February 14, 2011

Reflecting on what it means to be a Baha’i – A talk given by Hand of the Cause, Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum in India, in 1964

Transcript of a talk given in 1964 at an all-India Teaching Conference, arranged by the National Spiritual Assembly at Gwalior Teaching Institute in India. About 500 believers had come from all corners of India to this conference.

It is a great joy to be here. When I look at your faces it makes me feel that I am seeing the faces of all the Baha'is in India. As I have been ill -- in the last two weeks I have had two attacks of influenza and been in bed for eight days -- I have to be a little careful that I don't get it back again.

I would like to say that the preciousness of this occasion that we have here is far beyond our powers to describe. We must appreciate it. You see it is very seldom that so many devoted Baha’is, many of them active in the teaching work, have an opportunity to come together in one place, even for a few hours. I have noticed that mass teaching is the subject that I have been asked to speak on, but I must be excused and speak from my heart what I feel is most important, because mass teaching is the subject of this entire Conference. It is your subject as well as my subject, but now I must at first speak just from my heart.

When our beloved Shoghi Effendi died in 1957, I said that the only Baha'i we had in the world had died. This Cause of Baha'u'llah is so great. It is for at least 1,000 years. Who understands it? Some of us who are here were born Baha'is, some have ancestors who were Baha’is, some of you became Baha'is maybe yesterday or this morning. This is not the point. We are all Baha'is. I feel very strongly that if we Baha'is want to teach the Message of Baha'u'llah to the people of India, the better we have in our minds the concept of how great this Message is, the easier it will be to teach it. I want you to make a little trip with me. Come with me on a little trip and follow my thought. It is night time and we are looking up at the sky -- and in India the sky is very clear -- and we see this great white river across the sky, which in English we call the Milky Way. City people and village people are familiar with this great river of light, but do all of us know that this river of light is composed of millions and billions of stars just like our sun? How many of us know that we little human beings looking up at the sky, that we on this earth belong to the stars in that river? So great is this river. Now our sun is our centre, and around the centre of this sun which belongs to us are grouped all the planets, and we on this earth are just one of the planets that go around our sun. So, now we get down to this earth. We know where we are out there in space, we know where we are in relation to this sun which is setting, and now let us begin to talk about this planet on which we human beings live.

We Baha'is are taught by Baha'u'llah that in this world there is a process which is taking place -- something which had a beginning and which has an end. Baha'u'llah said that thousands and thousands of years ago, long before Krishna came into the world, long before Rama came into the world, long before Buddha came into the world, we had already Prophets Who came to educate human beings. He tells us that all knowledge comes from these great Divine Prophets Who come to this world to illumine the souls and the minds of human beings. He said that He has come at the top of a cycle that began thousands of years ago and His Revelation will have a direct effect on the world for 500,000 years. The reason that I tell you this is because you are Baha'is. You must know what it is you believe, and I don't think any of us realize what it is to be a Baha'i. If we have enemies in the future, if the people say that these Baha'is are wrong and they are taking people out of the true path of Hinduism or of Islam or of Christianity, and they attack us, we must know what it is we believe in so that we can tell them the truth and so that we will stand firm in our faith. Far from being afraid that we should ever have enemies, we should pray God that a day will come when we will be tested, because when the storm comes the big trees' roots go deeper into the ground and big trees grow taller.

Now, what is it that we believe Baha'u'llah has come into this world to do? Is it just to teach us to be good people, to say nice things to each other, to say our prayers and to believe in a life after death? It is much more than that. Baha'u'llah said to the people of the world: You are all children and we were all very patient with you, we Fathers, we Prophets, we Krishnas, we Ramas, we Buddhas, we Christs, we Muhammads, we were all very patient with you; we were your Fathers and you were children, but this is a different kind of day. You know with your own children that you try to get them to behave themselves and to act like adult human beings and to assume responsibility, but they do not do it much of the time, and then you say: Well, after all, they are children. Now, what does Baha'u'llah say to us? He says: Finished! You are no longer children. This is the day of your maturity. You human beings are now grown up. Now I am going to talk to you like a son who is 21 years old.

