Charlatans, God Men, Nepal, Pseudoscience, Rationalism, Science, Skepticism

Nine days without oxygen or nine days without honesty?

Lately there has been quite a buzz around the the Nepali internet community regarding some Sidhha Baba Krishna das, who, along with his disciples and followers, has been claiming to have survived underground in a sealed compartment without food or oxygen for 9 days!

Now it surely is quite an astonishing achievement, defying human physiological limits, if what he’s claiming to have done is actually true.

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Krishna Das commencing his 9 day long oxygen less slumber. Image: Annapurna post

At first, when I read the news on some online portal, I thought about leaving it as it is without debunking it, owing to the negative reputation among the public regarding online portals. It’s always a tedious work to debunk something that sounds so obviously farcical. But when I noticed big shot national daily newspapers such as the Annapurna post and National television such as NTV News cover Krishna Das’s story, the conscious part of me noticed that something was not right and thus I was motivated to write a debunk-blog on this.

Without wasting more time, let us examine his claims straight away, systematically.

The Claims made

  1. Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.
  2. He and his disciples and followers stage a demonstration on the above mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.
  3. Annapurna post goes on to report that the air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press (unclear about how many of them were present and whether or not they are affiliated to Krishna Das and his motives).
  4. The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment was not tampered with.
  5. He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!
  6. He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.
  7. As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.
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Krishna Das supposedly woke up from his claimed suspended animation. Image: Annapurna post

If we were to only look at his side of the story, and also as reported through various Nepali media outlets, then whoa! This seems to be nothing but a miracle! Chamatkar! But, as with every other Godman and charlatan, there always remain some loose ends and loop holes while they make some extraordinary claim out of the blue to garner public attention and media coverage. Because we should realize that 1) most televangelists, godmen and religious leaders seek mass media for publicity and 2) we live in a superstitious country where national daily newspapers have serious daily segments on astrology and Vaastu Shastra. So it is nothing new for even reputed news portals to come up with credulous stories on some mystical babas or gurus performing some random magical stuff.

What troubles me, and urges me most to write this blog is especially a statement made in the NTV 8:00pm news report today, at a time when a great many people nation-wide are hooked to their TV screens for this segment. The news reader said “Baba claims that his success has demonstrated that Scientific medicine still has not been able to prove anything of this sort and needs more investigation in this sector.

It’s a matter of concern in itself to see major media houses giving room to trivial news in place of the more important ones. It’s also very sad to see them portray some random charlatan as something worth considering, instead of trying to skeptically examine their activities as unbiased press is supposed to do. So I write….

Examining the claims in the same order

  1. [Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.] Krishna Das has surely claimed to be able to live for 9 days without oxygen and food, but he is not the first. There have been many claimants such as this one, some who have even claimed to have done so for 15 days let alone just 9! This still doesn’t validate his claim however, as it suggests more than ever of a likelihood of some slick trick up their sleeves. Another one is that of this guy, who claims to have been living for 70 years without food and water. One thing constant in such cases is that these Babas carry out their demonstrations only in the presence of their devotees or disciples and most of the time refuse to participate in controlled experiments to be carried out by neutral third parties, when invited.
  2. [He and his disciples and followers staged a demonstration on the mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.] His samadhi takes place at his place of choice amidst his followers. It has been said that the whole thing was carried out in the presence of a few unnamed reporters and doctors. It’s not like in a country such as this that doctors and reporters cannot be bought. It’s also wrong to assume that a few doctors and press reporters could not even have been hoodwinked or deceived right there. Unless and until we are to be shown the details as to how the plastic was applied and how the compartment was designed, the whole demonstration loses its credibility.
  3. [The air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press] This is simply not enough. As I have said before, doctors and reporters are people as well and can be easily deceived owing to the overwhelming presence of devotees and disciples. A better way to observe would be to place cameras both on the inside as well as the outside, that are able to provide us with continuous non-interrupted recordings. What makes me doubt is the compartment being made out of wood and placed just a foot under porous soil and sand, which may not seal air completely. The method by which the plastic seal was applied is not very clear as well.
  4. [The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment is not tampered with.] Nice try, but Jamara and sand are not enough in my opinion. One could easily cover pores with them and they too are not able to make the setup completely air-tight.
  5. [He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!] A lot of sadhus and babas have claimed to have been able to do so, simply with the help of yoga and meditation. The most popular claim is them being able to stop their heartbeat completely. The same claim is made by Krishna Das as well. When invited to a fair, unbiased and controlled experiment, most of them refuse or do not attend for one or other reasons. In an experiment, when some claimants were observed under ECG while they meditated, their heart did not stop at all.
    • The average human body cannot survive without oxygen for 3 to 6 minutes.
    • The longest time breath held voluntarily recorded, is 24 min 3.45 secs and was achieved by Aleix Segura (Spain), in Barcelona, on 28 February 2016. This was done under a controlled setup by Guinness world records.
    • Yoga and meditation experts have been shown hold their breaths for longer than the average person who doesn’t do Yoga, but that is still not enough to hold it for a whopping 9 days as we are talking only in terms of minutes.
    • So it is impossible to be able to live even for more than a day with absolutely no oxygen, so 9 days is too extraordinary a claim!
  6. [He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.] Well, this is not hard to understand. To be able to predict for exactly how long one can go without oxygen is very unlikely and dubious.
  7. [As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.] But certainly if the entire setup is staged, then there would be no trouble in doing so. Anyone can do that. Not surprising.

