallekhana in Jainism, whereby the soul peacefully detaches from the material realm in the interest of ultimate spiritual purification. Franciscan spirituality, therefore, in its simultaneous acceptance and rejection of creation, can provide a prism for us to analyze these tensions in Cathar and Jain death fasts. The two movements almost certainly did not directly influence one another, yet the parallels between them are too apparent to overlook, as we explore how both West and East confront the universal problem of mortality.
Before juxtaposing the death-fast in Catharism and Jainism, it may be helpful to see the ways in which Saint Francis embraced a sort of Jain asceticism of which he was most likely unaware. First, he anthropomorphized nature, as if every thing, living or not, embodies a soul: “The objects of his love were not only God, angels, and men, but also animals, birds, insects, and even inanimate objects, which he was wont to address as his brothers and sisters, in reference to their common origin with himself.” Likewise, the Jains revere the smallest particles in the universe with poetic ardor: “There are many varieties of earth-bodied, water-bodies, fire-bodied, air-bodied and plant-bodied souls. For instance, raw soil or a clod of earth, particles of dust, sand, raw minerals are earth-bodied beings.” Ewert H. Cousins of Fordham has also made this correlation: “Perhaps he is closest to the Jain monks, whose wandering is joined with a care for animals, birds, and insects, which was a major characteristic of Francis. Moreover, nakedness plays a role in Jain monasticism.” Thus, as for the Jains, peace was the mantra of Saint Francis, promoting the sort of radical ahimsa, or “non-violence,” that would prompt him to visit the Sultan in Egypt at the risk of being beheaded.
But the similarity does not end there. Francis divested himself of his vestments as a symbol of casting off the cloak of the material world and rendering death a new birth. Examples abound of his pursuit of nudity as a path to purity, a true anomaly in Western faith traditions that really only resonates with Jain spirituality. As Saint Bonaventure relates, “Yea more, as one drunk with wondrous fervour of spirit, he threw aside even his breeches, and stood up naked in the presence of all, saying unto his father: ‘Hitherto I have called thee my father on earth, but henceforth I can confidently say ‘Our Father, Which art in heaven…’” When the Bishop offered him a cloth for garb, Frances “with his own hand marked it with the sign of the Cross, with a piece of chalk that he chanced upon, thus making it a garment meet for a man crucified, poor, and half naked.” Thus, the Church hierarchy itself stepped in to clothe the lowly servant in his nudity.
However, this didn’t last for long. When seized upon by his own carnal passions, Francis clothed “his now naked body into a great snow-heap… and the holy man returned unto his cell victorious… by enduring the external cold…” On the one hand, Francis incarnated the endurance of the Cathar, and on the other, he was a true victor, like the Jinas of Jain. Francis did not only strip down in private, as we have seen. His public exploits were far from over. Once, he, “then, with a rope tied round his neck, and naked save for his breeches, bade them drag him in the sight of all unto the stone whereupon criminals were wont to be set for punishment.” Thus, for Francis, taking off one’s clothes was like being lead like a shorn lamb to the slaughter, an act of self-abnegation form the world, the flesh, and the devil. He sought purely and simply to “give himself up naked into the arms of the Crucified.”  As in Jain, nakedness prepared Francis’ spirit to leave the flesh just as one might undress.
Neither did Francis reserve this practice for himself alone, but he also prescribed it to his followers on multiple occasions. When one of his spiritual brothers refused a beggar alms, Francis “bade that the Brother throw himself, naked, at the poor man’s feet…” Francis practiced what he preached. As his own demise rose on the horizon, Bonaventure’s description of his resignation verges upon the language of the death-fast of Cathars and the Jains:
When he had been brought thither, – that he might give an ensample of the truth that he had naught in common with the world, – that most sever weakness that followed after all his sickness, he prostrated himself in fervour of spirit all naked on the naked earth, that in that last hour, wherein the foe might still rise up against him, he might wrestle in his nakedness with that naked spirit.”
Thus, as in Jain, martial imagery suffuses the battle over the immortal soul before Francis can come out the victor. Bonaventure sees fit to reassert the significance of Francis’ unclad state: “Where, as at the outset of his conversion he had stood naked before the Bishop, so in the ending of his life he was minded to quit the world naked… that when they saw that he was dead, they should leave him lying naked on the ground…” Francis came into the world naked and went out of the world naked, that in accepting “Sister Death,” he may “in peace endure.”
Stephen R. Munzer, Rhodes Scholar and Professor of Law at UCLA, has also drawn attention to the resonance between Jain and Christian mendicancy, particularly with regard to nudity as detachment for death. He tells the tale of a follower by the name of Michael whom Francis instructs to strip in order to curb his reticence towards begging for alms: “Michael’s nakedness removes all barriers between him and other human beings and, more importantly, between him and God. His nudity signals his dependence on God.” The same can be said of his leader, Francis, not to mention Mahavira, as he is usually depicted.
Indeed, Munzer concludes that, “It is possible to relate Michael’s nakedness to the monastic adage, derived from St. Jerome, ‘naked, following the naked Christ’ (nudum Christum nudus sequere).” Or, as Ewert H. Cousins puts it, “This image of the naked Francis became a symbol in Franciscan literature of his identification with the naked Christ, who died on the cross stripped of all possessions… The image of nakedness symbolized for Francis the total stripping of himself.” While all Jains, Digambara or Svetambara, lay or religious alike, prepare to make a holy death and to endure the transition from this state of being to the next in peace, whether they go “sky-clad” or not constitutes a point of contention to this day.
