Hinduism and the Bahá'í Faith
by Moojan Momen
In this chapter, we will look at some of the aspects of the Bahá'í vision
(darshana) of the spiritual world. We will examine its claim that
it is not in conflict with the traditional Hindu vision but is indeed a
way of reconciling some of the disagreements that have arisen between the
various schools of Hinduism.
We noted in the Introduction that there has been a disagreement over the centuries between two groups of Hindus. Firstly, there are those who look to Brahman as an impersonal Absolute Reality. These regard the inner reality of man (atman) as being the same as Brahman if only man could clear his mind of avidya and maya and see things as they really are (the Advaita school of Shankara). Secondly, there are those who look on Brahman as a distant Godhead who is manifest in the world as Bhagwan or Ishvara, the Lord. These consider the Lord to be wholly other than the world (the dualist school of Madhva). In between these two positions are such philosophers as Ramanuja who held to a qualified non-dualism.
The Upanishads teach that:
Greater than all is Brahman, the Supreme, the Infinite... He is indeed the Mighty Lord who moves the hearts of men... His is the power to sense all things, even though He lacks organs of sensation. He is the Lord and Ruler of all, the great Refuge of all. (1)
Brahman is eternal, above ignorance and knowledge. He is the One who rules over the root causes and the primal forms of all things... He is the Lord who created the lords of creation (Yatis), the supreme Soul who rules over all.
Even as the radiance of the sun sheds light in all regions, so does that glorious Lord, single and adored rule over all His creation... He is the One, the only God, who rules over the whole universe (2)
Similarly, Bahá'u'lláh teaches that the Essence of Brahman or God cannot be known by man. Any ideas that mankind may have of Brahman must always be the creations of man's limited mind. Brahman as Absolute Reality is unlimited and infinite. Therefore any ideas that human minds may form cannot be a complete description of Brahman/God. They are only partial descriptions which emerge from limited capacity of men's minds.
The conceptions of the devoutest of mystics, the attainments of the most accomplished amongst men, the highest praise which human tongue or pen can render are all the product of man's finite mind and are conditioned by its limitations. (3)
Exalted, immeasurably exalted, art Thou above the strivings of mortal man to unravel Thy mystery, to describe Thy glory, or even to hint at the nature of Thine Essence. For whatever such strivings may accomplish, they can never hope to transcend the limitations imposed upon Thy creatures...
Far, far from Thy glory be what mortal man can affirm of Thee, or attribute unto Thee, or the praise with which he can glorify Thee! Whatever duty Thou hast prescribed unto Thy servants of extolling to the utmost Thy majesty and glory is but a token of Thy grace unto them, that they may be enabled to ascend unto the station conferred upon their own inmost being, the station of the knowledge of their own selves. (4)
And `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh, has stated:
But that Essence of Essences, that Invisible of Invisibles, is sanctified above all human speculation.... The utmost one can say is that Its existence can be proved, but the conditions of Its existence are unknown. (5)
This is similar to what is to be found in the Upanishads:
Not by speech, not by sight, not by mind can He be perceived. How then can He be apprehended except by just saying: `He is'. (6)
So man can never fully know Brahman because of the limited nature of man's mind. But Bahá'u'lláh tells us that the various ideas and images of the Deity that have developed over the ages and in the different religions are all aspects of the truth. None of these ideas fully describes God but each has some truth in it.
In the Asya Vamasya, a hymn in the Rig-Veda, we find a similar idea:
They call Him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni and even the heavenly bird of fine plumage [Garuda]. The learned speak of the One Reality in many ways. (8)
We have seen that there are these different ideas of the Deity or Absolute Reality. We find, in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, reflections of all of these. There are passages that are similar to the non-dualism of the school of Shankara (Advaita Vedanta):
Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting. (9)
Moreover the concept that only God has an absolute existence and that man's existence is contingent and relative is found in several places in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. (11) This is in essence a non-dualist position.
On the other hand, there are also many passages in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh that agree with the dualism of such philosophers as Madhva.