Let’s come to the science part

Obviously a random blogger such as myself debunking Krishna Das’s claims logically is not enough to disprove him. But that still doesn’t give his demonstration any validity again. What is necessary is a controlled experiment to examine his claims. Because just as Carl Sagan has put it ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. The more profound a claim is, more rigorous should an experiment be in order to try and test the claim. If it passes after such unbiased observed scrutiny then the claim could be considered valid. If valid, such findings would possibly aid the human race with further research in order to be able to hold breath long enough for deep sea diving or maybe even outer-space explorations. If not, then it becomes just another claim without evidence in the market.

So I have designed an experiment for this purpose, which will be able to test Krishna Das’s claims accurately, that also will be immune to any foul play or trickery.

  • Hypothesis:
    • Survival without oxygen (0% Oxygen i.e zero partial pressure of Oxygen)
    • Duration of claimed survival: 9 days (216 hours)
    • Claims this can be done by meditating in a Yogic aasan, which temporarily stops heart beat, while being deprived of Oxygen for 9 days.
  • Set-up and materials required
    • A completely air-tight (or vacuum) chamber that fits an adult human, made up of
      • Preferably hard plastic with air-lock system
      • that is preferably transparent and has a vacuum outlet to remove all air from within the chamber and vacuum it.
      • if transparency is not desired, then a go-pro or any camera system fit on all corners of the chamber inside as well as outside, that records video on continuous shot for 9 straight days

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        Air-tight see-through hard plastic container large enough for an adult human to fit in, with air-lock and preferably a vacuum outlet connected should be used
    • a team of significant professionals (certified medical doctors, journalists and technicians) not known to have been affiliated to Krishna Das in any way whatsoever.
    • an ECG (or vitals) monitor placed within the transparent chamber or that which can transmit signals wireless from within the air-locked chamber.
    • A pulse oxi-meter that displays oxygen saturation in the subject, to check if the subject is well and alive just in case his ECG becomes flat as he has claimed his heart will stop in his yogic aasan.
    • A system to monitor oxygen levels within the chamber
    • Camera angles outside the box should be adjusted such as the entire surface of the box from all sides, top as well as bottom, should be visible.
    • A method for immediate termination of experiment should the subject be under serious health hazard.
    • No one apart from the experimenters should be allowed within 10-20 metres of proximity of the setup.
    • The entire experiment is to be televised on a continuous shot with the help of multiple cameras simultaneously able to do so for 9 days continuously.
  • Procedure
    • Setup is prepared accordingly.
    • Cameras roll in a continuous shot able to last for 216 hours straight.
    • Subject (Krishna Das) is allowed as much time needed to carry out the preliminaries (Puja, Yogic practices etc) required for him to prepare himself before commencing.
    • Subject not be allowed to take into the chamber with him any equipment or instrument that helps or aids breathing, his clothing and garments and body surfaces are to be thoroughly checked by the examiners.
    • When everything is ready, subject enters the air-tight chamber with ECG and Pulse oximeter monitors in-situ.
    • Cameras inside the chamber (if any required) is initiated into recording.
    • Air-lock is applied, chamber is vacuumed, subject’s vitals checked and oxygen level inside the chamber checked.
    • No one is allowed within 10-20 metres of the setup.
    • Unless the subject’s condition worsens to critical level or if the subject voluntarily signals for termination, the experiment will not be terminated until the 216th hour is over.
  • Safety considerations
    • Pulse oximeter in-situ.
    • First-aid setup with stretcher.
    • Well-equipped ambulance on the ready.
    • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation setup with the provision of cardiac defibrillator and trained personell.
    • Quick de-vacuumizing setup.
    • Oxygen mask, oxygen cylinder, ventilator setup (machine/bag-mask).
    • Abort:
      • if Oxygen saturation (SPO2) is less than 80% with flat or almost flat ECG.
      • if SPO2 is less than 70% without flat ECG.
      • if SPO2 is less than 60% with or without flat ECG.
      • if subject signals for abortion.

