IN BAHA’U’LLAH’S FOOTSTEPS: RE-ENCHANTING THE EARTH
Bahá’u’lláh taught an attitude towards nature through both His life and His words. He was born in 1817 into a wealthy family in the capital of Persia, and could have spent His youth like his peers, lounging it the luxuries this status afforded Him. But instead, He would ride on horseback throughout the countryside, looking for ways to lighten the peasants’ burdens in life, gaining Him the epithet “Father of the Poor”. “The country is the world of the soul,” He would say, “and the city is the world of bodies.”
When His father died, Bahá’u’lláh – now a young man – refused to inherit his high position at the Shah’s court, and instead championed the persecuted movement of spiritual renewal sparked by the Báb (i.e., Gate) in 1844, in preparation for the coming of the One promised by all the Prophets and Seers of the past, the One destined to inaugurate a new era of universal justice, unity and peace. As a consequence, Bahá’u’lláh was arrested, stripped of all His wealth, tortured, imprisoned in the Black Pit, and finally exiled far from His native land. Nevertheless, He exclaimed,
“Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain, and the refuge, and the cave, and the valley, and the land, and the sea, and the island, and the meadow where mention of God hath been made, and His praise glorified.”(1)
Before his public declaration that He was the One foretold by the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh spent two years of seclusion in the mountains of Kurdistan, living in caves and stone huts. Despite the intense privation and physical hardship of that period, Bahá’u’lláh was profoundly happy as He reflected deeply on the message entrusted to Him:
“I roamed the wilderness of resignation,” He said. “The birds of the air were My companions and the beasts of the field My associates… Many a night I had no food for sustenance, and many a day My body found no rest… Alone I communed with My spirit, oblivious of the world and all that is therein.” (2)
Bahá’u’lláh perceived nothing but God in his natural surroundings, saying,
“Whatever I behold, I readily discover that it maketh Thee known unto me, and it remindeth me of Thy signs, and of Thy tokens, and of Thy testimonies. By Thy glory! Every time I lift up mine eyes unto Thy heaven, I call to mind Thy highness and Thy loftiness, and Thine incomparable glory and greatness; and every time I turn my gaze to Thine earth, I am made to recognize the evidences of Thy power and the tokens of Thy bounty. And when I behold the sea, I find that it speaketh to me of Thy majesty, and of the potency of Thy might, and of Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur. And at whatever time I contemplate the mountains, I am led to discover the ensigns of Thy victory and the standards of Thine Omnipotence.” (3)
Following Bahá’u’lláh’s public declaration, in 1863, of His divine mission as God’s Chosen Messenger to humanity for this age, He was further banished from East to West, and finally sentenced to perpetual imprisonment in the infamous prison-city of Akka in Palestine, a place so fetid that birds flying overhead would fall dead from the stench.
In that desolate spot, where not so much as a blade of grass grew, Bahá’u’lláh once remarked, “I have not gazed on verdure for nine years.” This moved son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to rent a small house with a garden for his Father outside the city gates. And so it is that the Blessed Beauty was able to spend the final years of His life surrounded by the natural beauty that He so cherished. Once outside the confines of the prison city, He often pitched His tent among the trees on the nearby slopes of Mount Carmel, where the Bahá’í World Center now stands, surrounded by beautiful gardens.
During his forty years of exile and imprisonment, Bahá’u’lláh wrote many volumes of epistles and treatises in both Arabic and Persian, penned in His own hand with outstanding calligraphy, full of allusions taken from the wonders of the natural world. A prime example is this well-known prayer:
“From the sweet-scented streams of Thine eternity give me to drink, O my God, and of the fruits of the tree of Thy being enable me to taste, O my Hope! From the crystal springs of Thy love suffer me to quaff, O my Glory…! Within the meadows of Thy nearness, before Thy presence, make me able to roam, O my Beloved…! From the fragrant breezes of Thy joy let a breath pass over me, O my Goal…! To the melodies of the dove of Thy oneness suffer me to hearken, O Resplendent One…! Within the garden of Thine immortality, before Thy countenance, let me abide for ever, O Thou Who art merciful unto me… and unto the Daystar of Thy guidance lead me, O Thou my Attractor!” (4)
In direct contrast to the contemporary notion that God’s will sometimes contradicts natural laws, Bahá’u’lláh says, “Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise.” (5) For example, He stated that the natural law of evolution is not contrary to creation, but rather the ongoing process through which God creates and recreates all beings, from atoms to universes.
