By Joseph Rosenthal, Georgia State University
“Man shall not live by bread alone,” responds Jesus defiantly in the Gospel of Matthew (4:4) to Satan’s entreaty to break his forty-day fast. This phrase has been used variously by Christians throughout history as a tribute to the virtues of moderation and as a justification for some of the most extreme forms of asceticism. Dietary practice is the second most popular domain of religiously motivated self-denial, surpassed only by matters of sex and human intimacy. The diversity of rituals, laws, and red tape surrounding the consumption of food ranges from prohibitions of basic food types (e.g. shellfish, pork, alcohol, etc.) to extended periods of fasting. The religious preoccupation with what goes into the body goes well beyond hatred of gluttony, sometimes verging on total caloric restriction. Although usually nothing more than a quirky inconvenience, at its extremes, religious dietary practice is virtually indistinguishable from an eating disorder, and at least as deadly.
The history of religion abounds with stories of holy men and women claiming to have gone months or even years with little to no food or water. The theological explanation for such dietary feats is always the same: spiritual nourishment meets all the metabolic needs of the non-eater. In medieval Europe, voluntary starvation for god went by the name of anorexia mirabilis, or “miraculous loss of appetite,” an affliction—or charism, according to most pre-Renaissance clergy—that almost exclusively affected women.
Women were particularly drawn to the fast-based lifestyle known as inedia, which often accompanied lifelong virginity, self-flagellation, and a host of other ascetic practices. Angela of Foligno spurned almost everything but Holy Communion and the puss of the sick, which she described as rivaling the sweetness of the Eucharist. When force-fed by clergy despairing for her health, Catherine of Siena would induce vomiting by pushing a branch or twig down her throat, in perhaps the earliest recorded case of bulimia. In actuality, many of these “miraculous maids,” as they were sometimes known, starved themselves to death.
Today, the Catholic practice of inedia is dead, but the spiritual pursuit of a calorie-free lifestyle persists in many parts of the world. Claims made by religious people to the effect that they can survive without food are hardly unique to Christianity. In fact, the majority of such claims come out of Eastern traditions. In his 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi, the Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda describes a yogini by the name of Giri Bala who has allegedly lived without food or drink for over fifty years. As the yogini explains, her prayers as a youth to tame an uncontrollable appetite were answered in the form of a guru, who taught her the “kria technique which frees the body from dependence on the gross food of mortals.”
For years, highly publicized accounts of Indian monks and sadhus claiming to have survived without food and water for impossible stretches of time have regaled Western audiences. In the last decade, images of bearded mystics in dusty robes, who starve yet are not consumed, have appeared frequently in newspapers. In fact, fantastical stories of what Yogananda called “God’s hungerless touch” appear to be so commonplace in India that it would seem long-term foodless survival is something of a banality.
Shri Hira Ratan Manek is a mechanical engineer from Calicut who claims not to have taken any food since June 18, 1995, save for the occasional glass of tea, coffee or buttermilk (for social purposes only, he insists). Since 2002, the mutton-chopped yogi has been the subject of international headlines. According to Manek, all humans can learn to live without food by deriving their energy directly from the sun through the act of solar gazing, a supposedly ancient Jainist practice he claims to have rediscovered, citing Lord Mahavir as his main inspiration. HRM, as he is known to his followers, lectures around the world to worshipful audiences on the miracles of solar healing and the follies of Western medicine. But HRM’s inediate (person who lives without food or water) feats pale in comparison to those attributed to Prahlad Jani, an 82-year-old Indian sadhu who denies having had any food or water since 1940. As Jani explains, a religious experience at the age of 11 acquainted him with the Hindu goddess Amba, who sustains him by pouring heavenly nectar through a hole in his palate.
