Baha’i Proselytization in Malwa, India
In 1940 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of India and Burma launched a teaching campaign designated as the Six-Year-Plan. The project was modeled along the lines of a similar plan (The Seven-Year-Plan) that had been initiated in the United States by Shoghi Effendi in 1937. The Indian 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 was living with her husband in Bombay where she was the secretary of the city's local spiritual assembly. For several years the couple had been participating in special teaching trips to various cities and towns in western and central India. For example they had both accompanied the internationally known Baha'i teacher, Martha Root, to Indore in April, 1938, and helped arrange the public lecture at which she spoke. While being aware of Shoghi Effendi's plea for Baha'is to move their residences to goal locations, the family business had kept them situated in Bombay. Finally, in the latter months of 1941 Mrs. Meherabani approached her husband about leaving the city. At first he was unresponsive, but following a dream in which Shoghi Effendi urged him to fulfill his duty , he consented. At about the same time the Munje family also decided to pioneer, and in December, 1941, the two families left Bombay. Those on the train that morning included 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 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 two families decided to settle in Varanasi (Benares). Their reason for choosing this city was based on their desire to proselytize among Hindus, as very few members of this religion had entered the Baha'i Faith, and Varanasi was the hub city of that tradition. Their journey, however, was suddenly cut short at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, where they were informed that due to war activity on the Burmese front, further trains to Calcutta (via Varanasi) had been canceled. After receiving this news the families remained in Bhopal for several days, but finding the city unsuitable, they became determined to move on. According to Mrs. Meherabani, after an evening of intense prayer they decided that they would settle in the nearest Hindu holy city. As it turned out, that city was Ujjain.
Shortly after the Meherabanis and Munjes arrived in Ujjain they were beset by financial problems related to their businesses 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.
As in many other areas of India, early Baha’i proselytization efforts in Ujjain were primarily organized around individual contacts. Appropriate neighbors, friends and acquaintances would be told about the new religion, and, if an interest was indicated, follow up meetings, usually at a Baha’is residence, would be held at which further discussion about the Baha'i teachings would ensue. Such 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. (1)
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.(2)
The year 1944 proved to be very important year for the Ujjain Baha'i community, as three significant events took place during this period. 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 some of 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 at the newly acquired Baha'i center. The second event was less convivial, and 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 observance took place. Mrs. Meherabani was personally threatened, and one mullah declared that he would carry a black flag to the wedding ceremony. Although there were continual grumblings within the Muslim community, the ceremony proceeded as planned. Moreover, the threatened disruption remained only a threat. Yet perhaps the most significant event of the year, although it was not seen in this light at the time, was the Baha'i participation in one of the city's inter-religious conferences. In terms of the future development of Baha'i missionary activity in Malwa this conference would prove to be extremely important, for it allowed the Baha'i community to establish contact with certain individuals who many years later would become highly instrumental in the process of taking 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 meeting on the theme of Baha'i social principles. His speech 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. Some follow up excursions to local villages did take place, and several other scheduled caste members accepted Baha'u'llah. One of these individuals was a Balai village leader who resided in the village of Harsodan situated some fifteen miles from Ujjain. He in turn enlisted several other members of his jati and thereby helped establish the first Baha'i village community in Malwa. His son, Daya Ram Malviya, also became a Baha'i. In his own words:
I first heard the message of the Baha'i Faith when Mr. Boman Shirin Mummy (3) and Dr. Munje came from Bombay (via Ujjain) for the first visit to Harsodan. My father immediately accepted the Faith and with him two or three other members of his jati. I also accepted. I was twenty-one or twenty-two at the time. In 1944 my father became seriously ill with tuberculosis and could not be saved. At this time although I had accepted the Baha'i Faith I was not aware of its complete truth or the depth of its teachings. I only knew that the path of all religions is the same, but this truth was not apparent to me from observing the followers of different religions. They said the words and they called Ishvar's name but they often deceived others in various ways. Having seen all of these things I became very sad and wondered why Bhagavan(10*) had created people who for their own gain and benefit cheated and deceived others. (4)
But while some villagers were enrolled, 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 departed Ujjain for Varanasi. In was to this sacred center of Hindu culture that the family had initially planned to pioneer, and now that the train lines were again open they had become determined to fulfill their original goal by establishing a homeopathic clinic in the city. The Meherabanis, however, decided to remain in Ujjain where they continued to act both as the leaders of the young Baha'i community as well as the principal promulgators of Baha'i teaching work. Their proselytizing efforts were focused primarily on the distribution of Baha'i literature and the continued participation in the city's inter-religious activities. For example, Mrs. Meherabani spoke on several occasions to All-Faith conferences organized by the Theosophists. (5) 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."(6)
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. After two years of sustained teaching the Irani family was able to enroll two new Baha'is, and thus by the time that India gained its nationhood the Baha'i community in Malwa was composed of a local spiritual assembly in Ujjain, a group in Indore and a small number of villagers in Harsodan.
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 Center closed, but teaching activities in the region came to a virtual standstill. For the next twelve years Baha'i activity in Malwa lay virtually dormant. Local spiritual assemblies were established, lost and reestablished in Indore, but that community did not provide any real support for extensive teaching activities. Some contact was kept with the region 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-Baha'is, they offered to
keep the centre going until some Baha’is could take it over.(7)
The outstanding event in Malwa during the early post-independence period was the nine day stay in Indore and Ujjain by the American Hand of the Cause, Dorothy Baker. As briefly noted in Chapter 5, following the 1953 Baha’i International Conference in New Delhi, Mrs. Baker was directed by Shoghi Effendi to stay in India for the purpose of travel teaching. Her itinerary took her initially to several cities in northern India including Varanasi, Patna and Nagpur. She then took the train to Indore. One of her letters on that journey gave further evidence of the recent decline of Baha’i Faith in central India.
My work in India is almost finished. There is one more hard pull;
the second sacred city, Ujjain, near Indore, and if four days in
Benares could effect a start, let’s pray for Ujjain now, as Central
India has absolutely nothing. Indore had as assembly, now blown
away, and this too should be restored. Miracles have to happen
again, and ask a few of the friends to pull along for this victory. (8)
Dorothy Baker's nine days in Malwa was a whirlwind of speaking engagements (many of which had been arranged by Ms. Boman). The American arrived in Indore late in the afternoon of December 23, and less than two hours later she was giving a discourse to members of the Gita Samiti. The next day she spoke to members of the Rotary Club, and on Christmas day she addressed thirty-five members of the press at an Indore hotel. Later that evening she traveled to Ujjain and spoke at the Vikram Lodge in Madhavnagar under the auspices of the local Theosophical Society. Upon her return to Indore Mrs. Baker made seven presentations in three days including talks to the students and staff of Gujurat College, members of the Balodiya Samaj(Children's Welfare Society), the Maharashtra Sahitya Samaj, the Indore Theosophical Society, and Y.M.C.A., and the students of Holkar College. (9) In addition she found time to meet with several members of the Holkar Royal Family including Princess Usha Raja at the Manick-Bagh Palace. Another trip to Ujjain found her making two more presentations, one at the Grand Hotel and the other at Maharajwada school at Mahakaleshwar in Ujjain City. During this second visit to Ujjain Mrs. Baker made a side excursion to the nearby district of Shajapur. In the town of Shajapur proper she addressed her largest audience in Malwa, as over 2000 people including the District Magistrate gathered in a local theater to hear her presentation. (10)
As reports of her trip indicate, the Indian Baha'is were primarily impressed by the large numbers of contacts that Dorothy Baker was able to make during her short stay in Malwa. But in hindsight, perhaps the most significant event of the fortnight was a day trip to the village of Harsodan. As Shirin Boman has written:
In this village she went with her high heels and walked in the dust because the car could not carry us right to the village. We had to leave it on the roadside. When we went into the village she embraced the women folk who were all in dirty village dresses, and she spoke to them about Baha’u’llah. She poured all her love on them and won their hearts. (11)
Not only did the American share food with these people of unclean caste background, but according to Daya Ram Malviya she personally gave him her blessing. (12) Shirin Boman later recalled that Dorothy Baker was trying to teach the Baha'is that what was important was Baha'u'llah's love for all mankind, and that the understanding of the details of the Faith were not so significant (13), while Dr. Rahmatullah Muhajir would subsequently interpret her trip to Harsodan as an indication that mass teaching would start in India's villages. (14) Before this vision would become a reality, another eight years would pass.
