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Baha'i History

It is not, of course, possible in a small work like this to give a full account of Baha'i history. Those who wish to have further information must refer to the larger histories. Here we will just present a brief outline. Emphasis will be given to those points that may be of special interest to readers from a Hindu background.

Baha'u'llah was the founder of the Baha'i Faith. He was born into a family of the nobility of Iran. His family traced its ancestry back to the original Aryan tribes that settled in Iran and India. It was from these tribes that the Indian Avatars such as Rama, Krishna and the Buddha as well as the Persian prophet Zoroaster were descended.

Many prodigies and wonders are recorded of all of the Avatars or Manifestations of God. This was also the case with Baha'u'llah. On one occasion, while still a child, he appeared before the Shah to argue a case on behalf of his father.

When Baha'u'llah was a young man, there arose in Iran a movement begun by another young Iranian called the Bab. This was called the Babi movement. It holds a very special place in Baha'i history. This is because Baha'u'llah regarded the Bab as an Avatar and considered the Babi movement to be the forerunner of the Baha'i Faith. As a result, Baha'is date the start of their religion from the year in which the Bab announced his mission, 1844 AD (5065 of the Shri Krishna Samvat; 1900 of the Vikram Samvat). One of the first prominent disciples of the Bab was an Indian and several other Indians are recorded as having joined the movement.

The Prime Minister of Iran at that time, Hajji Mirza Aqasi, was particularly opposed to the Babi movement. He did everything that was in his power to defeat it. Therefore, in the history of the Babi movement, he is said to be like Ravana who opposed Rama or to Duryodhana who opposed Krishna. Later, the Shah of Iran with the full might of the army of Iran arose against the Babis and there was much bloodshed. The Bab himself fell a martyr during this period. Baha'u'llah, who had been closely associated with the Babi movement, was thrown into a foul Black Pit called the Siyah Chal of Tehran. After a few months, he was forced to leave Iran and go into exile. This is, of course, the same thing that happened to Krishna who, together with Arjuna and Yudhishthir, was forced to leave the court in exile as a result of the treachery of Duryodhana. Rama also was forced into exile, by the intrigues of Queen Kaikei.

Having lost all of his wealth and possessions, Baha'u'llah and his immediate family left their native land as exiles. They travelled in harsh conditions in the midst of winter to Baghdad. This was a distance of some 500 miles over high mountain passes. Here Baha'u'llah settled and many of the Babis came to this city also.

About one year after his arrival in Baghdad, Baha'u'llah suddenly left his home and went up into the remote mountains to the north of Baghdad. For two years, Baha'u'llah wandered as a sannyasin (ascetic) in these mountains. He states that he had no thought of returning to the world at this time. But he was persuaded to return to Baghdad because the Babi community had become divided and was degenerating morally. Baha'u'llah feared that the work of the Bab would perish and the thousands of Babis who had been killed would have died in vain. It was for this reason that Baha'u'llah agreed to give up the sannyasin life and return.

The climax of Baha'u'llah's stay in Baghdad came at the very end of this time. In 1863 he was informed that the Sultan of Turkey had decreed that he should go to Istanbul. Before he began this journey, Baha'u'llah spent twelve days in a garden outside the city of Baghdad. This garden is called by Baha'is the Garden of Ridvan. It was here that Baha'u'llah revealed to the Babis that he was the Avatar that the Bab had told them would come. Indeed in his later writings, Baha'u'llah claims to be the one promised by all of the religions of the world. Therefore Baha'is believe that Baha'u'llah is for the Jews the expected Messiah, for the Christians the return of Christ, for the Muslims the Mahdi, for the Zoroastrians (Parsees) the Saoshyant, for the Hindus the Kalki Avatar, and for Buddhists the Maitreya Buddha.

These twelve days that Baha'u'llah spent in the Garden of Ridvan are celebrated each year by Baha'is as the festival of Ridvan. As Baha'u'llah left the Garden of Ridvan to proceed on the journey to Istanbul, he was met with moving scenes. The people tried to express their sorrow at his departure from their city:

`The great tumult,' wrote an eye-witness, `... we beheld on that occasion. Believers and unbelievers alike sobbed and lamented. The chiefs and notables who had congregated were struck with wonder. Emotions were stirred to such depths as no tongue can describe, nor could any observer escape their contagion.'

