The New Breed of Sunlight Feeders
[This essay is inspired by the extraordinary story on the observational study on Prahlad Jani conducted by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) which was featured as a prominent news item in The Hindu dated 09 May 2010.]

Prahlad Jani, reverentially known as "Mataji", is said to possess the amazing ability to live without consuming food or water, and without passing urine or stool. The legend is that he has thus survived for 76 years, since the age of six when a Goddess bestowed this boon upon him.

The phenomenon by which man allegedly manages to survive only by breathing and exposure to sunlight is referred to as “breatharianism”. Mataji is not the first person claiming to be a breatharian. Hira Ratan Manek, Jasmuheen (Ellen Greve), Wiley Brooks, Surya and several others have made similar claims in the past. In the book, “Autobiography of a Yogi”, Paramahansa Yogananda gives two historical examples of survival without food -- Giri Bala and Therese Neumann.

There are two questions that need to be answered. Have any of these claims ever been validated through formal studies conducted by experts? What changes in body chemistry are required if a human being has to derive energy direct from sunlight?

Last year, there was a news item about the “observational study” on Prahlad Jani, conducted by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS). Surely, a government research agency would not have ventured into this unless there was prima facie evidence that justified a formal study of the phenomenon.

Talking to reporters, Dr. Ilavezhagen, director of DIPAS who headed this study on Mataji, gave broad hints that there could be some substance in the claims made about this person. He spoke about CCTV being used to keep the subject under observation throughout the study period. He categorically stated that Jani did not consume food or water during the 15 day study. Also that he did not pass stool or urine. He even speculated that if a scientific explanation for this phenomenon can be found, this may help soldiers at war; and astronauts in space who are often required to spend days with very little access to food and water.

A cursory reading of the news report left most readers with the general impression that the study has validated Jani’s ability to stay without food and water; and without passing stool and urine for 15 days. What remained to be researched is the “scientific explanation” for this phenomenon – as the director of DIPAS told the newsmen.

Yet, a more careful reading of this report raises certain doubts. What was the methodology adopted to detect possible fraud? The report mentioned CCTV cameras. But also that Jani was permitted to have baths and rinse his mouth using water. Could he have consumed small quantities of water while bathing and gargling? Could he have passed urine as a dribble that got absorbed by his clothes? Was this checked? Had urine periodically accumulated in his bladder? If so, how was the bladder emptied?

In order to get answers to these doubts, I formally applied for information from DIPAS under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. On the 29th day after my application was delivered at the office of the DIPAS, I got an advance copy of the response by email. About 10 days later, I got the printed documents through registered post. Not too unexpectedly, the formal information I got from DIPAS completely over turned the impressions that were conveyed through the earlier Press Report.

In their response, DIPAS clarified that the limited objective of the 15 day observational study on “Mataji” (reported in The Hindu dated 09 May 2010) was to understand how a person adapts under conditions of extreme “restriction” of water and calories. Mataji was selected for this study only as an “example” for this, and not because the various other claims about his abilities had been pre-validated by DIPAS. The methodology adopted by the Study to validate/ falsify the claims made about Mataji was also specifically asked for. The response to this is “NA” (Not Applicable). In other words, this was not part of the scope of the study. That leaves one wondering why they bothered about CCTV camera to monitor Mataji during the study – something that was pointedly mentioned in the briefing to the media! Do we see in this a deliberate attempt to mislead?

That takes us to the next question. What are the biochemical implications if a man needs to survive only on air and sunlight?

We need energy to maintain body temperature and to stay alive. The fuel used by animal cells to produce energy is glucose. The oxygen in the air that we breathe in is carried by the blood to our cells, where glucose oxidation takes place. In this process, glucose is broken down into carbon dioxide and water, which are then transported by the blood to our lungs. This is the reason why we breathe out carbon dioxide and water vapour.

We also maintain a limited amount of reserve glucose in our body. Thus, anyone can survive without food till the reserves exhaust. What if one does not replenish glucose after the reserves run out? Normally, one would go into a coma. The claim of breatharianism is that it is possible for some people to directly synthesize glucose from sunlight -- the way plants routinely do.

