Ansana - The Art Of Dying Peacefully

Published: 27.09.2006
Updated: 30.07.2015

The Jain tradition gives great importance to Ansana. Ansana is regarded as an auspicious and spiritual exercise or practice. It is prescribed equally for ascetics as well as lay followers.

The art of living is normally prescribed by almost all religions, but Jainism goes a step further by teaching the the art of dying. A Buddhist monk, Bhikshu Kashyap, once said, “I have learnt many things from Buddhism, but I have to learn the art of dying peacefully from Jainism. The same idea was also expressed by the Gandhian thinker, Vinoba Bhave, who actually practiced Ansana.

Method of Ansana

Ansana means fast until death. In reality, Ansana is an art of ideal death. The question is how to adopt Ansana. It has been described in detail in Jain canons like Bhagavati Aradhana, Uttaradhyayana Sutra, etc.

Before undertaking Ansana, one should observe “Samlekhana.” The word “Samlekhana” consists of two words: “Sam” and “Lekhana”. “Sam” means in the right way and “Lekhana” means to emasculate the physical body as well as the passions. Thus, “Samlekhana” implies deliberate emasculation of the (karmic as well as gross physical) body and passions like anger, pride, deceit, and greed.

Duration of Ansana

The minimum duration of Samlekhana is six months and the maximum is twelve years. The Uttaradhyayana Sutra describes the complete process of Samlekhana as follows:

During the first four years one should exclude “Vikrith”, the delicacies, from the diet, i.e. one should abstain from taking milk, curd, butter and clarified butter, sugar, edible oil, sweets, and fried things. If one cannot do so, he should observe “Ayambil”, which means not to eat more than one item and that too only once during the day time. At night, nothing, not even water, should be taken. During the next four years, one should perform two-day fasting, threeday fasting, etc. and one may take any kind of diet at the termination of the fast. In the ninth and tenth years, one should observe alternate day fasting and “Ayambil” at the termination of the fast. In the eleventh year, one should observe one-day fasting or two-day fasting during the first six months and Ayambil at the termination of the fast. In the next six months, three- or four-day fasting should be done and one may take complete diet in any quantity at the end of the fast. In the twelfth year, one should do Ayambil on the first day, any other penance on the second day, and again Ayambil on the third day. In this way, Ansana is taken after the full course of Samlekhana.

Reasons for Ansana

Ansana cannot be taken arbitrarily. A healthy ascetic or a lay person who is competent to perform religious or other activities is not allowed to embark on Ansana. Various reasons have been described for undertaking Ansana. The following are the conditions in which Ansana is allowed:

  1. In the case of any incurable disease.
  2. When someone is forced to break his/her chastity.
  3. During famine, when alms are not available.
  4. When the eyes, ears, and feet have become feeble.
  5. When one is incapable of undertaking tours.
  6. When any calamity arises due to gods, human beings, or animals.
  7. When there is strong detachment from someone or something.

Kinds of Ansana

There are two kinds of Ansana, Itvarika and Yavatkathikam. Itvarika Ansana is short term from one day to six months. Yavatkathikam Ansana is lifelong fasting that is undertaken unto death. The latter is again of three types:

  1. Bhakta-Pratyakhyana
    giving up food until death. In this penance, the practitioner can move in a restricted area in accordance with the rules of Samitis (watchfulness).
  1. Inigini-Marama-Ansana
    in this the movement is further restricted to the place he occupies for the purpose of fasting. Here, he can move his limbs, but the movement should be as less as possible.
  1. Padopgamana Ansana
    in this penance, the person neither takes care of his/her body nor asks others to do so. He is steady like a statue until death. He remains in the same state in which he existed at the time of starting the fast. No movement at all is given to the body. Ansana is not suicide.

Some people regard Ansana as suicide. Suicide is typically done in a fit of strong detachment and aversion as a result of a deluded mind. The person commits suicide with the aid of poison, weapon or any other similar means. The aim of such activity is to end life suddenly. But Ansana is not taken in a fit of attachment or aversion, neither is it a result of delusion.. If someone undertakes Ansana to kill himself immediately due to physical disease or depression as a result of a problem, we cannot call it Ansana. Such an action would not lead him to the highest goal of emancipation. True Ansana is not aimed at ending one’s life. But it is done to attain purity of consciousness, which ultimately ends in self-realization. Ansana is, therefore, called as Samadhi-marana, i.e. death attained with complete tranquility and equanimity. Such a person is not eager to meet death, but is willing to face death with grace and equanimity as it comes over the course of time.

Although body is is relinquished both in Ansana and suicide, the important thing to consider is the reason for giving up the body. The difficult path of Ansana can be followed only by a spiritual aspirant who has practiced spiritualism thoroughly, who has experienced that the body and the soul are totally different. The aspirant realizes that the body is temporary and lifeless while the soul is permanent and the seat of consciousness and life. In suicide, the person is fully tensed, while in Ansana the person is fully relaxed. At the time of suicide, the physical posture does not express calmness, but it is overwhelmed with stress. In suicide, death comes suddenly, while in Ansana, death will be a natural phenomenon.

Ansana means removing the attachment from the body by understanding the reality of nature, while in suicide one tries to give up life to escape from worldly troubles. The former is accepted by a virtuous person, while the latter is embraced with pessimism or negativity. There is no bravery in suicide; on the contrary, it is cowardice. Suicide is based on fear and desires. It is full of passions and excessive lust. Ansana on the other end is an exercise to overcome weakness, fear and vices. Thus, although giving up the body is common to both, Samlekhana (Ansana) and suicide - their aims are quite different.

In conclusion, Ansana means the right type of death in which there is no desire to live or die. It means to give up the body with equanimity. Persons attached to body, worldly pleasures and worldly possessions do not like to face death. They try every possible means to stay alive - holding on to the body. But in the end they have to face the laws of nature, because when life is a reality, death is also a reality. Regardless of the enormous efforts put by the doctors and the patients to stay alive, the persons have to eventually face death. On the other hand, in Ansana, the aspirant is fully prepared for death and faces it peacefully and with equanimity. Such a person does not fear death, but accepts it as an experience that soul goes through when it departs the body.

Thus, there is no place for fear or temptation, compulsion or force, attachment or aversion, anger or delusion in Ansana. Ansana is a means to attain the goal with equanimity. Every ascetic and every lay follower should aspire to embrace such death. The Jain canons mention three aspirations for all religious persons, one of which is to embrace death through Samlekhana or Ansana.

Sources

Vol. 25: #1: Jain Digest Summer 2006 (pdf 1.3 MB)

See also: Santhara


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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Anger
  2. Aradhana
  3. Ayambil
  4. Bhikshu
  5. Body
  6. Buddhism
  7. Consciousness
  8. Deceit
  9. Equanimity
  10. Fasting
  11. Fear
  12. Greed
  13. Jain Digest
  14. Jainism
  15. Pride
  16. Samitis
  17. Samlekhana
  18. Santhara
  19. Soul
  20. Sutra
  21. Uttaradhyayana
  22. Uttaradhyayana Sutra
  23. Vinoba Bhave
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