Song of Nightingale

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I used to flop at mindfulness. Sometimes I still do. But this has been a good year (I know, I sound like a potato harvest). The notion of mindfulness, with its deep roots in the Buddhist tradition, is indeed a profound and powerful idea. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reminds the Bahá’ís too that “prayer and fasting is the cause of awakening and mindfulness.” It goes without saying that keen mindfulness of our own behaviour, feelings and thoughts is absolutely indispensable for our personal growth.

Despite a profound concept rooted in the antiquity, “living in the here and the now” is currently probably the trendiest catchphrase of post-modern spirituality.  Yet I cannot help but feel that the constant repackaging of this otherwise meaningful mantra for the sales pitch of self-help books has stripped the concept of some of its original depth and purity. Today it is proclaimed by virtually every new self-help sage. Not infrequently we find the same concept eloquently rephrased to seem like an original idea by the given author. Please don’t get me wrong! Self-help literature has its definite place in a growing global market stunted by stress, panic attacks and depression. But for me a certain line is crossed when meditation routines and breathing techniques — even the all-important virtue of mindfulness — are marketed as the panacea for all ills. I’m also apprehensive when meditation, no matter how refined and ecstatic, is confidently presented as the route to experiencing the Divine Itself, the Mystery of Mysteries. The self-help gurus are not all alike. There are those drawing on time-honoured traditions like Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle whose humble attitude, wise words and techniques have been a source of tranquillity and meaning for thousands. Materialistic lifestyle is fraught with anxieties, and breathing techniques as well as mental exercises centering our focus on the good available in the present may help many to momentarily let go of trivial attachments. Attachments that have assumed disproportionate importance in the frenetic rat race that is urban lifestyle. But acute awareness of our inner states, much less techniques, alone, fail to address the roots of our anxiety. In the received individualist culture healthy introspection may easily degenerate into fruitless self-absorption. Even more than meditative techniques mankind desparately needs selfless acts of service and ingenious social reforms. A more lasting tranquillity of our mind and conscience seems to need these too. Becoming overly absorbed in our own mental states, in the Bahá’í view, limits our presence in the world rather than increasing it. A painstaking quest to eliminate our own anxieties becomes, paradoxically, itself a source of pain and anxiety.

“The more we search for ourselves, the less likely we are to find ourselves; and the more we search for God, and to serve our fellow men, the more profoundly will we become acquainted with ourselves, and the more inwardly assured. This is one of the great spiritual laws of life.” – Shoghi Effendi

Thich Nhat Hanh writes quite aptly:

“Life is available only in the present moment, in the here and the now.”

The Bahá’í Writings fully endorse the fundamental notion that happiness and inner tranquillity ultimately hinge on our spiritual discernment to see purpose and meaning in every moment, even in agonizing suffering. It is a form of God-consciousness (“taqwa” in Arabic) to see His attributes and presence in all things and at all times. Bahá’u’lláh wrote in the Seven Valleys (the Valley of Wonderment) of those that have rid themselves of earthly attachments:

“At every moment he beholdeth a wondrous world, a new creation, and goeth from astonishment to astonishment, and is lost in awe at the works of the Lord of Oneness.”

Indeed, as Bahá’ís we must learn to see God in the present moment. In every atom, in every leaf and in every face. In every mundane task and every casual circumstance. But is that really enough? The Writings seem to respond with an unequivocal “Nay”. We must also learn to see God in the past, in the future and in the wider world beyond our immediate senses and geographic locations. Imám Alí worded it beautifully in a famous hadith (oral tradition):

“Nothing have I perceived, except that I perceived God within it, God before it, or God after it.”

Learning to be mindful of only the physical present and the immediately accessible may be a misunderstanding of Buddha’s intentions. It is avoided by many discerning practitioners as it results in passivity. Passivity about the prospect of a beautiful and meaningful future for all mankind, and indifference to the world beyond our own neighbourhoods, cities and lands. Accepting the world as it is may bring momentary calm. But if the virtue of resignation isn’t understood properly, it will result in a failure to be an active agent of positive change in the world. The intention of the “here and the now” exercises is soberingly good, and their underlying philosophy boasts great truth. Yet their superficial and excessively technical implementation does not cure an underlying self-centered mindset which runs diametrically counter to their original world-embracing intention.

“It is not those who lack energy or refrain from action, but those who work without expectation of reward who attain the goal of meditation.” – Krishna, The Bhagavad Gita

A meditative technique may come in very handy for temporary stress relief and emotional calm. But an obsessive quest for experiencing the Divine through esoteric self-immersion and social isolation may, inadvertently, mistake presence in the here and the now for indifference to the past, the future, and the wider world beyond our immediate sensory access. The catchy slogans on the covers of bestselling self-help books teach us about “presence” in the moment from the unwitting soap box of material luxury and political security. Does it really take that much spirituality to be present in a moment that is safe, successful and stimulating? What about deriving inner peace from the present when the present means abject poverty, crippling hunger and devastating war? Does detachment from the future and the past mean only a new kind of attachment to replace the old ones, namely attachment to a remarkably nice present! Isn’t such an attachment equally fraught with the anxiety of losing it the very moment our luck turns? It is precisely our attachment to the comforts of the physical present that makes us indifferent to the future of mankind, and to the present moment of those that languish in want. But detachment from the future and the past does not equate with indifference to the future and the past. It is the former which the likes of Krishna, Buddha and Bahá’u’lláh inculcated on us. The latter they warned us against in the severest of terms.

