Moslem religious mendicants. The term literally means "poor man" in Arabic. As with Hindu wandering holy men, many legends have grown up around alleged psychic miracles of fakirs. Most of these claimed miracles prove to be rumors or conjuring tricks, but there is an important element that suggests talents similar to those of Western psychics. Fakirs are distinguished by their disciplined attempt to obtain mastery over the physical body and control over psychic forces, as opposed to becoming passive instruments for the transmission of psychic power.
In 1870 a troup of fakirs from Algeria gave performances in London, but the public reacted negatively to their act, which included inflicting wounds upon their own bodies. Similar demonstrations were given at a Paris exhibition in 1900 by a troup of Aissauas—Algerian Moslems. A detailed description of their self-mutilations was published in the German newspaper Übersinnliche Welt in the following year by a Dr. Nagel, who, with two other doctors, witnessed and photographed the performance.
Later, the visit of Tarah Bey, Rahman Bey, and Hamid Bey attracted great attention in Europe and in the United States. Their chief demonstrations were of insensibility to pain, control over the physiological functions of the body, and survival of burial while alive but in a cataleptic state. They could inflict on their bodies deep wounds with long pins or daggers, stop the flow of blood at will, and cause the wounds to heal in a short time. They could desynchronize their pulse, making it different in each wrist and different again in the heart. They could voluntarily throw their bodies into a cataleptic state in which they could withstand being buried alive—remaining without a coffin, under the soil, without being the worse for the ordeal.
There was little doubt that these feats were genuine. They were witnessed by committees of journalists and physicians, who chose the ground for burial. The cataleptic states were real—the pulse ceased to beat, respiration appeared to be suspended, the ears and nose were stopped with cotton—yet the individuals emerged in the same condition. The body was completely dry and in five minutes the normal physiological functions were fully restored.
Hereward Carrington compared the cataleptic state of the fakirs to artificial hibernation. This similarity was first noticed by the hypnotist James Braid. The fakir concentrates upon the heart, slows its circulation by an effort of will, presses upon certain nerve centers on the head and neck, throws back his head, retracts his tongue, and, having cut the air supply off, falls into a cataleptic sleep. The time of return to consciousness is either impressed on his subconscious mind (which, as known from hypnotic experiments, has a remarkable appreciation of time) or the fakir relies upon his assistants to wake him.
Harry Houdini, who attempted to rival the live burial feat of Rahman Bey by normal means, succeeded in remaining in a large metal coffin under water for an hour and a half. He was in constant telephonic communication with his assistant and explained that his achievement was because of slow breathing.
Records of several well-attested earlier cases of living burials were published in a brief book, Observations on Trance: Or, Human Hibernation, by James Braid, in 1850. Braid traces the idea of these demonstrations to the following passage in the Dabistan, a learned Persian work on the religious sects in India:
"It is an established custom amongst the Yogis that, when malady overpowers them, they bury themselves. They are wont, also, with open eyes, to force their looks towards the middle of their eyebrows, until so looking they perceive the figure of a man; if this should appear without hands, feet or any member, for each they have determined that the boundaries of their existence would be within so many years, months or days. When they see the figure without a head, they know that there certain-ly remains very little of their life; on that account, having see the prognostic they bury themselves."
"Now it appears to me no very improbable supposition to allege, that accident had revealed to them the fact, that some of those who were thus buried might be restored to life after exhumation—the action of the air restoring respiration and circulation, on an accidental disinterment of the body of someone thus interred, and the fact once observed would encourage others to try how much they could accomplish in this way, as the newest and most striking achievement which they would perform in token of the divine origin and efficacy of their religion over that of all others."
As interesting as these feats are, many Indian religious lead-ers have observed that there is nothing inherently spiritual about them and indeed they may become an obstacle to the realization of spiritual progress. In the treatise The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (ca. 300 B.C.E.), various occult powers, such as levitation, invisibility, and mastery over the senses, are said to result from the practice of yoga. However, the author also warns that such powers should be ignored lest they prove an obstacle to spiritual progress.
Among the phenomenal feats attributed to fakirs, who operate in India as entertainers, is levitation, the so-called Indian rope trick. Reports of this phenomena emerged in England in the 1880s, and in 1919 the British Magic Circle, a professional association of stage magicians, offered a £500 reward to anyone who could perform the trick. No one accepted the offer. The Indian rope trick does exist but is rarely performed, as it is a difficult illusion to accomplish. The secret lies in doing it late in the day under poor lighting, using wires obscured by the poor illumination. The major skills required (e.g., climbing the rope with a boy hidden under a robe) account for the infrequent attempts.
There are some reports of levitation by fakirs, however, that are not so easily explained. For example, Harry Kellar, himself a magician, witnessed a performance in which an entranced fakir of Calcutta was placed upon the upturned blades of several swords. The swords were then removed, leaving the body floating in the air. The feat was performed outdoors, with people viewing it from all sides and angles.
Braid, James. Observations on Trance: Or, Human Hibernation. N.p., 1850.
Jacolliot, Louis. Occult Science in India and Among the Ancients. London: William Rider, 1919.
Rawcliffe, D. N. Illusions and Delusions of the Supernatural and Occult. Rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1959.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Re-search, 1993.