Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February, 1999)

The Development of the Baha'i Faith in Malwa: 1941-1974

William Garlington

In several previous publications(1) I have discussed the phenomenon of Baha'i mass teaching as experienced in Malwa, Central India, during the 1960s and 1970s. Here I examined such themes as proselytizing techniques,(2) especially as related to popular Hinduism, caste orientations of converts, and compartmentalization. In the present paper I would like to step back a bit, so to speak, and look in greater detail at the historical development of the Baha'i communities in Malwa from their inception in 1941 to the height of mass teaching in the early 1970s. In so doing I will focus more on specific events, personalities, and significant institutional changes related to proselytizing and consolidation, as opposed to the predominant conversion analyses of prior papers. But before beginning such an account, it would probably be appropriate to say a few words concerning the region known as Malwa

Malwa is the traditonal name for the region in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh that is bounded on the north by the Gwalior Hills, on the east by the Betwa River, on the south by the Plains of Nemar and on the west by the Chambal River. The region contains two major cities: Ujjain of traditional fame, and Indore. The former is situated n the banks of the Shipra River and was in ancient times the capital of Avanti, one of the sixteen principal states in India during the time of the Buddha. It is still a Hindu cultural center and is known both as a Kumbha Mehla site and for its numerous temples, primary of which is the Shaivite Maha Kal (Great Time). Indore, on the other hand, is largely a product of modern India. Developed as a trading center during the eighteenth century, it mushroomed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into a leading industrial site with a population of over one million.

Malwa has had an eventful history partly because it provides by far the best route from northern India into the Deccan and has thus attracted not only conquerors but numerous migrating peoples. The latter has no doubt produced an element of social instability in the region especially at the village level. According to anthropologist Adrian Mayer such movement has over time helped erode kinship ties and, in some cases, created a degree of disparity in caste composition(3) A similar parallel in the political sphere was mentioned by Wayne Wilcox who in 1968 listed the continual struggle for local power between current village headmen and former intermediaries as one of the five unique factors in the political life of Madhya Bharat and Malwa(4)

Several other sociological factors related to Malwa are also worth mentioning. First, there is the demographic fact of the region's high percentage of scheduled caste Hindus and tribal peoples(5). For example, in the mid- 1960s there were several districts where scheduled caste numbers reached as high as 23% of the population(6) Second is the extreme disparity between certain districts regarding income and literacy. In the more urbanized districts, such as Indore, per capita income at the height of Baha'i mass conversions was nearly 25% higher than in rural districts such as Shajapur, and literacy rates were sometimes two to three times greater in the urbanized districts (7) Finally, Malwa has long been a center of traditional Hindu culture and values, and during the twentieth century this has manifested itself in the form of active involvement in the political arena by rightist Hindu groups and parties.

The origins of the Baha'i Faith in Malwa can be traced back to the National Spiritual Assembly of India and Burma's first Six-Year-Plan. Modeled along the lines of a similar plan (The Seven-Year-Plan) initiated in the United States in 1937, the Indian version was inaugurated in 1940 with the earmarking of money for a special teaching fund by the Faith's Guardian, Shoghi Effendi.(8) The plan contained several distinguishing characteristics that had not been found in previous proselytizing campaigns in the subcontinent. Most important among these was the call for Indian Baha'is to become pioneers by leaving their homes and establishing residences in cities and towns throughout the country where Baha'is did not reside. At this time Mrs. Shirin Boman Meherabani, a Baha'i of Zorastrian ancestry(9), was living with her husband in Bombay where she was the secretary of the city's local spiritual assembly. For several years they had been participating, along with other members of the community, in making special teaching trips to various cities in western and central India, as was the case when they accompanied the internationally known Baha'i teacher Martha Root to Indore in April, 1938, where she gave a public lecture. While being aware of Shoghi Effendi's plea for Baha'is to move to such locations, their business ties had kept them in Bombay. Finally, in the latter months of 1941 Mrs. Meherabani approached her husband about leaving the city. At first he was unresponsive, but after a vivid dream in which he felt that the Guardian had called on him to make a sacrifice for Baha'u'llah, he consented. At the same time another family -the Munjes- made the decision to join the Meherabanis.(10) Thus in December, 1941, the families departed Bombay. Included in the group were Mr. and Mrs. Meherabani, their children, Mrs. Meherabani's younger brother, Mr. and Mrs. Munje, and Mr. Munje's mother.

