Hinduism and the Dharma of VSED (Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking)

10/28/2016 05:42 am ET

Hinduism is a conglomeration of a variety of beliefs and practices with no one, or official, set of doctrines or religious authorities. VSED (Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking) is permissible from a systematic, and somewhat unified, perspective that is shared by several traditions of Hinduism, ancient and modern.

Many Hindus believe that an acceptable life is one in which they are able to follow their dharma (dutiful obligations). As characterized in traditional texts and practices, dharma was indexed to varna (class), jati (caste), gender, and ashrama (stage of life). For the vanaprastha (householder), for example, one possible dharma (obligation) is to obtain artha (wealth and material stuff from gainful employment). Many Hindus also believe that the dharma of worshipping and propitiating devas, namely generating bhakti (devotion), is unquestionably obligatory, in all stages of life.

But what happens when one is unable to fulfill one's dharma? When one is suffering, for example, from a fatal illness that prevents one from going to and worshipping at the temple? From chanting mantras (sacred utterances) in praise of one's kula-deva (family deity)? Or even from simply meditating?

According to Pandit Haridasa Bhatt, a virtuous and virtuoso reader of classical Sanskrit texts and expert in the Madhva School of Vedanta, in such cases the patient/ practitioner may pursue voluntary euthanasia, which, of course, includes VESD (Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking), if and only if continued medical care is futile and that the patient has been given a fatal diagnosis by a reputable medical doctor.

Bhatt further stipulates that voluntary euthanasia must be conducted under auspicious conditions and that it should not be pursued haphazardly or, for that matter, in a haphazard place. The patient, for example, must do so in a clean and purified location, having been given an indisputable fatal diagnosis by a credentialed medical doctor. When purification is not possible, such as in a hospital or in a hospice, it is still possible to keep sacred texts, images, and other accouterment nearby and, therefore, create a scared/ pure space. In an idealized situation, Sri Bhatt suggests that a patient ought to pursue voluntary euthanasia via water (i.e. drowning) or via self-immolation. Since this is unlikely to happen, consuming (or not consuming, as the case may be) medications that can hasten (or prevents) death is permissible. Upavasa, (Voluntarily stopping eating and drinking) (i.e. fasting) is embraced as an exemplary way to facilitate death. It is not obligatory for all Hindus to pursue voluntary euthanasia in this way. Rather, it is permissible if one chooses it.

Upavasa (Temporary fasting) is a common Hindu practice. There are innumerable occasions for upavasa, including yearly festivals (such as Karva Chauth), bimonthly auspicious days (such as Ekadasi), and weekly auspicious days for particular gods (such as Thursday for Lord Vishnu). There are also fasts that one takes in order to fulfill a vrata (vow/ promise) for a desired ends. They are obligatory and Hindus can, and do, choose to fast. Upavasa is believed, moreover, to have a neutralizing effect on one's accumulated karma. Therefore, upavasa at any time, and when it occurs at the end of one's life, is beneficial.

Hindus have embraced and will continue to embrace upavas as a permissible means to hasten death. Voluntary euthanasia and, therefore, VSED (Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking) is a permissible practice in Hinduism.

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