Spotlight
Just Plain Water, Dipped In Faith
A Jain monk fasts for close to a year in his quest for nirvana
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CARDIOLOGISTS have listened to his heart. Pathologists have syringed his blood and sampled his urine. Opthalmologists have stared into his pupils. Radiologists have X-rayed his kidneys, stomach and liver. Surgeons have looked at those X-rays. Neurologists have him on their waiting list—they want a peep into his brain. But, Sri Sahaj Muniji Maharaj, a Jain monk from the Svetambara sect, continues to stupefy science and medics by being just a month away from completing 365 days of continuous fasting at Bangalore.

 
 
Mystifying doctors, and defying medical claims, Sahaj Muni has survived solely on a diet of less than 2.5 litres of warm water daily for 11 months now.
 
 

Lying on his cot in a backroom of the Sthanakvasi Samiti compound, Sahaj Muniji, 65, has gone down from 74 to 41 kg, and still has a month of fasting to go. Says he: "If you're busy with something you don't feel hunger, thirst, or the heat and cold. I'm busy contemplating the infinite." Subsisting on just a few glasses of warm water a day—no fruits, cereal or milk—the monk plans to break his fast on May 1, two weeks after profound civic celebrations of his epic ordeal. Those likely to attend include the BJP top brass, Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Sushma Swaraj, Buta Singh, and some Karnataka leaders. Special train coaches have been arranged to bring in devotees to Ban-galore from Delhi and Mumbai.

Still very alert, able to walk around without any help at all, sleeping for just four hours daily and enduring an unending stream of visitors and devotees, the current fast is the 25th in Sahaj Muni's long list of such penances. Starting with a 21-day fast in 1964 at Tohana in Haryana, the monk has fasted for more than 100 days on nine occasions ever since, once even crossing the 200-day mark in Bombay four years ago. Says Dr Prakash Chand, the radiologist who conducts routine check-ups on the monk, the last exhaustive one being in December last year: "Our tests have shown no tissue damage at all. Sugar, cholesterol, and lipid levels are normal. His blood does however show a slightly low level of protein, the very first stage of malnutrition."

In extensive ultrasounds that Chand has taken, all of Sahaj Muni's internal organs appear to be functioning normally. "After so much fasting, his kidneys should show stone formation. But he has none, in spite of drinking less than 2.5 litres of water a day," he adds. The only ailment the monk has had lately was a mild urinary infection. But forbidden from taking any medicines, Sahaj Muni treated it by increasing his normal intake of water for a few days. Explains the monk: "I washed out the infection with water. Now I'm okay."

Fraternising with Jain saints since the age of 16, in spite of being born to Hindu parents in Punjab, Sahaj Muni had his spiritual initiation at 20, an event much resisted by elders in his family. Soon, he became an itinerant Jain monk.

 One of the things that pushed him to adopt Jainism was "the flexibility in other Hindu paths. Nearly everything was accepted". The monk's temperament led him to find an anchor in more stringent forms of discipline. And Jainism fit the bill. The Sthanakvasis, one of the three Svetambara sects, number around 3,000 in India. Headed by Acharya Devendra Muni, ascetics of the sect have a history of fasting for months on end. In 1996, for instance, a nun of the order, Sadhvi Mohan Mala, completed a 311-day fast. Sahaj Muniji broke that record last month. Says Acharya Suman Muni, a brother monk of Sahaj Muni: "In Punjab, we had a sadhvi of just five years' spiritual initiation completing 265 days of fast. For us these things are not new or miraculous. Science will have to do a rethink on how long a person can remain without food."

And control on diet is just one of the forms of self-abnegation that the monks are supposed to follow. They have to pluck with their fingers all the hair on their head and face, at least once a year if not more; travel up to eight months in a year, halting for four months during the rainy season, that too walking barefoot, even if a person is hurt on a foot, he can't wear a sandal, a light cloth bandage will have to do; transport of any kind, bus, train, or air is strictly forbidden; they can't eat food in the night for fear of ingesting insects that might fall in the food; they can't touch a member of the opposite sex, not even if he or she is still a baby; they can't eat out of metal bowls; can't intake any medicines based on animal extracts; can't take money for alms; and have to beg their food from vegetarian households.

Says Sahaj Muniji: "This penance is for achieving a state of desirelessness. Life is much happier without need of any kind.The more your desires multiply, the more you run around trying to fulfill them." Sahaj Muniji doesn't give religious discourses, but on an average around 3,000 people come to seek his blessings daily. Some, braving extreme pain and diseases, comfortable in the faith that the monk's personality will cure them. One such believer is Tej Raj, in his 50s. With three arteries blocked, two over 95 per cent, and a BP that sometimes dips to 70-60, Raj regularly visits Sahaj Muni even though doctors have advised him a bypass surgery immediately. Says another believer: "My wife was suffering from an ear infection and couldn't hear in one ear. Our ENT specialist advised a surgery. But she visited Sahaj Muni often and listened to him talking and her infection has gone. She can now hear normally."

 The monk himself, claim devotees, can hear people talking at large distances and see the future. Says Sahaj Muni: "But I don't believe in telling anything about the future even though it flashes in front of me."

JAINISM itself doesn't believe in miracles, building its metaphysics instead on the inevitability of karma and the struggle of man to break the shackles of karma with a set of elaborate rules. Says Ram Muni, another monk of the order: "Thousands come to visit holy people. It's mere coincidence that the wishes of 20-odd people are fulfilled. Even if they came and talked to a wall, you would have had that kind of percentage. Miracles should be those that operate on everybody the way the sun shines on all."

But that's no deterrent for believers. They argue his case armed with episodes illustrating his miraculous abilities. One such story dates back to the early 1950s. When a young Sahaj Muni along with a few other brother monks en route to Delhi from Rajasthan was allotted the task of organising warm drinking water. In those days of steam engines, Sahaj Muni waited at a station for a steam engine to roll in, hoping to condense some of the boiler steam on his begging bowl. A few coolies tried to dissuade him from waiting explaining that the concerned train didn't stop at the station. All Sahaj Muni said was, "it will". And the train did, even though it wasn't a scheduled stop, and the monk got his water.

"It's this kind of faith," explains Sahaj Muni, "that sees me through my fasts."

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