From: http://www.northill.demon.co.uk/bahai/intro7.htm (http://www.northill.demon.co.uk/bahai/intro7.htm)
Extracted and condensed from A Short Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith
The Bahá'í teachings for the individual and for society have been given in the previous sections. It should never be forgotten, however, that the Bahá'í Faith is a religion and that underlying these ethical and social teachings is a spiritual and mystical teaching, which in turn is based on certain theological assumptions.
In the Western religions, the highest reality is called God. In these religions, God is the creator of all that is. He is the Lord of all, who intervenes in human affairs and sends His prophets to bring laws and teachings to humanity. The duty of human beings is to recognize the prophet and to lead their lives according to these laws and teachings.
In the religions of the East, the highest reality has different characteristics. Whether we consider Nirvana or the Dharma in Theravada Buddhism, Shunyata in Mahayana Buddhism, the Tao in Taoism, or Brahma in Advaita Hinduism, the highest reality in these Eastern religions does not have the personal characteristics of God in the Western religions; it is impersonal in the sense that it does not exercise a will, and does not intervene in human affairs. Rather this highest reality is seen as the Absolute Reality of which our worldly reality is an aspect. If human beings could see things as they really are, they would recognize that their reality and the Absolute Reality are one and the same. This is expressed by various formulae in these religions, such as the truth that Atman (the individual soul) is Brahman (Absolute Reality) in Advaita Hinduism, or that Samsara (the contingent world) is Nirvana (the Absolute) in Buddhism.
Bahá'u'lláh's teaching about the highest reality starts with the basic statement that an absolute knowledge of this reality is impossible for human beings to achieve. The finite nature of the human mind cannot grasp and comprehend the infinite.
So perfect and comprehensive is His creation that no mind or heart, however keen or pure, can ever grasp the nature of the most insignificant of His creatures; much less fathom the mystery of Him Who is the Day Star of Truth, Who is the invisible and unknowable Essence . . .(1)
Since no absolute knowledge of the highest reality is available, all descriptions, all schemata, all attempts to portray the highest reality are necessarily limited by the point of view of the particular person making them. They 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 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. (Bahá'u'lláh - emphasis added)(2)
Therefore, although the religions of the East and West have widely differing concepts of the highest reality, Bahá'u'lláh maintains that this does not mean that there is a difference in the reality that is being described. Rather the religions differ because they are each looking at that reality from different viewpoints. They have each constructed concepts and ideas from their own perspective. The source of the differences lies, therefore, not in what is being observed; rather it lies in the fact that those who have written on these subjects have each had a particular cultural or personal background that predetermines the way that they have looked at these matters:
The differences among the religions of the world are due to the varying types of minds. (`Abdu'l-Bahá)(3)
`Abdu'l-Bahá has summarized this teaching by saying that whatever it is that all peoples, whether of the East or the West, have conceptualized, it is a product of their own minds and therefore limited by their minds. It can therefore never encompass the infinite and unlimited nature of God or Absolute Reality.
This people, all of them, have pictured a god in the realm of the mind, and worship that image which they have made for themselves. And yet that image is comprehended, the human mind being the comprehender thereof, and certainly the comprehender is greater than that which lieth within its grasp; for imagination is but the branch, while mind is the root; and certainly the root is greater than the branch . . . Thus are the people worshipping only an error of perception.
But that Essence of Essences, that Invisible of Invisibles, is sanctified above all human speculation, and never to be overtaken by the mind of man. Never shall that immemorial Reality lodge within the compass of a contingent being. His is another realm, and of that realm no understanding can be won. No access can be gained thereto; all entry is forbidden there. The utmost one can say is that Its existence can be proved, but the conditions of Its existence are unknown. (emphasis added)(4)
Bahá'u'lláh also asserts that nothing can be said about God or Absolute Reality. Any description that we try to make of Him or It is completely inadequate.
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.(5)
The only connection that human beings have with this highest reality, the essence of God or the Absolute Reality, is through the prophet-founders of the world religions. These persons although they appear in human form, are, in reality, intermediaries between the Absolute Reality/God and humanity. It is only through them that we can come to know anything at all about the highest reality.
