Woman fasts herself to death in India

Bhopal, India - Thousands of people flocked to the cremation of a 75-year-old woman in central India after she gained notoriety by slowly fasting to death over six months in a rare example of an ancient salvation rite of the Jain religion, her family said.

Ratan Bai died on Friday in Ganj Basoda, a small town in Vidhsha district, 120 kilometres north of Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, her son-in-law, Satish Jain, said.

Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe in reincarnation. Salvation is obtained by personal effort - leading austere, nonviolent lives. A few Jains undertake "Sallekhna" (voluntary death), a ritual for ending the cycle of death and rebirth. They stop eating and meditate until they die.

Jainism originated in India and today, nearly 4 million followers live there. The religion's ascetics stick out for their self-denying ways and simple lifestyles: They beg for food, travel only by foot and are celibate.

They are also fanatical about protecting all life - even to the point of donning masks to keep from inadvertently inhaling insects.

In July last year, Bai decided to undergo Sallekhna. Accompanied by her three sons and three daughters, she visited the head priest of the Jain religion, Brahmanand, in nearby Katangi town, her son-in-law Satish Jain told The Associated Press.

The head priest gave his approval for her to undertake the ritual, Satish Jain said, adding that she formally became an ascetic 20 days ago at a Jain religious ceremony.

"She voluntarily stopped the intake of solid food six months ago. She took only fruit juices and water. She stopped taking even fruit juices 12 days ago and restricted herself to drinking a small quantity of water every day until she died on Friday," said Deepesh Jain, her 19-year-old grandson, when reached by the phone.

Ganj Basoda has a population of more than 100,000, but many people came from nearby villages as Bai's fast began to get extensive media attention in recent weeks.

Authorities didn't intervene because the ritual is an accepted practice within the Jain community, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity according to department policy.

Kiran Godre, a Jain nun who looked after Ratan Bai during her ritual, said: "This was a way of ultimate purification of the soul."