In principle, it is quite possible to synthesize glucose using sunlight. The plants do it all the time. But even in this case, sunlight and air are not sufficient for the purpose. Plants additionally need chlorophyll. Moreover, chlorophyll gets used up in the process, and so needs to be replenished. This is the reason why plants require a continuous supply of water and minerals in order to stay alive.

It was said that the study by DIPAS found all biochemical parameters of Mataji to be “normal”. This means that he too breathes out carbon dioxide and water vapour like the rest of us. Presence of carbon dioxide in the breath shows occurrence of glucose oxidation in the cells. What is the source of glucose in case of Mataji? If he does not consume water, then how is the continuous loss of water (as water vapour in his breath) replenished?

Is it far more likely that the claims are fraudulent? Or should we still keep an open mind?

Richard Dawkins once said that if we keep our minds too open, the brain will fall out. Not surprisingly, Dawkins has been accused of intellectual arrogance -- how can he declare so confidently that those who claim supernatural powers are ordinary tricksters? Dawkins has a typical response to such criticism of having a closed mind towards miraculous claims:

"Telepathy and possession by the spirits of the dead are not ruled out as a matter of principle. There is certainly nothing impossible about abduction by aliens in UFOs. One day it may even happen. But on grounds of probability it should be kept as an explanation of last resort. It is unparsimonious, demanding more than routinely weak evidence before we should believe it. If you hear hooves clip-clopping down a London street, it could be a zebra or even a unicorn, but, before we assume that it's anything other than a horse, we should demand a certain minimal standard of evidence."

It would do a lot of good if DIPAS internalises the above scientific temper and thus would look at supernatural claims with a bit of healthy scepticism. If their objective was merely the study of a person who can survive on very small quantities of nutrition and fluid for a few days, then the choice of Prahlad Jani as the subject of the study would appear to be misguided.

Here, we have a man whose celebrity status has been carefully built upon claims that he has lived for years without consuming food and water; and without passing urine and stool -- with suggestions that he acquired these powers as a boon from a Goddess, and that he gets his "energy" direct from sunlight. By undertaking a study on this person, DIPAS gives the impression that the claims about this man are prima facie accurate -- all that remains to be found is the "scientific explanation" for these.

The news report had stated, "Because no insurance company would accept to cover the risk for the 82-year-old Jani during the study, the Gujarat government agreed to stand guarantee up to Rs. 15 lakh in case of any exigency".

In response to my question regarding the terms of this guarantee, DIPAS sent me a copy of the letter from Meena Bhat, Additional Secretary, Gujarat Government addressed to Director, DIPAS. This letter offered a “financial guarantee” of Rs 15 Lakh, the conditions for whose disbursal includes protection of Mataji's "human rights", and "joint Intellectual Property Rights" being provided to Gujarat Government on the findings of the study. There is no mention in this letter that the amount will be disbursed “only in case of any exigency”. Nor are any exigencies listed.

It appears that the term "human rights" was used in this letter as a red herring. We all know that it is illegal to violate human rights during a study of this sort. There is thus no reason to pay Rs 15 Lakh to any one for agreeing not to violate human rights! The real condition would seem to be that even the most extraordinary claims about Mataji must not be exposed as fraud under any circumstance. (Wouldn’t such exposure violate the man’s “human rights” or otherwise lower his dignity?)

This is one reason why we can be reasonably sure that a final and detailed report on this "observational study" will never come out from DIPAS. That would embarrass the Mataji, and annoy the Gujarat Government.
Will DIPAS answer these questions?

* If the objective of the exercise was only to study the biochemistry of a person surviving on restricted food and fluid intake, why was a person claiming miraculous powers selected as the subject?

* Can we expect DIPAS to publish the methodology and findings of the 'research' in a standard journal, and place this open for peer review?

* How would DIPAS justify the expense for the conduct of this study -- now that nothing worthwhile (for soldiers, astronauts or common man) has come out of this exercise?

* Who received the “guarantee” of Rs 15 Lakh that the Gujarat Government agreed to pay, provided Mataji's human rights are not violated during the study?
This one too is a revised version of my earlier blog post at Sulekha. Original can be viewed at

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