Conclusion

Anyone thorough with high school science can understand this experiment and anyone equipped with the necessary budget and time can carry this out flawlessly. It’s a simple experiment anyone can design and perform.

If Krishna Das agrees to take part in this experiment or a similar controlled one, then maybe his claims are worth considerations and worth the time and effort of all the professionals involved. If he refuses, just like other previous babas and sandhus, then he goes straight into the archive of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. Period.

Reference

  1. Annapurna post [Nepali] – Commencement of Krishna Das’s venture
  2. Annapurna post [Nepali] – Krishna Das wakes up from his samadhi
  3. Can yogis stop their heart? [English] 
  4. Experiments in India on “Voluntary” Control of the Heart and Pulse
  5. Bihar ‘godman’ out of sealed pit after 15 days without water; doctors say it’s impossible
  6. Longest time breath held voluntarily
  7. Man claims to have had no food or drink for 70 years

 

Atheism, Nepal, Nepali, Philosophy, Rationalism, Secular Humanism, Skepticism

Will I ever go back into the dark?

Today afternoon, a deep discussion took place between me and some of my buddies (who happen to be believers) on my atheism and the concept of god. They asked me arrays upon arrays of questions, all of which I was not able to answer in such a short span of time. But through this blog I’ll be trying to answer their questions. At the same time, as I also consider this a good opportunity to make people aware, I’ll also try to make an effort to break down the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, stigma and stereotype associated with and behind Atheism. So readers please be patient with my rather lengthy response….

My friends confidently assumed about me and other atheists like me that when we reach old age, we’d turn back to being theists or spiritualists. It’s not the first time anyone has said this to me; my own father has, repeatedly! However, instead of getting angry, I’d rather welcome this argument.

I call it the ‘Laxmi Prasad’ Fallacy. I named it after Laxmi Prasad Devkota, the celebrated Nepali novelist and poet, because he is probably the most famous example of an atheist reverting back into a theist in any Nepali society. It is a fallacy, i.e a logical error, to assume all atheists will eventually revert back to being theists or spiritualists just because some other atheists, like the celebrated poet, did. Notions such as this are never a valid reason for someone to assume that I’ll choose a similar direction later in my life as well.

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Laxmi Prasad Devkota
It is also very important to realize before arguing that the term ‘atheist’ (नास्तिक) simply denotes a person who ‘lacks belief’ in something. Atheism isn’t a structured or organized system or a cult, its just a mere stance on something. Not at all a belief!

This stance, however, is usually derived in two ways: either emotionally or rationally. The emotional atheists (those who’ve become atheists as a result of an emotional turmoil such as anger for example) are more likely to revert back to being believers, the rational ones (who became atheists after logically and empirically examining the concept of a creator or a higher power) are less likely. Emotion-atheists are likely to do so as their atheism bear little rational ground and is subject to change anytime they face another difficult emotional setback, similar to Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who faced poverty and bankruptcy towards his later years and lived a somewhat miserable life, unlike anyone expects of a legendary poet. I consider myself a rationalist and it was my adoption and practice of rationality that helped me to become an atheist.

Atheists as a whole mostly agree on the topic that god is highly unlikely to exist, otherwise Atheists are the most diverse group of people holding, even among the community, a variety of differing opinions and even adopting different approaches to life and often with different moral principles. An atheist can be both conservative or liberal. An atheist can be either a communist or a capitalist or a socialist. An atheist may not believe in god, but may be liable to believe in other unverified claims such as UFO sightings as well as profound conspiracy theories or any other pseudoscience such as Homeopathy or Reiki or even unscientific notions such as vaccinations causing autism.

