When 13-year-old Aradhana Samdariya of Hyderabad died of a cardiac arrest on October 4 after subjecting herself to the severest of fasts for 68 days in accordance with a Jain ritual, it was hailed by her family and many members of her community as a laudable act, one sanctioned by religion. Her funeral was commemorated with a shobha yatra, a celebration, attended by around 600 people.

The Jain community follows the ritual of Santhara, or fasting unto death, which is usually adopted by the elderly and saints to accept suffering and voluntary starvation as a way of reaching god.

The roots of this practice go centuries back. In the 3rd century BCE, when he was only 42, Mauryan king Chandragupta, a Jain, abdicated his throne and fasted till death somewhere in present-day Karnataka. Several religious and historical texts also talk about starvation by monks and saints.

More recently, the case of Prahlad Jani, a holy man whose purported ability to survive for decades despite no visible intake of food and water, baffled many, even those in the scientific community. Studies have been conducted on Jani, now in his late 80s, in 2003 and 2010 to verify his abilities.

Also well documented (though not as well known) are stories of young girls – and in some cases, men too – who voluntarily underwent starvation in the name of god.

Story of an Italian saint

St Catherine of Siena – canonised in 1461 – lived in 14th-century Italy, at the time scourged by the Black Death (plague).

It is believed that at the age of six, she had her first vision of Christ. Her decision to enter the convent when she was 16 was partly a desire to serve but also a mark of protest.

She had fasted earlier to object to her family’s attempt to have her married to her late sister’s widower. In another act of defiance, directed at her mother, Catherine had also chopped off her long hair, refusing to make herself more attractive to men.

Though Catherine served the church in various capacities, mediating to resolve the many schisms within the community, her many austerities drew attention as well as veneration. She lived on the holy Eucharist (sacred wafer and wine), water and bitter herbs that she was known to just chew, then spit out.

Though the severity of her condition led priests and others to caution her, Catherine insisted that an illness prevented her from eating.

In a letter, she said that her extreme starvation was an act of devotion of god, who cured her from the “vice of gluttony”. She also practiced rigours such as self-flagellation, mutilation and other hardships.

Link to eating disorders?

Present-day historians see cases such as that of Catherine of Siena’s as manifestations of what is today known as anorexia nervosa.

In Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Joan Jacobs Brumberg tells us not only about young girls who suffered from “anorexia mirabilis” (loss of appetite considered miraculous, done in the name of god ) but also instances when such fasting was seen as a “wonder of science” – when families of victims touted their ability to survive on flower petals or even air.

In fact, eating disorders of various kinds have been recorded through history (the purported purging by Roman nobles is a particularly grotesque example). In ethnic lore, from Africa for instance, there are stories of older members of the community starving during famines so that the young could eat whatever little food was there. Such starvation typically continued even after the famine had passed, because prolonged fasting fundamentally alters people’s perceptions of food. Besides loss of appetite and an unwillingness to eat, it can also, for women, lead to stoppage of menstruation.

Cultural ideal

In the early modern period (13th – 15th century CE), this kind of spiritual asceticism was almost a cultural ideal for young people. Rudolf Bell, in his book Holy Anorexia, talks about how deprivation in the name of spirituality conferred a semblance of power on women and young girls – they were called “fasting ascetics” or “miraculous maids” – when they had largely been rendered powerless in every other sphere. In turn, sections of the Protestant clergy in Europe looked for such “miraculous fasters” in their own community.

In the late 1600s century, there was the celebrated case of Martha Taylor, who came to be known as the Derbyshire Damsel. At a time when the scientific revolution was already underway in Europe, her case attracted people of religion and also scientists. Indisposed and confined to her bed, Martha was believed to have survived on grape juice – sugared water. She soon wasted away from the waist downward.

In 1689, scientist John Reynolds, who was told about Taylor condition by a local balladeer, presented his theory of her condition to the Royal Society in London. Though he did not consider Martha a cheat (she had been observed too regularly for her to eat in secret) Reynolds attributed her condition to something he called “ferment theory of indigestion” – her blood fermented, allowing her to survive without food. The theory was debunked soon.

In the 16th century, however, things took a different turn. Those who starved themselves were seen as witches and deemed to have been possessed by Satan.

Brumberg’s Fasting Girls also mentions Erasmus Darwin (uncle to Charles Darwin), categorising anorexics into three types: anorexia epileptic – those who had fits; anorexia manicalis, those who went crazy; the cacositis, those who just did not eat.

Science and religion

In the 19th century, as medicine and religion clashed on the issue, fasting widely began to be considered a nervous disorder.

It is believed that the term aneroxia nervosa used today to describe the eating disorder of near-starvation, was coined by Queen Victoria’s physician, William Gull.

In a paper published 1873, Gull also grounded it in psychiatry. Fasting women were regarded as hysterical and sometimes committed to asylums and force-fed. But it was still a woman’s condition.

Charles Dickens, in the journal All the Year Around (which is cited by Brumberg) rued that “fasting women and girls have made more noise than fasting men”.

In Sigmund Freud’s writings, anorexia was firmly associated with the psychological – it was related to repression, fear of sex and that of being touched.

In another 1985 article, Brumberg wrote of how anorexia in the US had reached epidemic proportions affecting 86-95% female adolescents.

Till as recently as the late 20th century, anorexia continued to be seen as a disorder largely affecting women – it is only now that the prevalence of eating disorders in men has been recognised.

It's important here to make a distinction between starvation as a religious or spiritual tool and the use of fasting as a powerful political weapon by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi during India’s freedom struggle, the political prisoners of the Irish Republican Army in 1981, and Manipur activist Irom Sharmila, who in August called off her 16-year hunger strike to demand the repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the Northeastern state.

Jennifer Egan, in an article in the New York Times in 1999, called St Catherine of Siena’s example one of power suffering – her asceticism convinced people of her power. This image of the suffering woman, Egan continues, persists in different ways, whether it is Hilary Clinton as First Lady facing up to allegations of Bill Clinton’s infidelities, Egan wrote, as well Princess Diana whose pain and suffering was also related to eating disorders.

Representations in print and in media of an ideal body type may have fuelled the belief that anorexia nervosa is a modern-day illness, associated (often mistakenly) with glamour. But its roots can be traced further back and linked to aspects of power (or powerlessness), the hold of religion in everyday lives, science and its spread, and especially, the roles expected of women within the societies they lived in.

At the same time, as medical practitioners and counsellors now believe, the understanding of anorexia must not just take into account cultural issues, but also the biomedical and psychological.