In 1958 Indore was finally able to reestablish its 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 it signaled the direction teaching in Malwa would soon take, and that is the distinctly Hindu orientation of its members. Among all the new converts, only one was not from Hindu background.(15) Apparently efforts had been made to teach Muslims, but these efforts met with no success.(16)
Ujjain was resuscitated from its period of stagnation in the following year when Mr. K. H. Vajdi and his wife settled in the city. Mr. Vajdi was a businessman who had been born into a Zoroastrian family and had 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. In fact, it was this appointment that had brought the couple to Ujjain. Their attempts at reconstructing the Ujjain community were carried out in much the same manner as earlier Baha'i proselytization efforts in the city. Teaching activities were directed towards the middle and upper strata of society, and accordingly, when a local spiritual assembly was eventually formed in April, 1960, its membership reflected a middle class, professional composition. And, as in Indore, the new Baha'is came from Hindu backgrounds. 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 two recently established local spiritual assemblies.
The major events related to the initial years of mass teaching in rural Malwa have already been mentioned in Chapter 5. Dr. Muhajir's influence on the members of the Indian National Spiritual Assembly in 1960, Shirin Boman Meherabani's subsequent teaching trips to the Bhilala village of Kweitiopani, the Sangimanda Village Conference in Shajapur, the exhaustive follow up teaching efforts in the rural areas by a number of dedicated urban Baha'is including Mr. and Mrs. Vajdi, Mr. and Mrs. Meherabani, Dr. Munje, Mr. and Mrs. O.P Olyai, Dr. B. S. Bhargava, Mr. L.P. Ladd, Mr. K. N. Pradhan and Mr. N. Gupta, and the added undertakings of a number of indigenous village teachers such as Kishan Lal Malviya and Daya Ram Malviya were paramount in the unfolding of the new process. In that chapter we also suggested possible explanations regarding the timing of the introduction of mass teaching in India. Among these postulates were the earlier successes of small-scale African and South East Asian mass teaching projects, Dr. Muhajir's wholehearted support for the new approach, the continual movement towards democratization within the Indian social landscape, and the initial response from the villagers of Kweitiopani and Sangimanda. It is now time to turn our attention to the nature of the message that was being presented and the modes and methods by which it was delivered.
It would appear that there were two core elements that marked the message of Baha'i teachers in Malwa. The first was theological/prophetic in nature, while the second was more socially oriented. The theological/prophetic element had to do with the identity and nature of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah, while the social component focused on the issue of essential human equality.
In order to better understand the way Baha'u'llah was presented in rural Malwa, it would be useful to first briefly examine in outline form the concept of manifestation that was considered orthodox at the time when mass teaching was initiated. In Baha'i metaphysics the knowledge of the essence of God is considered to be beyond the reach of all human understanding. Since it is therefore impossible for created things to comprehend the divine essence, God periodically sends forth chosen messengers or manifestations (az-zuhur) who serve as a type of liaison between God and creation. In this process God is an active agent; through the power that is the divine will, God's attributes are revealed to the manifestation, and the manifestation in turn reveals God's attributes to man. Consequently it is only through the person of the manifestation that man can come to know God. As Baha'u'llah stated: "He who is everlastingly hidden from the eyes of men can never be known except through his manifestation." (17) Moreover, the essence of the manifestation is also sanctified above all created beings and cannot be known by them. Indeed, "no creature can even claim to exist in the presence of the manifestation." (18) Despite the essential difference in nature between the manifestation and mankind, the manifestation seats itself upon the throne of a human body. (19) But the relationship between God and manifestation is one of revelation, not incarnation. Again to quote Baha'u'llah: "Know thou of a certainty that the unseen can in now wise incarnate his essence and reveal it unto men." (20) Thus a manifestation is a composite of three realities: the physical, the human, and the divine. In the first two forms he shares similarities with his fellow men in that he has a physical body and a rational soul. The divine side of his nature, however, makes him distinct, for it acts like a mirror which reflects the light of the "Invisible of the Invisibles." (21)
According to the Baha'i view, a manifestation is necessary because the human intellect by itself is incapable of solving the basic problems of life. Only by obtaining the knowledge of God's creative purpose can man come to an understanding of himself and thereby fulfill his ordained station in existence. Consequently, human unity depends on men following the teachings of the manifestation, and failure to do so results in the decay of society. Hence Baha'i literature often depicts the manifestation as a physician whose patient is sick humanity. For example in the Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha we find:
Each Manifestation is the heart of the world and the proficient
Physician of every patient. The world of humanity is sick, but
that skilled Physician hat the healing remedy and He bestoweth
divine teachings, exhortations and advises which are the remedy (22)
In his examination of the Baha'i concept of manifestation (The Concept of Manifestation in the Baha'i Writings) Juan Cole has shown how the doctrine needs to be understood in relationship to its Islamic theological moorings. Such an insight becomes extremely significant in relationship to any discussion of Baha'i proselytization in India for the primary reason that until the beginning of the mass teaching era the manner in which Baha'u'llah was presented in the subcontinent was essentially rooted in this tradition. Most early Baha'i pioneers and teachers in India came from Persian or Zoroastrian backgrounds, and while those westerners who were sent by Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi carried with them remnants of their Judeo-Christian heritage, they were all deepened Baha'is who had assimilated a fair degree of Islamo/Baha'i theological terms and concepts. There were, of course, earlier examples of efforts to bridge the cultural gap between the Baha'i Islamic heritage and the more dominant Hindu culture. As we have seen, Vakil came from a high caste Hindu background, and would have likely been conversant in both philosophical and popular Hindu concepts, and Mr. Ayer gave a lecture at the 1921 All-India Baha'i Convention in which he identified Baha'u'llah with the Hindu avatar tradition. Likewise one of Dorothy Baker's addresses in Malwa during her 1953 visit was entitled The New Avatar. But while an awareness of the need for a closer identification between Baha'i and Hindu concepts and symbols was no doubt always present, it would appear that it was only when the decision was made to concentrate Baha'i proselytization efforts on the rural masses (and the early successes that followed) that the need for a more systematic approach to the issue became paramount. And it was here that the Hindu doctrine of avatar became significant.