The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings, the Source of infinite grace . . . hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence.(6)
Bahá'u'lláh does not, therefore, condemn the various concepts of God or Absolute Reality held by the religions of East and West. He states that they are true but are only limited and relative truths.
Regarding the Western concept of God described above, for example, Bahá'u'lláh asserts that the Essence of God is "beyond every human attribute."(7) Where the scriptures of the Western religions appear to give God human attributes (such as being angry with one people and being pleased with another; or coming and going; or speaking; or having parts of the human body such as a face or hands or back), these are not references to the Essence of God, the unknowable Godhead. In fact all these are references to the spiritual reality of the prophet-founders of the world religions. Because these prophet-founders of the world religions perfectly reflect all of the names and attributes of God, Bahá'u'lláh calls them the Manifestations of God. These exalted beings stand for God in this world.
[God] hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own Self. Whoso recognizeth them hath recognized God. Whoso hearkeneth to their call, hath hearkened to the Voice of God, and whoso testifieth to the truth of their Revelation, hath testified to the truth of God Himself. Whoso turneth away from them, hath turned away from God, and whoso disbelieveth in them, hath disbelieved in God . . . They are the Manifestations of God amidst men, the evidences of His Truth, and the signs of His glory.(8)
Since human beings can have no direct knowledge or understanding of God, these Manifestations of God are all that human beings can know of God in this world. All of the attributes of God recorded in the scriptures can best be conceptualized through the person of these Manifestations.
. . . 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. Thus it is that the accents of God Himself have been heard uttered by these Manifestations of the Divine Being. (Bahá'u'lláh)(9)
With regard to the conceptualization of the Absolute Reality in the Eastern religions, Bahá'u'lláh again does not condemn this view. On the contrary, he affirms that it is in some senses true. For example he states that "Absolute existence is strictly confined to God,"(10) and nothing else can be said to exist in any absolute sense apart from God.(11)
Regarding the conceptualization in the eastern religions of the Absolute Reality as identical with the human reality, Bahá'u'lláh makes many similar statements, for example:
Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.(12)
Just as with the Western religious concepts of God, however, these statements hold true at the level of the manifestation of God. All of the divine names and attributes are manifested in the human being. In that sense, then, there is an identity between the human being and the Absolute, but it is an identity of attributes not of essence.
In brief then, Bahá'u'lláh takes the concepts of both Eastern and Western religions and asserts that those who hold these views are both wrong and right. They are wrong if they maintain that these views are the absolute truth about the essence of the highest reality (for human beings have no access to that truth); but they are right in that these views do express the truth from a limited viewpoint (they represent the truth about the Absolute Reality/God in the way that it manifests itself in this world). This is all the truth that human beings can comprehend. The fact that the various expressions of this truth have been different and even sometimes contradictory is due to the limitations of the human mind and the fact that we are only able to view these truths from a particular limited viewpoint.
In the natural order, all things need training and education to achieve their highest state of perfection. Cultivation can turn a desert area into a fruitful orchard or a wilderness into a beautiful garden. Human beings also need education and training. Left to themselves without an educator, they will grow up savage and bestial. The human spirit is in need of an educator too. The spiritual educators of humanity have been the prophets-founders of the world's religions. Bahá'u'lláh says that the betterment of all things in the world depends upon the action of these divine educators.(13)`Abdu'l-Bahá asserts that these figures have not been merely great men. They could not have achieved what they did by human power alone.(14)
These divine educators and the religions that they establish have two roles: first, to enable human beings to progress spiritually as individuals; and second, to promote the peace and advancement of human civilization.
God's purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is two-fold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquillity of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established. (Bahá'u'lláh)(15)
As we have seen above, Bahá'u'lláh calls these divine educators the Manifestations of God. This is because they show forth (manifest) all of the divine names and attributes in a complete and perfect manner. The relation between God and the Manifestation of God is likened in the Bahá'í scriptures to a perfect mirror which reflects the light of the sun.
