Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Guardian: Sanal Edamaruku on Prahlad Jani

India's man who lives on sunshine

Prahlad Jani's claims to have survived without food or water for decades is being bolstered by people who should know better

Sanal Edamaruku

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 18 May 2010 15.30 BST

Article history

The crimson-clad old man with the nose ring tries to tell us that he hasn't eaten or drunk anything since the goddess Ambaji touched his tongue with her finger. That must have been around the time of the outbreak of the second world war.

As there are few things so well established as the biological law no human (and no animal) can survive without the regular intake of food and water, it may be sensible to approach his claim with a degree of scepticism. It is not usually very difficult to expose such characters; I have done it in several cases. But Prahlad Jani has some influential protectors.

Dr Sudhir Shah, neurologist and head of Ahmedabad's Sterling hospital, propelled the silly story of Prahlad Jani into the limelight. In a sensational "scientific" research project, he and his team subjected him between 22 April and 6 May to observation and medical scrutiny. This project is financed and supervised by the Indian defence institute of physiology and allied sciences (Dipas), a wing of the defence research and development organisation. The public figurehead of the study is Dipas director Govindasamy Ilavazhagan, who seems to share Shah's enthusiasm for the case. Jointly, the gentlemen were reported to have confirmed that Jani did not eat a crumb and – more crucially – did not drink a single drop of water during his 15 days under observation – which seems completely impossible. Can scientists be so gullible as to salute a man who claims to turn the basic laws of biology upside down? Did they close their eyes (and the non-stop CCTV camera) when Jani quenched his thirst? There is no doubt that the "total surveillance" had loopholes and the "great scientific test" was a farce.

While the test was running, I exposed some of those loopholes in a live programme on India TV: an official video clip revealed that Jani would sometimes move out of the CCTV camera's field of view; he was allowed to receive devotees and could even leave the sealed test room for a sun bath; his regular gargling and bathing activities were not sufficiently monitored and so on. I demanded an opportunity to check the test set-up with an independent team of rationalist experts. There was no immediate reaction from Ahmadabad. But a sudden call from Sterling hospital invited me – live on TV – to join the test the next day itself.

Early morning, ready to fly to Gujarat, we were informed that we had to wait for the permission of the "top boss" of the project. Needless to say: this permission never came.

Similarly, we were unable to attend Shah's first Jani test in November 2003 (that was financed by Dipas too). Shah has a long record of conducting these studies, which up till now have never been discussed in any scientific journal. They merely try to prove his strange sunshine theory: that humans can stop eating and drinking and switch to "other energy sources, sunlight being one". Prahlad Jani is not Shah's first poster child. In 2000/2001, he tested one Hira Manek for more than a year and confirmed his claim that he was feeding on sunshine only (and sometimes a little water). The idea that Shah's research was investigated by Nasa and the University of Pennsylvania was officially denied by both the misrepresented parties.

Shah is a deeply religious Jain. As the president of the Indian Jain Doctors' Federation (JDF), he proposes that via research, the still imperfect science of medicine is to be brought in line with the Jainist '"super-science" as revealed by the omniscient Lord Mahavir. We can only wonder whether his researcher eyes are sometimes clouded by religious zeal. Interestingly, many members of his team are Jains and his partner in the Manek test was a former president of JDF too.

Shah has also suggested this phenomenon might have potential "military use". And – what a shame! – the Indian defence ministry took the bait. Can they really be so naive as to consider putting the army on sunshine diet? We are trying to find out.



Monday, May 17, 2010

Indian holy man who does not eat or drink...

