The purpose of death
The nature of life after death
How we can prepare for death
How we can assist the dying
Most people would consider terminal illness to be the worst misfortune that can happen in life. And yet from a spiritual perspective, terminal illness offers certain opportunities that are not available in the case of sudden death. During a terminal illness we have time to settle our personal affairs, prepare ourselves and our loved ones and address any unfinished business. Also we have an opportunity to apologize to people we've hurt and to forgive those who've hurt us. These simple acts can resolve deeply held psychic impressions, which otherwise we would carry with us into the next world. If we take advantage of these opportunities, we can pave the way for a smooth transition after death. For this reason, ancient sages considered terminal illness preferable to sudden death.
During terminal illness people will sometimes turn to suicide in an effort to avoid the onslaught of physical and emotional pain. But even in this case, suicide is not a good idea, for the reasons outlined previously (see Suicide). However, certain ancient traditions offer an alternative in this situation - a voluntary ritual fasting reserved for the terminally ill, called Prayopavesa (Hindu) or Santhara (Jain). Below is a brief explanation of Prayopavesa by Satguru Subramuniyaswami, abbot of the Saivite Hindu monastery on Kauai, Hawaii. Subramuniyaswami himself observed Prayopavesa after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2001. During his fast, he continued many of his daily duties and passed away peacefully on the 32nd day.
Prayopavesa, by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami
In cases of terminal disease or great disability, religious self-willed death through fasting - Prayopavesa - is permitted. The person making such a decision declares it publicly, which allows for community regulation and distinguishes the act from suicide, performed privately in traumatic, emotional states of anguish and despair.
Ancient lawgivers cite various stipulations: 1) The inability to perform normal bodily purification. 2) Death appears imminent, or the condition is so bad that life's pleasures are reduced to nil. 3) The action must be subject to community regulation.
The gradual nature of Prayopavesa is a key factor distinguishing it from sudden suicide, for it allows time for the individual to settle all differences with others, to ponder life and draw close to God, as well as for loved ones to oversee the person's gradual exit from the physical world. In the ideal practice, one begins by obtaining forgiveness and giving forgiveness. Next, a full discussion of all karmas of this life and confessing one's wrongdoings. Thereafter, attention is to be focused on scripture and the guru's noble teachings. Meditation on the innermost, immortal Self becomes the full focus as one gradually abstains from food.
In the event of terminal illness, Prayopavesa offers us the opportunity to arrange our own death if and when the time is right. If this idea appeals to you, discuss it with your family and decide whether it's an appropriate option for you. If so, then ask an attorney to clarify your intentions by means of a Living Will and Health Care Directive to Physicians, according to the laws of your state and country of domicile.