All the perfections, the bounties, the splendours which come from God are visible and evident in the Reality of the Holy Manifestations, like the sun which is resplendent in a clear polished mirror with all its perfections and bounties. (`Abdu'l-Bahá)(16)
These Manifestations of God occupy a very exalted station. The most that humans can know of God is through these figures, who are the perfect Manifestations of all the names and attributes of God. They are therefore "as God" for human beings; it is the Manifestation "Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation." (Bahá'u'lláh)(17)
Since the founders of all the world religions are essentially the manifestations of one reality, it follows that the religions themselves are fundamentally guiding human beings along one path--the path that will ensure their greatest spiritual progress. Bahá'u'lláh has therefore urged the followers of the different religions to put aside their differences.
The Great Being saith: O ye children of men! The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.(18)
Needless to say, Bahá'u'lláh has also urged his followers to enter into the spirit of religious reconciliation and harmony.(19) `Abdu'l-Bahá expresses the same idea even more emphatically in his Will and Testament.
Consort with all the peoples, kindreds and religions of the world with the utmost truthfulness, uprightness, faithfulness, kindliness, good-will and friendliness, that all the world of being may be filled with the holy ecstasy of the grace of Bahá, that ignorance, enmity, hate and rancour may vanish from the world and the darkness of estrangement amidst the peoples and kindreds of the world may give way to the Light of Unity. Should other peoples and nations be unfaithful to you show your fidelity unto them, should they be unjust toward you show justice towards them, should they keep aloof from you attract them to yourself, should they show their enmity be friendly towards them, should they poison your lives, sweeten their souls, should they inflict a wound upon you, be a salve to their sores. Such are the attributes of the sincere! Such are the attributes of the truthful.(20)
In the opening passages of one of his most important books, the Book of Certitude (Kitáb-i-Íqán), Bahá'u'lláh states that those who wish to have faith and certainty in their lives must first free themselves from the things of this world; their ears from gossip; their minds from idle fancies; and their hearts from longing for the things of this world. He also asserts that the mysteries of the spiritual world will never be revealed to us until we cease to regard the words and actions of ordinary men and women as the standard by which to judge the spiritual world.
Failure to comply with the above conditions has prevented human beings from achieving spiritual growth and advancement. As examples of this, Bahá'u'lláh recalls the history of religion. He points to the fact that in each age, the people have longed for the coming of the saviour promised them in their holy books. And yet when a prophet does indeed come to them, they deny him, turn away from his face, insult him and persecute his followers. All of the world's scriptures record such events.
Bahá'u'lláh states that the main reason for this rejection of the prophets was the close-mindedness and pride of the people and the fact that they were blindly following their religious leaders. If they had purified their hearts and judged fairly, they would not have opposed the divine educators of humankind. Instead they relied on their own limited understandings of the holy scriptures, which they had learned from their religious leaders. And when they found the proofs brought forward by the new prophet to be different from these limited understandings, they arose in opposition to the prophet.
Bahá'u'lláh asserts that it has been the leaders of religion in every age who have held the people back from accepting the new prophet and benefitting from his teachings. It is these leaders who held the reins of authority in their grasp. Some of them were ignorant and did not understand the words of their own scriptures that foretold the coming of the new prophet. Others through a desire to cling on to their leadership led the people into error. It is they who gave the orders for the persecutions of the prophets and their followers. Thus it is that these religious leaders have been condemned in all the books of scripture.
Bahá'u'lláh gives the example of Jesus. All of the people of Israel rose up against Jesus when he came. They said that they knew of the Messiah prophesied in their scriptures, but he was going to fulfill the law of Moses. On the other hand, this young man from Nazareth, who claimed to be the Messiah, had caused the law of divorce and of the Sabbath, which were two important Judaic laws, to be broken. And what is more, none of the signs that were supposed to accompany the coming of the Messiah had been fulfilled; in particular, the Jews were expecting a Messiah who would lead them to victory over Rome and establish a Jewish state.
