An 82-year-old man in India is claiming to have not had anything to eat or drink since 1940 — and doctors from the Indian military are allegedly studying him to learn his secret.
The man, Prahlad Jani, is being observed in a Gurjarat hospital. Jani claims to be a breatharian — someone who does not need to eat or drink, because he draws nourishment from the air and meditation.
As remarkable as his story is, Jani is not the first, nor the only, person to claim such a supernatural power. The claim that people can live without food or water is called inedia, and is actually somewhat of a common claim among religious fakirs and godmen of India. Unfortunately none of the cases have withstood scientific scrutiny. The human body needs both food and water to function; it's as simple as that.
It's easy for anyone to claim that he or she has not had anything to eat or drink for the past few weeks or months (or years). But unless the person has been carefully and continuously watched during that time, it's impossible to prove the assertion true.
Several people who have claimed to survive without food or water were later caught eating and drinking. It can take only a few seconds to eat something, and other than in specific areas such as prisons, conducting a close around-the-clock surveillance on a person is not easy. Often the person will ask for privacy to sleep or go to the bathroom (which is suspicious in its own right) — and then snack surreptitiously. One well-known breatharian advocate in the 1980s, a man named Wiley Brooks, claimed he did not eat yet was caught consuming junk food.
This is not the first time that Jani has made this claim. He was examined in 2003 for about a week, during which time, he apparently did not eat or exercise — but he did lose weight. If Jani's abilities are real, it seems odd that he would lose weight during the time that his food intake was being monitored. If he truly gets all the sustenance he needs from air and meditation, there's no reason he would lose weight when he doesn't eat.
Reports claim that Prahlad Jani "has now spent six days without food or water under strict observation and doctors say his body has not yet shown any adverse effects from hunger or dehydration." Assuming the claim is true — and it's not clear just how strict the observation is — Jani's inedia so far remains unproven. If he really doesn't need food or water, he should be under close observation for months or years to prove it. Given that he claims not to have consumed anything since World War II, this shouldn't be a problem.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.
His new book Scientific Paranormal Investigation will be published in June; this and his other books and projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.