The End of Motherhood: On Jain Voluntary Death in a Mode of Rift and Repair, with Dr. Miki Chase

3:00 pm
Event Status
As Scheduled
Dr. Miki Chase

Since 2015, Jain communities have defended the practice of santhārā, a voluntary ritual fast until death practiced mostly by elderly laywomen, against claims formalized in Public Interest Litigation that the fast amounts to illegal suicide and its abetment through communal and familial coercion. Laywomen's santhārās employ a religious idiom to shift the strain of aging and death within the household, where norms of elderly, ascetic, and maternal self-effacement run together. This talk traces the stories of two women, Jethiben and Manishaben, to ethnographically explore the entanglements of these norms in household relations and configurations of kinship in which families--especially elder sons--allow or encourage their mothers to undertake the fast until death. Jethiben’s accrual of agency over years in small acts oriented toward santhārā culminated in her decision to renounce household life and depart from her son’s home despite her family’s reluctance, whereas the decline of Manishaben’s physical health and cognitive capacities resulted in her children deciding in desperation to “give” her the vow of santhārā, acting as proxies on her behalf. In these contrasting situations, I reconsider the possibilities for what kind of ethical act santhārā can be, recognizing how the fast until death may exceed its religious implication to become a gesture of ethical repair concerned with the archetype, role, and relation of and to the mother. Santhārā in this mode endures and reconciles rifts within the intersubjective vulnerability of the family. The talk reflects on how the abandonment of self, filial care that assures a mother’s death, and the renunciation of relatedness may be recognized as carrying reparative potential in the face of death, despite the state’s corrosive suspicion of compulsion and family neglect.
Dr. Miki Chase is Assistant Professor and Śrī Anantnāth Chair in Jain Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was previously the inaugural Bhagwan Munisuvrata Swami Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after receiving her PhD in Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University in 2022. Her research explores the intersections of anthropology of law and religion with the ethics of death and dying. Dr. Chase’s book project in progress is an ethnographic examination of social negotiations of the ascetic ethical disposition in the Jain voluntary fast unto death. Based on fieldwork in Delhi, Jaipur, and Mumbai, her work traces the gendered norms through which Jain laywomen reshape ideals and concepts of death outlined in scripture, attending to the complexities of urban domestic life, the medicalization of death, and the shifting political and legal terrain following public interest litigation contesting the legality of the fast. Her research has been funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) (2019-20) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (2018-19).

In-Person event
3415 Posvar Hall
Event Type
Add to My Calendar