“Eat the Sun”: Sun-worshiping fantasy versus reality

Almost exactly a year ago, I came across a bit of woo so incredible, so spectacularly stupid and unbelievable, that I dedicated one of the last segments I’ve done in a long time of Your Friday Dose of Woo to it. Basically, it was about a movie called Eat the Sun, which described a bunch of people who believe that they can imbibe the energy they need to keep their bodies going by “sun gazing,” which involves, as the name implies, staring directly into the sun. The idea is to stare directly into the sun for as long as possible at sunrise or sunset, so as not to burn out your retinas by staring at the noon day sun. Sun gazers seem to think that mammals are like plants in possessing an ability to absorb energy directly from the sun. We’re not, of course, as I explained in my inimitable way a year ago. Sun gazing also leaves out the fact that plants get the organic building blocks they use to produce their actual structures from the ground in which they grow. Humans have no such capacity. Even if humans could absorb enough energy directly from the sun to keep their metabolism going, they’d still be faced with the problem of what, exactly, they’re made of. Food is more than energy. It’s amino acids, sugars, fats, and other building blocks necessary to make proteins, DNA, and in general the very chemicals that make up the very structure and metabolism of our bodies.

In brief, sun gazing is a lovely fantasy, but that’s all it is: A fantasy. Unfortunately for people who try to rely on sun gazing as a means of nutrition in a serious way, this is reality:

A woman starved to death after embarking on a spiritual journey which involved giving up food and water and attempting to exist on nothing but sunlight.

The Swiss woman, who was in her fifties, apparently got the idea after watching the documentary film ‘In the Beginning, There Was Light’ which features an Indian guru who claims to not have eaten anything in 70 years.

The Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reported Wednesday that the unnamed woman decided to follow the radical fast in 2010.

The prosecutors’ office in the Swiss canton of Aargau confirmed Wednesday that the woman died in January 2011 in the town of Wolfhalden in eastern Switzerland.

Unlike Eat the Sun, In the Beginning, There Was Light is a movie I had never heard of before. Probably, that’s because it’s a German movie; so I look at it as basically the German version of Eat the Sun. Certainly, if this trailer is any indication, it sure looks like it:

I do like how the trailer starts out with a guy saying, “I’m not saying stop eating and drinking. That’s not the point.” If that’s not the point, then obviously this poor woman missed the point rather spectacularly. In fact, I really have to wonder how any person could be taken in by this movie. Just the trailer looks as spectacularly stupid as the various clips I posted from the movie Eat the Sun. That’s probably because the entire concept of “breatharianism” (the belief that you can live on air and sunlight alone). It’s similar to ineda, which comes from the Latin word for “fasting” and is the belief that it is possible to live without food.

In any case, from what I can tell about the movie, the filmmakers interviewed a bunch of people, including one of our favorite American woo-meisters Dean Radin, who takes quackademic medicine far beyond what most quackademics would ever dare as editor of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, in which he delves into distant healing and infusing chocolate with “intent.”

But back to In the Beginning, There Was Light. The “evidence” that I can glean from the website is hilariously bad. For instance, the featured cast members presented as evidence that living on sunlight and air alone is possible include Jasmuheen, Hira Ratan Manek, and “Mataji” Prahlad Jani. We’ve met Manek before, as he was prominently featured in Eat the Sun. I realize that I’ve referred to Manek’s website before, but I think it bears repeating in order to drive home the point of just how full of woo his “sun gazing” nonsense is by looking at the man’s own explanations:

Once you reach about 15-18 minutes (3-4 months) of sungazing many of your mental tensions: irritability, anger, fear, grief, and general personal frustrations will go away. This is just the beginning, but what a beautiful beginning it is. Life will become easier, more comfortable and more enjoyable as you get closer and closer to finding out who you really are. A blissful, euphoric sensation may envelope you. Your energy levels may increase and the benefits of having a routine in conjunction with the earth’s rhythms will begin to have a peaceful effect on your perception of the world.

At about 25-30 minutes (6-7 months) of sungazing, your hungers will begin to diminish. How and why you make the choices you make may come forth with remarkable clarity. Your self confidence may begin to increase, as your comfort level with being you is heightened. And yes, your physical hunger for food will also begin to lessen.

Between 35 and 40 minutes (9-10 months) of sungazing physical disharmonies, injuries, and diseases will be remedied. Also your hunger for food will begin to substantially diminish. At this point you may also feel awakenings in your charkas as well as possible energy beginning to stir within your kundalini. Each day more energy blockages will be dissolved as you get closer and closer to your higher self. At about 35 minutes your brain reaches its ability to store an energetic charge.

You have reached the final step…40 to 44 minutes. Wow. Now you stop sungazing. To continue on can be very detrimental to your eyes. At this time, sungazing is concluded and there is no need to continue the practice any more. During the first three months, the pineal gland is getting activated, and the hypothalamus or pathway to the brain from the eye is getting charged. After that period the solar energy starts reaching your brain and charging it. After this period, the solar energy starts getting stored in each and every cell in your body. When all the cells in the body are purified there is no need to sungaze any more. Now your brain is fully charged, the ability to control your destiny is in your hands.

As I sarcastically pointed out a year ago, I definitely want my brain to be fully charged, so much so that I can shoot lightning bolts at my enemies, much as Emperor Palpatine could do. That would be so cool that it might even be worth a little singe to my retinas. In any case, this was an example of something so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe that anyone takes it seriously.

