Ichhyamrityu – Privilege & Right to Choose My Death

An Indian term for Auto-Destruct

The premise of this post is, no one can guarantee my life, so why should the State have any right to prevent me from planning my own death?  Why should auto destruct be considered an offense? Why should people that fail in their attempt to self destruct, be put in jail afterward, if they survive ? If a computer program can be relied upon to decide its own end, why can’t an intelligent human be trusted with his own life?

When I talk of Ichhyamrityu I  am NOT discussing Suicide.  Am not suicidal. Nor a quitter.  And am not depressed although I am definitely disturbed – even unhappy.

In ancient India, sages (Munis), wise men (Rishis), some kings and queens practised and enjoyed the privilege of auto-destruct or Ichhyamrityu. Ichhya is the Sanskrit word for ‘wish’/’choice’, Mrityu is the Sanskrit word for ‘death’ ‘end of one life cycle’.

Among epic characters, Bhishma had used this privilege. One can read about him in the Mahabharata. The idea appeals to me. The power and privilege to choose when, how, where I breathe my last,  gives me a far better sense of control over my present as a whole.  It also enhances my status as an individual in my own mind. It also implies I leave when I wish to.

I visited Kolkata recently – I noticed the city seems to have slided from being bad to worse in terms of negligence. Wherever you happen to look you observe an apparent lack of caring or inability to take responsibility for welfare or well being of citizens, travelers, passers-by, dwellers. Things like roads, buildings, transport look like “put together” “managed” – as opposed to planned, well thought out, as it should be, in a developing or prosperous urbane space. I realized that I do not wish to die there.

I realized that I wish to die in a serene and beautiful place – maybe a jungle, or the quiet, lovely, musical, eloquent cleanliness and privacy of my own bedroom in my home somewhere. (I haven’t been able to create it yet, I live off my suitcases still, being a poor and lonely school teacher fond of travelling, in Gujarat, India).

It set me thinking. I thought about how I want my end to be. I was sure that I did not want to die SUDDENLY. Or unexpectedly, leaving behind unfinished work. I do not wish to die of DIS-EASE. I do not want to die accidentally or in the hands of a terrorist. Or a petty thief or a rapist.

Even in the West, people plan their end when they plan their burial  – they keep money aside for funeral expenses, choose and reserve a place in the burial grounds, choose and buy stone that would be at their graves, some even write down their own epitaphs – the matter they wish to be carved on their headstone at their grave.

Then there are sophisticated computer programs that are designed to auto-destruct in a state of dysfunction, or when its life cycle comes to an end, or when it thinks it has becomes redundant. The program is designed to read the situation, interpret data and take the decision to auto-destruct.

It made me think – if a little computer program can be relied upon to handle such a huge responsibility on its own about its own life cycle, should not intelligent, highly capable, healthy humans be also endowed with such control and rights over their own lives?

We could still not make up our collective minds about Euthanasia or Abortion and I know this would come to the community at this stage as a shock. I know am way ahead here. A Mother cannot decide the inheritance or fate of her own child? Abort if she feels its bad for it? Too bad.

Euthanasia on the other hand,  is about a receiving death in an incurable state of pain or agony, implying that if that state of pain was corrected, the person may change his mind about terminating life. A patient is definitely not in the best position to DECIDE or make a CHOICE. So the debate here is understandable.

But, a perfectly healthy, normal, happy, intelligent adult is or should have this privilege. Unstable people,  patients, the frail, weak, dependent – animals cannot be expected to do it (although they do, in fact).

All literature dealing with Section 309, the Law Commission’s recommendation to scrape it talk about desire to die in terms of respite from duress – physical, mental, emotional, social. It talks about the criminal aspect of it when considering death caused by a suicide bomber to thousands of innocent unwilling people.

Somebody discusses Santhara in a blog post condemning auto-destruct but also clearly underlining the fact that though the State opposes on grounds that life is resource and hence precious – it has no way of providing for any decent level of security at all really. Another person points out how it is actually a waste on the State exchequer dealing with it the way it has been traditionally.

