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Indians debate whether religious freedom means being able to starve yourself to death

On Tuesday, a group of worshipers from the Jain faith gathered under the graceful marble arches of the Dada Bari temple in New Delhi to pray, chant and offer fruit and sweets before a silver altar devoted to one of their saints.

Although relatively unknown outside India, Jains have been at the center of an international debate about religious freedom in recent days after a state high court in India ruled that one of their key rituals, a fast unto death called Santhara, was illegal.

On Monday, India's Supreme Court stayed the Rajasthan High Court ruling which will allow the practice to resume, for now. The court will spend months going forward weighing appeals in the case, originally filed as a public interest litigation in 2006, which could take years, analysts said.

After the August ruling, Jains had argued in petitions that the ritual was central to their religious beliefs and has been practiced for centuries. Jainism is an age-old religion that preaches non-violence and self-denial as a pathway to the liberation, with more than 4 million followers in India who practice strict vegetarianism.

Those embracing Santhara are generally very old or critically ill, Jains said, so cases are rare. It's the natural end to a belief system that urges its followers to renounce their earthy attachments — home, possessions, and finally the body.

"This is our custom, we celebrate death," a Jain nun, Sulakshna Shri, explained Tuesday at the Dada Bari temple. "It's only in unusual circumstances do we perform [Santhara] but we celebrate it. We get moksha [salvation] from it."

Around her, as the morning sunlight began to deepen and warm, devotees began the daily "arti" or prayer ritual, ringing bells, chanting and carrying an oil lamp to the silver altar of the Jain saint.

According to the Jain faith, when someone makes the decision to embrace Santhara, they are assisted by their faith community, which participates in a ceremony that can stretch on for days. The house becomes a pilgrimage site, and "the entire act is considered to be an act of courage," the Rajasthan High Court wrote in their Aug. 10 judgment.

Mayank Jain, a company secretary from Jaipur, said that he vividly remembers when his 89-year-old grandmother decided to adopt Santhara seven years ago. The elderly woman refused food and water for three days before she finally died. The family had kept vigil throughout, and other Jains from miles around came to pay tribute to her and "worship" at this holy event.

"It is an inner feeling, no? She knew death was approaching," Jain recalled Tuesday at the Dada Bari temple. In the end, he said, "I saw her soul leave her body right in front of me. Obviously we lost our grandma so I felt bad but it was best for her. Her soul is at rest now."