Could a teenage boy, meditating in a jungle in Nepal, represent a challenge to science? As evidence that he may be the reincarnation of the Buddha, his followers claim he has taken no food or water for many months (since May 17, 2005).
The claim is therefore one of inedia, the alleged ability of some mystics to forgo nourishment. (In Catholicism, usually the taking of Communion is excepted.)
Catholic inedics have included Therese Neumann, who was also an alleged stigmatic (suffering the wounds of Christ). Church authorities investigated her claims and found grounds for "suspicion." Monitoring of her urine revealed that, while she was under surveillance for fifteen days, she was probably abstaining, but when surveillance was discontinued for a fortnight, the urine tests indicated a return to normal intake of food and drink.
In another case, an Italian woman named Alfonsina Cottini gulled busloads of credulous pilgrims throughout the 1970s. Eventually, church authorities were alerted by stories that circulated in the area, alleging that Alfonsina was surreptitiously eating and that her sister was amassing large sums of money. Investigation by a special commission revealed that the suspicions were correct: At night Alfonsina left her bed, ate her fill, and performed other bodily functions. Among the investigators' discoveries was that the beatific Alfonsina's eliminations were "of a remarkable potency."
A more modern and comic example is described in the delightful book, High Weirdness by Mail. A man named Wiley Brooks, the guru of a health cult known as the Breatharians, claimed one could forego food and drink, living off merely light and air. Alas, members' faith was challenged when Brooks was revealed to have been making secret nighttime forays to convenience stores for junk food.
Inedia's notorious history naturally calls into question the claims regarding the Nepalese youth, Ram Bahadur Banjan, age fifteen. Daily he sits cross-legged, motionless, and with eyes closed, framed by the great roots of a tree in the Bara jungle, south of Nepal's capital, Katmandu.
I first learned of the case from a Nepalese colleague, Dr. Gopi Upreti, on his late-2005 visit to the United States. In my office, we discussed the appropriate approach to investigating such a feat.
A subsequent article by the Associated Press featured the observations of local reporters and police. Officials have requested an investigation by scientists from the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.
Meanwhile, we have the observations of a Kantipur newspaper reporter who visited the jungle site. He noted that, at dusk each day, the teen's followers place a screen in front of him, thereby rendering it impossible to know what then occurs. "We could not say what happens after dark," he reported. "People only saw what went on in the day, and many believed he was some kind of god."
Will investigating scientists proclaim a miracle? Will they even be granted unfettered access to the alleged inedic? Stay tuned.
Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and "Investigative Files" columnist for the organization's science magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. His Web site is www.joenickell.com.