Baha'u'llah has given us spiritual teachings, He has given us economic teachings, He has given us social teachings, and on top of that He has given us an entirely new World Order, a World Civilization. Let us take an example that is very easy because it is before our eyes. Let us take the design on this very beautiful tent. This is a particularly beautiful tent and I am very glad that somebody put it over my head so that I can use it as an example. It has different compartments and it has different pillars holding it up. It has different colours and it has different patterns. But it has a plan. Over and over again the same thing is repeated. The motif is the same, these rosettes are the same, these big medallions are the same, these flowers are the same. We Baha'is are very much like this. We are the flowers, we are the leaves. Those medallions are the Spiritual Assemblies; these big compartments are the National Assemblies, the whole tent is the Baha'I world. Now let us sit here for a moment and imagine if we had a rent that was made without any plan. Suppose that instead of these designs you had all the petticoats and all the saris and all the dhotis of all the people and they were hung up. What kind of tent would you have? It would not have been this kind of tent; it would have been a mess! Some of the people of the world think that we Baha'is have an organization that is like the petticoat, choli, sari, dhoti, turban organization. They do not know that we have this kind of tent, which is the Baha’i world. We all know, as Baha’i teachers, that when we talk to the people and we try and tell them what a wonderful thing the Baha'i religion is, they do not get it clear in their own minds and they say: "Well; my wife's petticoat is just as good as her husband's dhoti!' So why should I become a Baha'i? I stay a Hindu and let them be Baha’is." When the people say that to us, the trouble is with us. We have not succeeded in conveying to them the greatness of the Faith of Baha'u'llah and what it stands for in the world today, and this is what we must learn to do if we want to convert the people of India to the Cause of Baha’u’llah.

That is why we must always think big; that is why I believe it helps us to first of all think about the world, and then think about history, and then think about the universe, and then think about Baha'u'llah and why He is here and what He intends to do. It says in the Bible -- I may not be quoting it absolutely correctly -- that when I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child; but now I am grown to manhood, I have put away childish things. Now, when you come to manhood what is required of you? You have to become a full citizen of the place that you live in, you have to assume a citizen's responsibilities. You pay your taxes, you can vote, you marry, start a home and a family of your own, you finish your studies and enter business or enter a profession or you grow up and you go out and become a farmer in your own right. That is what has happened to the human race today. All human beings, according to the teachings of Baha’u’llah, have reached manhood. We have grown up. Manhood has responsibilities. What are the responsibilities Baha'u'llah has given us? There are some things that we must get straight in our minds and I will quote to you from Baha'u'llah's Writings so you will know what they are. Baha’u’llah says: ". . . say not that which thou doest not", "nor promise that which [thou] doth not fulfil." These are tremendously important statements. They are not just nice little words. He adds to this something else. He says: ". . . he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life." What does this imply? Let us ask ourselves. We are all intelligent Baha'is in this place. Let us ask ourselves what these statements of Bahau'llah imply. What do they mean? They mean that a Baha'i has a character that is like a perfect block of stone that can be used in a building and that will not shake, that will remain firm, and you can build the whole building if you have stones of this quality. Let us take the first statement of Baha'u'llah and apply it to the world: "Say not that which thou doest not." Let us take it and apply it to the United Nations, to the relationships of one country to another. Do they treat each other like this or do they constantly say things to each other which they have no intention of fulfilling, and do not even try and fulfil, and everybody knows it? "Nor promise that which [thou] doth not fulfil" – the nations make promises to each other, just as we individuals make promises to each other: "Oh yes, yes, I would be glad to help you when the time comes", or "When your son goes into business you can count on me." Where is he when your son goes into business? Finished. I don't think we realize that Baha’u’llah teaches that the worst characteristic, and the one which will poison the entire nature of human beings, is to tell lies. We lie to each other all the time. I am not talking about Baha'is. I am talking about the human race. Somebody telephones and they want to speak with me and I say: "Tell them that I am out." I am not out, I am right there. What is this except a lie? We say things about people which we do not mean, we flatter them, we say: "Oh my, such a beautiful sari you are wearing; what a lovely shade of green." And in our hearts we are saying: My God, my God, with a yellow skin like that why in heaven's name does she wear a green sari! Without our realizing it, lying has become so common in the world that it is part of everything we do. The merchant lies to the customer, the customer lies to the merchant; the father lies to the child, the child lies to the father; the teacher lies to the pupil, the pupil lies to the teacher, and so on. It is true of human society, from little tiny people in their own homes up to the nations.