By the time of the new pioneers' departure some results of India's Six-Year-Plan were already being felt. In 1941 local spiritual assemblies(11) were established in the south Indian cities of Hyderabad and Bangalore. Likewise an assembly had been established in the Rajasthani town of Kota. With these successes before them, the families decided to settle in Varanasi (Benares). Their reason for choosing the city was based on their desire to proselytize among Hindus, as very few members of this religion had entered the Baha'i Faith.(12) Their journey, however, was cut short at Bhopal where they were informed that due to war activity on the Burmese front further trains to Calcutta (via Varanasi) were cancelled. As a result they stayed for a few days in Bhopal, but finding the city unsuitable they decided to move on. According to Mrs. Meherabani, after an evening of prayer they determined to settle in the nearest Hindu holy city. That city was Ujjain.

When the two families arrived in Ujjain they were initially beset by business problems which required both Mr. Meherabani and Mr. Munje to return to Bombay. However, the remainder of the Meherabani family along with Mrs. Munje and her mother-in-law did establish a residence. At a later date Mr.Meherabani and Mr. Munje were also able to join them.

Early Baha'i activities in Ujjain were based primarily around personal contacts. Appropriate neighbors, friends and acquaintances would be told of the new religion, and if interest was shown, follow up meetings, usually at a residence, would be held at which further discussion about the Baha'i teachings would ensue. This “fireside” teaching eventually produced several converts and in 1942 a local spiritual assembly was able to be formed. This was the first assembly in Madhya Pradesh, and its formation earned the Meherabanis and Munjes a place on the Baha'i Honor Roll of Distinguished Service.(13)

While the Ujjain community continued its teaching activities, another pioneer arrived in central India. Near the end of 1943 Ghulam Ali Kurlawala brought his family to Bhopal, the city where the Meherabanis and Munjes had two years earlier declined to settle. However, due to pressure from local Muslim leaders, Mr. Kurlawala was forced to leave the city after a brief six-month stay.(14)

1944 proved to be very important for the Ujjain Baha'i community, as three signifcant events took place during this year. The first marked the initial public proclamation of the Baha'i Faith in Malwa and occurred on the evening of May 23, 1944, the one hundred year anniversary of the Bab's declaration in Shiraz. A drama depicting the the major events in the life of the Bab was presented in the town hall and pamphlets containing information about the Baha'i Faith were distributed. The second event was less convivial, as it signified the first real opposition experienced by the Ujjain Baha'is. The occasion was the marriage of one of Mrs. Meherabani's daughters to a newly converted Muslim. According to Mrs. Meherabani, several of Ujjain's leading mullahs hinted that violence might erupt if the ceremony took place. Mrs. Meherabani was personally threatened, and one mullah declared he would carry a black flag to the wedding. Although there was continual grumbling within the Muslim community, the ceremony proceeded as planned. Moreover, the threatened disruption remained only a threat. Finally, in 1944 the Baha'is were asked to participate in one of the city's inter-religious conferences. Although not known at the time, in terms of the future development of Baha'i missionary activity in Malwa this conference would prove to be extremely important as it allowed the Baha'i community to establish contact with certain individuals who many years later would become highly instrumental in the taking of the Baha'i message to the region's rural areas. Mr. Mahfuzu’l-Haqq `Ilmi, a well-known Baha'i traveling teacher spoke at the conference on the theme of Baha'i social principles. His speeech attracted the attention of one Kishan Lal Malviya, a scheduled caste leader from Shajapur (a district north-east of Ujjain). Following the conference Kishan Lal came into active contact with the Ujjain Baha'i community and he eventually declared his belief. While some follow up excursions to local villages did take place, and several other scheduled caste members accepted Baha'u'llah (notably Daya Ram Malviya from village Harsodan in Ujjain District),the larger implications of these declarations, namely the initiation of a rural mass teaching campaign among scheduled caste Hindus, was not initiated by the Ujjain Baha'is. Indeed it would not be for another seventeen years that such an approach to conversion would be deemed appropriate.

