Can People Live Without Eating?

Some people seem to be able to live for months or even years without eating.  This phenomenon is known as inedia, from the Latin for fasting. I first heard of this phenomenon when my wife and I visited Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, India, in 1984.

An Indian friend took us to visit a local holy woman called Satimata in the nearby village of Bala. We were told that when her husband died in 1943, when she was about 40 years old, she wanted to immolate herself on his funeral pyre in the tradition of sati, but she was prevented from doing so. Instead, she vowed never to eat again. When we met her, she was supposed to have lived for 41 years without food or drink, and without producing faeces or urine. Yet she looked like a normal elderly village woman, apart from the fact that she was surrounded by devotees. When we were there she had a cold and had to blow her nose several times. So she seemed to be defying not only the law of conservation of energy but also the law of conservation of matter, generating mucus but taking in no food or water.

Another source of energy?

Of course I assumed that she must have been eating and drinking secretly. Yet her devotees were adamant that she was genuine. Some had known her for years, even lived with her, so had the opportunity to see if she was eating behind the scenes. My scepticism was an immediate mental reflex. I later found that she was not unique; there were other holy men and women in India who were supposed to have lived without food for years. Some had been exposed as frauds, but others had been investigated by medical teams who found no evidence of secret eating.

In India, the explanation most commonly advanced for the ability to live without food is that the energy is derived from sunlight or from the breath, and in particular from prana, a life force in the breath. This is why some people who claim to live with little or no food call themselves ‘breatharians’. Interestingly, the prana theory does not in itself challenge the principle of conservation of energy; it suggests that some people can derive all their energy from an energy source other than food.

In 2010, a team from the Indian Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) investigated an 83-year old yogi called Prahlad Jani, who lived in the temple town of Anbaji in Gujarat. His devotees claimed that he has not eaten for 70 years. In the DIPAS study, he was kept for two weeks in a hospital under continuous observation and filmed on CCTV cameras. He had several baths and gargled, but the medical team confirmed that he ate and drank nothing, and passed no urine or faeces. The Director of DIPAS said, “If a person starts fasting, there will be some changes in his metabolism but in his case we did not find any”.  This is an important point, because surviving a two-week fast is in itself not particularly impressive. Most people could do this, but there would be very noticeable physiological changes while they did so.

Living without eating in the West

In the West, there have also been many claims that people can live for long periods without eating, including holy men and women like St Catherine of Siena (died 1380). Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit scholar, documented this fascinating phenomenon in his classic study The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism(1952). He pointed out that not all cases of inedia occurred in particularly spiritual people. For example, a Scottish girl, Janet McLeod, seemed to survive without food for four years. She was investigated quite thoroughly and the case was reported in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1767. This young woman was seriously sick rather than saintly.

The best-documented example in the twentieth century was the Bavarian mystic Therese Neumann (1898-1962). In 1922 she stopped eating solid food. The astonishing nature of her prolonged fast attracted much public attention, and the Bishop of Regensburg appointed a commission to investigate the case, headed by a distinguished doctor.  Therese was closely observed for two weeks by a team of nursing sisters. Relieving each other by pairs, two of the four were continually on duty, never letting the girl out of their sight. The observation of this girl over a fortnight showed that she did not during that period take either food or drink. But as Thurston recognized, no amount of evidence would alter the opinions of committed sceptics, who declared her ‘a vulgar imposter’.

Are there natural causes?

After considering many religious and non-religious cases, Thurston concluded  ‘we are forced to admit that quite a number of people in whose case no miraculous intervention can be supposed, have lived for years upon a pittance of nourishing food which can be measured only by ounces.’

If a leading Jesuit scholar favoured a natural, rather than supernatural explanation, what might it be?  We will never find out by adopting a position of dogmatic scepticism and pretending that the phenomenon does not exist.

One starting point for research would be to find out where else in the world inedia occurs: it seems unlikely to be confined to India and the West. And if it occurs elsewhere, is it more common among females than males, as it seems to be in Europe? And what relationship does it bear to the physiology of hibernation in animals?

Many people will confidently predict that all cases of inedia will be found to be fraudulent or have some other conventional explanation. They may turn out to be right. If they are, the conventional assumptions will be strengthened by new evidence. But if they are wrong, we will learn something new that may raise bigger questions that go beyond the biological sciences. Are there new forms of energy that are not at present recognized by science? Or can the energy in the zero-point energy field, also known as the quantum vacuum field, which is recognized by science, be tapped by living organisms? These are open questions.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and 10 books, including The Science Delusion, from which this article is an extract.
His website is
www.sheldrake.org