In the Tattvartha Sutra, Umasvati explains the beauty of nudity on the path to purgation in an almost Franciscan mode. He writes, “The purpose of nudity is to gain control over the feeling of shame in the state of unconcealed genitals. The ascetic is naked as a new-born baby, without possessions, not even a cloth to cover his body. His mind is always fixed on the path of liberation being absolutely free of sexual desire…” Francis, too, used nudity paradoxically to detach himself from the natural impetus towards procreation. By hearkening back to one’s infant attire, the soul can better prepare for death, when flesh itself must be shed. As Massimo Rondolino of Carroll University has aligned the life of Saint Francis with that yogi of Tibetan Buddhism, Milarepa, Saint Francis could be regarded as a true Jina: “In this perspective, proof of the perfected attainment is traditionally sought into the miraculous and otherworldly signs witnessed at the death of the realized being.” Notwithstanding the overlap of Franciscan and Jain spirituality with regards to peaceful acceptance of death, nowhere does Francis endorse starving oneself to death. That distinction is left to the Manichean Gnosticism of the Cathars.
While the Jain concept of sallekhana indubitably influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s hunger strikes, nowadays the question of self-starvation rises to the surface in our own post-modern debates on assisted suicide and end-of-life care. Thus, instead of “Imagine there’s no heaven,” “Imagine a situation in the world today in which the leading religions were Mithraism, Jainism, Aztec state religion and Catharism.” Cathars and Jains addressed this question in a very similar fashion, despite the distance of time and space. First, let us explore the implications of the endura for Cathar theology. As Tsiamis, Toukalou, and Poulakou-Rebelakou attest in “The Endura of the Cathars’ Heresy: Medieval Concept of Ritual Euthanasia or Suicide?,” “The endura was a prerequisite act of repentance that would allow the fallen soul to return to heaven… after the performance of a ceremonial purification of the soul (consolamentum)… [which] consisted of the patients’ voluntary abstention from vital food.” Thus, Catharism, which peaked in 13th century Europe, espoused a path to purification from the evil material world. In fact, Cathar comes from the same root word as catharsis; namely, “pure.”
Valences intersect between Catharism in the West and Jainism in the East, meriting the correlation we make here. George Shriver of Georgia Southern University ventures that “Eastern filiations and relationships are doubtless present, and yet the most prodding recent studies have been scintillating in their description of the role played by reform movements in the Western church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.” He expounds how, for the Cathars, “man is split into pieces with some pieces not even worth saving… redemption consists in the restoration of ‘soul elements’ out of the materialistic fix into which they have unfortunately come; and eschatology is the final and complete removal of being from actual nothingness.” While Jains are inclined to view the material universe perhaps more favorably than that (even if they don’t believe in a Creator) and while eschatology is far from final given the Jain cycle of reincarnations, the Cathar distillation of lighter from denser spiritual particles would find heeding ears in the Jains, as moksha, or “liberation” is predicated upon the more exhaustive separation of jiva, or “soul,” from ajiva, or “non-soul,” in the form of cosmic karma: “Because of its passions, the soul attracts and assimilates the material particles of karmic bondage.” Again, the image of nudity as a metaphor for the separation of soul from matter meshes quite congenially in this instance.
The infusion of Eastern mysticism in the Catholic ranks prompts Shriver to consider further what would cause such a movement to grow and what effect it had on the wider community. He muses, “Isolated circumstances, whether in medieval or modern times, often give rise to subsocieties and subcultures as well as counter cultures. Lack of channels of rapid communication can result in sectionalism. Across the mountain there may be another mind at work.” He traces its development in part to corruption within the Church hierarchy, and while he thinks the canonical Church proper may have been too severe in its recriminations against the Cathars as a demonic entity, Shriver does attribute the appearance of mendicant orders like the Franciscans in part to the Cathar rejection of materialism.
- Moore Williams, on the other hand, is more reserved in his assessment as to the extent to which theories in fact spread from Jains to Cathars. Despite his belief that the “idea of the parallel between Catharism and Buddhism is ingenious rather than accurate,” he does acknowledge how “Rama is struck by the parallel between Catholicism in relation to Catharism and orthodox brahmanical Hinduism in relation to Buddhism.” While Williams questions any connection between Buddhism and Catharism, the similarity between Catharism and Jainism is difficult to deny, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the mutual practice of the fast to the death, as we shall see.
Whereas Jains believe the world was not created at all, the Cathars’ strict dualism maintained that the world was not created good. In images reminiscent of anything Dan Brown could conjure up, Emily McCaffrey adduces the following about their esoteric rite:
The only sacrament practiced by the Cathars was the consolamentum, or baptism by the Holy Spirit, and it was the only means of salvation. The Cathar clergy, or Perfects, were those who had already received the consolamentum as part of their ritual of ordination. Once ‘hereticated,’ a Perfect had to remain pure, abstaining from meat and sexual intercourse. The lay Cathars, or Believers, were also required to receive the same sacrament before death in order to be saved.
That is where the death-fast enters the picture. Though it counters the Jain extinction of any form of attachment, including the attachment to virtue itself, the Cathars almost fetishized death. As L.R. Lewitter has observed in Aleksander Blok’s poem, “The Rose and the Cross,” “The heretical paradox which is revealed to Bertrand in the final illumination of death is more than the refrain of the troubadours and the dogma of catharism, it is the instinctive metaphysic of romantic love, a passion that in the last analysis loves only itself and can find fulfillment only in death.” Death becomes the beloved in a way far from anything Francis had in mind when he denuded himself in his final hour.