Indian holy man Prahlad Jani claims that he did not eat food or drink water since around World War II. Indian Defence Research & Development Organisation took this claim serious. What is the truth behind this holy man? Sanal Edamaruku explains. Click the following link to view the clipping on YouTube:


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Guardian: When I met the 'girl who cries blood'

Tantrics, astrologers and assorted holy men were called in. But Twinkle's problems were far from supernatural
Sanal Edamaruku                                   guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 12 May 2010 17.15 BST, Article history

  • Live India screengrab

The Live India broadcast on Twinkle Dwivedi, the 'girl who cries blood'

A weird story goes around the world, in dozens of languages and hundreds of versions: a 14-year-old Indian girl cries blood. It oozes from her eyes, hairline, palms and the soles of her feet without any wound, cut or scratch whatsoever. She gets paler and weaker by the day and neither medics nor preachers from various religions can help her. Never mind that according to basic medical knowledge it's just impossible to bleed spontaneously with your skin intact. These kind of stories never die before the dramatis personae are diagnosed with psychological problems or exposed as frauds – or the miraculous phenomenon stops just as it started, out of the blue.

Sitting in front of me on a plush sofa in the Live India studio, Twinkle did not look pale at all. She appeared a healthy young girl, intelligent, confident, quite serious, some times a little stubborn and – yes – certainly with some inherent dramatic talent. During the programme, her mother Nandini mainly did the talking, but Twinkle was open to chatting with me during breaks, allowing me to gain some insight into her secrets.
To cut a six-hour programme short: Nobody had ever directly witnessed the "bleeding" – except Twinkle's mother, her accomplice. Of course, the girl must have applied the blood herself; but from where did she take it? I got a clue: the pattern seemed to match her menstrual cycle. Careful enquiry stirred up a hornets nest. It was not that this was too embarrassing a subject to broach, but that Nandini vehemently disputed the dates. Her attempts to misguide served to confirm my suspicions.
Once separated from her mother, Twinkle told us that school had been tough for her. While her three elder sisters learned with ease, she suffered from a writing disorder. When her family moved, she couldn't cope with the change of school and her parents kept her at home. Lonely, frustrated and angry, she soon started "bleeding" and suddenly got all the sympathy and attention she longed for. It's a classic case, of a type quite familiar to me. In recent years, I have investigated the claims of three girls of her age: one produced stones from her eyes, the other even ants, and the third one had needles coming out of her skin. All these children were skilfully producing these strange phenomena themselves in order to get attention.
Nandini saw through her daughter's game and promoted it, obviously hoping to reap the benefits. When Twinkle understood that her mother had exploited her story, slowly seizing control of it from her, she "called in" five guardian ghosts. Watching over her all the time, they shared the secret of her "bleeding", breaking her mother's monopoly.
Asked casually about her ghosts, Twinkle answered with pleasure. Of course they were present in the studio. No, they were not naked, but wearing Jeans and kurta! The brand? Levis! Their names? Ishan, Arshid, Imam and Altaf! Their size? A little smaller than her, up to her nose. Strikingly, her fantastic protectors (who seemed linked to former school pals with the same names) were not only all boys, but Muslims at that – a high provocation in a Hindu Brahmin house!
The ghosts eventually inspired Twinkle to write mysterious words that were doubted to be Arabic and became a matter of great speculation when shown to some Muslim scholars. Not bad for a girl with a writing disorder! (Though it turned out to be just a play on her own name written in Urdu, such as she could have picked up from any Muslim kid.)
I would have preferred to discuss these matters in the privacy of a counselling room rather than on a TV programme. Unfortunately there was no such option. Once a psychodrama gets labelled a "miracle", it gains its own momentum. The media presented her to Hindu and Muslim "holy men" and even with a bishop, contemplating about stigmata. And in the TV studio, we had an array of tantrics and astrologers sitting seriously with haematologists, paediatricians and psychiatrists and weighing in with their bizarre interpretations and "solutions" to the case.
The chances are that Twinkle understands what was tactfully revealed about her case, stops the "bleeding" now starts untying the knot – with professional help, as she has been advised, or even on her own. First sign of a new start: she has decided to go to school again. Good luck, Twinkle!


James Randi writes

Sanal has done it again, revealing yet another faker to his countrymen and to the world. We need more like him in every corner of civilization to keep the heedless media in control. Thank you, Sanal. I hope to meet you some day...!