The word avatar literally means descent, or a coming down, and has been used over the centuries in Hindu mythology and theology to refer to the phenomenon of a deity's incarnation. The concept is most clearly developed in the religious texts of Vaishnavism, one of the largest devotional sub-groups within the Hindu fold, but it is by no means limited to this tradition . For example, although it is not as common, references to the god Shiva's appearance as an avatar can also be found, (23) and on the popular level there are numerous stories of local gods and goddesses making bodily epiphanies. In fact, practically all Hindus are familiar with the concept, as it is represented in the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana as well as in several of the Puranas (books of religio-mythical legends) which together help contour the configuration of many popular religious beliefs and practices. S. N. Dasgupta goes so far as to say that while the doctrine of the incarnation of God is not elaborated upon by any speculative system of thought in India, it still forms the corner stone of most systems of philosophy and religion. (24) In the same vein Aurobindo Ghose claimed:
India has from ancient times held strongly a belief in the reality of the avatar, the descent into form, the revelation of the God-head in humanity...in India it has grown up and persisted as a logical outcome of the Vedantic view of life and taken firm root in the consciousness of the race. (25)
One of the most dramatic displays of the avatar concept can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, a seminal book of the classical epic, the Mahabharata. It is here that the god Vishnu reveals his incarnation in the form of Krishna to Arjuna, one of the five brothers of a princely line, and in so doing gives the nobleman a lesson in the true nature of reality. During their discourse many of the central themes related to the avatar doctrine emerge, and these ideas subsequently became the building blocks for a great deal of future Vaishnavite theological speculation. The revelatory scene is a powerful one:
Speaking thus, the Lord of all mystic power, the Personality of Godhead, displayed his universal form to Arjuna. Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes. It was all wondrous. The form was decorated with divine, dazzling ornaments and arrayed in many garbs. He was garlanded gloriously, and there were many scents smeared over His body. All was magnificent, all-expanding, unlimited. This was seen by Arjuna. (26)
A central feature of the Vaishnavite doctrine of avatar is the belief that incarnations take place periodically. Vishnu's bodily appearance on earth has not been limited to one time and place. According to the most popular classification, there have been nine avatars. The first five took animal or part animal/part human form. The sixth avatar was Parasurama who in the form of a Brahman (priestly caste) took revenge on a number of wicked kings, but it is not until the seventh avatar of Vishnu that the doctrine of incarnation takes on any real import for contemporary Hinduism, as Rama is known throughout the length and breadth of India. As portrayed in the Ramayana, Vishnu incarnated himself in the form or prince Rama of Ayodhya in order to stem the activities of the evil demon Ravana. In the process of accomplishing his task Rama is extolled as an ideal king and husband. After much hardship and travail he eventually slays Ravana and in the process rescues his wife Sita from the demon's clutches.
The eighth avatar is the aforementioned Krishna. According to tradition he was born in Mathura as a member of the Yadava tribe. He was the second cousin of the tyrannical king, Kamsa, who in an attempt to dispel a prophecy that said he would be killed by is cousin's eighth son set out to kill all of her children. Through divine agency Krishna escaped and grew up in the countryside under the care of the cowherds Nanda and Yashoda. Upon reaching maturity Krishna slew Kamsa and became king in his own right. During his reign he killed many demons and wicked kings and, as mentioned above, helped the Pandava brothers regain their kingdom. After the Pandavas' victory Krishna returned to his kingdom only to see it marred by internal dissension. After years of trying to quell the feuding the avatar was mistakenly shot by a hunter and died.
Like his predecessor Rama, Krishna is an extremely popular figure whose story as told in such works as the Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana are known throughout India. The tales of his dalliance with the female cowherds of Vrindavan (gopis) has become a primary source of Indian spiritual eroticism.
The ninth and most recent of the avatars of Vishnu is the Buddha who lived during the sixth century B.C. (27) He is most remembered for his compassion, especially towards animals, and is believed to have put an end to the ritualized practice of animals sacrifice. In reality the Buddha has never been elevated to a high rank in Vaishnavite theology, and many scholars argue that he was included into the list of avatars for the purpose of assimilating heterodox elements into Vaishnavism. (28)
One of the important features of the avatar doctrine is the belief that when in human form the divine essence possesses the full range of human needs and emotions. Although Vishnu is in no way limited by this imminence, and is continually performing superhuman feats, like the Baha'i doctrine of manifestation, there does exist a certain degree of paradox in this man/god nexus, and as with the Baha'i belief, the ultimate nature of this paradox is considered beyond human comprehension. Yet while the essence of the avatar might be shrouded in mystery, there is little doubt as to the reason for such appearances. Vishnu incarnates himself for the purpose of combating evil and restoring dharma or righteousness.This theme is stated unequivocally in the Bhagavad Gita:
Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and a rise of righteousness, O Bharata (Arjuna) then I send forth(create incarnate) Myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age. (29)
Finally, the avatars reveal a personal god who cares for man. He is a god of love who personally enters the world in order to set an example for human beings to emulate.According to S. Radhakrishnan:
The emphasis of the Gita is on the Supreme as the personal God who creates the perceptible world by His nature (prakrati) He resides in the heart of every being; He is the enjoyer and lord of all sacrifices. He stirs our hearts to devotion and grants our prayers. He is the source and sustainer of values. He enters into personal relations with us in worship and prayer. (30)
Moreover, the need for avatars to live within specific emotional and social contexts disclose a Supreme Being who is aware of the human condition. Thus while individuals such as Rama and Krishna are seen as divine teachers, their discourses go beyond the realm of systematic theology and reach out to the existential realities of life. This aspect of the avatar is cogently expressed by S. N. Dasgupta:
In the Gita abstract philosophy melts down to an insight into
the nature of practical life and conduct...for the God of the
Gita is not a God of abstract philosophy or theology, but a
God who could be a man and is capable of all personal relations (31)
Hence, Rama has become the epitome of righteous conduct; beyond his heroic deeds he is considered to have been the ideal ruler and husband. Similarly, as noted previously, Krishna is not only remembered for his supernatural acts but for his exploits with the gopis which are symbolic of the love between the individual soul and the Supreme Being.
Theoretically there are two significant differences between the Baha'i doctrine of manifestation and the Vaishnavite concept of avatar. First, in Baha'i belief God does not descend into the physical realm, as such an act would limit his omnipotence. Instead, a manifestation has a divine aspect to his being which is displayed through the power of revelation. On the other hand, the avatar doctrine presents us with an actual incarnation of the godhead in human form. As Geoffrey Parrinder has concluded in his work Avatar and Incarnation, avatars are not human messengers or human geniuses but "divine theophanies". (32) Secondly, the avatar doctrine is expressed completely within an Indian context whereas the Baha'i doctrine of manifestation has been expanded by Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi to include not only Near eastern prophets (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad) but also the Indian figures of Krishna and the Buddha. (33) However, on the existential level, on a plane of meaning that is significant to the ordinary person who is not involved with intellectualizing concept into mere abstractions, these differences diminish in importance. To an Indian villager or a common Baha'i the distinction between manifestation and incarnation would most likely be seen as a technical point that might be of some import to a philosopher or theologian but not a primary concern to living religion. The belief that the sacred has communed with the profane, displayed concern for man, and preached a message of love and hope is the real issue and not the technicalities of how this communion occurs. Moreover, there is some room within Baha'i tradition for a more incarnate interpretation of manifestation. For example one of Baha'u'llah's verses reads: "Were any of the all-embracing manifestations of God to declare: 'I am God,' He verily speaketh the truth, and no doubt attacheth thereto." (34) And in any case, it is highly unlikely that the Baha'i teachers in Malwa spent significant time discussing the intricacies of either doctrine. Although there is little direct evidence as to what was exactly said by these teachers, as will be shown shortly, the oral evidence combined with the testimony of several written records and a certain degree of common sense, indicates that the value of the avatar concept came from the implications inherent in the use of symbol itself rather than from any specific theological elaboration thereof.