Near the end of 1944 the Munjes left Ujjain for Varanasi where they eventually set up a homeopathic clinic. The Meherabanis remained in Ujjain and continued to act as the main promulgators of Baha'i teaching work which focused on the distribution of Baha'literature and the continued participation in inter-religious activities. For example, Mrs. Meherabani spoke on several occasions to All-Faith conferences organized by the Theosophists.(15) In addition letters were written to various radio stations in Ujjain, Indore and Gwalior informing them about the beliefs and principles of the Baha'i Faith. Some gauge of the impact that the community was having in Ujjain can be measured from the fact that the Sikh community invited a Baha'i speaker to say some words on the occasion of the celebration of Guru Govindsingh's birthday. According to the National Spiritual Assembly's Annual Report for the year 1946-7 the Ujjain Sikh community had come to see the Baha'i Faith as "a universal Faith."(16)

In 1945 the second city in central India was permanently settled by Baha'i pioneers when Mrs. Meherabani's brother, Mr. Merwan Irani, and his family moved to Indore from their previous pioneer post in Nagpur. By 1947 they had been able to enroll two new Baha'is, and thus by the time India gained its nationhood the Baha'i community in Malwa was composed of a local spiritual assembly in Ujjain, a group in Indore and several isolated individuals in the rural districts.

With the arrival of independence in 1947 and the subsequent partition of British India into the states of India and Pakistan, the Baha'i community in Malwa was dealt a severe blow. The movement of people, and the dangers surrounding religious proselytizing of any kind, resulted in the loss of the Ujjain Local Spiritual Assembly and the overall quieting of missionary work. Moreover, the Meherabanis soon left Ujjain for Gwalior, and without their presence not only was the Ujjain Baha'i Centre closed, but teaching activities in the region came to a virtual standstill. Some contact was kept with the region's Baha'is by means of traveling teachers, but as the following report from the Indian National Spiritual Assembly noted, the situation in Ujjain was moribund:

This is a place where some of our pioneers had worked against great odds some years ago. It was pleasing to note that still there were some sympathizers to be found there who are keen that the centre be opened. Although they were non-Bahais, they offered to keep the centre going until some Baha's could take it over.(17)

The outstanding Baha'i event of this period was a visit to Malwa in 1953 by one of the newly appointed Hands of the Cause(18), the American Dorothy Baker. The occasion was the conclusion of an international conference held in New Delhi at which Baha'is from various countries gathered to inaugurate a world-wide proselytizing effort known as The Ten Year Crusade. At this time Shoghi Effendi asked Dorothy Baker to stay in the subcontinent for a brief period to help initiate the campaign. Her assignment included a two week visit to central India where she gave a series of public lectures in colleges and town halls in Gwalior, Ujjain and Indore.(19) In addition she made an unscheduled trip to village Harsodan, the same Malwa village where some years earlier Daya Ram Malviya and his father had accepted the Baha'i Faith. Here she met with villagers and displayed a new attitude towards conversion which seemed to characterize a more general change in Baha'i missionary policy. This approach was summed up by Mrs. Meherabani as follows:

She gave us a completely new outlook. Before her trip
we knew that the Faith was for all men, but we were concerned
that those who entered its fold should have an understanding of
the Faith. Dorothy Baker taught us that the most important
thing in the Faith was love of Baha'u'llah and our fellow men. The
details were minor (20)

Seven more years would have to pass, however, before the implications of this new attitude were put into effect in Malwa.

In 1958 Indore was finally able to elect its first local spiritual assembly. Like the Ujjain situation in the early 1940's the Indore community had grown to assembly status through normal interpersonal teaching methods. One feature of the community, however, is worthy of note, as in hindsight it seems to have signalled the direction teaching in Malwa would soon take, and that is the distinctly Hindu orientation of its members. Among all the early converts only one was not of Hindu background.(21) Apparently efforts had been made to teach Muslim friends, but these efforts met with no success.(22)

Ujjain was resuscitated from its period of stagnation a year later when Mr. K. H. Vajdi and his wife settled in the city. Mr. Vajdi was a businessman who had been born a Zoroastrian and converted to the Baha'i Faith during his youth. He had served the Baha'i Faith both in India and Africa by working on various committees and participating in numerous teaching projects. Mrs. Vajdi was one of Mrs. Meherabani's daughters, and she had just obtained a teaching position at Ujjain's Vikram University in the Faculty of Economics. Indeed it was this appointment that brought the couple to Ujjain. When they arrived in the city the Vajdis found only one other Baha'i, but as a result of zealous teaching efforts, by April, 1960, a new local spiritual assembly was created. Thus on the eve of the greatest mass enrollment that the Baha'i Faith would have experienced since the early years of its inception in Iran, the region's administrative apparatus which would have to help structure this tidal wave was made up of just two recently established local spiritual assemblies.