We are dishonest in big ways and in small ways; although we might hesitate to steal something because we have a conscience -- we won't actually put our hand on it and steal it -- yet in other ways we find nice little small methods of stealing which are acceptable in modern society. We take and give bribes, we charge more than is right in order to make more profit for ourselves. This is a very subtle way of stealing. I remember once the Guardian received a cable stating that something he wanted to have done had been accomplished. And he was pleased, in a way, that this had been done but he said: "You know, I am afraid to hear the details because I do not know what they did in order to accomplish it. I hope it was all right." None of you being stupid, you know perfectly well what I am trying to convey. Somebody says I am a Baha'i and I believe in this, this, this, and this. What difference is there between this man and any other person in the world? No difference. Then what use is this Baha’i to the world and what use is he to Baha’u’llah? He cannot build His edifice with a stone as weak and rotten as that. We do not want people just to say: "That man's religion is Baha'i and his Prophet is Baha'u'llah." We want people to say: "Oh yes, you mean that merchant who is in such and such a place in the bazaar? You know, he is a Baha’i." We want people to say: "You know that village over there, those people who are so honest and so enterprising and so fine in every way? Yes, those are Baha'is. That village is a Baha'i village." 'Abdu'l-Baha said that a day will come -- He said this when He was in America -- He said a day will come when people will stop you in the streets and look into your face and say, "Tell me, what is it you believe? What is it you have?" It is hard to be a good and honourable human being in the world today. I know that. Politics are dirty, business is dirty, there are all kinds of personal pulling and pushing, even in institutes of learning and in the school systems and in the village systems. The world today is in a very, very weak moral condition. We know that.

The point is that we have many things that help us to become better. One of the greatest of these is prayer. We must pray Baha'u'llah to help us to become better and to forgive our own weaknesses. Muhammad said, "Prayer is a ladder by which every one can ascend to heaven." If we lack something we must ask Baha'u'llah every single day to please give it to us. If we lack something in our characters, let us say that we are pious and we are God-fearing, we are good people, but we are very, very stingy. We should pray that God will give us the great characteristic of generosity. If we lack patience with our children -- or with our clients or with other human being, we must pray Baha’u’llah every night when we go to bed, "Please, Baha'u'llah, help me to have patience; increase my patience." This is one way we can change our characters. Another way we can change our characters is just exactly the way we take exercise. The other day I was in Benares and we went on the river and I saw some of the Yogis doing their morning exercises and they were stretching their lungs. All right, their lungs will become stronger because they are exercising. We must exercise those qualities that we don't have. We must practise having them. Not many Baha'is realize that one of the teachings of their religion is this: that God never asks of us something that He will not give us the strength to do. He has asked the people of the world to change their characters, to change their thinking, to change their way of life, and He has given them, and will give them, the strength to do it.

Friends, it is very difficult to listen to a talk in two languages. It is hard enough to listen to a long talk in one language, but in two languages it makes it even more difficult, and I will not talk to the point where everybody gets exhausted and wishes that I would stop talking. I have not had the opportunity to consult with the members of the National Spiritual Assembly or with the people who have arranged this programme and therefore I am not in a position to change what they wish done today, but I feel that one of the most important things in this Conference is to have free discussion about how to carry on the Nine Year Plan given by the House of Justice; we must have suggestions from the people present about the teaching work. With the exception of a few foreigners who are here, from outside India, this is your country; this is your part of the Nine Year Plan; this is your religion and it is your responsibility. Therefore, surely, it must be you who discuss and think about ways and means of doing it. I would be happy to answer questions and I will have the same right as anyone else to make suggestions.

(Some written questions were handed to Ruhiyyih Khanum)

Someone has asked a question -- as a matter of fact there are three questions -- which I will answer very briefly. Someone has said, "How can a man be certain if his acts are good or bad? Is there any list of good things and bad things?"

Every religion in the world has told us what is good and what is bad, and also we have something in here (pointing to her heart) called conscience, which more or less warns us against what is bad. I think probably the person who asked this question could also get up and answer his own question if he thought about it, about what is good and what is bad. Lying is bad, stealing is bad, adultery is bad. It is very clear; dishonesty, cheating is bad, cruelty is bad. All of these things are so obviously bad that you don't need anyone to tell you what the list is. Hatred is bad. Turning your face away from people in pride and anger is bad. And I will tell you something that I think is bad, though I can't think at the moment of anywhere I can quote it from the Baha'i teachings. Many of us like to give, but we don't like to receive, and I think that is bad. I would like to add three things that occur to me, which Baha’u’llah says are very bad. One is drinking, which is strictly forbidden; the second is the use of drugs, which is absolutely forbidden in the Baha'i Faith; and the third thing, which Baha'u'llah considers one of the worst things in the whole world, is backbiting. He says, "the tongue is a smouldering fire, and excess of speech is a deadly poison." This is a common disease of humanity, to speak evil of other people and to listen to evil of other people. He says that we kill people with the sword quickly but the tongue destroys the reputation of a man for a century. I would like to give the Baha'is a piece of advice about gossip: remember, it is forbidden in the teachings of Baha'u'llah; and if someone comes to you to speak evil of another person, don't let them first tell you and then say, "You should not say these things”; say, "I don't want to hear these things. This is forbidden in this religion."