The essential link between the two systems was their inherent eschatological foundations. The Baha'i doctrine of manifestation is based on the periodic but continuous revelation of the godhead. Similarly the avatar doctrine holds that Vishnu's incarnations are not limited to the past. Specifically, in the standard Vaishnavite classification mentioned above one finds reference to a future or tenth avatar of Vishnu called Kalki whose incarnation will mark the end of the current age and usher in an era of righteousness. Mention of this figure has been made in several of the Puranas (35),and while over the centuries Hindu pandits have not generally given Kalki an important place within the overall tradition, at the end of the19th century Sir Monier-Williams noted that "some of the degraded classes of India comfort themselves in their present abject condition by looking to Kalki as their future deliverer and the restorer of their social position,"(36) and in the 1960s A.L. Basham claimed that many simple Hindus took the future avatar very seriously (37) Kalki is often depicted as appearing on a white horse with a sword in one hand which he will use to destroy wicked kings and Brahmans and thereby establish Vishnu's everlasting sovereignty on earth.(38) Such an apocalyptic vision coalesced nicely with the Baha'i doctrine of progressive revelation.
The use of the avatar concept as a type of cross-cultural bridge by the Baha'is in Malwa is evidenced by both oral and written sources. One of the most poignant oral examples is the lyrics of a number of bhajans that appeared during the mass teaching era. A bhajan is a rhythmic devotional song that has long been popular among bhakti sects in India. Even today many wandering bards perform such songs in towns and villages, recounting in the process the glorious deeds of numerous gods, saints and heroes. When a bhajan is performed in a group setting one of the devotees stands and sings the various verses while the entire assemblage joins in unison to sing the words of the refrain. As might be expected, the focal point of Baha'i bhajans was Baha'u'llah, but while singing his praises the songs also made liberal use of both the term avatar and the names of specific incarnations such as Krishna, Rama and the Buddha. Furthermore, some bhajans had as their theme the identification of Baha'u'llah with the Kalki avatar.
Since the Baha'i Faith recognizes both the Buddha and Krishna as manifestations it should not be surprising, therefore, that their legitimization is continually reaffirmed in the bhajans, although there is a significant difference in presentation between them. In the bhajans known to this author, the image of the Buddha is virtually left undeveloped. Where he is found it is primarily in passages that identify him with other avatar figures, particularly Baha'u'llah. Thus in one bhajan we find in reference to Baha'u'llah that: "Here is Muhammad; here is Christ; here are Krishna and Buddha," (39) and in another: "He is Christ, He is Buddha, He is called Muhammad." (40) This lack of development certainly fits in with popular Hindu understandings of the Buddha who, as noted above, does not receive much attention in Hindu avatarology. On the other hand, the image of Krishna is much better developed. Not only does he appear as identified with Baha'u'llah, he is often cited by himself and in reference to the various divine powers for which he is most famous. For example, one song proclaims: "Having placed Krishna in your heart you worshiped him in that temple" (41) (the divine love motif) , while another says when speaking of Baha'u'llah that: "He manifested the righteousness of Krishna" (42) (the righteousness motif).
Although many of the verses of numerous Baha'i bhajans are oriented towards Krishna as avatar/manifestation, there are also examples, though usually undeveloped, where relatively free expression is given to the use of a variety of indigenous religious images related to the eighth avatar. Thus one can find verses which speak of such native cultural fundamentals as holy spots, hero-figures and literary metaphors, and although they may be incorporated into one of the major avatar themes, their use often implies other theological references. A good example is the appearance in one verse of the personage of Radha (Krishna's primary consort): "Radha and Arjuna knew that the Lord had taken a new form." (43) What is interesting here is that there is a conflation of two figures who represent two different aspects of the Krishna legend. Arjuna is the prince in the Bhagavad Gita to whom Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu incarnate, and his figure is consequently identified with the divine power motif of the legend. Radha, on the other hand, is traditionally not part of this motif. Her figure elicits more erotic images related to Krishna's dalliance with the gopis of and therefore suggests the divine lover motif. In addition, as many Krishna oriented sects see Radha as the feminine manifestation of Krishna, her figure often symbolizes divine androgyny. Other examples of the use of traditional symbols related to Krishna in Baha'i bhajans included:
1) "The temple of the heart, the abode of the name Baha, is Benares, Mathura - all the holy pilgrimage spots." (44)
2) "Cause all men to sing the name of Bhagavan Baha the embodiment of lila.” (45)
3) "Baha thy love and majesty are boundless Whoever comes into thy shelter, his boat crosses the shore Look at the rumbling clouds, the flashing lightning, the falling rain. See the koyal singing with a sweet voice the raga of love."(46)
In the first passage the reference to holy pilgrimage spots centers on the Indian cities of Benares and Mathura (the former being associated by many Hindus as the sacred city, and the latter being the birthplace of Krishna), while in the second passage there is mention of lila, or the notion of the cosmos as Krishna's divine game. But it is in the third passage that we can see a more developed use of Hindu symbols, as several powerful images identified with specific Krishna-centered poetic motifs are brought together.In much traditional Vaishnavite devotional poetry related to Krishna the boat is understood as the vehicle of salvation, and Krishna is the boatman who can safely navigate that vessel across the stormy waters of existence. For example, the sixteenth century poet/saint of the Vallabhasampraday (47), Surdas, wrote: "I have heard people say that you have brought many across I want to board the boat, but I can't pay the boatman Take meacross, O great king, Lord of Braj." (48) Thus the bhajan verse begins with reference to a well-known Vaishnavite salvation motif. The next lines, however, switch to another popular poetic design, namely, the thunderstorm motif. The thunderstorm with its billowing clouds and flashes of lightning portends the coming of the rainy season, the season most acutely associated in Vaishnavite mythology with more erotic expressions of divine love. And the koyal, or black cuckoo, is the symbol par excellence of the heart's calling for Krishna. Hence the fifteenth century female poet Mirabai sings: "O Dark One (Krishna) today is a colorful festival In the rumbling masses of black rain clouds lightning flashes Frog, peacock,papila bird speak, the koyal is calling Mira's lord is clever, her strength is in his feet." (49) And the Baha'i bhajan verse finally ends with mention of the classical Indian musical form of melody, the raga.
