The Man Who Does Not Eat

I’ve lost count of the number of people sending me links to stories about Prahlad Jani (or “Mataji”), the yogic mystic who claims to have survived for decades without food and water, and who just recently submitted himself to a two-week study by Indian physicians, under the auspices of the Indian military, to validate his claims.  This is not the first time Mr. Jani has made the news, as the Discovery Channel made a documentary about him back in 2006.

Now, I am a scientist.  I declare it so proudly.  But I think many people have a distorted conception of what a scientist is, and, frankly, what science itself is.  Science is not truth, not a body of knowledge and not a set of technologies.  Science is a philosophy and a methodology that assists one in seeking the truth, or at least some approximation of the truth.  For example, science allows us to observe and measure in a rigorous format the falling of a object from the sky to the ground.  From these observations arise theories which are, one at a time, discarded as our methodology systematically allows us to discount them.  The theory that remains is not truth, but merely the best approximation of truth, given the observations available up to that point, and must remain plastic and non-dogmatic as future observations compel us to refine our theories.

The story of Prahlad Jani, then, is not one of science versus mysticism, though many seem eager to promote it as such.  Rather, it is an opportunity to explore our motivations and impulses with respect to our evolving society’s relationship with both rationalism and mysticism, as we all seek some compromise between our spiritual and physical lives.  So let us parse the phenomenon of the Man Who Does Not Eat through the following filters: is it real, is he lying, are the scientists studying him lying, and so what?

Is It Real?

When discussing with my physiotherapist Mr Jani’s supposed ability to live without food and water, she exclaimed, “That’s impossible!”

She is correct, it is indeed impossible –according to our present paradigm of understanding.  In fact, the entire science of biology is based upon the assumption that life is an energetic process that acts to combat the natural state of entropy that exists among all things.  This anti-entropic process is made possible through regular injections of energy, i.e. the eating of food, which contains chemical energy locked within molecular bonds.  To live without the regular ingestion of energy violates the Laws of Thermodynamics.

It has been proposed many times in history that an animal might be able to receive energetic sustenance from a source other than food.  After all, plants convert solar energy into chemical energy through the process of photosynthesis.  Some ocean floor unicellular creatures do a similar thing near lava eruptions, using the heat and light of the geothermal event to fuel their biology.  Within the existing paradigm of understanding, one can conceive of a complex “higher order” animal, like a human, developing a similar trait, however improbable that might be.

Another yogi, Hira Ratan Manek, once claimed, essentially, to be able to photosynthesize.  In fact, every few months a handful of stories about seemingly meta-human individuals pops up in the media.  For example, in 2004, many reputable news outlets reported on the Russian teenager Natalia Demkina, who apparently had x-ray vision.   Demkina has vanished from the news wires, and Manek now makes a living selling his “sun gazing” lectures, CDs and DVDs.

Probably over a trillion people have walked the Earth since the rise of humanity on this world.  The distribution of genetic variability is the crux of evolution, what allows our species to select from a vast menu of mutations in response to whatever environmental challenges present themselves.  This is the nature of natural selection.  Therefore, it is not only unsurprising, but indeed necessary, that extremes of biology be reflected within our diverse species.

For instance, the youngest human mother on record was Lina Medina, a Peruvian girl who in 1938 gave birth to a healthy baby boy when she was only five years old.  It is not typical, expected or even desired for such an extreme genetic tendency toward early puberty to manifest itself, but given the size and breadth of our species, some outliers from the norm will occur.

An outlier, however, is different from a physical impossibility.  To survive without eating, or more precisely without measurable energetic input, is called “inedia“; and inedia, according to our present paradigm of understanding, is impossible.  Inedia is a popular claimed manifestation of this biological outlier phenomenon, particularly among Indians.  Separate from the mostly Western movement called “Breatharianism“, Indian versions of inedia are typically associated with religion.  Mr Jani himself claims that a goddess blessed him as a child, allowing him to live on a magical nectar that flows from a hole in his palate.  (I’m sure he meant this metaphorically, as physical examinations have revealed no such hole.)

It can be argued that a land uniquely beset simultaneously with deep, all-pervading religion and brutal poverty and famine is the ideal breeding ground for religion-based claims of  inedia.  In the fat, wealthy West, claims of living without eating are received with incredulity and some mild curiosity.  In a place where every rice grain counts, to thrive without food is to provide the best kind of hope.  (Perhaps the equivalent in the West would be claims of being able to ingest copious amounts of fatty foods while not exercising and watching hours of TV, without ever getting fat or sick.)