Mounted on His steed, a red roan stallion of the finest breed, the best His lovers could purchase for Him, and leaving behind Him a bowing multitude of fervent admirers, He rode forth on the first stage [of His journey]... `Numerous were the heads,' Nabil himself a witness of that memorable scene, recounts, `which, on every side, bowed to the dust at the feet of His horse, and kissed its hoofs, and countless were those who pressed forward to embrace His stirrups.' `How great the number...,' testifies a fellow-traveller, `who, casting themselves before that charger, preferred death to separation from their Beloved! Methinks, that blessed steed trod upon the bodies of those pure-hearted souls.' (1)

After a few months in Istanbul, Baha'u'llah was exiled once again to Edirne. It was while he was here that a great crisis arose. The story of this crisis has great similarity to an episode in the Ramayana. In that book, Manthara, the nurse of Bharat (the half-brother of Rama) urged Kaikei (Bharat's mother) on and caused her to plot and plan against Rama so that Bharat would become king (2). One of those who accompanied Baha'u'llah to Edirne was his half-brother Mirza Yahya. And a certain Siyyid Muhammad urged Mirza Yahya to plot and plan against Baha'u'llah. The aim was that Mirza Yahya would be the leader of the religion. Mirza Yahya even went to the extent of trying to poison Baha'u'llah.

The result of Mirza Yahya's intrigues was similar to the result of Kaikei's. Just as Rama had been sent into exile, so Baha'u'llah was once more sent into exile. Once again scenes similar to those that took place at Baghdad occurred as Baha'u'llah left Edirne.

`The inhabitants of the quarter in which Baha'u'llah had been living, and the neighbours who had gathered to bid Him farewell, came one after the other,' writes an eye-witness, `with the utmost sadness and regret to kiss His hands and the hem of His robe, expressing meanwhile their sorrow at His departure. That day, too, was a strange day. Methinks the city, its walls and its gates bemoaned their imminent separation from Him.' `Most of those present were weeping and wailing...' (3)

This account is reminiscent of the scenes recorded in the Ramayana when Rama was forced, as a result of the intrigues of Kaikei, to leave Ayodhya:

Man and boy and maid and matron followed Rama with their eye,
As the thirsty seek the water when the parched fields are dry,
Clinging to the rapid chariot, by its side, before, behind,
Thronging men and wailing women wept for Rama good and kind. (4)

The exile of Baha'u'llah on this occasion was on the orders of the Sultan of Turkey acting in concert with the Shah of Iran. Just as the powerful king of Lanka, Ravana, had plotted against Rama, and Duryodhana had opposed Krishna, so now these powerful kings sought to confine Baha'u'llah in a far-off prison. They thought that they would be able to put an end to his influence. Baha'u'llah was sent to the prison-city of `Akka in Syria, where he arrived in 1868.

It was the intention of these kings to wipe out all traces of Baha'u'llah's teaching. But in fact, these teachings spread and many pilgrims made long journeys of over a thousand miles to come to `Akka and hear his teachings. In the end, Baha'u'llah's influence became so great that the governor of the city of `Akka could no longer keep Baha'u'llah in prison. He allowed Baha'u'llah to live where he pleased. Baha'u'llah spent the last years of his life in a large mansion outside the city of `Akka, where he received the hundreds of pilgrims who came to see him.

On the instructions of Baha'u'llah, one of his prominent followers, Jamal Effendi, came to India in 1872. He spent many years travelling the length and breadth of the country teaching the Baha'i Faith. Together with a handful of other enthusiastic teachers, he succeeded in gaining adherents for the Baha'i Faith. These came from all walks of life in India, from Maharajahs to simple workers, from the Hindu, Muslim, Parsee and Sikh communities of India. (5) In this way the Baha'i community in India was formed.

When Baha'u'llah passed away in 1892 AD, he left instructions that his eldest son, `Abdu'l-Baha, was to be regarded by all Baha'is as the leader of the Baha'i community. `Abdu'l-Baha was the only person authorised by Baha'u'llah to interpret the Baha'i teachings. Baha'u'llah gave very strict instructions about this matter. This was in order that the Baha'i Faith should not be split up into hundreds of sects as other religions are. Since the primary aim of the Baha'i Faith is to bring about unity, Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha devoted a great deal of time and effort towards ensuring that the religion did not break up into sects. They explained and established what is called the Covenant. This is an agreement that every Baha'i enters into: that he or she will not be diverted away by the opinions of others but will always look towards the Centre of the Religion for guidance.