The other Hindu avatar who made his way into the bhajans was Rama (though admittedly with less frequency), and his use raises some interesting questions regarding the development of Baha'i theology not only in India but world wide. The figure of the seventh avatar, so prevalent in the legends and lore of popular Hinduism, receives no mention in the writings of Baha'u'llah. Moreover, as far as this author is aware, he does not make an appearance in the writings of Abdu'l-Baha, nor was he referred to as a Manifestation of God by Shoghi Effendi. While it is quite possible that Rama received some status by pre-mass teaching missionaries, it would seem likely that it was during the mass teaching period that he came to the fore and for the reason of his close connection in the popular mind with the figure of Krishna. While one of the two avatars may take precedence over the other in terms of individual worship and religious allegiance (depending on regional and local traditions), many Hindus would see them as virtually one and the same, and thus the use of the avatar symbol virtually implies Rama's sanctity. This connection is seen in the following bhajan lines: "He (Baha'u'llah) brought the holy promise of Rama; He brought the justice of Krishna." (50) The legitimization of such an identification may well have been spawned by Shoghi Effendi's widow, Ruhiyyih Khanum, who during her 1964 trip to India is reported to have proclaimed to a group of Baha'i teachers:
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 already had prophets who came to educate human beings...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 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 Moses, we were all very patient with you. We were your fathers and you were the children, but this is a different kind of day. (51)
What is significant here is that Rama is placed along side other prophetic
figures, all of whom are officially considered manifestations of God in the Baha'i Faith, and such a contextual reference would almost have certainly been understood by many in the audience to be a legitimization or Rama’s equal status.
When it came to the Baha’i utilization of the representation of the
eschatological tenth avatar, there can be no better example than the following lines taken from the bhajan entitled Kalki Avatar:
Refrain: Arise o children of India, the Kalki avatar has come.
Vishnu’s avatar has come with the name, Baha’u’llah.
1. Nowhere in the entire world can the influence of religion be
the wicked have obtained everything
the truthful have lost everything
According to the Gita the time of Vishnu’s avatar has come
2. The Gita has said that when circumstances are such,
religion is again established, just as it has happened today
In order to save the righteous, Kalki avatar has come
3. Foolish people have not recognized that Vishnu’s avatar has
Radha and Arjuna knew that this was the Lord’s new abode
The eternal has once again manifested himself, the avatar
The manifestation/avatar association was also readily apparent in a variety of written sources that appeared during the mass teaching period. The first line of a declaration card used by Baha'i teachers in Malwa during this time read: "On signing this form, I make a declaration of my faith in Baha'u'llah, the avatar of the Baha'i Faith;" (53) and the welcoming letter sent to all newly declared Baha'is in Malwa contained the following: "The knowledge of your acceptance of the yugavatar (avatar of the age) is very joyous. On this holy and sacred occasion please personally accept the cordial congratulations of the entire Baha'i community." (54) In a similar fashion, a Baha''i newsletter, Baha'i Darshan, periodically published by the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee, and mailed to a large number of villages, made liberal use of avatar terminology. For example, in one article the author gives a common Baha'i explanation of the Day of Judgment as being the time of the appearance of a manifestation. The term he uses is Ishvar's avatar (the Lord's avatar) (55) In another piece in the same issue the Bab is referred to as having claimed to be Ishvar's avatar. (56) The New Garden, a book compiled from notes used to prepare courses of instruction for new believers at the Baha'i Teaching Institute in Indore, and dedicated to the "awakening masses of India," says of the avatar Krishna: "He delivered man from evil and sorrow. He assured his followers that in the future also God would manifest Himself to repeat what Krishna had done." (57)
While it is true that in many cases the term avatar appeared in such sources as an isolated symbol, a mere substitution for the term manifestation, lacking even a minimal attempt at cross cultural translation, the very fact of its usage is indicative of a subtle but powerful ideational shift. Every religious tradition contains certain potent symbols whose mere sound or appearance reverberate with meanings that stretch far beyond any specific context in which they might be used. These symbols contain within them (perhaps by means of subconscious implication) an entire cultural universe of related ideas, concepts and symbols. The Hindu avatar symbol is one such symbol, and consequently either its written or oral employment by Baha'is, even in non contextualized mediums or formats, would have created a nexus of associated ideas, and it is in this sense that we can speak of the avatar concept becoming a cross cultural bridge. As we have seen in the case of the Baha'i bhajans, attempts at creating a more systematic relationship between the manifestation and avatar concepts did exist, and, as will be noted in the following paragraphs, by the early 1970s a Baha'i book had been published in India which presented a detailed analysis of the Kalki avatar connection, but as the majority of those villagers who declared themselves Baha'is in Malwa were unlikely to have come into direct contact to any great extent with either of these sources, it was most likely the Baha'i teachers' use of specific undeveloped terms such as avatar or Bhagavan (see p. 122 below), Rama or Krishna that provided the primary linkage between the two universes of religious discourse.
The significance that the avatar concept was able to acquire during the mass teaching period can perhaps best be seen in the publication of a book in 1972 written by one Prakash Narayan Mishra and entitled, Investigation of the Kalki Avatar. Although the book was not published by the Baha'i Publishing Trust of India, in the preface Mishra does thank a number of prominent Indian Baha'is including the aforementioned K. H. Vajdi and the then-Secretary of the Indian National Spiritual Assembly, Ramnik Shah. (58) Investigation of the Kalki Avatar is written in the style of a popular Baha'i book on Biblical prophecy, William Sears' Thief in the Night. Just as Sears focused on certain prophecies from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible which he interpreted as referring to Baha'u'llah, so Mishra's manuscript examined the various prophecies related to the Kalki avatar in a variety of Hindu texts and then attempted to demonstrate how Baha'u'llah embodied their fulfillment. Specific themes upon which Mishra elaborated included: certain events associated with the end of the kali yuga (59); prophecies from saints and mahatmas; the descriptions of avatars in different texts; enquiry into the time and place of the appearance of the Kalki avatar; prophecies related to the lineage and different names of the Kalki avatar; and a brief summary of Baha'i history. Among the more significant Hindu texts examined by the author we find: the Kalki Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, the Brahma Purana, the Vishnu Purana, the Skanda Purana and the Mahabharata. While these themes no doubt remained primarily the intellectual property of urban Baha'is, the book is still indicative of an increased awareness within the Indian Baha'i community of its relationship with the dominant religious culture.
Before turning to an examination of the social component of Baha'i proselytization in Malwa, a few words need to be said concerning two additional symbols which were important correlates of the avatar symbol, namely Bhagavan and the Bhagavad Gita.