As the events which triggered the initiation of mass teaching in Malwa have been dealt with in other papers, there is no need to recount them here. Suffice it to say that starting in 1960 Baha'i missionaries began to actively recruit in the villages of Malwa. Moreover the old policy of demanding sufficient knowledge of Baha'i teachings and community life as grounds for conversion was replaced by the mere acceptance of Baha'u'llah's messianic claims (which was indicated when villagers signed, or in some cases thumb printed, declaration sheets). The leading players in this new proselytizing campaign were Mr.and Mrs. Meherabani, Mr and Mrs. Vajdi, Mr. R.S. Bhargava, Kishan Lal Malviya, and Daya Ram Malviya.

As a result of the new approach, during the next few years the number of declared Baha'is in Malwa mushroomed to over 100,000, and this massive influx of villagers presented Indian Baha'i leadership with a number of new problems which included: 1) the extent to which community resources and energy should be directed towards increased proselytizing as opposed to consolidation efforts; 2) how contact was to be maintained between established Baha'i institutions and the new believers and 3) how the education or deepening of village Baha'is was to be organized and implemented.

The question of how to balance proselytizing and consolidation activities came to the fore almost immediately after the first fruits of mass teaching were experienced. In one sense this issue had predated the mass teaching campaign. As mentioned earlier, there existed in India, if not throughout the Baha'i world, a feeling that enrollment into the Baha'i Faith should require some fundamental knowledge of the religion's essential teachings, institutions and modes of behavior. The sudden arrival of large numbers of new converts, whose primary assertion was belief in Baha'u'llah as an avatar, not only resurrected this notion of unease; the logistical and administrative problems the phenomenon brought in its wake led many to question whether teaching should not be curbed until some degree of administrative control had been established. This sense of anxiety is readily apparent in the pages of a book (Amutu-l Baha Visits India) which chronicled Ruhiyyih Khanum's (23) trip to the mass teaching areas. Time and again she is asked whether teaching activities should be restricted to allow for consolidation. In every instance her answer was in the negative. For example:

But I feel a word of advice is in order here. Often,
the active workers inside a community, who are bearing
the full weight of teaching, administering and supporting
it, get the idea that they should slow down on 'expansion'
and 'consolidate.' This is a dangerous idea - a very dangerous idea...Nowhere in our teachings - neither from the pen of
Baha'u'llah, Abdu'l-Baha nor the Guardian do we find mention of
circumstances under which we should not teach this Faith
actively all the time. Only when by law, a government has
forbidden us to teach actively do we bow our heads in obedience
to government.(24)

Perhaps it was the influence of Ruhiyyih Khanum that kept the mass teaching campaign moving forward in Malwa for most of the 1960's, even at times when follow-up visits to many new villages became virtually impossible. Whatever the motivation, the Indian National Spiritual Assembly became committed to this approach and began supporting similar activities in other parts of the country. This attitude can be contrasted with that taken by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States a decade later when a similar mass teaching campaign in South Carolina was virtually abandoned due to the fear of lack of administrative control.(25)

While proselytizing activities continued to be actively supported during this period, it was apparent that unless the missionary work was to produce only “paper Baha'is,” a well-organized plan for consolidation had to be immediately put into place. Such a plan would require not only methods for deepening the villagers but new administrative structures to direct and monitor the educational activities. The first step in this direction was taken in 1962 when the Indian National Spiritual Assembly created a special area teaching committee for the mass teaching areas of Madhya Pradesh. Prior to this time there existed only a single National Teaching Committee whose members were in charge of directing teaching and “deepening” plans for the entire country. The new Area Teaching Committee was given special charge to work at the grass root levels in Madhya Pradesh where mass teaching was occurring, and thus its members were given control over initial planning of the consolidation program in Malwa. Due to increased work load, several years later this committee was split into three separate committees: The Madhya Padesh State Teaching Committee and two regional teaching committees, one based in Gwalior, the other in Ujjain. In other areas of the country where mass teaching was initiated similar administrative structures were also created.