Immeasurably exalted is He above the strivings of human mind to grasp His Essence, or of human tongue to describe His mystery. No tie of direct intercourse can ever bind Him to the things He hath created, nor can the most abstruse and most remote allusions of His creatures do justice to His being. (12)
From time immemorial He hath been veiled in the ineffable sanctity of His exalted Self, and will everlastingly continue to be wrapt in the impenetrable mystery of His unknowable Essence. Every attempt to attain to an understanding of His inaccessible Reality hath ended in complete bewilderment, and every effort to approach His exalted Self and envisage His Essence hath resulted in hopelessness and failure. (13)
But, according to the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, no complete knowledge of the cosmos is available to man. Thus all descriptions, all attempts to portray the metaphysical basis of the cosmos, are necessarily limited by the viewpoint of the particular person making them. As a result, both the dualist and non-dualist schools are limited, relative truths only.
All that the sages and mystics have said or written have never exceeded, nor can they ever hope to exceed, the limitations to which man's finite mind hath been strictly subjected. To whatever heights the mind of the most exalted of men may soar, however great the depths which the detached and understanding heart can penetrate, such mind and heart can never transcend that which is the creature of their own conceptions and the product of their own thoughts. The meditations of the profoundest thinker, the devotions of the holiest of saints, the highest expressions of praise from either human pen or tongue, are but a reflection of that which hath been created within themselves...(14)
Thus the various views of the different philosophers in Hinduism
(Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and others) are all valid aspects of the truth.
They are each reflections of the varying types of mind present among human
beings. They all represent Absolute Reality seen from different points
of view. None is wholly right or wholly wrong. And so, in the end, according
to the Bahá'í writings, the view that each one of us chooses to favour
depends only on our own type of mind. In this way, the Bahá'í darshana
seeks to reconcile the disagreements among the schools in Hinduism.
The Avatars/ Manifestations of God
As we have seen above, the Essence of Brahman/God can never be known or understood by human beings because of the limited nature of the human mind. The only thing that can be known of Brahman/God is that which is manifested of Brahman in the universe. For Brahman is kind and full of grace and, although man can never fully know Him, we can know that which is revealed in the world. In one way the whole universe is Brahman's display of love and grace. Throughout the world all that we see reveals Him to some degree.
In the both the Rig-Veda and the Katha Upanishad, we read:
As the sun (Hansa), He (God) is manifested in the sky; as the wind (Vasu), He is enthroned in the upper air; He is manifested as the priest at the altar; as the guest in the home; He dwells in men, in Truth, in the Law, and in the heavens. (16)
Bahá'u'lláh also refers to this:
Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God. Each, according to its capacity, is, and will ever remain, a token of the Almighty... So pervasive and general is this revelation that nothing whatsoever in the whole universe can be discovered that doth not reflect His splendour. (17)
But at certain times in history, there occurs a decline in righteousness and a loss of true Dharma. Then Brahman/God reveals Himself in a special individual. This is promised in the Bhagavad Gita:
Whenever there is a decline in righteousness, O Bharat, and the rise of irreligion, it is then that I send forth My spirit
For the salvation of the good, the destruction of the wicked, and for firmly establishing true religion (Dharma), I manifest myself from age to age. (18)
As described in this verse from the Bhagavad Gita, these Avatars have come to the world from time to time. Hinduism recognizes a number of these which have influenced the Indian sub-continent. In many of the Hindu scriptures, ten Avatars of Vishnu are identified, (19) in others more than twenty. (20) There is disagreement over the early Avatars in the scriptures but most agree that the last four are Rama, then Krishna, then Buddha, then the Avatar to come who is named Kalki.
But Bahá'u'lláh states that the kind Lord would not leave the rest of mankind without guidance. So He has caused Avatars to appear in all parts of the earth to various races of man according to the needs of mankind. These Avatars have included other figures also such as Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad. Each of these figures has fulfilled the conditions set out in the verse of the Bhagavad Gita quoted above - they have come when the world is full of evil and they have renewed the teaching of right dharma. In this day, Bahá'ís believe that the Kalki Avatar has appeared to the world by the name of Baha (with regard to the identity of Bahá'u'lláh with the Kalki Avatar, see Chapter 4).