Enchanted stories of hunger-less yogis streaming from the East have spawned a number of copycat cases abroad. In Western countries, most but not all of the religiously-motivated individuals claiming to subsist on, or working towards the fulfillment of, a foodless diet call themselves Breatharians. While there is no official Breatharian doctrine, most practitioners believe that humans, while equipped to digest food, can be sustained entirely by prana, which is harvested from the air by the act of breathing and from the sun by the act of sungazing (according to the Aryuveda, the main sources of prana are air and sunlight). In Vedantic philosophy, prana refers to the life-sustaining, vital energy that suffuses all reality. If anyone could be said to qualify as a figurehead or spokesperson of the Breatharian movement, it is either Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, or Jasmuheen (formerly Ellen Greve), a self-styled Breatharian guru who has authored books such as Pranic Nourishment – Living on Light.
Breatharianism is not explicitly a Hindu practice (most Hindus would probably prefer to distance themselves from the Breatharian community, if they are even aware that such a thing exists), nor is it associated with any particular religion. Rather, it is an amalgam of Hindu philosophy, Yogic and Aryuvedic practice, and various New Age currents. It has also caught the attention of certain quasi-religious dietary movements, most notably Raw Foodism. A popular practice among many raw foodists is “juice fasting,” wherein the only thing consumed for weeks or months is freshly pressed vegetable or fruit juice. Some of the more diehard practitioners have tried to transition into a full-fledged Breatharian lifestyle, while others are content to join fellow dieters on periodic “fasting retreats.” Even further along the spectrum of dietary extremism, Breatharianism holds an obvious appeal to the pro-Ana community, an online support network for individuals with eating disorders, where “support” means egging on and mutual encouragement. Accounts of solar-powered yogis and the teachings of Jasmuheen serve as regular “thinspiration” on pro-Ana forums and other thinspo-themed websites.
Not surprisingly, Breatharianism in America has had a number of muddy run-ins with the law. Three deaths have been definitively linked to the starvation cult and to Jasmuheen’s publications in particular, but many more are suspected. These cases have forced legal experts to grapple with the familiar question of where religious freedom trespasses onto public safety.
In 1998, after reading Jasmuheen’s book, Lani Morris, a 53-year-old mother of nine, recruited Jim and Eugenia Pesnak to guide her through a 21-day Breatharian initiation program. During the course of the program, her health deteriorated to the point that she lost the use of her limbs and began to cough black liquid, which the Pesnaks attributed to the effects of spiritual detoxification. Morris died on July 1 of severe dehydration, kidney failure, and the effects of a stroke. On November 19 1999, the Brisbane Supreme Court found the Pesnaks guilty of manslaughter. Earlier that year, the semi-naked body of Breatharian enthusiast Verity Linn was found dead at a remote camp site in the Scottish Highlands. Her only belongings consisted of a sleeping bag, a copy of Jasmuheen’s book Living With Light, and a diary detailing her descent into starvation. Jasmuheen has denied all responsibility for the deaths in connection with her writings, and expresses doubt that these victims indeed died of hunger. As of this writing, she has not been officially charged with the deaths of any of her followers, though authorities have seized control of her website.
While no less fervent in their claims, Western Breatharians have not achieved the same level of “popular legitimacy” enjoyed by Eastern inediate yogis. And unlike Dr. Sudhir Shah and his team of investigators at Sterling Hospital in Ahmedabad, India, who have devoted thousands of government-funded man-hours attempting to validate such claims (for which they have incurred the censure of organizations like the James Randi Foundation and the Indian Rationalist Association), most American scientists won’t even give Breatharians the satisfaction of their time. The fact that so many Indian physicians and scientists, including the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS), consider inediate claims a worthy subject of medical investigation constitutes a profound failure of their basic scientific and medical educations, and should be a point of national embarrassment. As it turns out, there is such thing as starvation without hunger. Breatharian mania at home and abroad is yet another bitter reminder that in the 21st century, large swaths of the human population are positively starving for rationality, a kind of hunger that can’t be felt, that consumes without always killing its victims, and for which the only known treatment is a sound scientific education.
Joseph Rosenthal is very near the completion of a B.A. in Religious Studies at Georgia State University, with a minor in Chemistry. His main areas of interest in Religious Studies are the historical and contemporary relationship between science and religion, the cognitive science and evolutionary psychology of religion, memetics, and the so-called New Atheism. He intends to pursue a Masters degree in Chemistry at Georgia State University, where he currently works in a research lab as a synthetic chemist.