I laid out most of the known facts in this case yesterday, it’s time to try and answer the question “What does it all mean?”
Is Dashi Dorzho Itigilov dead? Is he alive? Is it something in between? It depends on who you ask, of course, and everyone would be somewhat right, so we should keep in mind limitations and implications of each answer. There isn’t one that would satisfy all criteria and there isn’t one that would help to correctly predict what will happen in the future.
According to science he is dead. His body remains at a steady low temperature and there are no recognizable signs of life. They could have found some if they had the body in the hospital hooked to all kinds of equipment but since it hasn’t happened they go by less sophisticated tests. Main scientific problem here is not life or death but the absence of decay.
The argument that if the body doesn’t decay then it’s alive is not very compelling from scientific POV. There could be other reasons for this remarkable preservation and if they are unknown at this point they simply put it down to this – unexplained absence of macroscopic decay. They’ll leave the question of life and death to speculation, perhaps admitting that the difference is unclear even theoretically.
For the loyal Buddhists the body is alive, or Dashi Dorzho is alive, for they generally see the difference between the body and the soul. Well, they don’t accept existence of the soul but that is their ontological problem – they have reincarnation but unclear on what exactly reincarnates from one body to another.
Dashi Dorzho, btw, is accepted as a reincarnation of one of their previous “Hamba Lamas” and they have the story to back it up – he once led them to recover buried belongings of the lama who died seventy five years earlier. They assumed he knew because it was one of his previous lives.
According to Buddhist version Dashi Dorzho went into deep meditation, into the state of samādhi, and achieved nirvāṇa. If you think about it, they are not very clear on the difference between life and death either, and neither are we. Has his soul left his body? We can’t say for sure. If the connection is still there, he is “alive”. Can he use his body? Apparently not, not in the way we expect living bodies to be used.
We don’t know how people in deep meditation relate to their bodies anyway. From the stories of Rāvaṇa and Hiraṇyakaśipu we know that they performed great austerities for hundreds of thousands of years and their bodies were practically destroyed but their souls were still there and once they got their boons they restored their bodies to even better capacity than before.
Could it happen with Dashi Dorzho, assuming he achieved yogic perfections that would allow him to control his body in any way he wants? Why not?
The key here is his intentions. Does he want to stay in this body? Does he have any plans for it? Why is he still sitting there? Is it karma, or can he leave his body at will?
All these questions can be answered differently. The absence of decay could be considered a strong indicator that Dashi Dorzho is indeed a powerful yogi with great capabilities but little interest in actually using them.
It should be said that legends now attribute mystical powers to Dashi Dorzho even while he was still actively alive. He could walk on water, for example, and on one occasion he parted the waters to cross a lake. Apparently, it’s even recorded in a police report. He also had the power to transfer himself great distances at once – he would exit the building, close the door, and instantly be miles away, hardly visible on the horizon.
Buddhists accept this kind of stuff on faith. Scientists accept this kind of stuff as local mythology. We remain skeptical. It’s possible, theoretically, but not likely in practice, and the sources of the stories are highly questionable. The non-decaying body, OTOH, is there for everyone to see. A yogi being in deep trance is the best possible explanation here.
Indians would probably scoff at this “miracle”, they have no shortage of powerful yogis there, but in reality finding a real life example of these powers is very hard. There are stories and rumors and gossip but no actual bodies in samādhi. We don’t doubt it was a common thing in history but now is not history, now it’s Kali Yuga, it’s far more likely to come across a fraud than an actual yogi. Dashi Dorzho is not a fraud, however. He sits there and minds his own business.
Actually, he performs public service, accepting visitors and giving his blessings. Even Putin, Russian president, went to see him. Putin even slipped away for an unscheduled private moment with Dashi Dorzho that lasted twenty minutes. No one knows what he asked for or what he told Itigilov, aides said he was simply saying good-byes. Right.
This kind of service doesn’t require much action, just faith on the part of the worshipers and minimal confirmation of their beliefs. People realize Dashi Dorzho won’t actually shake their hands, won’t wave at them, won’t pat them on the head even if he is considered alive. They can come and squeeze his hand themselves, though most just hold onto ceremonial ribbons monks place in his hands for this purpose.
People are quite happy knowing that Dashi Dorzho’s body becomes a lot warmer on his “service days”, from 18 to 34 degrees Celsius. It’s an almost normal body temperature (36.6) so he becomes as alive as possible under circumstances. People are content that Dashi Dorzho sweats and his forehead needs to be wiped off and his clothes changed. They don’t care if that could be just a physical phenomenon caused by long exposure to salt.
They don’t care if the body has lost some of its initial elasticity, it’s still soft enough to impress anyone. They don’t care if it doesn’t look really alive but rather as someone who died just recently – it doesn’t look like it died eighty something years ago so it’s good enough.
What will happen to it in the future? Currently, Dashi Dorzho might be on the preaching mission and his presence might be very useful for post-Soviet revival of Buddhism but at some point he might consider leaving his body for good. He’s been engaged in this service for twelve years already. How long could he plan to go on like this?
Does he have any bigger plans? He actually could, he might consider displaying actual, indisputable signs of life one last time, nothing could stop him if he is as powerful yogi as he looks. Raising body temperature through meditation is a known Buddhist technique and almost a parlor trick in some Chinese monasteries. Who’s to say that Dashi Dorzho can’t force his limbs to move, for example, or eyes to open?
Question is – would it be for the sake of the faithful or as a proof for the atheists? No one will be surprised if Dashi Dorzho won’t move a finger for the science as a matter of principle, and faithful don’t really need him exerting big efforts, they accept his incredible advancement already, their faith is at all time high and it doesn’t need any more magic. And if they start losing their faith they might not deserve magic from Dashi Dorzho’s perspective either, so nothing will be shown.
Another question – what will happen when he actually leaves and the body dies? Will it finally starts to decay? Will it stop serving its purpose? Will it be retired?
I suppose that the body won’t rot but would gradually stiffen and mummify, and in that sense Dashi Dorzho might have already left but no one noticed. As an object of worship it might go on forever – there are Buddhist mummies who are on public display, enshrined in their temples, it’s not that unusual.
So, everyone will eventually get what they want – scientists will continue to claim he was dead all along and non-decay is just a little insignificant matter. Buddhists could claim that he is still alive until all signs of life they see now disappear for good, which might take years and decades. General public will keep their curiosity unanswered.
Or there could be a day when everyone agrees that Dashi Dorzho has finally left this world and his body would be treated as a mummy, not as a live one. This scenario is most likely, imo.
Whatever the outcome, it’s not really important for us as Kṛṣṇa’s devotees. We can just go on chanting as if nothing happened, but there are lessons we could learn here and I intend to discuss them in a separate post.