The same sequence of events, Bahá'u'lláh says, has occurred in each religion. The people failed to understand the real meaning of the words of their scriptures. Thus when they did not find the literal meaning of these words fulfilled, they rejected the prophets and persecuted them. They clung to their own false imaginings instead of asking the prophet himself to explain the real meaning of the scripture. Thus they deprived themselves of the benefits of the new divine teachings.
Bahá'u'lláh says that this is the true meaning of the Day of Judgement referred to in the scriptures of several religions. Whenever a new prophet appears, that is the "end of the world" for the previous religious dispensation and a day of judgement for the followers of that religion: if they are sincere and faithful to the spirit of their religion, they recognize the new teaching from God; but if they are merely following the outward forms of their religion, they will be spiritually blind to the new teaching.
According to Bahá'u'lláh, the Manifestations of God, the prophet-founders of the world's religions, are the successive appearances in the world of the same divine reality. They are therefore in their essential nature one.
Inasmuch as these Birds of the Celestial Throne are all sent down from the heaven of the Will of God, and as they all arise to proclaim His irresistible Faith, they therefore are regarded as one soul and the same person. For they all drink from the one Cup of the love of God, and all partake of the fruit of the same Tree of Oneness.(21)
Bahá'u'lláh explains the differences among these Manifestations of God by asserting that they each have a two-fold station. In their inner spiritual reality these prophet-founders of the world religions are one and the same. This is the "station of pure abstraction and essential unity."
In this respect, if thou callest them all by one name, and dost ascribe to them the same attribute, thou hast not erred from the truth . . . For they one and all summon the people of the earth to acknowledge the Unity of God . . . They are all invested with the robe of Prophethood, and honoured with the mantle of glory . . . Wherefore, should one of these Manifestations of Holiness proclaim saying: "I am the return of all the Prophets," He verily speaketh the truth.(22)
The Manifestations of God differ, however, in their external aspects, their name, their bodily form, the age in which they came, and the specific message that they brought. This is their second station, the "station of distinction", which "pertaineth to the world of creation and to the limitations thereof."
In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined Revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite Mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation.(23)
Bahá'u'lláh gives the analogy of the sun. In order to mark the passing of time, human beings give each day a different name. If it were to be said that all the days are one and the same that would be true, for they are each the expression of the same reality, the appearance of the sun; and if it were to be said that, with regard to their names, they differ, that would also be true.(24) The oneness and differences of the prophets of God should be thought of in the same way. They are each the appearance on earth of the same reality, and thus are all one; and yet, relative to our human world, they each came at a different time and have a different name.
In view of their essential oneness, Bahá'u'lláh asserts that it would be wrong to prefer one of these prophet-founders of the world religions over another.
Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same. Their unity is absolute . . . To prefer one in honour to another, to exalt certain ones above the rest, is in no wise to be permitted. Every true Prophet hath regarded His Message as fundamentally the same as the Revelation of every other Prophet gone before Him. If any man, therefore, should fail to comprehend this truth, and should consequently indulge in vain and unseemly language, no one whose sight is keen and whose understanding is enlightened would ever allow such idle talk to cause him to waver in his belief.(25)
It is, however, the second station, that of distinctions and difference, that has confused humanity and made it appear that there are some inherent contradictions among the religions of the world.
It is because of this difference in their station and mission that the words and utterances flowing from these Well-springs of divine knowledge appear to diverge and differ . . . As most of the people have failed to appreciate those stations to which We have referred, they therefore feel perplexed and dismayed at the varying utterances pronounced by Manifestations that are essentially one and the same. (Bahá'u'lláh)(26)
The differences among the teachings of the prophet-founders of the world religions arise because they have come to different parts of the world in which there are differing cultures. They, therefore, have to address their messages differently according to each culture. An even more important reason for difference is the fact that the needs of humanity have changed over the ages. The world now is very different from the world of one thousand or two thousand years ago, and so the message of God changes in accordance with this difference. The message of these Manifestations of God deals with the needs of the age in which they appear.
