Even in these fragmentary descriptions of what they went through during those twelve years and three-and-a-half years, respectively, we see a series of elements: complete withdrawal from the world, total immersion in what is happening in the mind, isolation, consequently being cut off from all sensory inputs, starvation, sleep deprivation.

Now, each of these, carried to the extreme to which it certainly was during the sadhanas of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Ramana, is bound to have major consequences for all three – the body, the brain and the mind. Isolation and sensory deprivation, for instance, have been documented to slow down one’s sense of time.

That complete cessation of contact with others wholly alters one’s sense of “self” also has been documented time and again. As for cutting off inputs from the senses and focusing so completely on what is happening inside oneself has even more drastic consequences: the brain remains active even when sensory inputs are reduced to near-nil; soon it starts weaving stories from and detecting patterns in both: the fragments of sensory inputs that still make their way in – the odd sound, the bite of a rat, the pangs from an empty stomach – and even more so, from the spontaneous and random firings of neurons.

We see this in our daily, rather nightly, experience: when we narrate our dreams, we talk of them as if they had been a movie; but they often are a story that has been woven ex post out of random still images.

But I will not dilate on this consequence here as we will be running into it time and again in the book. Instead, I will take up the consequence of just one of the practices that both our saints said marked their years of sadhana: sleep deprivation.

As you would expect, even the devotees noticed that the Master was sleeping too little, and that this was affecting his health adversely. While Swami Saradananda like others believed that, out of his oceanic compassion, Sri Ramakrishna used to take on the sins of others, and that this caused his cancer, he also traced the cancer to his exerting himself unduly and to his sleeplessness.

The passage is worth attention:

Besides the earlier devotees, new persons numbering five or six were daily seen to knock his door, thirsting for spirituality. It had become a daily occurrence ever since Kesav had come to Dakshineswar in the year ad 1875. Therefore, for the past eleven years, the Master was often led away by his zeal for teaching the people who came athirst, and was not able to keep regular hours for daily bath, meals and the rest. Besides, he had very little sleep owing to the impulsion of the Mahabhava. At the time, when we were staying with him at Dakshineswar, we saw on very many occasions that he got up shortly after he went to bed at 11 p.m. and strolled in an ecstatic mood; he now opened the western door, now the northern, and went out; again, though sometimes lying quietly on his bed, he was fully awake. He left his bed three or four times during the night and yet he rose daily as soon as it was 4 a.m., waited for the light of the dawn, remembering, thinking on, and singing the glories of the divine Lord and would then wake us. Is it surprising that his body should have worn out on account of sleeplessness at night and his excessive labour in giving religious instruction to many people during the day?

And couple this with another effect of the twelve years that Sri Ramakrishna spent in extreme austerities that Swami Ramakrishnananda, a cousin of Swami Saradananda, recalled – an effect that would certainly catch the eye of medical practitioners:

Sri Ramakrishna had practised pranayama so much that he had formed a habit of remaining for long periods without breathing. Now and then he would stop breathing entirely. Even after we came to know him, he used to tell us, “Whenever you see that I am not breathing, please remind me.” Sometimes when he was sleeping, we would see that his breath had stopped. Then we would wake him up and tell him:

“Master, you are not breathing.” “Oh, thank you!” he would say and again begin to breathe.

That is, of course, a condition that is familiar to doctors.

It is known as apnoea or sleep apnoea. It may be caused by obstruction of air passages. It may also be caused by the dysfunction of the brain cells that drive our respiration – this latter condition is known as central sleep apnoea. Beyond a point, the condition can cause chronic problems of the heart.

“It is not rare,” Dr Asha Kishore tells me, “and we see it quite often in our lab.” It can now be treated. Central sleep apnoea may be congenital or it may be the result of ageing. The symptoms that the devotees set out would prima facie suggest apnoea. But we have no way of knowing. After all, there are manifest differences also. For instance, because a person affected by apnoea is constantly being pulled out of sleep, the quality of his sleep suffers and he is often drowsy during the day. Sri Ramakrishna was his sprightly self at all times.

But to get back to the years of sadhana, and not sleeping. When I first mentioned to Dr PN Tandon, one of the pioneers in neurosurgery in India, Sri Ramakrishna’s statement that of the twelve years of his sadhana, he did not sleep at all, not one wink, for six years; and then narrated the accounts about Sri Ramana Maharshi having hardly slept during the three-and-a-half years of his sadhana, the distinguished surgeon exclaimed,

“That is just impossible. A person would die within a few months.”

Occasionally, we do read of persons who have not slept at all. There is the oft-cited case of the Vietnamese farmer, Ngoc Thai. In 1973, when he was around thirty-eight years, he developed fever. From that point on, he completely lost the ability to sleep. What is more, he seemed none the worse for it: when he was being written about in 2008 – and by that time he had not slept for almost thirty- five years – he said that he was doing a normal day’s work in the farm, that he could carry two 110 lbs sacks of rice over 2 miles to his house...Most cases of this kind, however, including the case of this farmer, were not verified by medical experts, and, are, accordingly, not taken at face value in the literature. Some other reports in fact are said to have been contradicted by the subjects themselves.

But the course that some followed as they stayed awake has been documented. In 1959, Peter Tripp, who at the time was a well-recognised disc jockey in New York, stayed awake for 201 hours – eight days – to help raise funds for the “March of Dimes”. The event was staged in a glass studio in New York’s Times Square.

On YouTube, you can see a video in which the doctors who attended on him during the vigil recall the changes that overtook Tripp during the wake-a-thon of 201 hours. He was his easygoing, genial, smiling self when the experiment began. Within two days he was, as the doctors recalled, abusing, cursing, insulting – in this instance – the barber he had known for long. His body temperature kept falling, and, the more it fell, “the crazier he got”.

When a doctor came to visit him, Tripp took him to be an undertaker who had come to take him away; frightened, he ran out into the street, and had to be brought back. Soon he began to see spiders in his shoes. The doctors noticed that the ninety-minute REM sleep cycle was being repeated – even though he was awake: the periods of lucidity and confusion began to alternate in accordance with this cycle. That is, he began “dreaming” – these episodes took the form of nightmares and hallucinations – even though he was awake.

During the last two days, he had to be kept awake with stimulants, and extra vigilance. By the end, a doctor who attended on him said, he was “crazy as a loon”. It was a different individual from the one who had begun the vigil, recalled the doctor. When at last the experiment was over and he was allowed to sleep, he slept for twenty-four hours. In the subsequent period he felt normal; but his wife did not think so. Their marriage ended in divorce. His career plummeted.

Excerpted with permission from Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi, Arun Shourie, HarperCollins India.