The main role of these Avatars is to act as an intermediary, bringing mankind closer to Brahman/God. The Absolute is infinite and beyond man's powers to comprehend. And so the Avatar exists as a mirror reflecting all of the attributes and qualities of the Absolute to human beings. Human beings, unable to imagine or understand the Absolute, think instead of the Avatar. As the sage Agastya said, speaking to the Lord Rama:
Though You [Brahman] are the Absolute, indivisible and eternal, understood only by intuition, adored by saints, though I know and speak of that form of yours, yet I always turn back from it and spend my love on the Absolute made man [i.e. the Avatar]! (21)
Bahá'u'lláh has made a similar statement about this:
All of the Avatars have taught love and reconciliation. An Indian once said to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh (see Chapter 8 ): `My aim in life is to transmit as far as in me lies the message of Krishna to the world.' `Abdu'l-Bahá replied: `The Message of Krishna is the message of love. All God's prophets have brought the message of love.' (23)To every discerning and illuminated heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the Divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. He is, and hath ever been, veiled in the ancient eternity of His Essence, and will remain in His Reality everlastingly hidden from the sight of men...
All of the Avatars have brought this message of love. But, unfortunately, mankind has made their religions a source of war and discord:
The foundation of all the divine religions is one. All are based upon reality. Reality does not admit plurality, yet amongst mankind there have arisen differences concerning the Manifestations of God... This has become a source of divergence, whereas the teachings of the holy Souls Who founded the divine religions are one in essence and reality. All these have served the world of humanity. All have summoned souls to peace and accord. All have proclaimed the virtues of humanity. All have guided souls to the attainment of perfections, but among the nations certain imitations of ancestral forms of worship have arisen. These imitations are not the foundation and essence of the divine religions. Inasmuch as they differ from the reality and the essential teachings of the Manifestations of God, dissensions have arisen, and prejudice has developed. Religious prejudice thus becomes the cause of warfare and battle.
The Essence of God being unknowable, these Avatars or Manifestations of God are, with regard to humanity, the same as God Himself. They reflect God perfectly to the world. Thus Bahá'u'lláh has written with regard to these Avatars or Manifestations:
Krishna also refers to this dual role of the Avatars of both revealing and concealing the Divinity:. . . viewed from the standpoint of their oneness and sublime detachment, the attributes of Godhead, Divinity, Supreme Singleness, and Inmost Essence, have been, and are applicable to those Essences of Being, inasmuch as they all abide on the throne of Divine Revelation, and are established upon the seat of Divine Concealment. Through their appearance the Revelation of God is made manifest, and by their countenance the Beauty of God is revealed . . .
The foolish deride me when I am clad in a human body; they know not My supreme nature, that I am the great Lord of all being. (26) Bhagavad Gita
And so these Avatars have two aspects. On the one hand they
are the Divine as revealed to the world. As such they are all in essence
one and the same. So Bahá'ís believe that Bahá'u'lláh and Krishna are,
in this sense, one - they are both Manifestations of the Deity. On the
other hand, they have individual characteristics and have come to the world
at different times and with different messages which relate to the needs
of the world at that time.
Symbols and Images of the Divinity
There are many symbols and images that are common to both the Hindu
and Bahá'í holy books. For example, in the Hindu scriptures, Vishnu, is
regarded as a sun-god. (27) The Avatars
such as Krishna and the future Kalki (whom Bahá'ís believe to be Bahá'u'lláh)
are Avatars of Vishnu. The entire universe is reported to have begun
as a primeval ocean. The Lord Narayana floated on this ocean and from his
navel there grew the lotus or the cosmic tree. This was the first life-form.
From this was born Brahma, and so all of creation came into existence.
In the Bahá'í writings also, these symbols of sun, ocean and tree are linked with God. They are also linked with the Avatars who, as we have noted above, are regarded in the Bahá'í writings as standing in the place of God with regard to mankind and the world. Thus the Avatars are the source and origin of the whole of the universe.