What about the more pertinent Rights issues regarding the individual’s choice? If I am slogging for a certain quality of life, I am equally concerned about the quality of my death.

The motive is important here :  whether I choose a manner of death for  my own well being  or with evil intent.

If I am the person that has to take care of my personal well being, I would want to take care of this too, myself.  The State,  if it really thinks of me as precious resource,  should actually help – ensure that I die as planned and not by accident or through machinations of an evil terrorist or a petty criminal.

As soon as motive becomes an important consideration, it becomes easier to  think about issues like  “what do we do with suicide bombers?” They intended to hurt the community.  Well, put them in court and try them for murder.

But the hard working,  intelligent,  contributing,  able adult  gets what he deserves –  good death.

Jains have a tradition of planning their end,  so did ancient Hindus. Culturally, Ichhyamrityu  has always been there here in India, seen as a boon to be granted,  as a precious privilege.

Choosing how I wish to die is the flip side of self-preservation I think. An insurance against accidental death,  if it can be made possible to exist as a privilege and right granted to a citizen.

Why do the State Laws  make it seem like the citizens are like children? That they need to be protected from themselves, be it with Section 377 or 309 (by now the second one  should have been repealed).

Are we so bloody miserably poorly evolved  that we cannot be more responsible than an otherwise stupid human designed computer program ? Or have we become less wiser than those old Rishis and Munis of yore with passing time that we cannot handle our own lives or deaths  anymore?

There is a poll here that you could take to indicate your choice or opinion.

15 thoughts on “Ichhyamrityu – Privilege & Right to Choose My Death

  1. You have every freedom in the world that doesn’t restrict anyone else’s freedom. The only thing that stops us is ourselves.

    P.S. Check out your Yahoo! mail.

  2. I agree. In particular, people of sound mind who are not depressed or suffering some other form of mental illness that might be leading them to wish to end their lives and that could be addressed, but who are suffering from terrible illnesses, ought to be assisted with dying in a humane manner if they so choose. Here in the US, someone with such a horrible affliction has to live with a degree of suffering that we don’t allow animals to endure, or end his or her own life in some unpleasant “do it yourself” manner…

  3. Life is too short anyway to worry about all of this. It is best that you enjoy every day that comes. I always take pleasure in the smallest of things even if it is just playing a computer game 🙂

  4. “in the US, someone with such a horrible affliction has to live” – which sounds horribly inhumane in the name of humanity.
    “who are suffering from terrible illnesses, ought to be assisted”- Paul, do you really want a termination of life for such people or attempt at mitigating pain? I really wish they can somehow relieve pain and help em live, they have such bright minds and such wonderful spirits – it wd be such a loss to lose them…I wd miss them.

    BTW they have ok-ed stem cell tests on 7 -10 people with severe Spinal injuries now. But I guess it is of help only to patients who have had it recently

  5. I thought you were going to clarify this Ichhyamrityu concept by stating that the person who does it uses some sort of yogic method which allows the sage to say “I have lived long enough” and simply die within a few days; as sometimes an ill or bereaved person who has lost the will to live can just do it without recourse to poison or other devices.

    It seems to me that if you do violence upon yourself, with or without assistance from others, that ought to be called suicide. But if you do it without violence simply by an act of will, it isn’t suicide.

  6. Having searched a little, I think what I was referring to above is called taking Samadhi among Hindus. But it seems to be a legendary “way to go” for certain saints in centuries long past rather than a documented occurrence in modern times.

  7. Ideasync, welcome and thanks for commenting. yeah, u r right, only when one lives thru blasts n too much of insensible, highly avoidable horror, one begins to think it wd be decenter if my own death were in my hands, like my life supposedly is. If am slogging so hard to keep me alive nicely, I deserve to die nicely too

  8. Vincent , yes, indeed there is no documentary evidence, it is only an ancient practise that is coded in ‘legends’.

    Sita had walked into the flames, when her time had come and was swallowed by Earth whence she was born. Durbasha Muni, a sage, sat in meditation as his body erupted in flames even as people watched. Yoga? Or flintstone fire?