As we have seen previously (p. 00), Baha'u'llah has referred to the station of the Avatars and of himself in particular as the Tree of Life or the Tree beyond which there is no passing. In Hinduism there is also the concept of a cosmic tree. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written:

There is an eternal [holy] tree (Asvattha), with roots above in the highest and branches here below. Its leaves are sacred verses. He who knows it knows the Vedas. (6)

In his Most Holy Book and his Book of the Covenant, Baha'u'llah refers to himself as the Ancient (Pre-existent) Root of the Divine Tree; while `Abdu'l-Baha is the Most Mighty Branch, to whom all must turn after the passing of Baha'u'llah:

`When the ocean of My presence hath ebbed and the Book of My Revelation is ended, turn your faces toward Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.' The object of this sacred Verse is none other except the Most Mighty Branch [`Abdu'l-Baha]. (7)

Thus in the Baha'i writings, as in the Hindu, there is the concept of a cosmic holy tree (beyond which there is no passing); its root (Baha'u'llah) is in heaven; its branches (`Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, see below) stretch down towards earth; from this tree come sacred verses. The passage from the Bhagavad Gita quoted above indicates the importance of knowledge of this tree (the Covenant). It is the foundation of all religious knowledge.

`Abdu'l-Baha passed away in 1921. He appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi as the Centre of the Religion. After Shoghi Effendi's death in 1957, the Universal House of Justice (see Chapter 6) was elected. This is now the Centre of the Religion and thus the focal point of loyalty to the Covenant for all Baha'is.

Both `Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi made every effort to spread the Baha'i Faith to all parts of the world. `Abdu'l-Baha sent numerous teachers from other parts of the Baha'i world to India in order to strengthen the Indian Baha'i community. He was planning to travel to India himself when unfortunately his death cut short these plans.

Just as in Hinduism, there is a concept of cycles and ages, there is a similar concept in the Baha'i Faith. Baha'is believe that the coming of Baha'u'llah has started a new cosmic cycle.

Although mankind has entered the Sat or Krta Yuga (Golden Age) foretold in Hindu prophecy, the full culmination of this Golden Age will only be achieved in stages similar to the Hindu ages. During this cycle, the Baha'i Faith will pass through various ages. At present, the Baha'i Faith is in its Transitional Age. This will lead in the end to the Baha'i Golden Age, the full expression of the Sat or Krta Yuga. This Golden Age will see mankind in a prosperous state, with no more war and the establishment of social justice. Eventually, Baha'u'llah teaches that there will come another Avatar, another Manifestation of God. But this will not occur for at least a thousand years. In the meantime, the responsibility of mankind is to put the teachings of Baha'u'llah into effect.

The Baha'i world today

The Baha'i world has expanded very greatly, especially in the last 30 years. There are now Baha'is in almost every country of the world. The structure of the Baha'i administration has been described in Chapter 6. National Spiritual Assemblies have been formed in 151 countries of the world; there are now almosty 20,000 Local Spiritual Assemblies and over 112,000 places where Baha'is reside. There are almost five million Baha'is in total.

Baha'is are active with many agencies of the United Nations. The Baha'i International Community has consultative status with the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and Children's Fund (UNICEF). It is affiliated with the Environment Program (UNEP) and various other bodies. Baha'is regularly participate in UN conferences on such subjects as human rights, social and economic development, narcotic drugs, disarmament, and so on.

As one may gather from the Baha'i social principles, Baha'is are very involved in a large number and variety of social and economic development projects. In 1988, 1482 of these were listed worldwide. The majority of these are educational projects involving the setting up of simple village schools. But there are also health, agricultural and community development projects.

India has the largest Baha'i community in the world. It has about two million Baha'is. The majority of Baha'is are from a Hindu background but there are also appreciable numbers from Muslim, Parsee, Sikh and Jain backgrounds. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India has its headquarters in New Delhi. There are also State Assemblies in each state and about five thousand Local Spiritual Assemblies. There are about three hundred tutorial schools and several academic schools throughout the country. Around Panchgani in Maharashtra, there are several Baha'i institutions which it is hoped will eventually be merged and turned into a college of human service. The pride of the Indian Baha'i community is, however, the beautiful lotus-shaped temple at Bahapur on the outskirts of New Delhi. This building, which has won a number of international awards, is the spiritual centre of the Indian Baha'i community. It is attracting about one million visitors each year.
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Text taken from Hinduism and the Baha'i Faith

© Moojan Momen 1996. All Rights Reserved

NOTES (for details of books cited, see Bibliography)

1. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 155.

2. See Ramayana, book 2: Vana-Gamana-Adesa, section 7.

3. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 180-1.

4. Ramayana, book 2: Dasa-Ratha-Viyoga, section 39, trans. Dutt, p. 40.

5. The stories of some of these early Baha'is of India can be found in Khianra, Immortals. The story of Jamal Effendi himself is told is H.M. Balyuzi, Eminent Baha'is in the Time of Baha'u'llah.

6. Bhagavad Gita 15:1-2.

7. Baha'u'llah, Tablets, p. 221.

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