Did Prahlad Jani survive 70 years without food or drink?

As someone actively engaged in the dissemination of scientific information, I find it incumbent on myself to sift through the news to see how science is being represented by the media. Last week many media outlets including the AFP, reported a curious case of an Indian holy man who claimed to have survived without sustenance in the form of food or water for seven decades.

Prahlad Jani, 83, claims that a goddess blessed him at a very early age and since then he has not taken in a drop of liquid or a morsel of food. If you thought this claim was fantastic enough, there is more. India’s Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) confined Jani and observed him for fifteen days during which time, to quote the AFP article, “he neither ate nor drank and did not go to the toilet”. However during this time, he was allowed to gargle and bathe.

It is not uncommon for humans to survive long periods of time without food. Physiologically, the body first uses up glucose and then glycogen. Once these ready sources are depleted muscle-mass starts to decrease. Ketones are used next and after a few days, fat is used in “survival mode.” Mahatma Gandhi fasted several times during his life (including a 21-day fast in 1932) during which times he did not eat any solid foods. There are reports of people surviving 40 and even 50 days without food. However, reports of people living without water or other liquids for over ten days are somewhat rare.

I am firm believer in the maxim that fantastic claims require fantastic proof. While it is possible that Jani has trained his body to live without food and water for days, the claim that he has done so for years is far-fetched and should not have been touted without a healthy dose of skepticism. Further, the fact that he was allowed to bathe casts a cloud of unreliability on the claim that he did not drink or urinate during the time. The experiment should have been performed without the provision of bathing.

Another point is worth bearing in mind. Extrapolating from a fifteen-day experiment to the conclusion that Jani has not eaten for 70 years (as some media outlets have done) is similar to accepting a claim that someone can swim from New York to London across the Atlantic because they can do 100 laps in an Olympic swimming pool.

The AFP report also notes the following:

“During the 15-day observation, which ended on Thursday, the doctors took scans of Jani’s organs, brain, and blood vessels, as well as doing tests on his heart, lungs and memory capacity”

Notice anything strange apart from the poorly-constructed sentence? Yes, exactly! The tests are all fine, but why doesn’t the report mention the one vital statistic that you and I are thinking of? Why is there no mention of Jani’s weight at the start and at the end of the experiment? One would expect his weight to fall, which immediately would rubbish his claim for living 70 years on divine yogic breath.

Finally, the comment by observing physician Sudhir Shah is extremely alarming:

“If Jani does not derive energy from food and water, he must be doing that from energy sources around him, sunlight being one.”

The conclusion that Jani does not derive energy from food and water has not been firmly established, but Shah is already hinting at the possibility of sunlight as a direct source of energy. This concept is easily digestible to Hindus and Jains who share a special reverence for the sun, but is a reckless one to make.  First, a mountain of evidence must be accumulated to support that Jani possesses metabolism unlike all other humans and multicellular animals. That possibility seems unlikely. Second, there would need to be some observation that sunlight is the direct source of his energy. Finally, a process by which it occurs would need to be provided. Contrary to popular opinion, science does not satisfy its adherents by being phenomenological. If I were to claim to live on air alone, I would be required to provide a plausible hypothesis for how I was doing so that either obeyed the known laws of the physical and natural world or under very rare circumstances modified them. Providing outlandish untested hypotheses based on poorly-designed experiments is shameful.

A final word on the state of Indian science. There are many serious, hardworking Indian scientists toiling away in labs that do not get this sort of attention. If India wants to be treated as a country with scientific potential, it must get its priorities straight. A top-down approach in which government mandates how much will be spent in a year is good for building bridges, but not adequate for fostering a scientific temperament. Government institutions like DIPAS should know better than to waste money on poorly-designed experiments.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Advertisements

34 thoughts on “Did Prahlad Jani survive 70 years without food or drink?

  1. Ah …finally a post from you. Totally agree on the way the inference is drawn. There is no logic to that. And could not agree more about getting their act together on priorities. Thanks for a great post !!

    • Thanks for reading, LEB. From what I’ve read, the experiments were poorly designed. The scientific process also requires that you independently vet fantastic claims. These folks went out to the media and made the claims before this CRUCIAL step was done.

  2. Know what Anir, I think it’s actually possible. Like, if we look at quantum physics and the split experiment, we get to know that it’s how you observe things that effect the result of the occurrence.

    The Rishis and saints in the past used the principles western culture reinventing now for centuries.

    • Thank you, Jaky for reading and commenting. I am sure there are many others that share your view.

      😀

      I have not used the word “impossible” anywhere in the post. When we are so skeptical of every new idea that we completely close our minds, we block scientific progress. On the other hand, if we are credulous as to believe every assertion, it does us no good either.