In coordination with the establishment of new state and regional teaching committees, the Indian National Spiritual Assembly also decided to both fund the creation of a Baha'i teaching institute, and organize a stable corps of paid traveling Baha'i teachers. Thus in October, 1961, a building and grounds was purchased in the Mill section (northern) of Indore, and shortly thereafter the Indore Baha'i Teaching Institute was formally opened. A resident director(26) was put in charge of managing the institute's activities which essentially involved bringing new village believers to its grounds for “deepening” sessions lasting anywhere from one day to a week. In a similar vein, indigenous village believers who were thought to have teaching potential were recruited and trained as Baha'i traveling teachers. They functioned initially under the direction of the Madhya Pradesh Teaching Committee and later under the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee. Enlisted in the first group of such teachers were Kishan Lal Malviya and Daya Ram Malviya. Unlike the Indore Teaching Institute, where educational consolidation took place in a neutral setting away from the villages, the traveling teachers were trained to take “deepening” activities into the villages themselves.(27)

During the time of my field work in Malwa (1973-74) I was able to make contact with both of these institutions. The Indore Teaching Institute was still holding regular deepening sessions which included a week-long class in December,1973, on Baha'u'llah's The Hidden Words. Twenty-five villagers (all males) were present. Each day the trainees participated in a series of classes led by veteran Baha'i teachers. In addition, special times were set aside both in the mornings and evenings for devotional sessions and administrative instruction. The villagers remained within the compound for the entire period, sharing sleeping and eating facilities. No distinctions based on caste were recognized.

The Traveling Teacher Corps was composed of thirteen villagers, all of whom were literate in Hindi and had undergone a three-week intensive “deepening” course. They were under the guidance of the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee, to which they reported on a monthly basis. Each traveling teacher was assigned number of villages which he was supposed to visit each month. For their services they were paid 70 rupees per month (approximately $10.00 US). Examples of the types of assignments these teachers were asked to execute included keeping regular contact with the members of the local spiritual assemblies in their assigned areas and encouraging them to both meet and consult regularly regarding such things as teaching the Baha'i Faith, supporting the Baha'i Fund, organizing devotional meetings and building Baha’i village centers (bhavans).

An example of a traveling teacher can be seen in the person of one Bakshi Ram Varma, who, when I met him in 1974, was twenty-six years old. He lived in a small village (pop approximately 350) located in Ujjain District not far from the railway junction at Nagda. His family were Rajput farmers, and although he was responsible for helping maintain the family land holdings he had been able to attend Madhav College in Ujjain from which he received his diploma. Bakshi Ram first came into contact with the Baha'i Faith in 1971 when Baha'i missionaries came to his village. Shortly after declaring his belief he volunteered to participate in a three week “deepening” session in Ujjain. Upon passing a written examination on various aspects of the Baha'i Faith including history, administrative structure and law he was commissioned to become a paid traveling teacher. His assignment area encompassed the Baha'i communities in the villages surrounding Nagda Junction which he was supposed to visit on a regular basis. Each month he was required to attend a traveling teachers' meeting (either in Ujjain or Indore) and submit a written report of his activities to the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee.

One interesting spin-off that resulted from the creation of these new institutions was the impact they had on proselytizing activities in the urban communities. This was especially true of Indore where the large number of trainees and visitors coming to the teaching institute engendered the introduction of mass teaching techniques in the city. As Steve Garrigues recounts in his 1976 dissertation on the urban Baha'is of Malwa:

This type of "street teaching" in the city was not conducted by the
Indore Baha'is themselves, who for the most part continued with their
slow personal approach to teaching (even though they were at the same
time doing direct teaching in the villages). Most of this direct
teaching and enrollment was done by Baha'is from other towns, or from
the villages, who had come to Indore to attend conferences or to visit
the other Baha'i friends. These individuals were often enthusiastically involved in village teaching, and consequently taught the same way in
Indore. Because of the focus on the scheduled castes which village
teaching in the region of Madhya Pradesh had taken, this held true for
these teachers in Indore as well. Many from the laboring class and from
the scheduled castes were brought into the Faith during this period.(28)

The author goes on to note, however, that in the long run few of these individuals came to fully participate in the activities of the Faith or even identify themselves as Baha'is.(29)