    How they did it, is shrouded in mystery, but the idea is – it was integral to Indian culture. That one could, as a matter of right and privilege, choose one’s method and moment of death.

    Violence, Vincent, would be when intent is to ‘hurt’. If it is to ‘serve’ one’s will and dictate – it may not be that anymore. What do you say?

    Like, you fling a glass of water at someone to express anger, violent; when you present it to express hospitality, you serve. Same I think.

  9. O and thanks and welcome here, please continue to visit 🙂

    I really feel strongly that the right to die and live should be MY prerogative as soon as I take on the mantle of my life in MY hands. The State’s job should be to augment or aid my own efforts, not deter or treat me like an imbecile or retard or a irresponsible child.

    I clothe it, I feed it, I nurse it, I am responsible in every way, right? So in life – equally well I seek my rights in death.

  10. Hi Trisha, I was using “violence” in a different way, that implied neither anger nor a desire to hurt; as one might use violence to break open a locked door—perhaps even destroy the door—for an errand of mercy.

    I am suspicious of right and privilege, because it gives permission to one part to exercise dominance over another part. As in social politics, so in the internal politics, if I may express it thus, of the human animal.

    There are two components of human intelligence. One part has reason, will and imagination—and the capacity to delude itself. The other part keeps us alive, alerts us to dangers with emotions such as fear and anger which override our reason, responds to situations with appropriate chemicals such as adrenaline and serotonin; and does much more than we ordinarily give it credit.

    You say “I clothe it, I feed it, I nurse it, I am responsible in every way, right?”

    I respond, “No, not quite right, if your I is merely the will asserting itself over the body’s own survival mechanisms.

    When the body gives up living, then alone will we die; just as the lock will prevent the door from being opened unless it’s unlocked in the normal way or circumvented with the application of physical force (which I just called violence).

    The State actually does have responsibilities over imbeciles and retards and irresponsible children, as well as you. So it needs to protect them and somehow allow you the freedom you desire.

    I feel that in those mythical cases of sages deciding to stop living—perhaps myths based on fact, for they don’t just exist in Indian culture—the person dies because there is superior communication between the two forms of human intelligences, an integration of the whole person body and soul, so that the body gives up the life-struggle without being first attacked with knife or poison.

    It seems to me that this is what happens in accident or illness: the body is weakened to the point where one patient decides to give up and die (or is “ready to go”); whereas another patient isn’t ready to go, fights desperately for life and wins a reprieve from the clutches of death. I think most doctors from their own experience will agree with this.

  11. Vincent, “down a hill or over a cliff(this created a vision inside my head: arms spread out like wings of a bird, the air singing in your ears…have always wanted to die like a bird)…in style…or under a tree…(as) my flesh and bones return their elements to the landscape…or a lonely beach…” Amen to that.

    there were somethings to tell u apropos ur comments n what I’d thought, but that can wait… just came back from ur blog… right now…

  12. I honestly dont know how I feel about
    Ichhyamrityu…I’m not sure I even quite understand that I totally understand the concept. I suppose everyone would want to choose how and when they die…nobody really wants to die in a gory, nasty way, do they? I dont know though what is the ideal way to die or whether there is a perfect moment to die. Life always gives you a reason to stay alive. Sometimes the reason is obvious and right infront of your eyes and sometimes it just takes a little searching. But the reason is always there. And life is always worth the living.

    • if there be right to life, there shd be right to death. If I have a choice I do not have to die before the time I have chosen. Simple. If I do, the State or family or whoever reconstruct / fix me so I can finish with whtever I had intended to.
      In short, I do not want to die in a sudden train bomb blast, Vee.

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