A man sleeps on a bed of nails, myriad needle-sharp points stabbing into his back but breaking neither his skin nor his slumber. Another effortlessly walks barefoot on red hot burning coals, but his feet do not to blister and he feels not pain. Yet another man subsists on air, refusing all food, yet surviving nevertheless; while another takes things further, allowing himself to be buried alive only to be exhumed 40 days later – in a comatose state but not dead. Perhaps most unbelievably of all, a man levitates in the air before a crowd, floating for several minutes while spectators look on, awe-struck.
These men are Sufi mystics and ascetic Hindus, like sadhus, clothed in little more than loin cloths and living on alms, yet able to perform incredible feats of endurance and apparent magic. Their name is the Fakirs, and these are some of the astonishing acts they have, or are alleged to have, accomplished.
The burning question is: how? How are these humans able to succeed in the superhuman? How can mere mortals rest on sharp steel spikes without being hurt, walk on fire without being burned, stay alive with no food passing their lips, be buried and starved of oxygen for weeks on end, or hover in the air with no adequate means of support? The short and perhaps not wholly sufficient answer might be: meditation. It is by controlling their physiological condition using mind power that some argue the Fakirs accomplish such feats. Others have described them in terms of hypnotic states – either of the performer or their audience. Yet this is not explanation enough, and each case needs to be looked at individually.
In Hinduism, some gurus are believed to have the spiritual power to levitate, and Fakirs have a history of this mystic act, performed with the aid of a staff or sat in a lotus position. Possibly the most famous case is that of Yogi Subbayah Pullavar, who is reported to have levitated in the air for four minutes in front of 150 witnesses on 6 June 1936. After a tent he was hidden in was removed, he was seen suspended horizontally several feet off the ground while in a deep trance; once back on the ground, his limbs could not be unbent at first. How might this floating feat fly in the face of gravity? Somewhat surprisingly, some physicists think that if confirmed, it could stem from fine structures in the brain tapping into quantum mechanical processes while in an altered state of consciousness. Weird science.
Bed of nails
A man lying on a bed of nails is one of the more familiar images of the Fakirs, partly owing to Herbert Ponting’s famous 1907 photograph of ‘a fakir in Benares’ (Varanasi), India (see top). Strictly speaking Fakirs are wandering Muslim Dervishes of the Middle East and India, but the term has also come to refer to Hindu holy men like the yogi snapped by Ponting. The explanation for Fakir and others not being injured by a bed of nails is actually relatively straightforward. While the spectacle may look excruciating, with enough nails, the reclining individual’s weight is distributed such that the pressure of each nail is not sufficient to pierce the skin. It is less the Fakir’s perfected control of mind over body than simple physics that holds the key to withstanding any perceived physical pain.
Fire-walking is another extreme practice for which Fakirs are known. One of the forms Indian asceticism takes is cultivating a state of mind indifferent to the body’s needs and dislikes, and to achieve it people are prepared to perform extraordinary feats of seeming self-torture – like these garlanded firewalkers pictured before an alter. Yet fire-walking may also rest on something more than faith and hot embers. Physics professor David Willey believes it can be explained by the thermodynamic properties of feet and coals. Nothing supernatural or paranormal; rather thermodynamic properties that allow the foot to absorb the heat and rise in temperature less than the coals cool. And while a meditative state may help thwart pain, fried feet are also prevented by their being kept moving, plus the odd callus.
Being voluntarily buried alive almost takes the biscuit for feats Fakirs may have executed. The most famous case took place around 1840 when Sadhu Harida, an Indian Fakir, was buried in an apparently lifeless state for 40 days, without food or water and only a limited supply of oxygen. The event took place in the presence of the court of the Maharaja of the Punjab plus British witnesses. Harida was placed in a sealed bag and wooden box, then lowered into a brick vault which was interred and guarded day and night. When he was later dug out in a corpse-like condition, he was slowly revived to consciousness by having heat applied to his body. In the eyes of medical science, surviving for such period deprived of food, water and air is not possible – but is plausibility stretched by this case?
One of the arguments for the survival of extended burial is that it is possible for the body to enter a state akin to hibernation, where the metabolism and heart slows almost to a standstill, again through meditation. This however struggles to explain how death from asphyxiation is avoided, since in the absence of air death should occur within 15 minutes. One phenomenon from which premature burial stems is that of inedia, the ability to live without food and possibly water, which is tied in with the idea that humans can be sustained solely by prana, the life force in Hinduism. As recently as 2003, Prahlad Jani, a sadhu, spent ten days under the observation in India with only 100 ml of water a day to use as mouthwash, and passed neither urine nor stool. Still, ten days is not 40 underground.
All told, these esoteric practices performed by eastern ascetics are difficult to place under one umbrella, ranging as they do from the credible and scientifically explicable to the paranormal and scarcely plausible. While different kinds of trance-like states may partially account for the ability of Fakirs to lie on beds of nails, maintain a single posture for days or even endure scalding cinders without feeling the burn, hovering in mid-air with one hand resting on a stick seems to demand on something more: a test of faith, maybe, but also a leap of imagination.