      What I do assert, is that the claims are fantastic and “unlikely” based on what we know as scientists and statistical probability. There are only a handful of scientific disciplines (such as the hard mathematical and computational sciences) that deal with absolutes. You will note that I never wrote, “no, he did not” and closed my mind completely with a four-word blog-post. I didn’t do that.

      But I do assert that the claims are still unsubstantiated. The experiments that were quoted did nothing to reinforce the notion because they were badly designed. If we do not subject experiments to critical analysis, they become useless. Therefore, it is not possible to make the inference based on the experimental results presented.

      I would also like to pose a broader rhetoric question directed at everyone. Would we reserve the same level of credulity if the person in question did not wear a saffron garb? We are more willing to accept fantastic claims when they are linked even peripherally to our religious beliefs. When we agree to subject them to scientific scrutiny, we should agree to accept criticism if they falter. In the lab, a scientists who conduct the experiments should also least endeavor to limit experimenter bias (elimination isn’t possible, after all scientists are human too).

      I say to scientists, do more experiments. But suspend your belief in results until you’ve done them right and published them in acceptable peer-reviewed scientific journals. Running to the media and providing soundbites before you’ve done so is irresponsible.

  3. While we can write about the right thing for the government and the media to focus on, such as the hard-working Indian scientists coming up with amazing technological advancements, we cannot forget, even for a moment, that the media is nothing but a business. They will show anything that the people will pay money for. Fantastic news about holy men and Almighty-blessed people will dominate the news because these are SENSATIONS. Unfortunately, the mass media coverage will also cause these kinds of things to be shown to other countries, continuing to brand India with mythological and fantastic experiences. We were the land of snake-charmers, and now we’re going to be the land of “pop fiction” stories with shady scientific proof. And the global community may never take our scientific advancements seriously.

    • Gurdit, you have very eloquently expressed the current scenario and I have nothing to add other than to say that I agree with you completely.

      🙂

  4. About Mr Jani had read and let it slip away thanks for bringing it back with questioning that sounds rational.
    However firmly agree to the concluding part of ur post.
    Well said with an example that sort of fits here.

  5. “If Jani does not derive energy from food and water, he must be doing that from energy sources around him, sunlight being one”

    I totally agree. This is why I don’t have energy on gloomy days and perk up when the sun comes out. QED.

    I always thought I could photosynthesize.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist 😛

    • ROFL! I know you say this in jest, but incidentally the Bengali story that won the 2008 Desh Patrika science-fiction contest, had exactly that sort of idea! Some scientist “genetically engineered humans with chlorophyll” and they started behaving like plants. The editors thought it was an amazing idea. Now I think I’ll write some true sci-fi of my own.

      Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Anirban should go out a bit more before he has an aneurysm from reading all this nonsense.

      😛

  6. Was Jani a plant ? Photosynthesis perhaps….
    We dumb mortals can never understand the miracles of the divine 😛

    Maybe Jani drank a whole lot of water while bathing….

    so many questions….
    Have you seen India tv news? check this

    • Thanks, LP for your sarcastic comments.

      😀

      The bejaan kabootar is hilarious but also shocking as it is something that was considered news-worthy!

      I think I will go back to my sarcastic posts now too.

      😛

  7. O ungrateful human..Instead of pulling the “great” man down we should beg the divine yogee to train some of his chelas also so that they can remain food less and thus solve the problem of scarcity of food in the world..Lets all join in the noble cause 🙂

  8. Nish has stolen my comment 😦

    Btw, Mr Wise-A** author of this blog, swimming from NYC to London is possible, and has been done by Sathya Sai Baba a lot of times. Go get your facts straight first. A little learning is a dangerous thing.

  9. yes, yes, he is a plant!! At least he’s not a vegetable!! 😛 The thing is, even so, why would I bother taking advice from a ‘lower’ form of life than a human?!?!?

  10. Roshni, both you and BongoP’o’ndit suggest the cause as photosynthesis, but even this process requires H20…

    definitely some novel type of lithotrophy happening in an highly-oxidizing environment.

    😛

  11. Umm, what’s the big deal? Kate Moss has not eaten anything for decades (though she does admit to an occasional sip of mineral water). And she also routinely struts down the runway in dangerously high heels. Let’s see this baba jani do *that*.

  12. [quote]
    Further, the fact that he was allowed to bathe casts a cloud of unreliability on the claim that he did not drink or urinate during the time. The experiment should have been performed without the provision of bathing.[/quote]

    Also with gargling.

    I have a question. How much weight would you expect him to lose? I am guessing this also depends on his activities during this period, but even assuming minimal activity if he keeps the normal temperature?

    • Good question… varies for different people I would want to observe his metabolism for an extended period of time. Other than that I don’t know how slow his metabolism his.

