Monday, January 12, 2009

How Sacred is Life ?

Certain themes tend to be the proverbial red rag before the bull. For the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, euthanasia or mercy killing is one of them. As of course is abortion. And when the church finds itself in a position where it finds itself confronted by a piece of legislation that is being enacted precisely to this en d and that too by godless communists the stage is set for a confrontation. As is happening in Kerala at the moment.

While no one will dispute that life is sacred, it is the very sacredness of life itself that is now seen through a variety of prisms and what different people see reflected through the prism is quite different. Advocates of mercy killing will say that a man living as a vegetable dependant on others for very existence is an affront to the dignity of a human being and there must be a way out with adequate safeguards where a man can choose to take his life either through conventional suicide or assisted means where his friends and family carry out the wishes of a person expressed and willed earlier.

The more socially conservative would say that no safeguards are adequate enough and that in an unscrupulous society, society would find it very easy to get rid of those it considers an unwanted burden; those who are no longer economically productive, the weak and the elderly. This is of course entirely plausible; human kind has an intermittent history of having exactly that.

Then of course there is a third strand – the spiritual strand which claims that life is created by God and can only be extinguished by God alone. This is the Judeo- Christian view and the view that has traditionally influenced our law making till the recent times. If suicide is a crime under the Indian Penal Code thus far, it is precisely because of this influence.

But the Indian tradition is not so uniform. There is a long tradition in the Indic religions of the wise and enlightened being able to discern as to when their useful span of life is over. And when that discernment dawns, they then intentionally withdraw from life in various ways. The Mahabharata story of the Pandavas retreating to the bitter cold of the Himalyas where all of them except Yudhishthira died of cold and exhaustion is a well known example. In recent times, Acharya Vinoba Bhave is another personality who chose to embrace the Jain tradition of santhara which involves fasting to death after living a rich and long life. Many others also follow this practice from time to time.

But clearly issues like mercy killing must be viewed with in the social context in which they are enacted and a just question that deserves to be asked is about the quality of life that citizen’s experience. One must not forget the many that are able and agile and are in the prime of life who aren’t waiting for laws to enact to take their life. The stressed students who die before and after our back breaking board exams, the farmers whose suicide we no longer read about because terrorism captures every headline, are they able to live lives of dignity ? life is sacred all right but the essence of its sacredness needs to be affirmed in many ways and not just by forcing a man or woman to live when there is nothing much to live for.

No comments: