Chapter 6, "Some 'New' Religions:
Cao Dai, The Bahá'í Faith, Theosophy
published in Ten Religions of the East
, pages 126-127, 133-139
New York: Four Winds Press, 1978
The religious yearning in mankind is always present. One may attack religion, ridicule it, modernize it to the point of extinction; governments may legislate against it, suppress it, stamp it out, martyr the faithful — yet somehow, somewhere else, religious beliefs appear again, as a restless mankind tries to come to terms with the self, the soul, the environment and the cosmos. Times change and so do religious faiths and beliefs: some develop and mature, others wither away. Sometimes one wonders if all religions are not actually expressing the same Ground of All Being, or, diversely, if they are not but various Paths to the same Summit, differentiated by culture and history. In the end one has to face the fact that even against the greatest odds humanity will seek out some way of joining its small individual sparks of life to the great Sun of the cosmos.
For thousands of years five great religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity — have been serving the
world, as have the lesser faiths described in the previous chapters of this volume. Yet prophets and saints, innovators, reformers and adapters arise to claim that the five great faiths are still but partial realizations of the Truth. Thus we can see that the three small movements described in this chapter fulfill some inherent need. All three profess to be "world" religions (and perhaps they may be someday, though one's intuitions say otherwise), supplementing the earlier faiths. Each professes to be the Answer to the world's problems, both religious and secular. The Bahá'í Faith (named after its founder Baha'Allah) sprang from the messianic expectations of a savior; Cao Dai (Reigning God) developed as a Way of uniting the best of the major religions, without their faults; and Theosophy (which translates as the "knowledge of the divine") sees the world dependent on the incarnations of a series of Buddha forms who will save the world. There are others similar to these three which I have selected because they are both unusual and typical, and symbolize the unquenchable flame within the human soul.
THE BAHAI FAITH
The Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali is commonly known as the first person to accept the call to Islam, that is, to submission to God, Allah. Ali married Muhammad's daughter Fatima, and eventually was elected the fourth khalif, or leader of the young Islamic community. But the Muslims were divided over his leadership, some of them refusing to recognize his right to be khalif. Ali submitted to arbitration, with the Qur'an as the supreme judge, and was forced to renounce his claim. But the faction which supported him, the Shia, refused to abandon their belief that he was a righteous khalif. Thus began, at almost the beginning of the religion's history, the major split within Islam which has existed to the present. The situation became even more fraught with complications when some of the Shi'a turned against Ali and assassinated him in 661. Since then Ali has been known as one of the great martyrs of Islam, and among the Shi'a the day of his death is mourned with special sadness and much emotion. His sons Hasan and Husayn were also murdered, and their deaths, too, are commemorated yearly with much pageantry, emotion and mystical release among the Shia, who include some of the poorest people of the Islamic world, their daily lives being epiphanies of suffering and of hopes for redemption.
The Shi'a soon split further into other sects. The more orthodox Sunnis, the larger movement of Islam, are much more legalistic and scholarly than the Shi'a, and focus their beliefs solely on Muhammad as the culmination of Prophethood, believing he is the last of the messengers God has sent to the world. In contrast, the Shi'a believed that either Ali, or some other messianic figure would return to save the world and to lead the faithful into better times, either on earth or in heaven. The doctrine of the Hidden Imam, or spiritual leader, arose among many sects, some of whom were identified by their chiliastic hopes. Thus there is a Shi'a group known as the Twelvers, who believe in a line of twelve imams after Ali, the last one being a holy man who disappeared mysteriously in the tenth century but who will return. The Seveners have a similar doctrine but a lesser number of imams, and there are other groups who also expect the return, or the appearance of a hidden imam.