One of the cultural hurdles that Baha'i teachers had to get over in their attempts at conversion in Malwa was an Islamic/Baha'i identification. In this regard, the movement's place of origin, its abundant scriptural references to Allah (and more specifically the inclusion of this Arabic term in the title Baha'u'llah), and its reverence for the Qur'an were all signatures of its own Islamic cultural foundations. Given the often violent antagonisms that have periodically reared their heads over the centuries between Muslim and Hindu communities in the Indian subcontinent, an awareness began to develop among Baha'i teachers that a stringent identification between the Baha'i Faith and the religion of Islam was bound to create some problems when it came to teaching in a predominantly Hinduized cultural environment (including tribal peoples). As the activities of the Arya Samaj in rural Malwa during the early and mid 1960s indicate, this concern was a legitimate one. At that time Arya Samajists would often visit villages where Baha'i missionaries had made their presentations and tell villagers that the Baha'i Faith was really a form of Islam in disguise. Accusations were made that Baha'u'llah was an Islamic prophet and that Hindu villagers would eventually be forced to eat the holy mother cow. (60) The situation became serious enough that reference was made to it in a National Spiritual Assembly letter dated December 10, 1963 which stated among other things that several Baha'i teachers were "touring the erupting area at a great personal hazard." (61)
One of the fundamental linguistic substitutions apparent in many bhajans and other teaching sources during the mass teaching period was the replacement of the Arabic Allah, by the Sanskritic term Bhagavan, and thus we find references to Baha'u'llah as Bhagavan Baha. Bhagavan is related to the words bhajan and bhakti in that they are all derived from the same Sanskrit root bhaj (to partake of, as in participation in a religious rite). An early Vedic god, Bhaga was probably so named because of a connection to such rites, and by the medieval period Bhagavan had become to mean Supreme Being and was often associated with devotional movements connected with Rama and Krishna. In Malwa villages, therefore Bhagavan would not only be used to refer to God per se (Allah) but to his avatars as well, This dual usage was reflected in one bhajan where we initially hear the line: "Bhagavan has said that he will return in every age to restore righteousness" and then later: "We must spread the news of Bhagavan Baha" (62) Baha'u'llah was thus transformed into Bhagavan Baha, a title more congenial to a Hindu villager's ear and perhaps more befitting of the Kalki avatar: "Oh sing the praises of Bhagavan Baha, Oh sing the peace message of Bhagavan Baha, Oh manifest today the shelter of Bhagavan Baha." (63)
While references to Muhammad and the Qur'an were not completely eliminated from Baha'i discourse, attempts were made to focus on Hindu scriptures, and here the Bhagavad Gita seems to have been raised to a position of Biblical and Qur'anic equivalence. This is made clearly evident in the following bhajan verse: "How can I cause awareness of the Gita's prophecies? How can I spread the knowledge of the Bible's stories? In the Qur'an it says, 'show the light to the world.' The essence of all these I call the path of Baha'i." (64) Here the Gita is situated in a context that places it at the same level of legitimization as the Bible and the Qur'an. Indeed such a paradigm can be seen to be the parallel equivalent of the avatar identifications mentioned above. Hence one is led to conclude that the Bhagavad Gita was considered to be the supreme Hindu text by Baha'is because it was identified, if not as the book of the avatar Krishna, then at least as the text most significantly related to him. Why this was the case is an important avenue of investigation, as it helps reveal a more detailed understanding of the Baha'i approach to Hinduism as well as the specific expressions of this understanding as found in both the oral and written Baha'i sources of the period.
Perhaps one reason that Indian Baha'is gave significance to the Bhagavad Gita was the fact that Shoghi Effendi speaks of the book in his own history of the Faith, God Passes By (65) Another factor which must also be considered was the status the Gita had achieved in non-Hindu circles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here reference is made not only to the work of Indologists but also to men of letters and social reformers. Gandhi in particular was significant in this regard, as he often referred to the text as his gospel and wrote that he considered himself a follower of the Gita. (66) But just as important from a Baha'i perspective were a number of correlations that could be drawn between certain passages in the Gita and specific Baha'i doctrines. These passages in the Hindu text highlighted the revelatory/authoritative, prophetic, devotional and egalitarian elements of the Baha'i message. The revelatory/authoritative theme in the Gita refers to those specific passages where Krishna reveals himself to the prince Arjuna as Vishnu incarnate; the prophetic theme alludes to passages which speak to the cyclical fulfillment of righteousness; the devotional theme points to verses exalting devotion to Vishnu; and the egalitarian theme specifies passages that soften caste and other social divisions. As all of these fit well with central Baha'i religious beliefs, it is not difficult to understand why the Gita might have been given textual prominence by Baha'i teachers. Such prominence, however, required that certain passages in the Gita which did not blend well with Baha'i doctrine be either ignored or reinterpreted, specifically those related to the varnashramadharma paradigm with its emphasis on reincarnation. The Baha'i bhajans became useful tools in this regard, as there was no mention of this aspect of the Gita's message found in their verses. Whenever the notion of return was mentioned, it was inevitably in terms of the return of Vishnu's avatar and not in ways that might allude to the individual soul Thus the singer cries: "Foolish people have not realized that Vishnu has returned and taken a new abode.The Eternal has once again manifested itself. (67)
It is now time to shift our attention to a second major proselytizing theme that was employed by Baha'i teachers in Malwa: the message of social equality. At the heart of Baha'i social philosophy lies the concept of the oneness of mankind. `Abdu'l-Baha designated it the foundation of the Faith of God, and Shoghi Effendi referred to it as the most vital of all the principles found in Baha'u'llah's tablets. (68) According to this ideal, all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religious background or social standing are believed to be equal in the eyes of God. Although they may differ in their potential capacities, and will of necessity attain to different intellectual and economic stations in life, they are all children of the same creator. Consequently, the social principles of the Baha'i Faith are an extension of its metaphysical beliefs. As in Islam, the emphasis placed in the Baha'i Faith on the oneness and unity of the God-head results in a corresponding drive towards unity in the human sphere. In the words of Baha'u'llah: "Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch" (69) The primary adjunct to the concept of the oneness of mankind is the elimination of all prejudice: racial /ethnic, gender, religious, nationalistic or socio-economic. Ideally Baha'i communities should be be constantly striving to abolish all notions of basic human inequality at both the individual and structural levels. As stated by `Abdu'l-Baha: "Therefore no one should glorify himself over another; no one should look upon another with scorn and contempt, and no one should deprive or oppress a fellow creature." (70)
Given the hierarchical nature of the Malwa village social system, with its emphasis on the ranking of jatis according to traditional beliefs surrounding purity and pollution, it should be fairly apparent that from the standpoint of such a system Baha'i ideals of social equality would be viewed as essentially dysfunctional and would require either special circumstances and conditions to be either accepted or implemented. We will look more closely at the implementation side of the equation in the next chapter. For now the question of presentation and acceptance will be our focus.
As with the more metaphysical teachings, there is limited direct evidence concerning exactly what was said in Malwa villages related to Baha'i social ideals. But like the former, there is enough circumstantial evidence to give us a general picture of the situation, and when such information is combined with anecdotal examples, the picture comes into sharper focus.
