Hinduism and Death with Dignity: Historic and Contemporary Case Examples

 

Rajan Dewar, Nancy Cahners, Christine Mitchell, and Lachlan Forrow

 

      An estimated 1.2 to 2.3 million Hindus live in the United States. End-of-life care choices for a subset of these patients may be driven by religious beliefs. In this article, we present Hindu beliefs that could strongly influence a devout personís decisions about medical care, including end-of-life care. We provide four case examples (one sacred epic, one historical example, and two cases from current practice) that illustrate Hindu notions surrounding pain and suffering at the end of life. Chief among those is the principle of karma, through which one reaps the benefits and penalties for past deeds. Deference to oneís spouse or family is another important Hindu value, especially among Hindu women, which can impact the decision-making process and challenge the Western emphasis on autonomy. In addition, the Hindu embrace of astrology can lead to a desire to control the exact time of death. Confounding any generalizations, a Hindu patient may reject or accept treatments based on the individual patientís or familyís interpretation of any given tradition. Through an awareness of some of the fundamental practices in Hinduism and the role of individual interpretation within the tradition, clinicians will be better able to support their Hindu patients and families at the end of life.

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