The Shia Muslims believe that their imams are both sinless and absolutely infallible, a doctrine the Sunnis firmly reject. Not only are the Shi'a imams infallible in dogma and worship but in secular matters as well, and many of them became powerful political leaders. The imam may have almost literal powers of life and death over his people, and it is only in modern times that such authority is being challenged by the faithful. In early times, Persian and Afghan Shi'a sects advanced the concept of the Hidden Imam as the epiphany of the Primeval Light, who is to come to earth to save mankind. A few extremists see the imam as the incarnation of God — Allah — and others as God Himself. So throughout the ages, all across the Middle East, wherever there were Shia sects, there were people awaiting the return of their divine teacher and master, and there were men who thought that they themselves had been appointed to be the Hidden Imam in person, descended or returned to earth to lead the people into a land of milk and honey and to free them from their earthly masters.
In the 1840s a young man named Ali Muhammad — note the names of the martyred khalif and the Prophet together — made a tour of the holy cities of Persia and then Arabia, where his religious enthusiasms were stirred to a state reaching mystical trance. Upon his return to his home city of Shiraz in Persia, Ali Muhammad, now twenty-four, assumed the title of Bab and began to preach his own particular Way. He had come at a crucial time among his own sect of Shia, the Imami, who took the concept of Bab, the Gateway of Divine Revelation, to denote a stage of self-propulsion in the manifesting of the Divine Being. The cult had reached powerful proportions in the early nineteenth century, and Ali Muhammad saw himself as the incarnation of the Bab, the mystical Gateway. He was a member of the Prophet's family, a siyyid (or sayed, in some spellings), had married at the age of twenty-two and had a son who was born and died during the year he announced his mission to the world. He attracted a small number of disciples — the first eighteen, with the Bab himself as the nineteenth, were known as the Letters of the Living — who saw in his teachings escape from the domination of the mullahs, the Shia clergy, who were notorious oppressors of the people. The Bab's claim was easily accepted, too, by the people around him. He soon stated that he was the Midhi [sic], or mahdi, whose coming the Prophet Muhammad had foretold, and he was identified by the Shias as the Twelfth Imam (coincidentally named Muhammad) who had disappeared from the sight of mankind in the tenth century. His followers were now known as Babis; they accepted their leader as the Promised One, whose glory was not earthly but spiritual.
Ali Muhammad, as Bab, besides claiming mahdihood, also adopted the sacred title of Nuqtiiula [sic -J.W.], which means Primal Point, a title applied mystically to Muhammad himself. In doing this, the Bab claimed to rank along with the Prophet in the series of great founders of religion, whereupon the Shi'a priests, the
mullahs, declared the Bab an impostor, and began to agitate against him. But the movement continued to grow, and thousands of people joined. The Bab announced also a new calendar, dating it from 1844, the year in which he had discovered himself as the Twelfth Imam, and restoring the old solar year of the Zoroastrians. His other views were eclectic, drawing upon various faiths as he knew them, but leaning heavily towards a form of mysticism that included many deities. He borrowed concepts of good and evil from Zoroastrianism, the doctrines of which had remained among many Persians, especially among the Sufic brotherhoods. His other teachings were of a rather high moral level; one of his notable steps was the very liberal one of announcing the emancipation of women, this in a society where women were kept segregated in harems.
The conflicts with the mullahs became physical; bloody riots took place, and the Bab was arrested and taken to Tabriz, where the governor ordered him and a disciple to be shot. On July 9, 1850 the Bab and his companion were hoisted on ropes to hang outside the prison wall; a squad of soldiers fired at both men. The disciple died immediately, but the Bab's ropes were cut by the bullets and he fell to the ground unhurt. Unfortunately, the Bab lacked the wit to proclaim that he had been saved by divine intervention and so escape death. He was again hoisted to the wall. The soldiers refused to shoot again, so a second squad was needed to complete the execution. His remains were thrown into a moat, but later disciples rescued them and eventually they were brought to the Holy Land (as dear to Muslims as to Jews and Christians) and entombed not far from the cave of Elijah. In the persecutions that followed, many Babis died the most gruesome deaths, an estimated twenty thousand of them being massacred by the government.