The belief that all members of the community are considered equal in the eyes of God has always been an essential element of the Baha'i teaching mission throughout the world, and mention of its cardinal position within the framework of the Faith's overarching principles can been found in almost every introductory book or pamphlet published by Baha'i institutions. For example, in J. E. Esslemont's Baha'u'llah and the New Era , first published in 1923, we find the following:
Unity - unity of mankind, and of all created beings in God -is the main theme of His teaching...Prince Kropotkin in his book on Mutual Aid, shows most clearly that even among the lower animals, mutual aid is absolutely necessary to continued life, while in the case of man, the progress of civilization depends on the increasing substitution of mutual aid for mutual enmity. “Each for all and all for for each” is the only principle on which a community can prosper. (71)
And in a 1986 publication concerning world peace and world government J. Tyson wrote:
The creation of a world government is, in itself, only a small part of the process of establishing peacefulness between the diverse elements of mankind. This larger process requires the spiritual upliftment of humanity and the recognition of the oneness of mankind. (72)
Given the universality of the principle in Baha'i history, it would not be surprising to have found Baha'i teachers in Malwa speaking in the villages of the equality of all human beings regardless of jati. Moreover when we consider that the initial missionary thrust was aimed primarily at tribal and scheduled caste communities, where such a message would have been well received, it would be rather amazing if the principle of the oneness of humanity had not been at the heart of their presentations. Indeed, the fact that there were so many tribal and scheduled caste conversions during the mass teaching period can hardly be explained without reference to this social aspect of Baha'i teachings.Evidence that Baha'i teachers were at least encouraged to present the principle of the oneness of mankind in a variety of contexts can be found in both the notes of the lessons prepared for the Baha'i Teaching Institute in Indore (later published as The New Garden) and the speeches of Ruhiyyih Khanum during her tour of India in 1964. For example, the New Garden declares:
Baha’u’llah has taught us the Oneness of Mankind. All Human beings are children of God. If we believe in one Heavenly Father, then we must accept each other as brothers and sisters, as members of one family - the family of Man. (73)
Similarly, as part of her presentation to a large group of Baha'i travel teachers in Gwalior Shoghi Effendi's widow spoke of Baha'i elections and attempted to cultivate the idea of minority rights: "Supposing that you are a village of Brahmans and you have a group of untouchables in that village. It will be the untouchable that is the minority and automatically he will get the vote." (74) And on another occasion in Indore she ended a meeting with over forty village teachers of different jatis by sitting and sharing food with them thus exemplifying the Baha'i disregard for caste based commensal rules.
Anecdotal reports from Baha'i teachers also bolster the hypothesis. One of the teachers from Ujjain spoke of an interesting episode that had taken place in a remote rural community where he had been spreading the message. He had been directing his presentation to a group of scheduled caste villagers when a vociferous individual from one of the village's clean jatis approached the assemblage and challenged him concerning the veracity of his claims. The teacher responded by asking one of the scheduled caste listeners to bring him a glass of water which he promptly proceeded to drink. He then asked the man to offer water to the clean caste villager who upon hearing the request immediately departed the scene. In a similar vein, another village teacher recounted that it was the Baha'i disregard for jati that led to his own conversion, and that he now associated in friendship with Baha'i converts from clean jatis.
This second teacher's mention of clean caste conversion, however, raises additional questions. Was the principle of the oneness of mankind emphasized by Baha'i teachers when speaking to members of these jatis, and if so, why was it that many individuals from the clean jatis responded positively given the traditional hierarchical nature of the village social system? Here we are on much more speculative ground, but a few explanations can be posited. First, since it has not been uncommon for Baha'i teachers in various parts of the world to accentuate those parts of the Baha'i message which speak most directly to their audience, it would not be surprising if in the case of the clean jatis if emphasis was not placed so much on the question of social equality as on issues related to social justice or correct dharma ((righteous behavior). Second, we know through teacher informants that after the initial successes experienced by Baha'i teachers among unclean and untouchable communities, it was decided as a matter of policy that mixed and clean jati villages should be approached through the village headman or local panchayat (village council). In following this mode of operation Baha'i teachers were no doubt trying to allay fears that the religion was only interested in attracting members from the tribal villages or the lower strata of Hindu society. But whether doing so consciously or unconsciously, such a strategy was also openly acknowledging and honoring the established village power structure, and any mention of Baha'i social principles related to caste would have taken place within that setting. Third, and this dimension will be examined at greater length in the following chapter, Baha'i teachers seem to have been able to present their teachings by making use of a time honored vehicle of change in village India, namely compartmentalization of action whereby specific social behaviors which are contrary to normalized dharma are seen as acceptable in specific and isolated contexts. For example, behaviors that are not allowed within routine social intercourse, such as spatial proximity, may be allowed within specifically work-oriented or devotional settings. Thus it is probably safe to assume that while the preaching of the Baha'i principal of the oneness of mankind was not abandoned, it was most likely put into a compartmentalized context that best fit the circumstances of a devotional religious movement.
In the midst of the Baha'i teaching successes in Malwa Hand of the Cause Ruhiyyih Khanum arrived in India. For several years she had been following the news of the large number of declarations that had been received in the subcontinent, and by early 1964 she had finally decided to see the situation first hand. Thus in February of that year she landed in New Delhi and began a nine month lecture tour of the country. References to some of her speeches have already been made in the above pages; now a brief account of her activities in Malwa is necessary.
Ruhiyyih Khanum's first stop in Malwa was in village Kweitiopani, the Bhil tribal community that had been the ignition point of the mass teaching campaign in the region. She was escorted to the village's Baha'i bhavan in an especially painted ox cart to the accompaniment of flutes and drums. At the Baha'i center she told the gathered villagers:
. . . that they should be proud of their heritage as tribal peoples and should never feel ashamed of it...She then explained that the very essence of the teachings of Baha’u’llah is unity in diversity and is not unity in uniformity; that the beauty of the society of the future will be that each people will bring its own unique gift to enrich the whole. (75)
Next she journeyed to the mass teaching district of Shajapur where she attended a regional conference. On her way back to Ujjain the next morning she called in at village Harsodan, the home of Daya Ram Malviya. Here she made a special effort to visit with the Baha'i children. After a brief stay in Ujjain she once again toured the rural districts making numerous stops in local villages. In the village of Jahangirpur she was greeted by a brass band playing royal marches, and as she walked down the village lanes people threw flower petals on her from their windows and shouted: "...dharam mata ki jai ho " (76) (long live our spiritual mother). In village Hingoria multitudes of young and old gathered around her and "drank in every word she uttered." (77) Her final presentation in Malwa came in Indore where she spoke to a large group of teachers on the importance of continuing the mass teaching campaign. She told them that a Baha'i teacher should be so dedicated to the movement that no obstacles should dishearten him, and that his heart must be overflowing with love for humanity. (78) The following day she left for Bombay to commence a tour of India that would last until late October and take her from Mysore to Sikkhim.
The Baha'is of India took Ruhiyyih Khanum's advice seriously and continued in the promotion of mass teaching projects. In Malwa this approach not only saw expansion in the rural areas but on some occasions temporarily spilled over into the cities. This was especially true of Indore where the large number of trainees and visitors coming to the city engendered a spirited "street teaching." 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 eaching 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. (79)
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 Baha’i community or even identify themselves as Baha'is. (80)
The tremendous growth of teaching activity that characterized the early 1960s in Malwa, and the subsequent initiation of an energetic consolidation program in the region necessitated the creation of new administrative institutions. Before the advent of mass teaching, proselytization campaigns were under the direction of one of the National Spiritual Assembly's sub-committees. However, by the middle of the decade the Indian National Spiritual Assembly saw fit to create a separate Area Teaching Committee for Central India. The function of this body was to formulate and supervise both teaching and consolidation activities in the two mass teaching areas of Malwa and Gwalior and thereby relieving the already overburdened National Spiritual Assembly of having to deal with these matters directly. After consulting on a given issue the committee would notify the National Spiritual Assembly of its decision, and the national body would either ratify the proposal or send it back for reevaluation.
