Hinduism and the Bahá'í Faith
by Moojan Momen
It is not, of course, possible in a small work like this to give a full account of Bahá'í 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.
Bahá'u'lláh was the founder of the Bahá'í 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 Bahá'u'lláh. On one occasion, while still a child, he appeared before the Shah to argue a case on behalf of his father.
When Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'í history. This is because Bahá'u'lláh regarded the Bab as an Avatar and considered the Babi movement to be the forerunner of the Bahá'í Faith. As a result, Bahá'ís 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. Bahá'u'lláh, 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, Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh settled and many of the Babis came to this city also.
About one year after his arrival in Baghdad, Bahá'u'lláh suddenly left his home and went up into the remote mountains to the north of Baghdad. For two years, Bahá'u'lláh 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. Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh agreed to give up the sannyasin life and return.
The climax of Bahá'u'lláh'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, Bahá'u'lláh spent twelve days in a garden outside the city of Baghdad. This garden is called by Bahá'ís the Garden of Ridvan. It was here that Bahá'u'lláh revealed to the Babis that he was the Avatar that the Bab had told them would come. Indeed in his later writings, Bahá'u'lláh claims to be the one promised by all of the religions of the world. Therefore Bahá'ís believe that Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh spent in the Garden of Ridvan are celebrated each year by Bahá'ís as the festival of Ridvan. As Bahá'u'lláh 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.'
After a few months in Istanbul, Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh to Edirne was his half-brother Mirza Yahya. And a certain Siyyid Muhammad urged Mirza Yahya to plot and plan against Bahá'u'lláh. The aim was that Mirza Yahya would be the leader of the religion. Mirza Yahya even went to the extent of trying to poison Bahá'u'lláh.
The result of Mirza Yahya's intrigues was similar to the result of Kaikei's. Just as Rama had been sent into exile, so Bahá'u'lláh was once more sent into exile. Once again scenes similar to those that took place at Baghdad occurred as Bahá'u'lláh left Edirne.
`The inhabitants of the quarter in which Bahá'u'lláh 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,
The exile of Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh in a far-off prison. They thought that they would be able to put an end to his influence. Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh'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, Bahá'u'lláh's influence became so great that the governor of the city of `Akka could no longer keep Bahá'u'lláh in prison. He allowed Bahá'u'lláh to live where he pleased. Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh, 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 Bahá'í Faith. Together with a handful of other enthusiastic teachers, he succeeded in gaining adherents for the Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í community in India was formed.
When Bahá'u'lláh passed away in 1892 AD, he left instructions that his eldest son, `Abdu'l-Bahá, was to be regarded by all Bahá'ís as the leader of the Bahá'í community. `Abdu'l-Bahá was the only person authorised by Bahá'u'lláh to interpret the Bahá'í teachings. Bahá'u'lláh gave very strict instructions about this matter. This was in order that the Bahá'í Faith should not be split up into hundreds of sects as other religions are. Since the primary aim of the Bahá'í Faith is to bring about unity, Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá 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 Bahá'í 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), Bahá'u'lláh 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, Bahá'u'lláh refers to himself as the Ancient (Pre-existent) Root of the Divine Tree; while `Abdu'l-Bahá is the Most Mighty Branch, to whom all must turn after the passing of Bahá'u'lláh:
`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-Bahá]. (7)
Thus in the Bahá'í writings, as in the Hindu, there is the concept of a cosmic holy tree (beyond which there is no passing); its root (Bahá'u'lláh) is in heaven; its branches (`Abdu'l-Bahá 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-Bahá 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 Bahá'ís.
Both `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi made every effort to spread the Bahá'í Faith to all parts of the world. `Abdu'l-Bahá sent numerous teachers from other parts of the Bahá'í world to India in order to strengthen the Indian Bahá'í 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 Bahá'í Faith. Bahá'ís believe that the coming of Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'í
Faith will pass through various ages. At present, the Bahá'í Faith is in
its Transitional Age. This will lead in the end to the Bahá'í 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, Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh into effect.
The Bahá'í world today
The Bahá'í world has expanded very greatly, especially in the last 30 years. There are now Bahá'ís in almost every country of the world. The structure of the Bahá'í 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 Bahá'ís reside. There are almost five million Bahá'ís in total.
Bahá'ís are active with many agencies of the United Nations. The Bahá'í 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. Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í social principles, Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í community in the world. It has about two
million Bahá'ís. The majority of Bahá'ís are from a Hindu background but
there are also appreciable numbers from Muslim, Parsee, Sikh and Jain backgrounds.
The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í institutions which it is hoped
will eventually be merged and turned into a college of human service. The
pride of the Indian Bahá'í 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
Bahá'í community. It is attracting about one million visitors each year.