New Delhi: The Supreme Court may have paved the way for passive euthanasia in terminal cases by allowing ‘living wills’, but in a country where religious ramifications hang heavy on an individual’s daily life, can the question of when and how to die be exempt?
A living will is a legal document in which a person states in clear terms what medical treatment should be given or withdrawn if they ever become incapacitated to speak for themselves. A living will kicks in only when the designator is terminally ill or has lost consciousness with no hope of recovery. The condition often has to be examined by a medical board. Doctors would be exempt from any liability should they pull the plug to end the patient’s suffering.
But most of the major religions in India oppose passive euthanasia, viewing it akin to suicide.
According to, Moran Mor (Cardinal) Baselios Cleemis, who is the current Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, “Taking one’s life by their own will cannot be justified by explanation and goes contrary to Biblical teachings.”
“The church believes in the value of life and it is the will of God. This is given by God alone. It cannot be revoked, cannot be blocked or taken away permanently by any other force other than God. End of life is only by natural death. How can you terminate life on any account? You say euthanasia is like mercy killing. But how can it be? How do you know that this life will not be able to bear the test it has been put through?” Cardinal Cleemis told News18.
The Archbishop also said that the concept of living will or passive euthanasia was “reflection of human nature which shows that as soon as something is not useful for us, we seek to throw away that thing, irrespective of whether it is living or non-living.”
“What happens to soldiers who are fighting for us at the borders? When someone thinks that they are no more useful or injured, then can they be killed, or be thought of as a burden? It is not an act of mercy. The whole Biblical aspect is that after Jesus has come, one will have life in abundance. Jesus has come to bring the fruits of life and not the end of it. Scientific research is meant for survival of life and not termination,” Cardinal Cleemis said.
The Bible, however, is not explicit about euthanasia or living will, but does have its share of examples.
According to the holy book, when King Hezekiah was not keeping well, and was at the point of death, “God had sent Prophet Isaiah to him” with a message which said, “‘Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover’” (Isaiah 38:1). At this point, the king started preparing for his death, but followers often interpret the advance directives favourably.
In Islam, death is the termination of worldly life and the beginning of afterlife; a continuation of life in another form. Death is seen as a painful experience in Islam.
According to a statement of the Islamic Fiqh (Law) Council belonging to the Muslim World League, “in the case of a patient whose body has been hooked to life support, it is permissible to remove it if all his brain functions have ceased completely, and a committee of three specialist, experienced doctors have determined that this cessation of function is irreversible, even if the heart and breathing are still working mechanically with the help of the machine. But he cannot be ruled dead according to Sharee’ah until his breathing and heart stop completely, after the machine is removed.”
This precisely means that even if a Muslim drafts a living will, it would not take effect until a team of doctors declare the person brain-dead, which is in line with the Supreme Court verdict’s “mandated medical board”.
However, confusion creeps in when one speaks of passive euthanasia.
Shia scholar Maulana Saif Abbas told News18 that any such concept of living will or passive euthanasia is strictly prohibited in Islam.
“According to Islam, we are mandated to save lives. We have been instructed that even if we are offering namaz and we see somebody dying in front of us, we can leave our prayers and save the person. This is the duty of even someone observing roza. This living will or euthanasia is more like suicide and that is not permissible under Islam. Muslims have committed suicide, but that is different than Islam,” said Maulana Abbas.
According to Islamic rulings, mercy killing also stands prohibited in the religion. One of the major arguments in the Aruna Shanbaug case was that an individual’s suffering would be put to an end if passive euthanasia was resorted to. But, mercy killing is referred to as “haram killing” under Islamic law as Islam believes that “life is protected by sharee’ah so long as he is still alive”.
This belief is in stark contrast to Hinduism.
Though the act of suicide is considered maha paap (major sin)” and is strictly prohibited, but it is the concept of having served “all purpose” that gains validity under the religion.
Swami Nirvisheshananda, an alumni of IIT Kharagpur, who is known for his talks and discourses on Vedanta, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Srimad Bhagavatam, told News18 that Hinduism is replete with examples which show that “taking one’s own life” for not being “a burden on someone” or “having served the purpose of life” was a common trait in the religion.
“Vivekananda had written about Pavbhari Baba and he lived only on air. He got his nutrition only from the air. Finally, when he died, villagers saw fire in his cave, and they discovered that the Baba had lit his own funeral pyre and was lying over it. This was done so that the villagers are not bothered about disposing of his dead body too,” said the religious leader.
Swami Nirvisheshananda, while stating how a call of wisdom to end one’s life is appreciated in the religion, said that “Ichhamaran (euthanasia) was extremely common among Hindus for thousands of years.”
“It is very much allowed in Hinduism. Even now when the sadhus in Rishikesh and Haridwar, who stay alone, discover that they are becoming a burden on society and have no purpose in life, they tie a stone around their neck and walk into the river. This is called Jal Samadhi,” said Swami.
Swami also touched upon how an elderly couple in Hinduism decided to end their life. “In Ramayana, too, when Dashrath had released the Shabdaved Baan by which Rishi Putra died, the latter’s blind father and mother went into samadhi. These examples show that passive euthanasia or a living will gains sanctions from the religion,” said Swami Nirvisheshananda.
He, however, cautioned that suicide out of frustration and depression is a sin and “not allowed”. “But if people take a call out of wisdom, then it is allowed, especially in cases of terminally ill patients.”