The movement continued to survive, despite persecution. One of the Bab's teachings, according to the Bahá'í Faith, the religion
that eventually developed out of Babism, was that "God would soon 'make manifest' a World Teacher to unite men and women and usher in an age of peace." Among the Babis were two half-brothers, Subh-i-Azal and Baha'Allah (Bahá'u'lláh, in Bahá'í spelling), who determined to carry on the Bab's work. The first brother maintained the doctrines intact, but his sect, the Azalis, are few in number. However, Baha'Allah, drawing upon other sources, proclaimed a new universalist faith, independent of Islam and open to all people of whatever social class.
Baha'Allah, claiming to be the chosen "Manifestation of God" for his age, called upon people to unite, stating that only one common faith and one order could bring an enduring peace to the world. He foresaw that terrible wars would sweep the face of the earth and destroy the institutions and ideas that keep mankind from its rightful unity. His mystical view of himself also made a deep impression on the ordinary Persians, so long accustomed to the expectation of a savior — the Hidden Imam — to rescue them from their daily misery. Baha'Allah stated plainly and repeatedly that he was the long-expected educator and teacher of all peoples, the channel of wondrous Grace that would transcend all previous outpourings of faith, in which all earlier forms of religion would become merged, as rivers merge in the ocean. He was the Promised One, he stated, of all the prophets — Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad — the Divine Manifestation, in whose era the reign of peace on earth would actually be established. Though the impoverished peasants and city dwellers of Persia accepted Baha'Allah on his own terms, he was a serious threat to the established forms of religion, and the mullahs forced him to flee for his life. He went first to Baghdad, then to Constantinople, to Adrianople and finally to Acre (then called Akkah [sic]), on the Mediterranean coast, where he was imprisoned. He died in 1892, after making many converts in his travels.
The movement was no longer called Babism, but the Bahá'í
Faith, after Baha'Allah. It was now his son's turn to take over. The son, Abdul Baha, was also imprisoned but was released in 1908. He went immediately to Europe and America, where he introduced Bahá'í, enjoying a fine harvest of people from all faiths and none. Abdul Baha died in 1921, passing on the mantle of leadership to his eldest grandson, Shogi Effendi, as First Guardian of the Faith and interpreter of the teachings. The Effendi reorganized the administrative structure of Bahá'í, making the movement a true reflection of Baha'Allah's teachings for a world order.
In the century and a third since the Bab first proclaimed his mystical, ecstatic view of a new age, his original doctrines, so fervent and emotional, have undergone a gradual diminution as they have moved from the Middle East to the West. No longer are mystical, ritual or theological beliefs paramount; instead simplicity, social-mindedness and positive thinking are stressed. The primary vision is one of God, even though men may call Him by different names, and of one world attained through a world religion — that is, through the Bahá'í Faith. The world begins with the individual, who must have high moral standards and a new basis of belief. Since there is but one God, all manifestations of God have each taught the same religious faith, developing and adapting it to meet historical and cultural demands. The unfolding of religion from age to age is called "progressive revelation." Baha'Allah is the Manifestation of God for our time. Humanity is one: people of different races must enjoy equal educational and economic opportunities, equal access to decent living conditions and equal responsibilities. No race or nation is superior to another. The Bahá'í Faith has no priesthood or professional clergy; there are no rites or rituals. Services are merely readings from Bahá'í and other world scriptures. The Faith has a large membership in the United States. The Bahá'í temple at
Wilmette, Illinois (near Chicago), is world-famous, and many non-Bahá'í visit it. Bahais try to make the pilgrimage to the Bab's grave in the Holy Land, for next to it is also the grave of Baha'Allah, the bones of both prophets still awaiting the final merging of all mankind into one faith. Bahá'í beliefs are simple and positive.
"All the prophets of God proclaim the same faith. Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch," say the inscriptions cut into the walls of the great Bahá'í temples. "So powerful is unity's light that it can illuminate the whole earth." And admonitions to lead a life of probity and good behavior follow: "Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me," for "My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure. Make mention of Me on My earth that in My heaven I may remember thee."
Current Bahá'í doctrines are not likely to arouse the peasants and slum dwellers of Mideast cities. One wonders how the original mystical call of the Bab, the Gateway of Divine Revelation, would be received today, not among impoverished Shia awaiting an eschatological call, but among affluent Westerners.