Inviting Death: Historical Experiments on Sepulchral Hill

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Item Code: NAJ105
Author: S. Settar
Publisher: Primus Books, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2016
ISBN: 9789380607429
Pages: 298 (Throghout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 640 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

One of the foremost communities to have paid serious attention to death is the jainas of Indian. Indeed, their preoccupation with it has been so intense that with it has been so intense that without understanding their philosophy of death, it is almost impossible to make out their notion of life. While commending death, however, they caution against throwing away life in a cavalier manner. They emphatically oppose suicide- a death-recourse prompted by emotion (raga) and violence (himsa) - and codemn it as a spiritual crime, a cowardly act resorted to by the immature and the ignorant. Jainism recognizes forty-eight types of death, grouped under three major heads called bala-marana (foolish death), pandita-marana (wise death), and pandita-pandita-marana (the wisest of wise death). For them, sallekhana is an art of mortification, which is completed without hurting the soul or harming the mind. The Jainas did not consider death subjects of intellectual exercise; they held it as a force that permeates the social, religious and philosophical sinews of life.

The codified rules of the art of inviting death, descriptive accounts of puranic and historical personalities who embraced it, and an interesting body of epigraphical and archaeological remain, provide a rich corpus of information on those who voluntarily terminated their lives. Inviting Death presents this history spread over a millennium and half, on the Samadhibetta or the Sepulchral Hill at Sravana Belgola, the Foremost of the Digamba jaina centres in the world.


About the Author

S. Settar is Professor Emeritus, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and Honorary Director, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Southern Regional Centre, Bangalore.

He has published extensively in the fields of history, art history, archaeology, history of religions, philosophy and classical kannada literature. Some of Professor Settar’s publications are: Hoysala Sculpture in the National Museum (1975): Sarvana Belgola: An Illustrated study; The Hoysala Temples; Somanathapura: An Illstrated Monograph; Memorial Stone: A Study of their Origin, Significance and Variety and Pursuing Death: Philosophy and Practice of Voluntary Termination of life. He has also co-edited Indian Archaeology in Retrospect.



A substantial section of humanity has lived through the ages grappling with death, and nearly all serious philosophical speculations have revolved as much around life as around death. The Jains of India are among those who paid serious attention to this phenomenon; indeed, their preoccupation with it is so overwhelming that without understanding their philosophy of death, it is difficult to understand their attitude towards life. It appears that none of the major religions of the world advocated in as many terms as the Jains did on the negative character of life and the positive reasons for ending it. Whether one agrees with them or not, one cannot deny that death has haunted everyone in one way or the other.

While commending death, the Jains have also cautioned against casting away life in a cavalier manner. They emphatically opposed suicide, a death-process involving emotion (raga) and violence (ahimsa), they condemned it as a spiritual crime, a cowardly course of escapade by the immature and the ignoramus (bala). Their sharp logic identified as many as 48 types of deaths, grouped under three categories: (1) bala-marana (childish or foolish death); (2) pandita-marana (wise-death); and (3) pandita-pandita- marana (the wisest of wise-death). The first (including suicide), is rejected in unequivocal terms; the second, which testifies partial attainment and wisdom, is conditionally accepted and advocated; the third is enthusiastically embraced. The first secures no fruits; the second only partial rewards; the third offers complete release from all bondages, including the cycle of rebirth.

Death was not merely a subject of intellectual exercise for the Jains, it permeated into their social, religious and philosophical sinews and regulated the lives of monks and nuns as much as the lives of laymen and women. They took utmost care to build an infrastructure codifying the procedure of death and also perfecting the process of honouring the dead. The art of mortifying the body, without troubling or torturing the soul, was identified in definitive terms, each accentuating a specific ritual observance. Thus emerged the sanyasana-marana (death through renunciation), sallekhand- marana (through fasting), ardhnan-marana (through worship), pancapada- marana (through prayer), pandita-marana (through knowledge or wisdom), samddhi-marana (through meditation),etc. However, selecting one particular form of death did not exclude the subject from the demands and rituals of the others, as wise death required the simultaneous fulfilment of all rituals. Those who invited death without violating the code of conduct, and without ever thinking of abandoning the valiant fight halfway, emerged as models for the Sangha as well as the society, and they were honoured with a variety of commemorative monuments.

The codified rules for inviting death include descriptive accounts of deaths embraced by puranic personalities, historical experiments preserved in lithic records, and an interesting variety of monumental remains offer a rich source of material for those who wish to know more about those who mortified to death. This material is vast and varied, therefore, it appeals not only to the social scientists (anthropologists, historians, sociologist, psychologists, philosophers as well is students of religion and art) but also to medical scientists (who are obsessed with the problem of terminal cases, suicides and clinical deaths) and legal practitioners. This provides interesting data for those who are concerned with death-euphoria or euthanasia- and also for those who are curious about the Oriental philosophies and practices of voluntary termination of life. Regardless of whether the Jain philosophy and practice encourage continuation of life or hastening of death, it is a matter of considerable interest to understand why and how they accomplished ritual-deaths.