Another person has asked a question to this effect: "When there is so much inequality in the world, when we are so different from each other, how is it possible to love each other?" Fortunately, I once heard our beloved Guardian speak on this subject to a Baha'i pilgrim in a most marvellous language. I wish that I could convey a hundredth part of what he said and the spirit with which he said it. This man said that he was not very happy in the Baha'i community that he was now living in, but that in the Baha'i community where at first he accepted the Faith he had been very happy. He said: "I don't love them and I don't see that I have hardly anything at all in common with them." Shoghi Effendi said: "That is quite natural. We are very different from each other. How can we love each other? All of us can't love everybody else all the time; this is quire natural." He said: "There is a way to do this and that is through the love of God." He said: "Children, if they love their fathers -- though often the brothers and sisters don't agree, they are very different in temperament and they don't like each other and they clash -- because of their love for their father, and the fact that they know their father loves each one of them, for this love of the father they will love their brothers and sisters. For the sake of Baha’u’llah we can love each other and with a real love; it is dependent upon how much we love Baha'u'llah."

I am a simple person and I can sometimes better explain things through things that have happened to me, and I would like to tell you of an experience that I have had since I came to India. It has been a lesson for me and it is on this subject. I love Baha'u'llah; I am not worthy to, but I do and I can sincerely say that I love my fellow Baha'is. But, at one point in this trip I found that through the attitude of one of the Baha'is in one of the places that I went to -- and remember I have been to hundreds of places, so none of you know which place it is -- that through the attitude of one Baha'i in one place I really was ready to burst. And I went to my room that night and said, "Really I can't stand that Baha'i. He is awful." And I might add that I had a pretty good reason for feeling that way, and I had one of the hardest battles with myself that I have had in a great many years. All the time, just like any other human being, I remembered what this person had said and I remembered what he had done, and this turned around in my heart and I was angry. I said to myself, "This is not good enough. In the first place, this is a good Baha'i, he loves the Cause, he serves the Cause, never mind how he has treated you or this person or that person or what he has said and what he has done. He is a good Baha'i and he loves Baha'u'llah." And I said to myself: "The whole purpose of the teachings of Baha'u'llah is to bring about love and unity and if you cannot open your heart enough to take this fellow Baha'i into it and love him because Baha'u'llah loves him and he is your fellow Baha'i, then where is the peace in the Baha'i community, where is our unity?” And I was angry and I rolled around in my bed and I said: "I don't want him in my heart." But this was not good enough. "Please, Baha'u'llah, help me, please, please, please. Now I really need help; please take this feeling of anger out of my heart. Please make me love my fellow Baha'i as I should. Please make me love all the members of this community, because otherwise this Baha’i unity is a joke, it is a mockery, we will never create it in the world." And thank God, Baha’u’llah helped me and I won that battle with myself. But,friends, it was one of the hardest battles I have had to fight for a great many years, and I know that I am a better Baha'i now than I was before that happened and that I have more strength for the next time I have a test and have to battle with myself. But the thing that enabled me to do it was two things -- love of Baha'u'llah and praying to Him to please help me to be a good Baha'i.