In fact, W. Potter Woodbery goes so far as to claim that Catharism is the defining characteristic of Provencal courtly love poetry. Versification is predicated upon meditation of one’s own mortality in a way post-modern readers may find uncomfortable. He writes, “Provencal love poetry arose simultaneously with the flourishing of a neo-Manichean heresy known as Catharism and… is a symbolic expression of the heresy’s basic doctrines.” Woodbery proceeds with a daring thesis: “Provencal love poetry… is an occult liturgy for the worship of death. The pains and sorrows of unsatisfied love are welcomed as a kind of mortification of the flesh which serves to purge the lover of earthly attachments.” In that vein, then, the Cathar fast of death takes on a decidedly suicidal, if not necrophilic, tone, not to be found in Francis, or Mahavira, for that matter. Still, with the poetry of Francis’ radical espousal to “Lady Poverty,” and the cadenced desire of Mahavira for nirvana, Cathar verse strikes a common chord: “The idealized lady of the lyrics is a poetic symbol of the Absolute and the perpetual yearning for her represents the longing of a soul for union with that Absolute that is possible only in death.” Regardless of certain metaphysical departures, death becomes birth for Francis, the Cathars, and the Jains, and death must be endured to achieve true peace.
John Anzalone extends the influence of Catharism in Provencal poetry all the way to the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century fin-de-siecle, in the patent rejection of bourgeois conventional expressions of piety. His reflections can help us here to understand the mindset of the death-fast as a sort of ecstatic escape to the stasis of the beyond. He sees how in Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Axel, the lovers “consecrate their union in a ceremony that is at once a marriage and a death mass, and that parallels the catharist rite of consolamentum, the sacrament received by the initiate upon passage into the ranks of the “Perfecti.”
Anzalone’s description of this process mirrors Jain sallekhana remarkably clearly: “Death alone could preserve the integrity of so severely restricted a state. In recognition of the extreme ascetic life their vows committed them to, catharist adherents are known to have put off receiving the consolamentum until old age, when the corporeal appetites had already sharply diminished.” As in Jain, this poses the uneasy tension as to how the final fast can be distinguished from suicide, presumably in the name of peace in either instance: “In principle, suicide transgressed the seal of nonviolence, but one form of suicide known as the Endura, or death by starvation, apparently existed as a fail-safe method to extinguish the will to live.” Thus, Anzalone, for his part, bears no qualms in identifying the endura as suicide, plain and simple; indeed, “to attain the authentic God of Gnosis, the world must be rejected as negative and ultimately unreal. Life continues the monstrous travesty that imprisons the spirit, and death is the sole avenue of deliverance for the initiate.” This sounds like a fairly exact description of the Jiva’s achievement of nirvana, with the sole exception that such an austere fast would never be undertaken by a mere initiate in the school of Jainism. However, the strain of “liberation of the spirit from the corrosive effects of life in the material world” is a strong element in the practice of the fast for both the Cathars and the Jains. By subtle degrees, then, these philosophies drift far afield from Francis’ ecstatic celebration of the material universe as an expression of the goodness of a benevolent God.
However, in other respects, the Cathars could sound very Franciscan, as well as Jainist, in their vantage point. Classicist and humanist Maria Rybakova at San Diego State University makes some salient points about Catharism and its perennial spell over French poesy: “We must agree that in the two most astonishing and connected expressions of the culture of Languedoc – the Cathar heresy and the troubadour poetry – two ideas come to fulfillment: the rejection of force and the impossible love.”  Only the force of love carries the soul from death into life. As “souls render good to one another” constitutes the chief maxim in Jain spirituality and “love one another” in Franciscan spirituality, Cathar theology pursues peace primarily: “The Cathars, the first proponents of non-violence, abstained from any kind of war, as well as from capital punishment: killing a human being was the most horrible crime for them.” Likewise, the Jains refuse to take up arms, and the Franciscans preach peace.
While Francis only abstained from meat in certain seasons, the Jains practice a vegetarianism verging on veganism. One might think such a notion completely aberrant in medieval France, but the Cathars were ahead of their time in this regard: “They also refrained from killing animals and eating meat or dairy.” According to Rybakova, the Cathars, like Saint Francis, viewed death as a sister, but like the Jains, the Cathars were willing to quicken the process of leaving this life: “Even death was a sister to them – as evidenced by the practice of endura, when a dying man, having achieved moral perfection, does not take any nourishment in order not to fight death and not fall back into a sinful existence.” Judging by Rybakova’s account, at least, there is virtually no difference between the Cathar endura and Jain sallekhana.
The similarities continue on the question of celibacy. In fact, “the Cathars practiced their doctrine of non-violence by rejecting everything carnal and everything social.” While Francis rolled naked in the snow to quell the flames of his lust, Digambara monks and nuns are never even to be seen together. As the Jains view women as lesser creatures because they are not able to go naked, the soul at the highest states must transcend gender. While Saint Francis would never go that far, the Cathars would, according to Rybakova:
After resurrection, the souls will be like angels, genderless. Having shed matter, they will find new, spiritual bodies. The separation of the sexes will be transcended and the real brotherhood will finally be achieved. The ‘pure’ ones (the catharoi) prepared themselves for this state by creating a sort of provisionary heaven upon earth by abstaining from marriage, intercourse, and procreation.
In Franciscan, Jain, and Cathar spirituality, sex is to be foregone before death.