Jainism is particularly well-suited for embracing claims of inedia.  The ancient religion prescribes extreme non-violence as one of its ancient tenets, and features saints who eschewed eating in order to protect the “life force” of the food that would otherwise be consumed.  Not surprisingly, both Jani and Hira Ratan Manek are followers of Jainism, as is Dr. Sudhir Shah, the physician tasked with observing Jani’s extreme fast.

In the Indian paradigm of understanding, then, inedia is not necessarily an impossibility.  Which provides objective truth, then? The Western paradigm or the Indian paradigm?  For that matter, does objective truth really exist?

Is He Lying?

Obviously, we cannot know what lies in the heart of another man.  But approaching the phenomenon from the Western paradigm, we must conclude that the claims of inedia are false, regardless of the data presented.  (More on the data later).

Famed quack-debunker and skeptic James Randi has not yet spoken on the recent news about Prahlad Jani.    But based on his comments about the photosynthesizing yogi, I think it’s safe to assume Randi would call Jani a deliberate liar and faker.  I’m not so distrustful.  Assuming that the inedia phenomenon is not real (and I will give you my conclusions later, don’t worry), it does not necessarily follow that Jani is intentionally fabricating his life story.

Ever meet a vegetarian who gives you a hard time about your burger, then goes ahead and orders a plate of fish and chips?  She is not necessarily a hypocrite, but simply defines “vegetarian” a bit differently than you do: fish don’t count, since they’re a kind of moving vegetable.  It’s an issue of semantics.

My very first yoga teacher was a nut who would preach endlessly about the fall of Atlantis, the Pyramids, aliens, and about his extreme fasts, denying himself food for days to “purge the body and the soul”.  During one of these fasts, I found him sipping a very large tankard of fresh fruit juice.  “Oh this doesn’t count,” he said.  “This isn’t food.”

Similarly, some have claimed that Jani has lived for decades without ingesting a drop of water.  But he gargles daily with water.  He may or may not spit most of it out, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that he’s ingesting or at least absorbing some of it.  Frankly, we don’t know how he defines food, ingestion, eating, drinking or fasting.  This is not a failing on his part, but on the part of those describing and reporting on his phenomenon.

Are The Investigators Lying?

And now we get to the science portion of today’s adventure.  You can access a PowerPoint presentation by Dr Shah, the leader of the investigation on Mr Jani, summarizing the results of the study, on Dr Shah’s website.

I do not know Dr Shah.  By all accounts he is an intelligent, respectable and well trained neurologist with the best of intentions.  The following comment is not directed to him or about him, but rather is for the consumption of the general population.  Ready?  Here it comes: medical doctors are not scientists.  Read that again and remember it, because it will serve you well in life.

I have lost track of the number of times I’ve had to rebut very unscientific comments made by physicians about the nature of scientific research.  Medical doctors employ the products of science, its technologies and conclusions, in their everyday practices.  A good medical school will have also taught its graduates basic epidemiology and the foundations of research, but nothing very advanced.  Having lectured in three respectable North American medical schools, let me assure you that medical schools do not produce scientists.  That is not their goal, and that is not what society needs them for.  Medical schools produce practitioners of medical knowledge.

Of course, there are many physicians who are also excellent scientists.  But they have taken the time to acquire the necessary skills to do so at an acceptable level.  My point is that one should always be skeptical of when a non-specialist makes a conclusive statement about something in which he or she is not an expert.  For example, I wrote about this article back in 2007.   A physician said something about the calculable risk of infection due to an STI.  My argument was that the statement was one requiring epidemiological expertise, not medical expertise.

Thus, unless the expertise to design a rigorous, testable scenario is demonstrated, I am not sanguine about Dr Shah’s team’s ability to produce convincing data, vis-a-vis Mr Prahlad Jani.

Even on its surface, there are questions of accountability and bias that go unaddressed.  Dr Shah’s eagerness to “detect an effect”, as we say in my profession, is evidenced on his website, where he expounds the virtues of Jain philosophies.  This in and of itself is not a failing, but does need to be considered.  It is made worse by the revelation that India’s leading debunker of extraordinary paranormal claims, Sanal Edmaruku, was prohibited from observing Dr Shah’s study of Jani.  According to Edmaruku:

I asked to be allowed to send an independent team to survey the room where this test is taking place, but I was repeatedly turned down…”

“…Dr. Shah has been in charge of three similar investigations over the past ten years, and he has never allowed independent verification.”

This is not the path of rigorous science.   Let us not jump to the conclusion that Dr Shah is intentionally skewing his data.  Rather, I would accept that his personal drive to observe evidence of inedia firsthand may have biased his development of a suitable protocol for proper testing of Jani’s claims.

