Article Info

published: 11/9/05
updated: 6/11/13

Euthanasia and Hinduism




What does Hinduism teach about euthanasia?

Hindu views of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide vary, but they are all rooted in concerns about karma, reincarnation, and ahimsa (non-violence).

Suicide in Hindu History

The most well-known historical practice of suicide associated with Hinduism is that of suttee (Sanskrit sati), the self-immolation (burning to death) of a widow on her deceased husband's funeral pyre. In the Hindu epic Mahabarata, some queens commit suttee.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the custom of suttee probably had little to do with the religion of Hinduism; it was rather an ancient custom based on beliefs that a man needed companions in the afterlife. In the medieval period, the hardships suffered by widows may have contributed to the spread of the practice. In theory it was a voluntary practice, but there were instances of compulsion to suttee. {1}





The practice of suttee was not universal throughout Hindu history. The first mention of it outside the Mahabarata is made by a 1st-century BC Greek author writing about 4th-century BC Punjab. Tombstones commemorating women who died by suttee are numerous in India; the earliest is dated to 510 AD. Suttee was abolished in India in 1829, but it continued to occur for at least another 30 years. {2}

Modern Hindu Views of Suicide and Euthanasia

As in Buddhism, Hindu views of euthanasia and suicide are grounded in the doctrines of karma, moksa, and ahimsa. Karma is the net consequence of good and bad deeds in a person's life, which then determines the nature of the next life. Ongoing accumulation of bad karma prevents moksa, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, which is the ultimate goal of Hinduism. Ahimsa is a fundamental principle in Indian religions, and means doing harm to no other being.

Suicide is generally prohibited in Hinduism, on the basis that it disrupts the timing of the cycle of death and rebirth and therefore yields bad karma. According to one Hindu website, suicide is not approved in Hinduism because human life is a precious opportunity to attain higher states of rebirth that even the gods envy. It also has dire consequences for the soul's spiritual progress:

According to Hindu beliefs, if a person commits suicide, he neither goes to the hell nor the heaven, but remains in the earth consciousness as a bad spirit and wanders aimlessly till he completes his actual and allotted life time. Thereafter he goes to hell and suffers more severely. In the end he returns to the earth again to complete his previous karma and start from there once again. Suicide puts an individual's spiritual clock in reverse. {3}

One exception to the Hindu prohibition of suicide is the practice of prayopavesa, or fasting to death. Prayopavesa is not regarded as suicide because it is natural and non-violent, and is acceptable only for spiritually advanced people under specified circumstances. BBC Religion & Ethics provides the following example of prayopavesa:

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a Hindu leader born in California, took his own life by prayopavesa in November 2001. After finding that he had untreatable intestinal cancer the Satguru meditated for several days and then announced that he would accept pain-killing treatment only and would undertake prayopavesa - taking water, but no food. He died on the 32nd day of his self-imposed fast. {4}

Given the complex history of suicide in Indian thought and the various considerations outlined above, not all Hindus agree on whether euthanasia should be permitted. In the end, there are two Hindu views of euthanasia:

From one perspective, a person who helps other end a painful life and thereby reduce suffering is doing a good deed and will gain good karma. From the other perspective, euthanasia interrupts the timing of the cycle of rebirth and both the doctor and patient will take on bad karma as a result. {5}


References

  1. "suttee." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  2. "suttee." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001, online at Bartleby.com.
  3. Hinduism FAQ: "Hinduism and Suicide." HinduWebsite.
  4. "Euthanasia and Suicide: The Hindu View." BBC Religion & Ethics.
  5. Ibid.