Daniel Walther, Church History professor at Andrews University, is more skeptical of the predominance of endura at the height of Albigensian Catharism, and he finds the extent of its influence over courtly love poems to be rather dubious. He purports that the “often mentioned Albigensian practice of the endura (suicide by starvation) has been exaggerated… The practice of the endura was mentioned, it seems, only after 1275 in Italy… some of the ‘Perfecti’ took their lives under duress in order not to fall into the hands of the inquisitors.” He posits that, “endura was unknown (even in name) in the contemporary registers in the Albigensian area of Quercy.” Later research, however, seems to indicate that the endura, if uncommon, was a ritual the Cathars practiced, but even its rarity serves to confirm our comparison with Jain sallekhana.
In his Suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray patently rejects the suggestion that endura was a mere myth. He reports that the term appears in records of the Inquisition with specific reference to self-starvation. As many do for Jain sallekhana, Murray expresses skepticism as to the extent that endura could even be classified as institutionalized suicide at all: “In what sense was it suicide? From one point of view, it hardly counts as that, for it was normally conceived as something for very sick or very old people, due to die anyway, after full reception into the sect.” Indeed, he concludes that “a case could be made, for some forms of Cathar endura at least, that it was hardly suicide at all.” His description of passing proves uncannily akin to that of Jain sallekhana: “From cases we know of its character could usually be said to lie in strict dietary abstinence, excluding everything except cold water, so that death was a mere secondary consequence.” Furthermore, “the essence of the dying Cathar’s self-starvation lay not even in the abstinence, but in the patient’s physical incapacity to say the Lord’s Prayer before eating: as if to eat without a prior Paternoster was irreverent, and if someone was too weak to say it he must starve.” Thus, in the same breath, Murray quotes a Cathar who broke from the ranks to declare that such a death “was a task for God, not for man.” Thus, even in the interest of spiritual sublimity, there is still an element of savage brutality in such a death, almost like anorexia for God.
R.T. Connelly takes a much more negative view than Murray on the matter of endura, categorically classifying it as suicide. For him, endura is evidence that the Cathars “condemned the visible world as evil and called for disdain of such material things as food and drink.” Connelly then un-packages the problems with this motivation from an orthodox Catholic perspective:
The highest act of virtue was the liberation of the spirit from the body through the practice of endura, starving to death. Healthy as well as seriously ill members used this practice to carry ‘mortification of the flesh’ to its extreme conclusion. This kind of fasting, however, seems to violate the motive component of the principle of double effect. The Cathari willed a good effect, eternal life with God. But, just as deliberately, they willed to die in order to escape from the evil of this world and defy its source, Satan… The practice of endura, however, implies metaphysical despair over an evil world.
While Catharism goes a step further than Jain in declaring the negativity of material existence, it begins to bear little resemblance at all to a Franciscan appreciation of creation.
While Cathar endura bears more than a superficial resemblance to Jain sallekhana, the charge of suicide is not as readily leveled against the Jains, as we shall see. As W. Braun has addressed, the American and Indian legal systems tend to err on the side that “Sallekhana is a valid religious ritual and should therefore be legally protected.” R. Williams digs deeper than the post-modern dilemma of euthanasia to orient sallekhana in light of aforementioned Franciscan and Cathar practices, such as nudity and non-violence before living reality. Thus, he provides a poetic metaphor for death as a sort of passive molting, practiced from time immemorial:
I should like to pursue these highly speculative remarks to their conclusion by suggesting some aspects of Jainism which may be ascribable to a pre-Mahavira and, indeed, a pre-Parsva period. Almost inevitably these must have included recourse to sallekhana when ‘the body is cast aside like leaves shed by a tree’; the pursuit of an ascetic way of life characterized by nudity… the observance of ahimsa devolving from the postulation of forms of life… offering a home to an infinite number of living beings.
By this definition, sallekhana is undertaken as a process that is as passive as a change in the seasons.
- Settar develops an exhaustive record of 150 tales of famous Jina ritual deaths in Inviting Death: Indian Attitude Towards the Ritual Death. While a detailed analysis of all the reasons and means by which these souls passed out of the present life lies beyond our scope here, we may outline the features such deaths had in common so as to draw a comparison with Cathar endura. First of all, it seems to be beyond a matter of coincidence that sanyasana ritual death was most popular in India at the same time as endura was in vogue in France: “Death by observing the sanyasana-rite appears to have been very popular in the 12th century.” In only slightly less poetic terms than Williams provides, sallekhana is defined as a “praiseworthy process by which the body is emasculated (lekkhana)… hence, the sallekhana-tapah is called a process of ‘scratching out the body to save the soul.’” Being “emasculated” also recalls the transcendence of gender in the Cathar death-fast. As the Cathar endura influenced Provencal poetry, Jain sallekhana influenced Kannada poetry. However, sanyasa or samadhi were the preferred terms amongst the poets of the lower Deccan.
Intriguingly, these poets describe the fast towards the death as something of a race towards battle, and this soldierly imagery is not unlike Francis’ naked wrestling with death: “‘Anticipating a war,’ says Ayatavarma, ‘the hero should train himself to obtain mastery over archery, swordsmanship, the art of horse-riding, elephant as well as chariot, so that he would emerge victorious whenever the war breaks out.’” Settar goes on to explain how the “sallekhana could be embraced at the end-phase of one’s life-span, but it is recommended that the penance should be practiced throughout one’s lifetime and its severest observances should come at the closing stage of the life-span.” This distinguishes sallekhana from suicide in a way that endura could not always be distinguished, given the fact that the latter was often practiced as an escape from the predations of the Inquisition, rather than a natural surrender to what was already inevitable.