Now I have one more question here which I think is a very, very interesting question. Someone has asked: "Can we pray to God? Should we pray to God or should we pray to Baha’u’llah?" I heard our beloved Guardian answer this question also, and he said, "You may pray to God, to Baha'u'llah, to 'Abdu'l-Baha, to me, to anybody, but the most important thing is that when you say that prayer, you must know exactly what you are doing." He said that if you pray to God, then you must realize that you are praying to the Infinite Essence, to the Creator, to the Power behind the entire universe, and you must understand the Baha'i teaching that this Infinite Essence beyond the whole of creation can only be reached by us through His Manifestation. Many,many, many of our Baha'i prayers, in fact all of them, say "O my God", "O my Lord". When we call upon God with these prayers we must remember the teachings of Baha’u’llah that God is revealed to us through the Prophets and that we have no direct way of knowing Him because we are intrinsically different. When we pray to Baha'u'llah, we can address our prayers to Him and say: "O Baha'u'llah", and open our hearts and say anything we want to Him, but then we must remember that He is the Supreme Manifestation of God for this day, that now He is the Door to Divine Knowledge that has been opened in this world. In other words, we must remember the teachings and Who Baha'u'llah is when we pray to Him. The same thing is true about 'Abdu'l-Baha. We can pray to 'Abdu'l-Baha and ask Him to help us, or say anything that we wish to say, but then we must remember that 'Abdu'l-Baha is not the Prophet of God, but that He is the Mystery of God, that He is the perfect man, that He is the Centre of the Covenant and as what He is, we must pray to Him. Then we can pray to the Guardian. We can pray to him and say, "O Shoghi Effendi, help us, you who are the Guardian, the Sign of God on earth, the Interpreter of the teachings, our guide, our protector, our Guardian." We must know who he is according to the teachings and then pray to him in that station. This is true throughout everything. For instance, sometimes I pray to my mother. After all, my mother's soul exists, and I call on her and say, "O mother, help me! You who lived a good life and passed away, who have been accepted by God in His mercy, help your child." Sometimes I pray to Martha Root, and then I pray to the mother of 'Abdu’l-Baha. You are free to pray to anybody you want to, but you must have the correct concept, otherwise you are praying only to your imagination. These teachings of Baha'u'llah are so perfect and so illuminating that we never get tired of hearing about them and studying them.

There is just one question that seems to have been asked by the same person who asked a question about right and wrong, a list of good and bad things. He says: "I am not certain whether meat-eating is bad or good?" Meat-eating is an entirely individual matter. We must remember that just as you Hindus have not eaten meat for thousands of years and this is your custom and your religious belief, there are people in other parts of the world who have been forced to eat meat because it was the only food available in cold countries. They did not have vegetarian food that you have, and they have eaten meat for thousands of years and they never saw anything wrong in it. There are no food prohibitions in the Baha’i Faith. There are no indications how we should kill or not kill animals or what we should eat or not eat. We are absolutely free. But 'Abdu'l-Baha has said things which make us believe that gradually the whole world will become vegetarian. There are many western vegetarians, some because they think it is better for their health and others because they think it is wrong to kill anything. But we have many vegetarian Baha'is in the West and they are free. They don't want to eat meat. Why should they? They are just as free as you Hindus not to eat meat in your country.

Now a question is: "If circumstances demand that we should tell a lie to save a situation, what should we do?" I can give you only one example of when you are allowed to lie: that is a doctor to his patient. 'Abdu'l-Baha says this, that a doctor is not forced to tell the truth to his patient. The patient says to the doctor, "Doctor, I feel very, very ill. Am I going to die?" And maybe the doctor knows he may die in two minutes, but he should not say to the patient, "Yes., you are going to die." He has a right to say, "No, don't worry. Why should you die? Why do you think you are going to die? You are going to be all right." Sometimes people ask me things that I don't want to tell them and I certainly will not lie. So I say, "I am sorry, I don't want to answer that question", or I say, "I am sorry, that is none of your business"; but I don't lie and we must not lie. It is not necessary, and if we are going to be the judge as to when we should lie, then we go right back where we are today, where everybody is lying all the time.

Someone has asked me: "We are supposed to love everybody. Then what does it mean in the Tablet of Ahmad where it says, 'Be thou as a flame of fire to My enemies and a river of life eternal to My loved ones'?" The Bible states: All sins will be forgiven you except the sin against the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit. The sin against the Holy Ghost is turning your back on the Prophet, turning your back on the one appointed by the Prophet. It is the sin of not obeying God. Our enemies -- people who do not understand, people who are the ill- wishers of the Baha'i Faith - we should have no feeling of hatred towards because they do it in great ignorance. But the enemy here is the one who waxes proud towards God and who turns his back on God and knows that he is doing it, and these are like serpents in the breast of man. These are the things that are dangerous, that we hate, that we have nothing to do with. This is spiritual death.

Friends, I am not going to answer any more questions, and I think that the advantage of my having answered these was that there has been an exchange between all of us here. We have shared in questions and answers together, but tomorrow we must talk about the teaching work in India. (Violette Nakhjavani, ‘Amatu’l-Baha Visits India’)