ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Pained by prolonged illness – the changing perception of a ritual solution for the diseased and elderly


Nowakowska Monika - University of Warsaw, Faculty of Oriental Studies, Warsaw, Poland


05 – Health, disease and epidemics: multidisciplinary perspectives on the socio-ecology of medicine in pre-modern South Asia


 Sanskrit ritualistic literature preserved information about a rite (sarvasvāra) for people wishing to die and enter the other world free from diseases. The ritual has recently met with renewed scholarly interest because of its self-sacrificial character. Traces of its performance can be found in the literature of Mīmāṃsā, and although Vedic exegetes were interested in it for the problem of ritual competency, they also treated briefly the motivation behind the rite. Their approach seems to change in time. In the earliest texts the ritual commentators did not explain the sacrifice at all, while in the works from the 2nd half of the 1st millennium CE we can detect some uneasiness about the suicidal aspect of the procedure, with the emphasized interpretation of the desire of death as the desire of the heavenly world. Only in the late 2nd millennium CE, it seems, the euthanasia aspect gets pronounced with some authors, and the ending of suffering in prolonged illness is directly mentioned. This fluctuating approach to the ritual motivation might be related to the changing perception of voluntary ending one’s life in the Indian normative literature. In this paper I trace the history of the idea of sacrificial freeing oneself from pain and diseases, present in the sarvasvāra ritual, as it unfolds in the exegetical and normative texts, with reference to more general Indian understanding of the nature of disease and the purifying character of fire.