For the Jina (not to mention Saint Francis), mortification is undertaken as a means of purgation of the passions and a way to achieve heroic indifference to the vicissitudes of ephemeral existence. As Settar states, the fast of death frees one from the “desire to live, desire to die, flight from fear, recollections of old friends and expectation of comforts as well as compensations in the next world for the suffering undergone in the present.” Thus, Saint Francis’ sentiment, “So great the joys that I await, no earthly travail can seem to great” would not be extreme enough for the Jain, indifferent to all pleasure or pain, in this life or the next. However, the Franciscans, the Cathars, and the Jains would all concur that “even he who has engaged himself in ascetic practices throughout his life-time would forfeit all his ascetic gains if he were to abandon it at the last moments of his life. The exertion of a person at the end-phase of his life-span is important because the perfect life is borne out by the perfect-end.” After all, “none can be sure of continuing unto the end in the grace of God.”
Much like Saint Francis or the Cathars, the Jain must meditate upon the utterly transitory nature of this life in order to meet death with peace. Like the Cathars, this involves extreme abstemiousness. In the moderate stages, water is allowed, but later on, even that is proscribed as all forms of nourishment, liquid or solid, are incrementally denied and movement is restricted. Whereas Cathars sometimes brought death upon themselves by violence, such as poison, stabbing, or slamming their heads against a wall, such behavior derives from passion and qualifies as suicide in the eyes of the Jains; the gradual deprivation of nourishment is the only acceptable death ritual for them. Again, unlike Cathars, the death ritual was reserved solely for persons who had already achieved a level of fulfillment incommensurate with their ailing state. In death as in life, Jains zealously pursue the path of non-violence. Then, as it was for Saint Francis, the day of the death of the samadhi becomes a day of victory to be celebrated in joy.
As with Saint Francis, who was wont to ask, “Knight of Christ, are you afraid?” the Jain death ritual helps the soul to free itself from slavery to matter, so as to face death with bravery. Despite the fact that Francis and the Jains have peace in mind, the analogies of war continue, “Like the hero, taking up the weapon after paying respects to his lord…” Since the “initiated is expected to discard all the luxuries of life, as one would discard worn-out dresses…”, both Francis and the Jains embrace nudity in preparation for the death of a hero: “Shaving his head clean, he would tear down the noose of parigrahas (obstacles); making the directions themselves his dress, he would wander about nude.” As with the Cathars, “This process begins with the gradual withdrawal from all obsessions connected with the family as well as society, after realization of the true nature of worldly life; it is accompanied by repentance for the sins which originate from the brutal and boastful behavior of the aspirant.” Whereas Saint Francis divested himself of his clothing, and the Cathars divested themselves of personal relationships, the Jina abandons both.
The process of death itself mirrors that of the Cathars, except instead of the consolamentum, various hymns are recited for the deepening of the meditation of the soul. Settar reports how after, “Gradually reducing and ultimately renouncing solid food, the aspirant should resort to nutritive liquids and, then, after some time, rejecting even the latter, take only warm water… he should concentrate on the panca-namaskara hymns until he breathes his last.” These hymns address death not unlike Saint Francis does in the “Canticle of the Sun”: “By the grace of Comrade Death, the enlightened shall unlock the chest of misery, the body, and secure for it the comfort of eternal joy.” Saint Francis, the Cathars, and the Jains all definitively believe that you must dwell in the state of soul that you die in, which is why it is so important to die in a state of peace.
Justice T.K. Tukol in his renowned defense of sallekhana in Jainism distinguishes it from suicide both in its ends and in its means. As a fruit falls from the tree, so does sallekhana connote “quitting flesh and bones” in peace of mind. There is nothing violent about it. It is a passive surrender to the inevitable end. As Tukol writes, “Sallekhana is facing death… voluntarily when he is nearing his end… due to old-age, incurable disease, severe famine etc. after subjugation of all passions and abandonment of all worldly attachments… gradually abstaining from food and water, and by simultaneous meditation on the real nature of the Self until the soul parts from the body.” This is virtually verbatim to the endura, with the exception of any form of christening by the Holy Spirit. Still, just as Saint Francis invariably inculcated the rule of forgiveness before his brothers, and the Cathars habitually recited the Our Father’s “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” the Jiva “should be pure in thoughts and must have severed all connections, having forgiven everybody and asked everybody’s pardon in sweet words.” In this most crucial respect, all three faith movements unite with the same message.
Building upon these important reflections, the Tattvartha Sutra clinically differentiates between sallekhana and suicide. After all, the “rite of fasting to death is undertaken only when the practitioner perceives clear signs of approaching death or feels his utter incapacity to fulfill his religious vows. He does not undertake the vows out of passion or deluded belief. He finds joy in such fasting and meets death fearlessly.” Therefore, “It is not suicide because it is undertaken without duress or passion. To commit suicide is to kill oneself out of anger, agony, malice or frustration, whereas fasting to death purges the soul of its passions and perversities by conquering the fear of death.” While this was typically the case in the endura as well, Saint Francis for all his fasting and mortification never encouraged abstemiousness in extremis. Although renowned Jainist Padmanabh S. Jaini maintains that “there takes place a total and permanent separation of the body and the soul, a state which, if I may add, cannot even be contemplated in Christianity or Islam,” such a radical separation is quite feasible under the domain of the Cathar endura.