It was obvious that given the limited resources and manpower at their disposal, the state and regional teaching committees were not going to be able to maintain regular contact with the majority of villages in which declarations had been received. By 1964 there were close to a thousand local spiritual assemblies in Malwa (and that number continued to rise throughout the decade so that by 1974 the number reached 2,356.) In this situation, a two-pronged strategy was decided upon. Regular contact with the great mass of new believers would be restricted to the written word in the form of newsletters mailed monthly to the villages.(30) At the same time, a number of villages where large numbers of declarations had taken place and which were, logistically speaking, relatively accessible, were to be deemed “model villages.” It was in these villages that the consolidation effort would be concentrated with the hope that such communities would in turn spawn more systematic links with other villages. At the time of my visit approximately fifty villages in Malwa came under this designation, and much of the work of the aforementioned traveling teachers was aimed at them.

It was in the model villages that the Baha'is made a definite effort to develop the basis for a wider regional administrative structure by concentrating on the creation, maintenance and development of local spiritual assemblies. The significance given to this policy is indicated in the following message sent by the National Spiritual Assembly in April, 1971, to the regional teaching committees:

Throughout the year your committee must concentrate on training at least the Secretary and Chairman or any two members of each Local Spiritual Assembly of your region, inviting them in teaching and deepening courses, asking the travelling teachers to conduct one or two day deepening lessons in the places where there are Local Spiritual Assemblies.(31)

In these “deepening” lessons (both at the Indore Teaching Institute and in the villages) emphasis was to be given to proper mode of election, format, and procedures as well as to Baha'i consultation. In this vein the use of mock assembly meetings was common practice. In addition, as mentioned above, traveling teachers were instructed to make meeting with village local spiritual assemblies part of their “deepening” routine. Moreover, during the election period the traveling teachers (often in coordination with special “consolidation teams” composed of Baha'i volunteers from throughout the country) would be assigned the task of monitoring the election process.(32)

In an attempt to associate the Baha'i message with a more general notion of social development, in some of the model villages the Baha'is were able to create and fund special village primary schools. In 1974 there were ten such primary schools functioning in Malwa, although at one time during the 1960s there had been as many as twenty. Of these ten schools several had been officially recognized by the Madhya Pradesh District Education Officer as meeting government requirements, and several others had applied for recognition.(33) Each school had a resident Baha'i teacher who was financially supported by the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee. The curricula in these schools consisted of Hindi, mathematics and geography-history. In addition, one period each day was devoted to Baha'i education. In the schools visited by the author, the Baha'i component of the curriculum was based primarily on the children's obtaining knowledge concerning the religion's central figures and the memorization of prayers.

In little over a decade, therefore, the Baha'i community in Malwa underwent a fairly drastic structural transformation. From a state of relatively one-dimensional organization, characterized by two local spiritual assemblies and a few isolated groups and believers made up of perhaps a total of thirty individuals whose socio-economic and educational levels were essentially similar, it quickly came to reflect characteristics of a more multi-dimensional, multi-faceted social organism. Not only were large numbers of new and socially diverse individuals added to the membership rolls, thousands of basic administrative institutions (local spiritual assembles) were created, and although many of them may not have functioned on a normative level, their mere existence, and the efforts required to make them as functional as possible, had its own structural impact on the community, creating in turn those additional institutions which have been described above. Moreover, as a result of taking on, as it were, the organizational implications of mass teaching, the Malwa community would offer an experimental model for other regions in India who would follow its lead.

In closing I would like to make one observation regarding the process of Baha'i community development in Malwa, namely the fact that over time the process itself came to be characterized by ever-increasing degrees of rationality. That is, there was a gradual change from chance to necessity as being the dominant catalytic element when it came to shaping the nature of the developmental process. In looking back at the founding of the first Baha'i community in Malwa one is indeed struck by the elements of chance that were involved; a fortuitous dream and a canceled train were the dominant reasons that Ujjain came to be settled by Baha'is in 1941.(34) Moreover, the early development of both the Ujjain and Indore communities was guided by the rather haphazard process of individual proselytizing. To whom and how the Baha'i Faith was introduced was dictated primarily by a response mechanism related to the individual acquaintances dominant Baha'is were able to make. It was only somewhat later when more organized and planned approaches to teaching were introduced (such as public proclamations and involvement in community based interfaith conferences) that we begin to notice the emergence of a slightly more heightened degree of administrative rationalization. And even then, the communities were so fragile that, as was the case with Ujjain, they could be virtually destroyed by an external event (in this case Partition). With the arrival of mass teaching and the subsequent commitment to its continuation, the Baha'i Faith in Malwa became a movement directed more by necessity than by chance. Gradually older administrative and teaching institutions were augmented by new institutions which were no longer structured to deal with possibility but with social reality. Tens of thousands of new converts had to be incorporated, and such a task required a highly organized and rationalized approach. The new institutions in turn created their own inner dynamics which not only affected the rural communities, but, as exemplified above in the case of the Indore Teaching Institute, impacted the urban communities as well. And while certain prominent individuals remained key players throughout the period, by the mid-1970s enough administrative routinization had taken place that in terms of both proselytizing and “deepening” projects personal charisma had taken a back seat to structured process.