But what about the others featured in the German film? Jasmuheen, for instance, is so much of a fraud that there’s even a Wikipedia entry on her pointing out, albeit not in exactly those words, what a fraud she is. Specifically, it discusses the infamous Australian 60 MINUTES segment in 1999 in which Jasmuheen tried to prove that she could do what she claimed; i.e., survive long periods of time without food or water. To that end, the producers confined her to a hotel room under the supervision of a doctor, to prevent the possibility of her sneaking any food or drink. The result was not what I would exactly call supportive of her claims. After 48 hours, she developed signs of acute dehydration, which Jasmuheen claimed to be the result of “polluted air.” So the producers moved her to a nice, clean, mountainside retreat well away from the city, where the air was clean. It didn’t help. As the test went on, Jasmuheen showed more and more signs of dangerous levels of dehydration, although she kept telling producers she “felt fine.” Ultimately, the doctor charged with supervising Jasmuheen urged the producers to stop the test because he was concerned about kidney failure due to dehydration and warned that the experiment could prove fatal. So the producers stopped the test, its result not being much of a surprise at all.

I’d be willing to bet that nothing of that test, or the fact that Jasmuheen won the Australian Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award and the Ig Nobel Prize in 2000. James Randi himself has offered to do the test in such a way that Jasmuheen is completely satisfied with the conditions, except with this twist:

Hey, I’ll do that test, first making sure that Jasmuheen is totally satisfied about the circumstances, and meeting all her requirements, including location, atmosphere, and ambiance. I’ll also get a comprehensive waiver from her that says she won’t bring legal action against anyone if something goes wrong, that she’s a competent adult, that she will tell us when and if she has any problems, and that she will close off the test at any time she wishes. But I won’t allow the test to be terminated unless Jasmuheen herself says she wants it to be stopped!

Why am I so heartless? You should know that to date, three of her followers have starved to death by following her instructions. If she has the wisdom to command them to die, she should have the smarts to know when she’s going down that slope, as well. Jasmuheen said of one of those dupes who died, that she was “not coming from a place of integrity and did not have the right motivation.” I believe that Jasmuheen should be allowed — even encouraged — to demonstrate that she herself has both the required integrity and the correct motivation.

As a physician, I don’t think I could go that far, even in the name of making a valuable point about these cranks. I am, after all, sworn to uphold life and not to advise something that is likely to result in death. I suppose I don’t need to worry. Randi made his challenge seven years ago, and, as far as I know, Jasmuheen hasn’t found time to take him up on it, even for a prize of one million dollars. She has, however, apparently found plenty of time to be in this German film. She’s also apparently found the time to make claims that her own DNA has gone from having two strands (like everyone else’s DNA) to the much more excellent form of having 12 strands (because, you know, twelve is always better than two). I know the Australian Skeptics have already offered to do this, but I do have a lab of my own; so I could actually do this personally. I’d love to get a cheek swab from her or a blood sample and isolate her DNA. It wouldn’t be that difficult at all to test whether it in fact has 12 strands rather than two. Of course, Jasmuheen doesn’t see what the “relevance” is; so I guess she’ll ignore my kind offer, too.

That just leaves “Mataji” Prahlad Jani, who’s a bit more clever apparently than Manek or Jasmuheen in that he got an either clueless or complicit doctor named Dr. Sudhir Shah to supervise the test of his claim that he lives without consuming any food. As was pointed out by Sanal Edamaruku, president of the Indian Rationalist Association and one of my favorite skeptics of all time, if only for his most excellent performance when a Tantrik threatened to kill him with a death chant and Edamaruku cheerfully challenged him to go ahead and try, the protocol for testing Jani was hardly — shall we say? — air tight. As an aside, Edamaruku, as described on Skepchick and Randi, is best known (among U.S. skeptics, at least) for having withstood “The Great Tantra Challenge.” His assessment of the testing of Jani’s claims leads to the inescapable conclusion that the people doing the testing supported Jani and didn’t want to see his claims shot down:

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.

I’d also bet that In the Beginning, There Was Light doesn’t mention the problems with the “scientific tests” of Jani’s alleged abilities.

Let’s just put it this way. “Bulletproof” these two “studies” were not. I’ll also make an offer. I’m a physician and a scientist. I’d be more than happy to propose a protocol to test Jani in a way that would convince even Randi and Edamaruku and then to oversee that protocol. In fact, I’d be more than happy to collaborate with Randi and Edamaruku in setting up and overseeing this protocol to test Jani, Jasmuheen, or any other “breatharian” willing to try to prove that he or she can live extended periods of time using only the energy of the sun. On the other hand, maybe I should stay out of it. Because I’m a physician and clinical researcher, I’d feel duty- and honor-bound by the ethics of clinical research, which would mean that I would have to submit any protocol that we came up with to an IRB for ethical approval. That would mean that I’d have to have very clear criteria for stopping the experiment before any of these breatharians could hurt themselves. Personally, I’m more than happy to include such criteria in a protocol because as a physician I am ethically bound to protect human subjects of any research I undetake, but I don’t know whether Randi would approve. I bet I could probably talk him into it.

Be that as it may, the death of this unidentified Swiss woman who apparently was inspired by the German movie In the Beginning, There Was Light to stop eating and drinking demonstrates conclusively that, no matter how utterly impossible science tells us that a particular belief is (homeopathy, anyone?), there will be people who will believe in it fervently enough that they will bet their lives on its correctness. Whether it is gullibility or mental illness that drove her to starve herself into apparent dehydration and death, it just goes to show that no belief is so ridiculous as to be harmless.