Pravin K. Shah concurs with the general assessment of sallekhana so far. He contrasts the death-fast from suicide again by reason of the fact that one would never enter into such a purgative path out of strong passions. Rather, sallekhana for Shah “is the result of conscientious gradual withdrawal from taking food in such a manner as would never disrupt one’s inner peace, state of complete equanimity, and dispassionate mindfulness or awareness.” While he may be able to defend sallekhana from the accusation of suicide in the common sense of the word, Shah’s admission that sallekhana “is sanctioned only when a person strongly feels that he cannot progress any further spiritually due to terminal illness, poor health or extreme old age, and is a burden to society” is nearly identical to a description of assisted suicide, or euthanasia.
In that sense, Shah’s opinion seems to be a derogation from the original purity of the Jain ideal. Given his suffering of the stigmata, Francis would never consent to dying to escape suffering, as suffering is the means to salvation for him in emulation of Christ. It only makes sense to escape suffering by dying if one lacks a concept of redemptive suffering that makes pain worth bearing for the sake of oneself and others. Gunvant Barvalia’s definition, on the other hand, is more congenial to such a Christian interpretation, in that he sees sallekhana as an expression of penance for one’s sins, rather than a mere escape from suffering, as “it implies holy feelings of a peaceful death with observance of external & internal forms of penance of highest degree.” If sallekhana is purely an escape from suffering, as Shah would contend, than the soul would lack the prerequisite purity of intention to undertake the traditional death, whereby he is free from the desire to die and the desire to live alike.
John Cort’s description of the true Jina is a strange blend of Catharist and Franciscan elements in its absolute detachment: “An image that readily comes to mind for many when the Jains are mentioned is of a Digambar muni (male mendicant) walking naked through the countryside, with only a peacock-feather brush and water gourd in hand, or else rejecting all nourishment and consciously accepting death in the rite of sallekhana.” S.L. Jain Gandhi presents a nuanced view of matters in that he does believe sallekhana is a form of suicide, but the ritualized aspect seems to be a drawback for him, rather than an asset to the spiritual journey; for him, “According to Jainism dying is as much an art as living. A layman is not only expected to live a disciplined life, but also to die a brave detached death.” In that respect, Saint Francis and any Catharist would most certainly agree with the Jain.
Pratap Mehta is most optimistic and realistic in regarding sallekhana as an affirmation of the survival of identity after death. The nihilist would likely not want to bring about his own death sooner than need be. Mehta maintains that sallekhana “springs from a vision of life and life process that sees no finality in death.” Instead, it becomes a wonderful opportunity to make one’s peace with the universe: “It demonstrates that the adept has acquired the ability to extinguish all desire, which is said to be at the root of all violence towards others.” Although Mehta might perhaps be relying too heartily upon Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic sacrifice here, his point is well-taken. Or, as Nicholas F. Grier boldly phrases the issue, “Jaina monks who starve themselves to death in the sacred act of sallekhana may also be considered the ultimate martyrs for their faith.” However, that conjures up images of Tibetan Buddhist self-immolation rather than a peaceful, contemplative journey from one life to the next, as the Jains originally conceived. Likewise, Francisco Diez de Velasco sees nothing non-violent about Jain sallekhana, even going so far as to compare it to female circumcision: “In contrast to the Jain non-violence towards people or animals (which seems incompatible with Jain involvement with power in the past), extreme violence in the form of self-inflicted death (fasting to death) is valued above all; in the ideology of this religious group this type of death is not considered a suicide, nor even a violent act.” He compares it to death cults for whom, “Collective suicide, which we judge as a violent death, was deemed by them to be a joyful act oneself and a transition to a higher dimension.” Thus, Velasco tests the boundaries of the “semantic inversion of violence and non-violence” that threatens any pluralistic society with implosion. Lawrence Babb seconds Velasco’s skepticism of sallekhana, stating that, “Jain ascetism is manifested in many ways, but emblematic of its uncompromising severity is the fact that death by self-starvation (sallekhana) is enshrined as one of the tradition’s highest ideals.” Despite Jain apologetics to the contrary, some critics remain unconvinced.
While they all diverge at some junctures and converge at others, the ritual mortification of Saint Francis, the Cathars, and the Jains forces us to confront the day when we, too, must “shuffle off this mortal coil,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet so aptly put it. In the end, each spirituality sounds simply like a different spin on Christ’s exhortation to endure with peace the travails of this present life: “Therefore I say to you, be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than the meat, and the body more than the raiment?”
Alger, Abby Langdon, trans. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898.
Anzalone, John. 1983. “Villiers De L’Isle-Adam and the Gnostic Tradition.” The French Review 57 (1). American Association of Teachers of French: 20–27.
Babb, Lawrence A. 1994. “The Great Choice: Worldly Values in a Jain Ritual Culture.” History of Religions 34 (1). University of Chicago Press: 15–38.
Barvalia, Gunvant. Introduction to Jainism. Fourth ed. Mumbai: SKPG Jain Philosophical & Literary Research Centre, Arham Spiritual Centre, 2015.
Bonaventure. The Life of Saint Francis. J.M. Dent and Company: London, 1904.
Braun, W. “Sallekhana: The Ethicality and Legality of Religious Suicide by Starvation in the Jain Religious Community.” Medical Law Review 27, no. 4 (December 2008): 913-24.
Connelly, R.J. 1986. “Natural Death and Christian Fasting.” Journal of Religion and Health 25 (3). Springer: 227–36.
