Is food necessary for survival?
Current scientific knowledge says no, citing examples like Mahatma Gandhi who, at the age of 74, survived 21 days of total starvation during a hunger strike. After several weeks of the body drawing on its fat and protein stores in a total-starvation state, death caused by organ failure ultimately follows. 1 However, there are those who claim that food, and in some cases water, are not necessary for survival. This belief is called Breatharianism or pranic nourishment.
Practitioners of this bizarre ideology, known as Breatharians, claim that humans can instead be sustained by the cosmic energy of prana, the Sanskrit word for “life force”. Not merely a philosophical concept, prana is said to be a physical substance, much like radioactive or electromagnetic waves. The Sun is referred to as one of the main sources of this vital, life sustaining energy.2 This means that, according to Breatharians, it is entirely possible for a person to survive on sunlight alone.
Historic cases of Breatharianism
Far from being New Age pseudoscience, the principles of Breatharianism are historic. Certainly, the notion of extreme fasting and solar feeding can be traced back across the centuries, often being related to deep spirituality. A 1670 Rosicrucian text, Comte de Gabalis, attributed the practice to the 16th century physician, philosopher and occultist Paracelsus, who was described as having lived “several years by taking only one half scrupule of Solar Quintessence”. Not only that, but the text claims that the philosopher witnessed “many of the Sages fast twenty years without eating anything whatsoever.”3
Another historic instance of Breatharianism was the 1669 claim that an English woman by the name of Martha Taylor fasted “without any Miracle” for a period of twelve months. A discourse on the science-defying case was even submitted to the Royal Society.4
In spite of these textual references, it is of course very difficult to verify the truth of such historic claims.
Undoubtedly, in modern times there have been those who have disproven the controversial tenets of Breatharianism. Some alleged practitioners have been exposed as frauds, with others, including the woman dubbed as the ‘Human Barbie’, Valeria Lukyanova, being forced to abandon the lifestyle. In some extreme cases, adherents of these practices have died from starvation and dehydration, including Australian-born Verity Linn, who starved herself to death in Scotland in September 1999. 5
However, there are some who continue to defy accepted scientific understanding.
Prahlad Jani: the man who needs neither food nor water
Prahlad Jani, an Indian holy man born in 1929, claims to have neither eaten nor drank since childhood. During an interview for a documentary on the controversial topic, Jani described how “3 goddesses appeared” to him and told he that he, quote, “need not be concerned about food ever again.”6
“I was seven, and from that day on I stopped eating and drinking,” 7
Now 87 years old, Jani spends his days living as a hermit in a cave in the mountains, outside of his home village in India. In spite of the expected biological implications of a lifestyle consisting of no food or water, Jani is in perfect health. Indeed, over the years he has twice subjected himself to scientific observation.
In November 2003 Jani spent ten days under constant observation at the Sterling Hospital, in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad. The unprecedented scientific experiment was initiated by Dr. Sudhir Shah, and involved a team of doctors as well as the supervision of the Indian Ministry of Defence and the regional Medical Association.
During the ten days, Jani was housed in a special room with a glass door. In order to ensure that he did not pass urine or stool during the experiment, the toilet was sealed off. Those involved in the observation, largely respectable doctors, state that strict protocol was observed throughout, with Jani receiving neither food nor water. The organisers even made sure to have two video cameras running simultaneously when changing tape cassettes, so that Jani could not eat or pass urine whilst the camera was not recording.
Not only did Jani consent to continuous video observation, but also to as many non-invasive tests which the doctors wished to conduct. This included several organ function tests and a whole body CT scan. He was even subjected to twice daily sonography to assess the activities of his bladder: whilst urine did form, it was never passed. Instead, it was reabsorbed into the bladder wall. The radiologist in charge of these tests stated that these findings were “difficult to explain as far as science is concerned”.8
By the end of the ten-day observation, Jani was concluded to have been in perfect health with all of his organs functioning normally.
“A series of tests conducted on him show his body mechanism is that of a normal person,” said Dr Desai.9
The lead doctor on the case, Dr. Shah, later described the results of his experiment as “the greatest surprise we saw in our lifetimes”10
On 22nd April 2010, Jani underwent another observation, this time fifteen days, at the same hospital. Once again, the doctors were left astounded.
Military scientists from India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, who were involved in the study, believe that Jani could hold the key to understanding how humans can be taught to survive for long periods without sustenance. According to a spokesman from the team, such a breakthrough in medical science could help to save human lives “during natural disasters, high altitude, sea journeys and other natural and human extremities”.11
However, its seems that, for now at least, Jani’s ability to survive without food or water will remain a medical mystery.
Ram Bahadur Bomjon, the “Buddha boy” of Nepal
Another unexplained case of Breatharianism involves Ram Bahadur Bomjon (also Bomjan and Banjan), a young Nepalese Buddhist monk who entered a meditative state on 16th May 2005 at the age of fifteen.12 As part of his deep meditation, Ram rejected all food and water, seemingly entering a state of hibernation. He also sat under a peepal tree, in traditional cross-legged Buddhist posture, earning him comparisons to the historic Buddha. Because of this, thousands of pilgrims travelled to observe his meditation.
By November of 2005, the attention of the global media had been piqued by Ram, now dubbed the “Buddha Boy”.
After seemingly surviving for ten months without any physical sustenance, the Discovery Channel chronicled Ram’s extreme spiritual fasting, filming him continuously for a period of 96 hours. Medical experts hypothesised that, in such an exposed condition, they would not expect him to survive longer than four days. However, during that time, the young monk neither moved, ate nor drank.13
Despite suspicions of a scam, the documentary team could not find any evidence of foul play, such as hidden food pipes within the hollow of the tree. The anticipated features of a fluid starved body, including rough and cracked skin around the mouth and an overall lack of lustre, did not manifest either.14
On 11th March 2006, Ram interrupted his meditation to relocate deeper into the jungle so as not to be disturbed. 15Since that time, he has sporadically reappeared to give blessings to his followers, always maintaining the claim that he is sustained solely by spiritual energy.
Although never subjected to controlled scientific observation like Prahlad Jani, no one has thus far been able to disprove the claims of Ram’s extreme fasting.
Whilst it may not be possible for anyone to adopt the Breatharian lifestyle, the cases of Jani and Ram offer an intriguing insight into the potential power of intense spirituality: the ability to survive without food and drink, nourished only by a cosmic life force.