With the continued expansion of the movement in Madhya Pradesh, in the late 1960s the National Spiritual Assembly divided the Area Teaching Committee for Central India into two regional teaching committees: one for northern Madhya Pradesh and one for southern Madhya Pradesh. The former held its meetings in Gwalior and the latter alternated its meetings between Indore and Ujjain. Again the rationale behind the restructuring wasbased on the growing amount of time and energy required to manage the proselytization and consolidation projects. In the 1970s the organization of teaching committees was once again rearranged. The State Teaching Committee of Madhya Pradesh was established in January, 1973, and had under its charge two regional teaching committees whose areas of jurisdiction were the same as those mentioned above. Consequently, by the end of the Nine Year Plan there were three administrative institutions directing Baha'i activities in Malwa: the Ujjain Regional Teaching Committee, the Madhya Pradesh State Teaching Committee and the National Spiritual Assembly of India. As part of the overall development plan for the region these bodies were now in charge of both fortifying channels of communication and fostering specific consolidation strategies. The form and content of these deepening efforts will be the focal points of the following chapter.
1) Baha'i Newsletter (India), #.31 (May, 1944), p. 13.
2) 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. 322, note #1
3) Mummy was one of Shirin Boman’s nicknames
4) Unpublished Letter of Daya Ram Malviya, March, 1974. [Daya Ram claimed that his father had become a Baha’i in 1941, a fact which I was unable to verify. If this was indeed the case, then Baha’i contact with a Malwa village would have been several years earlier than indicated above. In either case, initial Baha’I contact was not followed up by any organized proselytizing campaign.]
5) “Unpublished Annual Report of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India and Burma - 1946-1947," p. 61.
6) “Unpublished Annual Report of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India and Burma - 1946-1947," p. 61.
7) Baha'i Newsletter (India), #86, January, 1957, p.5.
8) Dorothy Freeman Gilstrap, From Copper to Gold: The Life of Dorothy Baker, (Wilmette, Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1999), p. 459.
9) Gilstrap, pp. 460 -461.
10) Gilstrap, p. 462.
11) Gilstrap, p. 464.
12) Unpublished Letter of Daya Ram Malviya, March, 1974.
13) Interview with Mrs. Boman, March, 1974.
14) Gilstrap, p 467.
15) Garrigues, p. 273
16) Garrigues, p. 273
17) Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, trans. by Shoghi Effendi, (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1969), p. 49.
18) Juan Ricardo Cole, The Concept of Manifestation in the Baha’i Writings, (Ottawa, The Association for Baha’i Studies, 1982), p. 20.
19) Cole, The Concept of Manifestation in the Baha’i Writings, p. 20.
20) Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 49.
21) Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 48.
22) Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, Vol. III (New York: Baha’i Publishing Committee, 1940), p. 538.
23) A.L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1967), p. 311.
24) S.N. Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Vol. II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), p. 5.
25) Shri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, (Pondicherrry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1966). p. 10.
26) Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, 10-11, trans. by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, (New York: Collier Books, 1972), pp. 547 - 548.
27) In some avatar schemes Buddha is replaced by Krishna’s brother, Balrama.
28) For example see A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, p. 12.
29) Bhagavad Gita, Ch 4, 7-8.
30) S. Radhakrishnan, The Bhagavad Gita, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948), p. 25.
31) S. N. Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, p. 525.
32) Geoffrey Parrinder, Avatar and Incarnation, (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), p. 230.
33) The aforementioned Parsi agent in Tehran, Manakji Limji Hatari (see p. 19), told Baha'u'llah about the Hindu conception of a cycle of avatars. Although Baha’u’llah did not directly confirm avatars as manifestations, neither did he reject the Hindu examples but rather referred generally to the schema of progressive revelation he had put forward in his Book of Certitude. While in Paris Abdu'l-Baha referred to Krishna as a prophet, and later Shoghi Effendi maintained that Krishna was a Manifestation of God.
34) Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 54.
35) For example, Vishnupurana IV, 24, 98-101.
36) Sir Monier-Williams, Hinduism, (London: 1897) p. 108.
37) Basham, p. 309.
38) Benjamin Walker, The Hindu World, Vol. I, (New York: Frederick Praeger, 1968), p. 512.
39) From the bhajan Cry Out the Name of the Beloved
40) From the bhajan The Manifestation of the Name Baha
41) From the bhajan The Image of Baha.
42) From the bhajan Cry Out the Name of the Beloved
43) From the bhajan The Kalki Avatar
44) From the bhajan The Manifestation of the Name Baha
45) From the bhajan The Manifestation of the Name Baha
46) From the bhajan Baha,Thy Love
47) The Vallabhasampraday is a Vaishnavite community based on the teachings of Vallabhacarya (1479-1531)
48) S.M. Pandey and N. H. Zide, The Poems of Surdas (unpublished) poem #7.
49) Mirabai ki Padavali, ed.. by Acarya Parasurama Caturvedi, (Prayag, 1970) p. 142.
50) From the bhajan Cry Out the Name of the Beloved.
51) Nakhjavani, pp. 138-139.
52) From the bhajan The Kalki Avatar
53) Unpublished Baha’i Declaration Card, January, 1974
54) Unpublished Baha’i Welcoming Letter, January, 1974
55) “I Am the Imperishable Syllable of This Great Book,” Baha’i Darshan,
October, 1963, p. 4.
56) “The Brilliant Point of Great Light,”Baha’i Darshan, October, 1963, p. 2.
57) Hooshmand Fathea’zam, The New Garden, (New Delhi: Baha’i Publishing Trust,
1971), pp. 18 - 19.
58) Prakash Narayan Mishra, Kalki Avatar ki Khoj (Agra: Javahar Electric Press,
1972), p. xv.
59) In Hindu cosmology a cosmic cycle (kalpa) equals 4,320 million years. Each
kalpa is in turn subdivided into secondary cycles, aeons and ages (yugas). We
are believed to be living in the kali yuga, a time of breakdown and confusion.
60) This was reported to me by Mr. K. H. Vajdi.
61) "Teaching Report of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of
India," December 10, 1963, p. 1-2.
62) From the bhajan Raise the Fanfare
63) From the bhajan The Shelter of Baha
64) From the bhajan The Call of Baha'i
65) Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 95.
66) The Essential Gandhi, ed.. by Louis Fischer, (New York: Random House,
1962), p. 310.
67) From the bhajan The Kalkin Avatar
68) Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 216 - 217.
69) Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 218.
70) Abdu’l-Baha, The Divine Art of Living: Selections From the Baha’i Writings (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1965), p. 110.
71) J. E. Esslemont, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, (Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing
Trust, 1970), p. 209.
72) J. Tyson, World Peace and World Government, (Oxford: George Ronald, 1986), p. 2.
73) Hooshmand Fathea’zam, The New Garden, p. 57.
74) Nakhjavani, p. 184.
75) Nakhjavani, pp. 50 - 51.
76) Nakhjavani, p. 53.
77) Nakhjavani, p. 54.
78) Nakhjavani, p. 55.
79) Garrigues, pp. 274 - 275.
80) Garrigues, p. 275.