For every age requireth a fresh measure of the light of God. Every Divine Revelation hath been sent down in a manner that befitted the circumstances of the age in which it hath appeared.(27)
The successive prophets that have come to the earth have each taken humankind onwards in its social and spiritual evolution. They have helped humanity "to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization".(28) Each has built on the message of his predecessor and taken humanity on a further stage. This has been necessary because humanity is only able to advance a step at a time. Just as the rays of the sun at sun-rise are weak and only gradually build up to their mid-day intensity otherwise they would cause great damage to all living things, so Bahá'u'lláh states that it would be injurious for a Manifestation of God to give a more advanced message than the one that he does in fact deliver.(29) The message that each of these prophet-founders of the world religions gives is in accordance with humanity's ability to receive it.
All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice. (Bahá'u'lláh)(30)
Bahá'u'lláh's own claim is that he is a Manifestation of God in the line of succession of the Prophet-Founders of the world religions. Bahá'u'lláh's mission is to take humanity on to the next stage of its development. The social and spiritual teachings that Bahá'u'lláh has brought are the teachings which, Bahá'u'lláh states, will unite the world and bring about the fulfilment of the prophecies to be found in all of the religions of the world about a great day when there will be a golden age for humanity. Bahá'ís claim, therefore, that Bahá'u'lláh is the figure anticipated in the scriptures of all the religions of the world. He is the Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace foretold in the Hebrew Bible and expected by the Jews, the return of Christ in the glory of the Father awaited by Christians, the Great Announcement about which the Muslims are told in the Qur'an, the Shah Bahram of the Zoroastrian scriptures, the Kalki Avatar foretold in the Hindu scriptures, and the Maitreya Buddha that the Buddhists are awaiting.
In view of the teaching described above of the progressive revelation of truth through the successive Manifestations, Bahá'u'lláh does not regard himself as the final Manifestation of God. In due course, conditions will change again and a new divine message will become necessary. Bahá'u'lláh has written, however, that this will not occur for at least one thousand years.
Bahá'ís regard the Bahá'í Faith as an independent religion, alongside the other world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith is not, however, similar to conversion to some other religions. When one converts from Christianity to Buddhism, for example, one rejects entirely the view-point that one is leaving behind and adopts a new viewpoint. Since the doctrines of the two religions appear to be contradictory, it is a question of adopting either one or the other. The same does not occur with conversion to the Bahá'í Faith, however. To become a Bahá'í does not entail an automatic rejection of one's previous religion. This is for several reasons:
In view of the Bahá'í teaching that the prophet-founders of all of the world religions are the re-appearance in the world of the same reality, conversion to the Bahá'í Faith involves no rejection of the founder of one's previous religion.
From the Bahá'í viewpoint, to become a Bahá'í means that one has been faithful to the message of the founders of these religions in following their promise about the coming of a future saviour, a promise that Bahá'ís believe has been fulfilled by Bahá'u'lláh.
Humanity has over thousands of years developed numerous different viewpoints on religious questions; a multitude of diverse pathways to spirituality, many spiritual insights developed by the mystics and seers of the various religions. The Bahá'í Faith does not seek to reject or replace this rich religious heritage of humanity; rather it seeks to preserve it, stripped of any divisive potential, within an overall framework of unity. Indeed, more than preserving this rich heritage, the Bahá'í Faith would seek to make this heritage available globally, so that the best of every religion and culture can contribute to humanity's overall progress.
The goal of human life is described in various ways in the Bahá'í scriptures. As we have discussed elsewhere, one way of expressing it is to say that our lives are an opportunity to fulfill our potential in being examples of the divine virtues and attributes. In order to do this, however, one must follow the teachings of one of the divine educators. Therefore Bahá'u'lláh states, as the opening verse of his major book, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (the Most Holy Book), that the first duty for human beings is to recognize this divine educator, and the second is to follow his laws and teachings:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Day Spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good . . . It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station . . . to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other.(31)
If we are faithful to these two injunctions, then we will be following a path that involves a daily effort to develop spiritual qualities; an effort that is assisted by spiritual discipline, such as prayer. For human beings no other path can bring true happiness or lasting contentment.
Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face. (Bahá'u'lláh)(32)
This effort to develop spiritual qualities should not be seen as trying to become something different to what we already are. Rather it should be seen as releasing the divine potential that is already present in each person--for all human beings have the image of God engraved upon them.
According to the words of the Old Testament God has said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." This indicates that man is of the image and likeness of God--that is to say, the perfections of God, the divine virtues, are reflected or revealed in the human reality. (`Abdu'l-Bahá)(33)
Such spiritual processes are difficult to describe in words. There are, therefore, many metaphors and images used for this process in the Bahá'í scriptures. One is that of burnishing a mirror so that the divine sun shines in it with full glory.(34) Another image is that of a divine light within the human being.
Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee. Get thou from it thy radiance and seek none other than Me. For I have created thee rich and have bountifully shed My favour upon thee. (Bahá'u'lláh)(35)
The site within the human being of these spiritual qualities is described as the human heart. Unfortunately, it is too often also the site of love for the things of this world.
All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me; and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened unto the sanctuary of the Beloved. Notwithstanding I have concealed thy secret and desired not thy shame. (Bahá'u'lláh)(36)
Thus human beings can either be turned towards the material world and have their hearts set on the appeasement of their animal nature--the state of being in sin as it is called in Christian terminology--or they can turn their hearts towards God and try to develop their spiritual nature. According to the Bahá'í scriptures, Satan or the Devil is a symbol for the animal side of human nature. It is this animal side that constantly tempts us and keeps us from fulfilling our spiritual potential.
The divine potential within can, however, only be brought out if we have the will to proceed along the path mapped out by Bahá'u'lláh.
All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition.(37)
We must aim to cleanse the human heart so that the Divine nature can manifest itself within us.
Hast thou ever heard that friend and foe should abide in one heart? Cast out then the stranger, that the Friend may enter His home. (Bahá'u'lláh)(38)
This is a process of sacrificing our earthly attachments in order to acquire spiritual characteristics. (see ) `Abdu'l-Bahá likens it to placing an iron in the fire.
Man must become severed from the human world . . . the nether world become as non-existent and the Kingdom become manifest. He must become like unto the iron thrown within the furnace of fire. The qualities of iron, such as blackness, coldness and solidity which belong to the earth disappear and vanish while the characteristics of fire, such as redness, glowing and heat, which belong to the Kingdom become apparent and visible. Therefore, iron hath sacrificed its qualities and grades to the fire, acquiring the virtues of that element.(39)
Once the heart is cleansed in this way then the human being can turn towards the light at all times and under all circumstances.
In this station he pierceth the veils of plurality, fleeth from the worlds of the flesh, and ascendeth into the heaven of singleness. With the ear of God he heareth, with the eye of God he beholdeth the mysteries of divine creation . . . He seeth in himself neither name nor fame nor rank, but findeth his own praise in praising God . . . He looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning-point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation. (Bahá'u'lláh)(40)
And if a person should succeed in achieving this state and of seeing with the eye of oneness, then the signs of the divine nature within will begin to show themselves. For that nature is within the individual but "hidden under the veilings of sense and the conditions of this earth, even as a candle within a lantern of iron, and only when the lantern is removed doth the light of the candle shine out."(41) And when that divine nature within begins to show itself the person is transformed into a new entity.
Whensoever the light of Manifestation of the King of Oneness settleth upon the throne of the heart and soul, His shining becometh visible in every limb and member . . . For thus the Master of the house hath appeared within His home, and all the pillars of the dwelling are ashine with His light. And the action and effect of the light are from the Light-Giver; so it is that all move through Him and arise by His will. (Bahá'u'lláh)(42)
It is here that the human being reaches that contentment and inner peace for which we all long.