O people! I swear by the one true God! This is the Ocean out of which all seas have proceeded, and with which every one of them will ultimately be united. From Him all the Suns have been generated, and unto Him they will all return. Through His potency the Trees of Divine Revelation have yielded their fruits, every one of which hath been sent down in the form of a Prophet, bearing a Message to God's creatures in each of the worlds whose number God, alone, in His all-encompassing Knowledge, can reckon. This He hath accomplished through the agency of but one Letter of His Word, revealed by His Pen - a Pen moved by His directing Finger - His Finger itself sustained by the power of God's Truth. (29) (Bahá'u'lláh)
The symbol of the tree occurs in many places in the Hindu Holy Books. In the Rig-Veda there is mention of a cosmic tree, sustained by the Lord, that has its roots in heaven with its branches spreading down to earth. The same concept is found in the Bhagavad Gita and many other places. (30) In the Upanishads this tree is said to be the same as Brahman:
The Tree (Asvattha) of Eternity has roots in heaven and branches that grow down to earth. It is Brahman; it is pure Spirit. It is called the Immortal. All the worlds rest on that and beyond it none can go. (31)
Bahá'u'lláh identifies Himself with this `Tree beyond which there is no passing'. This tree is the Manifestation of God, the Avatar, the signpost, guiding the world of man. In one passage, speaking of the need for each individual person to take responsibility for his own spiritual development, Bahá'u'lláh writes:
Ponder a while thereon, that... ye may perceive the subtleties of Divine wisdom ... which... I have revealed ... and that ye may not stray far from the All-Highest Throne, from the Tree beyond which there is no passing, from the Habitation of everlasting might and glory. (32)
`Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh, has written of the meaning of this tree and why it is called `the tree beyond which there is no passing':
The tree of life is the highest degree of the world of existence: the position of the Word of God, and the universal Manifestation. (33)
`Abdu'l-Bahá has also explained what the fruit of this tree is:
Thank thou God for He hath guided thee to the path of His Kingdom and provided thee with the fruit of the Tree of Life, which is planted in the middle of the Ferdowce (i.e. the highest Paradise). Yea, this fruit is ... knowing God and love for God, and reliance upon God and is the virtue [with] which the reality of man is adorned... (34)
In many of his writings, Bahá'u'lláh has identified himself with
the roots and trunk of this tree. The branches of the tree that reach down
towards earth are particularly linked with the son of Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá,
and the concept of the Covenant (click here for further
The Question of Idolatry
In Hinduism, many gods are revered and the images of these gods are used for their worship. Many Hindus realize, however, that these many gods are, in fact, only the various aspects of the One God, Brahman. Thus worship of these different gods is only a way of glorifying Brahman.
Bahá'í s believe that this is the day when mankind has reached its maturity. All of humanity should be educated. As a result of this education and this maturity mankind no longer needs to use idols as a way of helping to form ideas of God.
In Hinduism, the different gods are regarded as different aspects of the One God, Brahman. They are given different names such as Shiva, Indra, Kali, etc. Each god signifies an aspect of the functioning of Brahman. In the Bahá'í writings there are some passages that are very similar. These different aspects of the One God are called the Names and Attributes of God. But they work in exactly the same way as the Hindu gods: each of them is the unveiling of one aspect of the One God.
Bahá'u'lláh writes of the idea that each of these Names and Attributes of God is the agent through which particular actions of God are revealed on earth. He writes, for example, about the actions of two of these Names: `Fashioner' and `Omniscient':
Through the mere revelation of the word `Fashioner', issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to mankind, such power is released as can generate, through successive ages, all the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce. This, verily, is a certain truth. No sooner is this resplendent word uttered, than its animating energies, stirring within all created things, give birth to the means and instruments whereby such arts can be produced and perfected. All the wondrous achievements ye now witness are the direct consequences of the Revelation of this Name...In like manner, the moment the word expressing My attribute `The Omniscient' issueth forth from My mouth, every created thing will, according to its capacity and limitations, be invested with the power to unfold the knowledge of the most marvellous sciences, and will be empowered to manifest them in the course of time... (35)
He goes on to assert that the same is true of every other of the Names of God:
Know thou of a certainty that the Revelation of every other Name is accompanied by a similar manifestation of Divine power. (36)