Cort, John E. 2002. “Singing the Glory of Asceticism: Devotion of Asceticism in Jainism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70 (4). [Oxford University Press, American Academy of Religion]: 719–42.
Cousins, Ewert H. “Francis of Assisi and Interreligious Dialogue.” Dialogue & Alliance 5, no. 2 (1991): 20-33.
de Velasco, Francisco Diez. 2005. “Theoretical Reflections on Violence and Religion: Identity, Power, Privilege and Difference (with Reference to the Hispanic World).” Numen 52 (1). Brill: 87–115.
Francis. The Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi. Translated by Robinson Paschal. Philadelphia: Dolphin Press, 1905.
Gandhi, S L Jain. “Ritual and Symbol in the Jain Religious tTadition.” Dialogue & Alliance 4, no. 1 (1990): 13-20.
Gier, Nicholas F. 2012. “Overreaching to Be Different: A Critique of Rajiv Malhotra’s ‘Being Different.’” International Journal of Hindu Studies 16 (3). Springer: 259– 85.
Jaini, Padmanabh S., and Mark Tully. Christianity and Jainism: An Interfaith Dialogue. Mumbai: Hindi Granth Karyalay, 2009.
Lewitter, L. R. 1957. “The Inspiration and Meaning of Aleksandr Blok’s ‘The Rose and the Cross.’” The Slavonic and East European Review 35 (85). Modern Humanities Research Association: 428–42.
McCaffrey, Emily. 2002. “Imaging the Cathars in Late-twentieth-century Languedoc.” Contemporary European History 11 (3). Cambridge University Press: 409–27.
Mehta, Pratap Bhanu. 2000. “Cosmopolitanism and the Circle of Reason.” Political Theory 28 (5). Sage Publications, Inc.: 619–39.
Munzer, Stephen R. “Heroism, Spiritual Development, and Triadic Bonds in Jain and Christian Mendicancy and Almsgiving.” Numen 48, no. 1 (2001): 47-80.
Murray, Alexander. Suicide in the Middle Ages: The Violent Against Themselves. First ed. Vol. I. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Pye, Michael. 1994. “Religion: Shape and Shadow.” Numen 41 (1). Brill: 51–75. Rondolino, Massimo A. “Prolegomena to a Comparative Reading of The Major Life of St. Francis and The Life of Milarepa.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 35, (2015): 163-180.
Rybakova, Maria. 2008. “Two Genders of the Soul Regarding the Love of God.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 16 (1). Trustees of Boston University: 119–30.
Settar, S. Pursuing Death: Philosophy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life. Issue 4 of IIAH Series. Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, 1990.
Settar, S. Inviting Death: Indian Attitude Towards the Ritual Death. Vol. 28. Monographs and Theoretical Studies in Sociology and Anthropology in Honour of Nels Anderson Series. Brill Academic Publishers, 1989.
Shah, Pravin K. Jainism: Religion of Compassion and Ecology. Fifth ed. Raleigh: JAINA Education Committee, 2006.
Shriver, George H. 1971. “A Summary of ‘Images of Catharism and the Historian’s Task.’” Church History 40 (1). [American Society of Church History, Cambridge University Press]: 48–54.
Tsiamis, C., E. Tounta, and E. Poulakou-Rebelakou. “The “Endura” of The Cathars’ Heresy: Medieval Concept of Ritual Euthanasia or Suicide?” Journal of Religion and Health 55, no. 1 (December 2008): 174-80.
Tukol, T.K. Sallekhana Is Not Suicide. First ed. L.D. Series 55. Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology, Swati Printing Press, 1976.
Umasvati. That Which Is: A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality. Translated by Nathmal Tatia. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011.
Walther, Daniel. 1965. “A Survey of Recent Research on the Albigensian Cathari.” Church History 34 (2). [American Society of Church History, Cambridge University Press]: 146–77.
Williams, H. Moore. 1970. “English Writing in Free India (1947-1967).” Twentieth Century Literature 16 (1). [Duke University Press, Hofstra University]: 3–15.
Williams, R. 1966. “Before Mahāvīra.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1/2. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland: 2–6.
Woodbery, W. Potter. 1977. “The Sword Between Them: Love and Death in Ransom’s “The Equilibrists””. The Southern Literary Journal 9 (2). University of North Carolina Press: 51–65.
 Saint Francis. The Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi. Translated by Robinson Paschal. (Philadelphia: Dolphin Press, 1905), 152.
 Alger, Abby Langdon, trans. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898), x-xi.
 Umasvati. That Which Is: A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality. Translated by Nathmal Tatia. (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011), 41.
 Ewert H. Cousins. “Francis of Assisi and Interreligious Dialogue.” Dialogue & Alliance 5, no. 2 (1991): 25.
 Saint Bonaventure. The Life of Saint Francis. (J.M. Dent and Company: London, 1904), 17.
 Ibid, 48.
 Ibid, 57.
 Ibid, 69.
 Ibid, 84.
 Ibid, 150.
 Ibid, 151.
 Stephen R. Munzer “Heroism, Spiritual Development, and Triadic Bonds in Jain and Christian Mendicancy and Almsgiving.” Numen 48, no. 1 (2001): 55.
 Ibid, 56.
 Ewert H. Cousins, “Francis of Assisi and Interreligious Dialogue,” 23-24.
 Umasvati, That Which Is: A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality, 226.
 Rondolino, Massimo A. “Prolegomena to a Comparative Reading of The Major Life of St. Francis and The Life of Milarepa.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 35 (2015): 168.