1. See William Garlington, "The Baha'i Faith in Malwa," in Religion in South Asia, ed. by G. A. Oddie, (Manohar, New Delhi, 1977; William Garlington, "Baha'i Conversions in Malwa, Central India," in From Iran East and West: Studies in Babi and Baha’i History Volume 2, ed. by Juan R. Cole and Moojan Momen (Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1984); and William Garlington, "The Baha'i Faith in India: A Developmental Stage Approach." Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies vol. 1, no. 2 (June, 1997). Available on the World Wide Web at /~bahai/bhpapers.htm.

2. Within the Baha'i community such terms as proselytizing and missionary are usually replaced by teaching and teacher or pioneer. To some extent this has been a result of Baha'is wanting to distinguish their efforts from Christian missionary activity which they tend to see as religiously exclusive compared to their own more inclusive approach. The fact that Baha'is do not have an official clergy has also been significant in this regard. In the present paper, however, I have used all of these terms (sometimes interchangeably) to apply to Baha'i conversion activities, as in a comparative sense I see Baha'is as engaged in similar activities to other proselytizing movements, namely the premeditated effort to enroll individuals in a religious organization which has both a specific set of beliefs and identifiably unique laws and ritual behaviors.

3. Adrian Mayer, Caste and Kinship in Central India, (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1960) p. 14.

4. Wayne Wilcox, "Madhya Pradesh," in State Politics in India, ed. by M. Weiner (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1968) p. 134.

5.The term scheduled caste refers to those castes which, because of the social disabilities they faced, were put on the government schedule to receive special consideration in terms of college and university entrance and government employment. Many such castes belong to the traditional categories of “unclean” or “untouchable.” Tribal groups have traditionally been considered outside of normative Hindu society. Many of these groups are also on the government schedule

6. Derived from the 1961 Indian Census

7. Ibid.

8. Baha'i Newsletter (India), #31, May, 1944, p.2.

9. There were two waves of Zoroastrian migration to India. The first migration began in the 8th century to escape persecution after the Islamic conquest of Persia. Migrants originally settled primarily in the region of Gujarat, and during the period of the British Raj they became an important trading community in the cities of Bombay and Karachi. Those Zoroastrians who remained in Persia, on the other hand, were primarily poor farmers who were concentrated in villages around Yazd and Kerman. With the development under British hegemony of international trade and communications in South Asia during the 18th century, the backward and oppressed Zoroastrian community of Persia came to know of the prosperous condition of their co-religionists in India. For the first time an alternative choice of life became available to them. Thus began the second wave of Zoroastrian migration to the Indian sub-continent, to a new life of religious freedom and relative prosperity. These migrants settled primarily in Bombay and Karachi. They shared the same ritual practices and fire temples with the Indian Parsis, but remained socially somewhat separate. They were known as "Iranis" to distinguish them from the "Parsis." Although to outward appearance they were one religious community, socially they remained to a large degree two separate communities within themselves. As far as the wider Indian society was concerned all Indianized Zoroastrians were thought of as "Parsis", but among themselves the distinction between "Parsi" and "Irani" remained significant. Most marriages continued to be confined to each of the two separate groups, especially since cousin marriage has traditionally been the preference. Intermarriage, however, was ritually permissible and did occasionally take place even in the early period, and with increasing frequency today. When the Baha'i Faith began to spread among the Zoroastrians of India it was primarily the Iranis who were more responsive, there being relatively fewer Parsis who embraced the Faith. Mrs. Meherabani's father, Mr. Bahman Irani, was a Zoroastrian Irani who had come to India from Iran around 1890. He eventually became a Baha'i. He died while his children were still young not having had the chance to tell them anything about the Baha'i Faith. Mr. Irani had been disowned by his own parents for becoming a Baha'i, and although his wife had also converted she was illiterate and knew very little about the Baha'i teachings. In this situation Shirin and her younger brother set out to study the Baha'i Faith. After several years of intense examination they declared themselves believers. Today Mrs. Meherabani is better know as Shirin Boman. [I am indebted to Dr. Steve Garrigues for much of the above information which he kindly shared during H-net discussions]

