Sometimes things happen that are just unexplainable. Nature is fickle and we are left scratching our heads. In these instances, science takes a backseat and all we can do is raise an eyebrow and speculate why and how something can occur.
The case of Hambo Lama Itigelov — or as he is known, The Living Dead Buddhist Monk — is one of these strange and interesting instances. Certainly, this monk who died in 1927, presents us with one of the more peculiar and unique stories of our time.
Before dying, Itigelov, who was the Hambo Lama or head of the Buddhist church in Russia, issued instructions that his body was to be exhumed 75 years later. In 2002, his wish was granted, and what the world saw was astonishing.
Itigelov’s body was exhumed and the monk was found to be sitting in the lotus pose in a wooden box. What has confounded people from around the world is that his body, which was covered in silk, was preserved. His skin was soft and his arms and legs, sill soft, were folded.
He was born in 1852 in Russia and began to answer his calling at the age of 16 when he began his religious education at a Buddhist university. Itigelov eventually earned degrees in medicine and philosophy. He focused his study on the nature of emptiness. Important to the current discussion, Itigelov also understood the effects of drugs on the body as he had created an encyclopedia on pharmacology.
Prior to the start of World War I, Itigelov became the head of the Buddhist Church in Russia. His name became synonymous with passion and caring for the work he did during the war to help Russian soldiers. He created the “Buryat Brothers” to provide meals, medicine and clothing to soldiers. He became beloved throughout Russia during the war.
Itigelov was a visionary. After the war, he looked into the future and what he saw was a sea change for the Buddhist philosophy in Russia. Although he remained in Russia, Itigelov warned his Buddhist monk brethren to leave the country. The year was 1926, he was 74 years old. One year later, Hambo Lama Itigelov would die.
In 1927, Itigelov was prepared to leave this world for the next. Other monks, who had remained in Russia, rejected his request to begin meditation ceremonies for his funeral. Itigelov began the process on his own and eventually the monks joined him. He died while meditating.
He left specific instructions on how he wanted to be buried. His body would be left in the same position it was when he died — the lotus position as he was meditating — and placed in a pine box. His instructions stated that his body would be exhumed after several years.
Buddhist monks exhumed his body secretly in 1955 and 1973. What they found left them stunned and elated. Itigelov’s body showed no signs of decay. Monks placed his body back in the ground because Russia, now referred to as the Soviet Union, had imposed strict religious restrictions and the monks who exhumed the body feared retribution.
Finally in 2002, Itigelov’s body was exhumed and the entire world was astonished at its condition. Seventy-five years after being buried, Hambo Lama Itigelov’s body appeared like he had died within days. The body was not exhumed secretly and it was examined by a team of doctors and scientists.
There was no fungus and no smell. Whole muscles and tissue were intact. Even after years of being exhumed, Itigelov’s body did not decompose.
Reportedly, many Buddhist monks today consider Itigelov a living being in a Nirvana-like state. His body is kept at Ivolginsky Datsan, a home at Russia’s Buddhist Church center. Some meditate with him and shake hands with the lama they called the Living Dead Buddhist Monk.
Unique or explainable?
There are plenty of recorded cases in history of people who die and their body remains relatively in the same state as if they are alive. Decay does not occur. The term incorruptible refers to a religious belief that a supreme being intervenes in the decomposing process as a sign of one’s holiness or closeness to god. Usually this belief is held by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Greeks, and quite often lead to sainthood.
There are documented cases of religious icons being incorruptible. Churches around the world even have some bodies on display.
While the case of Hambo Lama Itigelov has confounded scientists, pathologists and others for years, and many view him as an incorruptible, there might be some explanation of why his body has not decayed after more than 80 years.
Not much is known about Itigelov’s final days. We do know he was well versed in medicine and pharmacology. We also know Itigelov was familiar with self-mummification, which Japanese Buddhist monks called sokushinbutsu, which eliminates all fat from the body, dehydrates it and prepares the body to be preserved.
When his body was exhumed in 2002, the pathologist report noted a high level of bromine salt in Itigelov’s body. Because his final days were pretty secretive, it’s unknown how he ingested enough bromine to put himself in a position to self-mummify. In fact, one of his final wishes was that his body would be packed in salt.
This leads some skeptics to believe that Itigelov, indeed practiced self-mummification and that the condition of his body is not some miracle.