Bahá’u’lláh recommends moderation in all things, including civilization, which – if carried to excess – can become as much a cause of harm as it was of good when kept within its appropriate bounds. Today, however, the excesses of modern civilization have caused us to forget our dependency on the earth and our rightful place of humility towards nature, as Bahá’u’lláh reminds us:
“Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory…” (6)
“Notwithstanding, ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you.” (7)
“The promised day is come, the day when tormenting trials will have surged above your heads and beneath your feet, saying: ‘Taste ye what your hands have wrought!'” (8)
This realization instills in us a sense of respect and compassion for all living things, and the duty to teach it to future generations. An example of this is our treatment of animals:
“…it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion; rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature…
“The feelings are one and the same, whether ye inflict pain on man or on beast. Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests.” (9)
In contrast to popular depictions of nature as wrought with strife and “Red in tooth and claw,” we are encouraged to see ecosystems as models of cooperation, mutual aid and reciprocity, to be emulated by human society:
“…the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that cooperation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly…
“Hence… co-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.” (10)
We are an integral part of the Earth, not separate from it. What affects us affects nature, and what affects nature affects us. Our human survival depends on the survival of our larger body, the Earth. In this vein the Bahá’í teachings say:
“We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.” (11)
“We need a change of heart, a reframing of all our conceptions and a new orientation of our activities. The inward life of man as well as his outward environment have to be reshaped if human salvation is to be secured.” (12)
In the Bahá’í world view, all material beings are the outer expression of an inner spirit that animates them. Besides the human spirit or soul, there is also a mineral spirit in the energy, cohesiveness and dynamics of the physical world; a vegetable spirit that causes life, vegetative growth and reproduction; and an animal spirit that provides the many sense perceptions and independent, purposeful movement. Each new level encompasses and transcends the levels before it; and human beings not only contain all these spirits, but also provide nature with the powers of self-awareness, self-reflection and self-transcendence. As the organic ‘cerebral cortex’ of this planet, the human race must therefore reach its collective maturity and learn to play our true part in this larger body – the planet Earth.
To conclude, I would like to share this final though: “Bahá’u’lláh’s promise that civilization will exist on this planet for a minimum of five thousand centuries makes it unconscionable to ignore the long-term impact of decisions made today. The world community must, therefore, learn to make use of the earth’s natural resources… in a manner that ensures sustainability into the distant reaches of time… Only a comprehensive vision of a global society, supported by universal values and principles, can inspire individuals to take responsibility for the long-term care and protection of the natural environment. Bahá’ís find such a world-embracing vision and system of values in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh – teachings which herald an era of planetary justice, prosperity and unity… The oneness of humanity is the fundamental spiritual and social truth shaping our age.” (13)
- Bahá’u’lláh, in “Bahá’í Prayers”. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991.
- Bahá’u’lláh, in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By. Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1957. p. 120-2.
- Prayers and Meditations of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, p. 272.
- Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987, p. 272.
- Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, p. 142.
- Bahá’u’lláh, “Epistle to the Son of the Wolf”, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, p. 44.
- The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985, pp. 28-9.
- Shoghi Effendi, “The Promised Day has Come” Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980, p. 3.
- Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, p. 158-159.
- ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Ḥuqúqu’lláh – The Right of God, p. 7, Bahá’í World Centre, 2007.
- Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations, Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1991.
- Shoghi Effendi, from a letter dated 27 May 1932.
- “Conservation and Sustainable Development,” Bahá’í International Community, May 3, 1995.