So what are the methodological flaws implicit in Dr Shah’s attempts to test Prahlad Jani’s claims of inedia?  These are hard to gauge since I can find no thorough description of the protocols or the degree to which they were adhered.  However, based on the skeletal bits of information gleaned from news reports and from Dr Shah’s own website, here are some areas of discontent for me:

  • Invasive procedures were disallowed, which means no continuous intravenous monitoring was performed.  According to the data on Dr Shah’s website, biochemical reports (presumably using extracted blood) were performed every fourth day.  Over a 10 day testing span, this amounts to 2-3 tests only.  What many would have liked to have seen is real-time –or at the very least daily– measurements of key indicators, such as blood glucose levels.  If there was any cheating (e.g., adding sugar to the gargled water), it would have been easy to have done so on any of the 7 non-testing days.
  • The study was run for a mere 10 days.  It is very possible to live without food for 10 days or more.  For most of us, this would not be pleasant.  But for a disciplined yogi capable of slowing his metabolism through meditation, this is well within the realm of known possibility.  An Australian nutritionist commented that:  “So even though the yogi might be able to slow his metabolism right down so that it might only be 20 or 30 per cent of normal … there’s still going to be a point, about 100 to 120 days without food – and without water, it might be 24 days – that he’ll die.”  Since Jani claims to have lived for decades without eating, why was the study not conducted for, at the very least, several weeks?
  • The subject should not have been allowed to gargle or bathe.  The photo above shows Jani dowsed in water, while this link provides a looping video of his bathing practice.  I hope it’s clear to people that it’s not only possible, but quite likely, that he ingested water during these episodes.
  • Where was the rigour?  This may sound harsh of me, but it’s very possible to smuggle sprinkles of sugar in one’s beard or clothing, that would be easily dissolved in gargled water.  A packet of sugar can go a long way toward sustaining a person on a starvation diet.  I am not accusing Jani of doing this, merely pointing out that it is unclear whether the study’s protocol controlled for such a possibility.  Neither is it clear where his bathing and gargling water came from.  Was it brought by an assistant, or given by the scientists after testing it for dissolved nutrients?

There are some other niggling points, like the study’s lack of control subject, uncertainty about whether Jani was ever left alone, or about who was allowed to visit him.  But I think my points above are sufficient to cast a lot of doubt on whatever conclusions arise from this venture.

So What?

First, let me answer the question that I’m sure most readers want me to answer: I do not feel qualified to pronounce whether or not inedia is a real phenomenon.  I further do not feel qualified to pronounce whether or not Prahlad Jani is a genuine example of true inedia.  But I am quite confident in pronouncing that Dr Shah’s  study of Prahlad Jani, making so much news everywhere, does not provide anything resembling convincing evidence of the veracity of Jani’s claims.

As a representative of the paradigm of Western science –true Western science, the one that seeks the truth, not the one that decries apostates– I adhere to the practice that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Inedia is indeed an extraordinary claim.  Dr Shah’s study is not only not extraordinary evidence, it isn’t even passable ordinary evidence.

But to me the more interesting question is, what if it was ?  What if Dr Shah had adhered to the most stringent and rigorous of scientific protocols?  What if he’d used the finest tools in the arsenal of Western science and managed to produce viable evidence that Jani’s claims were defensible?  What then?

As I noted, inedia is impossible according to the present paradigm of understanding.  But this is not the first time that the present paradigm has been challenged.  And history has shown that it can be successfully challenged.

When Einstein first introduced General Relativity to the world, it was met in some orthodox circles with cries of voodoo.  (Sort of like Christwire‘s depiction of Jani’s feat as “Satanic”.  Please not, of course, that Christwire is satire.)  After some extraordinary bits of evidence, Relativity was absorbed into mainstream physics dogma.

A similar thing happened when a handful of clever European physicists developed the theory of quantum mechanics, whose tenets were so fantastical that under the existing paradigm of understanding –that of Newtonian physics– they were deemed impossible.  Decades of extraordinary evidence later and quantum mechanics is at the heart of much of what we in Western science consider the truth of reality.

Science does not know truth.  Science approximates truth.  With each discovery, test and observation, that approximation becomes more refined.  Skepticism is healthy.  The vaunted scientific method has as its engine the steam of skepticism.  But when that method is satisfied, the challenge of incorporating new knowledge into the prevalent paradigm of understanding becomes a human one.  It is based more on emotion, values, prejudice and ego than on the rigours of philosophy.

And so I ask again: what if Dr Shah had done everything right, and, according to our present models of scientific rigour, presented real evidence of inedia?  Do we as a culture have the maturity and humility to re-examine our assumptions about the world?