10. Dr. Munje was of Indian Muslim background, from the Bohra community, whose father had much earlier become a Baha'i in Bombay.

11. A local spiritual assembly is the basic administrative unit in the Baha'i Faith. It is composed of nine members and is formed whenever there are at least nine adults members in a community.

12.Steve Garrigues, "The Baha'is of Malwa: Identity and Change Among Urban Baha'is of Central India," (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Lucknow, 1976) p 264.

13.Baha'i Newsletter (India), #.31 (May, 1944), p. 13.

14. Garrigues, p. 332, note #1.

15. "Annual Report of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India and Burma - 1946-1947," p. 61.

16. Ibid., p. 61

17. Baha'i Newsletter (India), #86, January, 1957, p.5.

18. The Hands of the Cause are a select group of believers appointed by Baha'u'llah, and later Shoghi Effendi, whose main function is to help propagate and defend the Baha'i Faith on an international scale. There have been thirty-two Hands of the Cause.

19. Baha'i Newsletter (India), #66, January, 1954, p.4.

20. Interview with Mrs. Shirin Boman Meherabani, March, 1974.

21. Garrigues, p. 273

22. Garrigues, p. 273

23. Ruhiyyih Khanum is Shoghi Effendi's widow and a Hand of the Cause.

24. Violette Nakhjavani, Amatu'l-Baha Visits India, (Baha'i Publishing Trust, New Delhi), n. d., p. 11.

25. For details regarding mass teaching in South Carolina see Sandra Santolucito Kahn. "Encounter of Two Myths: Baha'i and Christian in the Rural American South--A Study in Transmythicization". Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California at Santa Barbara, 1977.

26. Over the years (1961-1974) this position was filled by such people as Ramnik Shah (current Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India), Dushyant Kumar Singh, Dr. Munje, A.S. Furudi and Mrs. Gulnar Aftabi.

27.Although I have focused in other publications on the theme of the "Hinduization" of Baha'i proselytizing efforts during this period ,it is probably useful to once again make reference to this fact. One of the fascinating aspects of the growth of the Baha'i community in India has been its attempts to develop a distinct religious identity separate from that of Islam. With the advent of mass teaching in Central India there was a conscious effort in this direction which took the form of "Hinduizing" the Baha'i symbolic idiom. For example Baha'u'llah was commonly referred to as "Bhagvan [Lord] Baha'u'llah" and sometimes simply "Bhagvan Baha", and was seen as an "avatar" of God ("Ishvar"), the word "Allah" generally being avoided as "too Islamic". A more specific analysis of this theme can be found in my paper "Baha'i Bhajans: An example of the Baha'i Use of Hindu Symbols." Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (January, 1998). Available on the World Wide Web at /~bahai/bhpapers.htm.

28. Garrigues, pp 274-275

29. Garrigues, p. 275

30. For example in 1974 the Baha'i National Office published quarterly a small circular entitled Baha'i Samachar Patra (Baha'i Newsletter). In addition the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee periodically published a newspaper entitled Baha'i Darshan (Baha'i Worship).

31. Unpublished correspondence of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India, "Letter to teaching committees," April 23, 1971.

32. While it is impossible to determine how many local spiritual assemblies were actually functioning on a regular basis, the fact that the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee had recorded over five hundred local spiritual assemblies where officers had been elected and received written reports from a number of assemblies throughout the year would indicate some degree of institutional viability.

33.Baha'i News (India), September-October, 1973, p. 10.

34. The author recognizes that chance events such as dreams and accidents may be seen by some to be part of a greater design. Moreover, he has no dogmatic view in this regard. However, as such beliefs are faith-based and beyond the pale of empirical verification he will for the benefit of the current analysis consider them chance events.

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