 Michael Pye. “Religion: Shape and Shadow”. Numen 41, no. 1 (1994): 72.
 C. Tsiamis, E. Tounta, and E. Poulakou-Rebelakou. “The ‘Endura’ of The Cathars’ Heresy: Medieval Concept of Ritual Euthanasia or Suicide?” Journal of Religion and Health 55, no. 1 (December 2008): 174.
 Geroge H. Shriver. “A Summary of ‘Images of Catharism and the Historian’s Task’”. Cambridge University Press: American Society of Church History 40, no. 1 (1971): 49.
 Ibid, 52.
 Umasvati, That Which Is: A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality, 190.
 Geroge H. Shriver, “A Summary of ‘Images of Catharism and the Historian’s Task,’” 52.
 Ibid, 53.
 Williams, H. Moore. “English Writing in Free India (1947-1967)”. Twentieth Century Literature, 16, no. 1 (1970): 12-13.
 L.R. Lewitter. “The Inspiration and Meaning of Aleksandr Blok’s ‘The Rose and the Cross.’” The Slavonic and East European Review 35, no. 85 (1957): 438.
 W. Potter Woodbery. “The Sword Between Them: Love and Death in Ransom’s ‘The Equilibrists.’” The Southern Literary Journal 9, no. 2 (1977), 55.
 Ibid, 55.
 Ibid, 55.
 John Anzalone. “Villiers De L’isle-adam and the Gnostic Tradition”. The French Review 57, no. 1 (1983): 25.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 25-26.
 Ibid, 22.
 Ibid, 21.
 Maria Rybakova. “Two Genders of the Soul Regarding the Love of God”. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 16, no. 1 (2008): 125.
 Ibid, 125.
 Ibid, 125.
 Ibid, 125.
 Ibid, 127.
 Ibid, 127.
 Daniel Walther. “A Survey of Recent Research on the Albigensian Cathari.” Church History 34, no. 2 (1965): 160.
 Ibid, 161.
 Alexander Murray. Suicide in the Middle Ages: The Violent Against Themselves. First ed. Vol. I. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 189.
 Ibid, 190.
 Ibid, 190.
 Ibid, 190.
 Ibid, 190.
 Ibid, 190.
 R.J. Connelly. “Natural Death and Christian Fasting.” Journal of Religion and Health 25, no. 3 (1986): 234.
 Ibid, 234.
 W. Braun. “Sallekhana: The Ethicality and Legality of Religious Suicide by Starvation in the Jain Religious Community.” Medical Law Review 27, no. 4 (December 2008): 913.
 R. Williams. “Before Mahāvīra”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1/2. (1996): 6.
 S. Settar. Inviting Death: Indian Attitude Towards the Ritual Death. Vol. 28. Monographs and Theoretical Studies in Sociology and Anthropology in Honour of Nels Anderson Series. (Brill Academic Publishers, 1989): 111.
 Ibid, 112.
 Ibid, 112.
 Ibid, 113.
 Ibid, 113.
 Ibid, 114
 Ibid, 115.
 Alger, Abby Langdon, trans., The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, 8.
 S. Settar, Inviting Death: Indian Attitude Towards the Ritual Death, 119.
 Ibid, 132.
 Ibid, 132.
 Ibid, 129.
 S. Settar. Pursuing Death: Philosophy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of Life. Issue 4 (IIAH Series. Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, 1990): 198.
 Ibid, 180.
 Ibid, 180-181.
 Ibid, 179.
 Ibid, 190.
 Ibid, 189.
 T.K. Tukol. Sallekhana Is Not Suicide. First ed. (L.D. Series 55. Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology, Swati Printing Press, 1976): 6.
 Ibid, 7.
 Ibid, 10.
 Umasvati, That Which Is: A Classic Jain Manual for Understanding the True Nature of Reality, 178.
 Ibid, 179.
 Padmanabh S. Jaini and Mark Tully. Christianity and Jainism: An Interfaith Dialogue. (Mumbai: Hindi Granth Karyalay, 2009): 29.
 Pravin K. Shah. Jainism: Religion of Compassion and Ecology. Fifth ed. (Raleigh: JAINA Education Committee, 2006): 48.
 Ibid, 48.
 Gunvant Barvalia. Introduction to Jainism. Fourth ed. (Mumbai: SKPG Jain Philosophical & Literary Research Centre, Arham Spiritual Centre, 2015): 60.
 John E. Cort. “Singing the Glory of Asceticism: Devotion of Asceticism in Jainism”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70, no. 4 (2002): 720.
 S.L. Jain Gandhi. “Ritual and Symbol in the Jain Religious Tradition.” Dialogue & Alliance 4, no. 1 (1990): 20.
 Pratap Bhanu Mehta. “Cosmopolitanism and the Circle of Reason”. Political Theory 28, no. 5 (2000): 626.
 Ibid, 626.
 Nicholas F. Grier. “Overreaching To Be Different: A Critique of Rajiv Malhotra’s ‘Being Different’”. International Journal of Hindu Studies 16 no. 3 (2012): 262.
 Francisco Diez de Velasco. “Theoretical Reflections on Violence and Religion: Identity, Power, Privilege and Difference (with Reference to the Hispanic World)”. Numen 52 no. 1 (2005): 109.
 Ibid, 109.
 Ibid, 109.
 Lawrence A. Babb. “The Great Choice: Worldly Values in a Jain Ritual Culture”. History of Religions 34, no. 1 (1994): 15.
 Mt. 6:25 (DRB)