Historical experiments made from the early centuries of the Christian era are presented by a variety of evidence. The may later be found in all major linguistic and socio-political domains, but our present study shows its heavy concentration in the present Karnataka state. Besides the Aradhana, Acara and Puranic works written in Kannada, there are hundreds of dated inscriptions that detail the experiences of the clergy as well as the laity. Sravana Belgola holds a unique place here, for the history of no other religious centre in the world has been as intensely shaped by death as in this centre. The surviving records at Sravana Belgola, a topographical area of about 5 sq. km. and a chronological frame of about 1,500 years, provide a picturesque history of 150 men and women inviting death for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. The centre of this action was the summit of low granite mass, now called Candragiri, but better known in its early history as Sepulchral Hill (Katavapra or Kalvappu) or the Mountain of Meditation-unto-Death (samadhi-betta). Whether the death-history of this mountain goes back to 300 BCE or not, there is little doubt that the recorded experience available to us now forms but a tiny fraction of the totality of historical experimentation made by a member of anonymous mortifiers. Having shunned fame while living, they took great precaution to efface every trace of their existence before dying, because, the one who had understood the frailty of this body could not think of perpetuating the name with which the body was merely meant to be identified. These mortifiers, no doubt, felt that neither their life nor their death deserved a niche in history.

The three parts of Inviting Death tell a single story, each part main- taining at the same time the importance of its individual plot.

In Part I, the religious history of Sravana Belgola is traced with death as the focal point. It begins with the ritual-death of a reputed monk; the subsequent course details the fluctuation of its fortunes. The mortifiers hasten to the hill of death while it is dreaded by all others; they begin to withdraw from it as news of the severities suffered by them begins to attract too many pilgrims and devotees. Over time, the bare rocks and boulders of the mortification sites begin to be covered with beautiful temples, pavilions and free-standing pillars.

In Part II, answers to several questions directly connected with ritual-death are sought: what is meant by ritual-death? How can death be invited? Who would aspire to die, for what reasons, and following which of the recommended vows? What are the big names in the history of death? What factors led the advocates to postpone or avoid death and how did society take these actions? These and such other questions are examined throughout the text.

In Part III, the memorials erected in honour of those who accepted ritual-death are studied. Like the chhaya-stambhas of the Buddhists, viragals of warriors and sati-stones of dedicated wives, the nisidhi memorials form a class by themselves. Thus far, the character and content of these memorials have not been explored by any. Their format, locale, grouping pattern, commemorative rituals, significance of terms and their varieties are discussed here.

Supplemental information given under the Appendices and Glossary, are intended to take away the staggering statistical, historical and literary burden from the main text and simultaneously strengthen the inquiry.

My first field notes on the nisidhi memorials go back to the mid- 1960s, but I hardly made use of them in my Sravana Belgola Monuments. A decade later, I began to collect more information, partly pursuing my general interest in the memorial stones of every kind, and partly inspired by the suggestion given to me by late Dr A.N. Upadhye, that a quantitative evaluation of nisidhis in Karnataka would be a rewarding exercise. This was followed by a short paper on the subject. My studies in Kannada Kavya-literature, resulting in the preparation of a concordance in about 30 volumes of Jaina Puranic works, laid before me an unexpected wealth of information, most of which was connected with ritual-death. This, along with the information obtained from canonical texts such as Bhagavati Aradhana, Sravakacaras, etc. enthused me to pursue this study further.

The textual material helped me to understand the 570 records at Sravana Belgola better; what started as a small monograph soon expanded to two volumes, the textual material receiving more importance than the archaeological material in Pursuing Death, and the archaeological material maintaining its preponderance in Inviting Death. Nevertheless, while writing the two volumes, I did not lose track of my obligation to art history.

My discussions with friends, colleagues and senior scholars were so intense and so frequent that it should not be surprising if I have unconsciously appropriated and integrated their precious thoughts into my work. I particularly recall discussions with Professor Pramod Chandra, Mary Carman Chandra, Professor Gunther Sontheimer, Dr Mulk Raj Anand, Professor A.K. Ramanujam, Professor K. Ishvaran, Professor Michael Meister and Professor Bruhn Kl, some of whom offered platforms for discussion, looked after with care and helped widen my vision on death by drawing my attention to the Indian and non-Indian parallels.




  Abbreviations VII
  List of Illustrations IX
  Preface to the revised Edition XIII
  Preface to the first Edition XV
PART I Religious Backdrop for Ritual Experiments  
Chapter 1 Age of Spiritual Sublimity: Early Experiments on the Sepulchral Hill, 600-1000 CE 3
Chapter 2 Age of Material and Religious Prosperity, 1100-1300 CE 23
PART II Voluntary Termination of Life: Philosophy and Practice  
Chapter 3 Time of Trouble: Rituals-Death, A Blurred Memory, 1300-1900 CE 49
Chapter 4 Meaning and Significance of Rituals: Number and Nature of Experiments 67
Chapter 5 The Ritual in Practice: The Celebrated Deaths 91
Chapter 6 Some Honoured Saints: Their Career and Contributions 110
Part III The Art of Commemoration  
Chapter 7 Nisidhis: Characteristics, Arts 131
  Appendices 171
  Glossary 183
  Bibliography 203
  Plates 209
  Index 261
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