Pleasant is the realm of being, wert thou to attain thereto; glorious is the domain of eternity, shouldst thou pass beyond the world of mortality; sweet is the holy ecstasy if thou drinkest of the mystic chalice from the hands of the celestial Youth. Shouldst thou attain this station, thou wouldst be freed from destruction and death, from toil and sin. (Bahá'u'lláh)
In this spiritual world, everything is seen anew and the individual is lost in wonderment. Here the mystical traveller
. . . is tossed in the oceans of grandeur, and at every moment his wonder groweth. Now he seeth the shape of wealth as poverty itself, and the essence of freedom as sheer impotence . . . At every moment he beholdeth a wondrous world, a new creation, and goeth from astonishment to astonishment, and is lost in awe at the works of the Lord of Oneness. (Bahá'u'lláh)(44)
The result is to achieve a station where the self of the individual vanishes completely allowing the divine nature which it is concealing to shine out brightly. This is the station of true poverty and absolute nothingness.
This station is the dying from self and the living in God, the being poor in self and rich in the Desired One. Poverty as here referred to signifieth being poor in the things of the created world, rich in the things of God's world. For when the true lover and devoted friend reacheth to the presence of the Beloved, the sparkling beauty of the Loved One and the fire of the lover's heart will kindle a blaze and burn away all veils and wrappings. Yea, all he hath, from heart to skin, will be set aflame, so that nothing will remain save the Friend. (Bahá'u'lláh)(45)
During our lives we inevitably have periods of time when things are not going well. Whether it be caused by death, poverty, disease, or the actions of others, suffering is an inevitable consequence of our lives on this earth. There are periods when nothing seems to go right and every path to happiness is blocked with insurmountable barriers. Alternatively, we may be struck by suffering on a huge scale caused by a war or a natural disaster.
Some of our suffering is, of course, the direct result of our own actions: something that we have done wrong or unwisely. The Bahá'í teachings assert that the universe is governed by physical, moral and spiritual laws, if we break or go against these laws, we must expect to suffer the consequences. Thus if we flout the physical laws in the world and walk in front of a moving car, we must expect to get hurt; similarly, if we go against the moral laws and act dishonestly, for example, we should not be surprised if we are punished when this is found out; and if we go against the spiritual laws of the universe and fail to pray or to detach ourselves from the physical things of this world, for example, then we must expect to be unhappy and feel discontented.
Our suffering is not, however, always caused by something that we have done. It is often at such times that we start to wonder about the reason for suffering. The question is frequently asked as to whether a loving God would allow such suffering.
Bahá'u'lláh says that the whole of this world that we see before us has been created by God for the education and spiritual development of human beings:
Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom in existence and the essence of all created things. Thus, ere thou didst issue from thy mother's womb, I destined for thee two founts of gleaming milk, eyes to watch over thee, and hearts to love thee. Out of My loving-kindness, 'neath the shade of My mercy I nurtured thee, and guarded thee by the essence of My grace and favour. And My purpose in all this was that thou mightest attain My everlasting dominion and become worthy of My invisible bestowals.(46)
Since the whole of creation is for the express purpose of promoting the spiritual welfare of human beings, it is not surprising to find that the Bahá'í teachings assert that suffering is also sometimes caused by God for this purpose. Pain, as we have seen , is an inevitable part of detaching ourselves from the attractions of this physical world. When `Abdu'l-Bahá was asked: "Does the soul progress more through sorrow or through the joy in this world?" he replied:
The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering. The more the ground is ploughed the better the seed will grow, the better the harvest will be. Just as the plough furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment. His attitude in this world will be that of divine happiness. Man is, so to speak, unripe: the heat of the fire of suffering will mature him. Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest men have suffered most . . .
To attain eternal happiness one must suffer. He who has reached the state of self-sacrifice has true joy. Temporal joy will vanish.(47)
Therefore Bahá'u'lláh even calls upon us to welcome suffering as an opportunity for our spiritual development:
My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.(48)
One particular teaching of the Bahá'í Faith is that one can either perform good deeds or say prayers of intercession on behalf of those who have died, in order to assist their progress in the next world.
The progress of man's spirit in the divine world, after the severance of its connection with the body of dust, is through the bounty and grace of the Lord alone, or through the intercession and the sincere prayers of other human souls, or through the charities and important good works which are performed in its name. (`Abdu'l-Bahá)(60)