  13. Excellent article 🙂

    To Jaky Astik, are you not repeating Deepak Chopra’s mumbo jumbo? And how do you say things like western scientists are repeating experiments that our Rishis and saints have done for centuries? That is nothing but hindu propaganda. The Rishis and saints ( did not know they were different) you are talking about lived at a time without even an electric bulb. And you are saying that they somehow had a bigger body of knowledge than now? Wake up and smell the coffee.

  14. YOu have rationally tried to see the situation, and you may be right that he could use the time of bath for drinking water and urinating without being noticed. But how could you know that in the study weight parameter was not included, they might have done it because it is the initial thing whenever any clinical or pre-clinical study is started, and I don’t think that they would have made mistake. Rest there are some yogic techniques by virtue of which ppl can even stay alive for months and years by almost reducing their diet, and may be point comes they don’t feel like having anything. It could be possible. There are many exceptions and may be he might be cheating or what we don’t know but I think that ppl can stay hungry for longer periods may be 72yrs as he says…….Rest if we think about the photosynthesizing mechanism activated in human’s Can’t say.. for he almost said no to invasive techniques to be used. May be not chlorophyll sm other compound might be doing smthing……. My point is that we can’t ignore the fact just on the basis of what we know, when out their lies multitude still to be known… We known only how much has been discovered. In past times what we have today was regarded as evil but know is magic of science…. In future what we think today as not possible might be the one of the basic reason for life being as it appears and as it doesn’t appear…….. I know I m bit philosophical but true search begins with believing what we don’t know but we wish to know……….. and not by disregarding something as not possible…

    • Vishawjoti, thanks for reading.

      The only way to analyze an experiment is rationally. Had the claim for a scientific basis not been made, we might not have needed to discuss it. Having said that, if you read my post carefully, no where do I say we should keep a closed mind. When we close our minds to all ideas we shut ourselves from progress. If we keep the door open to all ideas, we fall prey to the opposite problem. I mentioned that to Jaky as well.

      Now there is the matter of probability that we have to take into account. There is nothing unusual about a personal eating normally. You mention extreme caloric reduction which is not normal but still within the probable. Staying hungry is not the same as saying one hasn’t had anything to eat or drink for 70 years. The probability for that assertion is very low (unless proven otherwise).

      There is no point talking about photosynthesis or any other scientifically-established living process. Every plausible concept needs at least one leg to stand on. Here we have none. Only conjecture. And we can’t build a foundation on only imagination, now can we?
      😉

      Finally, there is the point about weight. I have no reason to think that the scientists either did or did not measure the weight. That would be guessing. What I do know is that it was not reported which is what is known from reading the preliminary report. I can only comment on what is reported and what is known. And ask yourself this, suppose it was taken, why wasn’t it mentioned?

      I agree that we only know what has been discovered, but science has progressed quite nicely following a set way to establish and test hypotheses. Of course these methods aren’t perfect, but I would argue they are the best we have.

      Thanks again for reading. Take care.

  15. Thanks Anirban for replying

    I knew you will response to my statement that one can live without food, and it is something I imagined, and there is nothing wrong in that, may be what we imagine is not true, but if thought has come then what can be done? Yes foundations can be made on imagination too. sometimes it appears that this whole world is your imagination..and you experience it.. I do not want to appear like a psyche and I am not. But there are somethings which are beyond our understanding!
    Science is the expansion of human understanding and imagination. Theories come and theories fail. When we work on body’s physiology, there is a set of normal range of everything, but sometimes you find cases where normal doesn’t exist and then you discard it as exceptions. All the scientific data what we have today is after statistical removal of extreme values. person to person, species to species is kind of new challenge. Life is not only about DNA and the protein it expresses, it is more than that. I agree that wider approach may make us to linger and loose focus but what if focus in narrow range discards the real aim.
    I am not defending Mr. Jani and I have no intention to do that but I am only thinking ab the other possibilities. If we have never been on other side we can’t say that side is not there. Yes u r right one can’t stand on one leg, leg is meant to stand only, but what ab wings and fins? even they can be used for moving and can rest too..

    thanks again for replying. take care!

    • Thanks for posting the update from DRDO, Rajeev.

      This makes me even more furious that there was irresponsible reporting on the part of a major news agency which did not understand the press-release or knew and chose to further sensationalize the matter.

  16. Since his claim goes against existing scientific knowledge, the burden of proof will be on those who claims that. Ok … may be he has evolved(!) .. but to even contemplating something like that we need proof that he indeed could survive without food and liquid. “how” should be the next step not the first one

  17. there are things you can know, as well as others you can believe in. what would live be without the latter?
    besides, i totally agree that whoever claims to play the game the scientific way, should try hard to follow its rules (arguably harder than its been done in this very case).
    thanks for your article.

  18. I am a cancer patient.I shall be highly obliged if someone can help me to say the meeting schedule of Mataji Prahlad Jani urgently plsssssssssss.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s