For me to explain it from my perspective, take this as an example: a lot of devout Hindus, like my friends here, do not believe in Thor or Zeus or Jesus Christ, some non-endemic deities from dead as well as thriving cultures. So technically they are atheists too when it comes to believing in deities other than those belonging to their parent religion or culture. People such as I just go ’33 koti’ gods further when it comes to not believing.

Now I could face another argument from new-age spiritualists, saying that its just different ways people assign names to the same energy or being which people usually interpret as being god. But again they could be questioned as to what makes them so sure that a certain energy exists and that it is exactly what many people think they believe in? How can we be sure without evidence or any logical argument? Why could’t it instead be any other unfalsifiable claim in its place?

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Talking about the concept of a creator, there are different interpretations, but all of them agree about one thing: the creator is somehow magical, we cannot see it, or feel it unless we truly believe in it. Now isn’t that ‘wishful thinking’ backed by an improvable claim? Isn’t it thinking just for the sake of someone wanting something to be true when in reality it is very unlikely? I could go on to propose that human lives are eternally controlled by a golden flying horse ‘in mysterious ways’ and no one could prove nor disprove me as my claim is unfalsifiable and thus cannot be tested by science. If I am supported by a thousand more people over this very claim, then I may as well have founded a new religion.

Now people may argue that they may choose to believe in their beliefs for comfort and not care about factual errors. But that is simply their choice. The act of choosing does not necessarily deem some claim as logically sound or make it likely to be true. I’m not saying that you are wrong when you choose to believe in something, because I cannot wrong any unfalsifiable claim, but I can soundly say that such beliefs turning out to be true is very very unlikely and evidence suggests so too, if somehow tested.

Another argument that I faced was that it is better to follow something that has been going on from ages ago by so many people, instead of dissenting to them and causing a disturbance. This kind of an argument is known as an appeal to the mass/tradition fallacy (argumentum ad populum). Because it is again inconsistent with logic to say that the majority or established traditions are always correct. They may be wrong, and they have been in many occasions, to name a few: on the issue of Slavery in the US and Sati-pratha in Nepal and India. We are always free to challenge popular claims with reason and skepticism.

I’d like to add that when people learn to think for themselves, staying within the bounds of reason and empiricism, they do not need to even believe in a higher power to be happy and morally sound as we very well know that happiness and morality do not necessarily stem only from religion. It is possible for humans to be decent even without needing a god or karma to fear.

Most of us rational atheists accept life the way it is and we realize that since we can never know whether afterlife is real or false, we have one known life to accomplish all that we want to and to live it to the fullest because you never know when life (your’s or your loved one’s) will end. This realization allows most us to be happy without the need for any imaginary comfort because we expect life to be uncertain and accept it. We believe that a lasting happiness in life comes only after accepting the harsh nature of life itself and to adapt our emotions around it. We accept reality.

Rationality isn’t bad, it’s indeed refreshing and liberating. We all use our rational minds while buying a used car, a mobile phone or while purchasing real estate. Rational atheists also apply the same thinking pattern while pondering about our existence and the concept of a higher power or a creator. We tend to regard something with doubt before believing in it. And just as one would never buy a used car of their liking just by believing everything that the car dealer says, without looking for evidence of damage or without logically mapping the dealer’s claims; we rationalists do not buy the concept of a creator or a higher power without objective proof of its existence or functioning. We also tend to apply the same thinking pattern on superstitions, dogma, magical claims and so on….

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The Flying Spaghetti and meatball monster. One parody unfalsifiable claim used satirically by many atheists in order to mock religious claims.

But the sad thing is, to become a rational person, one needs practice and this is the hard part. Unlike faith, which can arise innately even out of intuition or false perception, Rationality is a learned phenomenon which depends on logic and evidence. Rationality is counter-intuitive. To answer another question my friends asked me, as to why I’m not always able to convince people around me effectively; this is why. It is not always possible for me to ‘convert’ or convince others such as my sister or my parents, because rationality is hard to grasp instantly and not everyone is interested in taking part in discussions. Not everyone I talk to will start to read books on rationality and practice critical thinking straight away even if they like what I am talking about. But we never know the possibility, in the long run, of my constant advocacy for rationality and science being able to change some young minds successfully.

So the question remains. Will I ever go back into the dark? The answer is no. I think I’ll stay a rationalist (or in other words a secular humanist) for the rest of my life as one can only start to open their mind once.