3.1 Surveying Sallekhana

“Ah,um, good morning Lisa,” said Pete awkwardly, the modest majesty of the angel before him always made him feel slightly awkward. Lisa giggled.

“And a very ah, um, good morning to you too Pete,” she said in gentle, affectionate mockery. “When you’ve finished?” she added as the young man stood before her in the lecture theatre gazing in semi-disguised awe at the pure white light emanating from this infinitely peaceful being.

“Sorry, Lisa.” Pete pulled himself together. “I thought I’d come and see you about a few things really. I was reading about the Digambara monks of Jainism, going around completely naked, and I was brushing up on Acts in the New Testament and read about how Ananius got struck down for not selling everything that he had to give to the poor. I don’t see how a loving God could do that,” said Pete thoughtfully. Lisa smiled

“Oh Pete, that does puzzle you doesn’t it? What’s holy about swanning around town in your one-button suit? Well, let’s have a look at a Digambara monk, shall we?” The lecture theatre dimmed and was replaced by the heat and noise of a North Indian town. Brightly coloured electric trucks thundered through a small town square, honking their horns as the towns people scurried out of the way. In the centre of the square sat a malnourished elderly monk, completely naked. He was cross-legged and staring calmly and blankly in front of him. Beside him sat a small brush, a thick, dogeared paperback and a bowl. “Crikey,” said Pete, “he looks thin.”

“I’m performing Sallekhana,” said Lisa “the gentle ending of one’s life through gradually reduced food and water intake” Pete looked surprised.

You are?”

“Oh yes, this is me in a former life,” said Lisa casually. Pete stared at the monk.

“But he’s… he’s…”

“Not a pretty black lady?” said Lisa, throwing back her head and laughing when she saw Pete’s face. She covered her mouth and widened her eyes as another fit of mirth escaped her. “I’m sorry Pete, but your face. There’s no point deciding whether to admit that that’s what you were thinking, I’m an angel I already know!” Pete blushed, slowly and deeply.

“That’s a common myth about reincarnation, that it happens in earth time. Soul’s just drop into the next body that they need to carry on their journey upwards. Karmic laws like that are outside of space and time. Your next life could be thousands of years before your current one, in Earth time. Assuming that it happens to be on Earth and statistically that’s very unlikely.”

“Well, anyway, yes it does seem surprising. Especially as this seems to be the future?” Pete gazed at the sleek electric trucks thundering by. Lisa smiled.

“That’s a common myth about reincarnation, that it happens in Earth time. Souls just drop into the next body that they need to carry on their journey upwards. Karmic laws like that are outside of space and time. Your next life could be thousands of years before your current one, in Earth time. Assuming that it happens to be on Earth and statistically that’s very unlikely.” Pete thought.

“So when people say that reincarnation can’t be true because earth’s population is growing so where are all the souls coming from?”

“Yes, they’re talking based on false assumptions, to put it politely,” said Lisa brightly and gestured at the monk. “On the plus side, look, you get to see me naked!” Pete’s face had only just returned to its normal colour, but the blush spread out again. There was a pause while Pete tried to stop blushing and Lisa tried to stop laughing. “I’m sorry Pete,” said Lisa eventually. “Yes, race, gender and so on are only a lifetime long. To be perfect you must experience everything and to do that you have to be everything. You’re only seeing me in this body as it’s the one I had in my most recent life.”

“Fascinating,” said Pete, “so where are his clothes? Why is he starving himself?”

“He’s not wearing clothes as part of his vow of aparigraha, detachment. Clothes are attachments and they’re not necessary, well not in a warm country like India anyway.”
“But what about to cover himself?”

“Why would he need to do that?”
“So people don’t see too much of his body?”

“He doesn’t have a body, nobody does, just an illusion. Nudity helps remind him of that, it is folly to cloth something which is not there, or which to him is there, but from which he is trying to free his soul. Which brings us on to your next question, why is he performing the Sallekhana.” Lisa swept her long hair back, as she warmed to her theme. “The reason for asceticism is_”

“Sorry, what’s asceticism? Some kind of illness?”

“No Pete, it means to deliberately deprive oneself of physical comforts so that the soul is more inclined to be released from the body, or to shed bad karma, depending on how you look at it.”

“But surely that doesn’t involve having to die?”

“No, true. Sallekhana is usually performed towards the natural end of life, either physically or when you just realise that it’s time. A few months before you’re seeing me I started getting certain symptoms which I knew meant I didn’t have long to go. In your time, when you’re driving towards the brick wall of death, there is the temptation to try to swerve round it, to try and avoid it. But death is a wall which completely circles the driver, it cannot be avoided. So why not take your foot off the accelerator and coast to a gentle halt by the wall rather than crash into it in a desperate mangled mess of pain, fear and regret?”

“I see,” said Pete thoughtfully. He saw a young boy say something to the monk, who laughed heartily if a little weakly. “Definitely you, then,” smiled Pete. Lisa beamed and continued. “Jains believe that you can shed a lot of bad karma from your jiva or soul by doing Sallekhana. In fact, doing that was a step towards getting this,” said Lisa pointing at the subtle circle of light just above her head. “So the young girls in my time, with anorexia, is that okay?” For the first time ever, Pete was startled to see Lisa look briefly horrified, her pure light dimmed for a few seconds then re-illuminated as the angel collected herself.

“No Pete. Anorexia is a disease of the broken in spirit, it is about reasserting a perceived loss of control and a myriad other insecurities, untreated it leads to the exact kind of frightening, lonely death that this monk is avoiding. The cure to anorexia is love, love and more love. Sallekhana is carried out exclusively by very old souls, souls so old that they’re incarnated as devote Jains. It is rare, and only permittable following approval by members of the sangha, or religious community. Basically, next to no one should attempt it!”

“I see,” said Pete, rather taken aback. “So what about Ananius in the New Testament?” Lisa smiled, she was her old self again. “I’ll tell you what Pete, how about I take you to see a few old friends of mine?”

“Great,” said Pete enthusiastically, “who are we going to see?”

“Two people that can best answer the questions that you have. Mahavira, the twenty-forth tirthankara, the reviver of Jainism in this age and a great early Christian philosopher, Origen. (continue)

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