We should obviously not be attached to any particular future course of events. Personal futures are always unpredictable. Nor should we dwell on the “unpleasant things” of our past (or our present, for that matter). But as Bahá’ís we should always learn from the past, and live in the present by working for a better global future. We should do this while simultaneously remaining utterly unshackled by our past mistakes and undistracted by exciting future prospects, and thereby truly living in the here and the now.

The Writings assure us that we are ultimately luminous spiritual beings unrestrained by the physical constraints of time and place. In our day and age where the human soul is slowly and painfully emerging out of the instant thrill-seeking of its turbulent adolescence, it is also learning that to be present is not just about ‘now’. The present also holds a formidable power to determine the future. The present is also entirely shaped by its past. A truly mindful awareness sees all history and all future present in every moment. It sees all mankind present in every meeting. The entire human race is constantly shaped by our conduct in every human encounter, no matter how mundane and passing. Perhaps this is what it means to live in the Here and the Now in the Bahá’í style. To see every moment as an opportunity to learn about God. To find in every circumstance a possibility to serve the entire mankind. That it may become a mirror image of His Oneness.

“Every imperfect soul is self-centred and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection.” – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá


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“…were all the sorrows of the world to be crowded into my heart they would, I feel, all vanish, when in the presence of Bahá’u’lláh. It is as if I had entered Paradise.” – Prince Zaynu’l-‘Abidín Khan

The calmness and serenity of the infant was such as to amaze the mother. Khadijih Khanum could not recall if he ever cried or waxed restless. Bahá’u’lláh, born Husayn ‘Alí on 12 November 1817, was a child of kind demeanour. But his keen intellect caught his father’s attention. “He is a little short”, the mother once remarked to her husband Mírzá Buzurg while watching the child walk. “But do you not know how intelligent he is and what a wonderful mind he has!” the father exclaimed with pride.

Bahá’u’lláh’s childhood home

Bahá’u’lláh was the scion of one of the great aristocratic families of Persia. The family traced its ancestry to the last Sassanian King, Yazdegerd III, who reigned before the Muslim conquest of Persia. Opulence and privilege were his lot, respect and adoration his birth-right. His summer months were usually spent in the countryside outside the capital Tehran in the district of Núr. He had a great love for nature and spent much of his time outdoors roaming in the meadows and woodlands that belonged to his father. Sometimes he ventured out on foot, other times on horseback. The indoors were no less princely. Mírzá Buzurg, a vizier at the Sháh’s court, had built a stately mansion in Takúr. The mansion was erected in the best traditions of Persian masonry and carpentry. The palatial halls would merit only the most valuable carpets and the high walls showcased the vizier’s own masterful calligraphy. “Buzurg”, or “great”, was the title given by the Sháh to Mírzá Abbás-i-Núrí in recognition of his skill as a calligrapher. The scent of rose water filled the rooms and the warble of nightingales entered the halls through oriental windows and arched doorways. Silver samovars lovingly supplied exquisite porcelain teacups with afternoon tea and fresh mint leaves added to the aroma. The tea leaves came directly from the nearby estates. A dedicated staff of servants did all the work, including the preparation of saffron rice with tender lamb garnished with local herbs. Fruits of the season, rock melons, grapes, pomegranates and cherries, were ever-ready for a royal bite in the embrace of hand-crafted bowls representing the finest Persian pottery. Master-gardeners tended to the vizier’s rose gardens with motherly care and attention. Mírzá Buzurg was still a rich man and his properties included a number of country estates as well as a complex of houses in Tehran. In addition to his ministerial duties in Tehran, Mírzá Buzurg was the appointed governor of Burujird and Lorestan provinces.

The boons of wealth and power however held little sway over Husayn-‘Alí. Precociously insightful, he was early to see beyond their seeming luster. Once he was taken to see a puppet show in Tehran. The play was called Sháh Sultán Salím. Princes, dignitaries and notables from the capital attended the occasion, as much for entertainment as for making an appearance. Bahá’u’lláh was sitting in one of the upper rooms of the building, observing the scene. A tent was pitched in the courtyard and soon small puppet-like figures appeared. One of them, a town crier, raised the call: “His Majesty is coming! Arrange the seats at once!” The play was a ridiculous imperial fanfare, a delightful feast to the senses. The puppets vividly portrayed a menagerie of characters — proud princes with hats and sashes, footmen wielding battle axes, executioners carrying bastinadoes and a haughty king marching along with great pomp and circumstance. The show began with a scene of a royal entourage appearing at a venue of execution. Thieves were decapitated with blood-like liquid pouring out, trumpets were sounded, and shortly wars were waged and a pall of smoke enveloped the whole tent. An evil rebellion was quelled and cannons boomed at the final battle, establishing the heroic king triumphant over his nefarious enemies.

The vizier’s son watched the play with great amazement. When the play had ended and the curtain was lifted, the lone puppeteer emerged from behind the tent carrying a box under his arm. Young Bahá’u’lláh asked the man about the contents of the box. The puppeteer described to the child how the impressive and lavish display he saw is now contained within the little box under his arm. The sight of that box made a piercing impression on young Bahá’u’lláh. All the trappings of this world suddenly seemed to him like that same spectacle. “Erelong these outward trappings, these visible treasures, these earthly vanities, these arrayed armies, these adorned vestures, these proud and overweening souls, all shall pass into the confines of the grave, as though into that box”, he recalled the puppet show some half a century later as he lay in exile in far-off Adrianople (Edirne).

Historical map of Bahá’u’lláh’s exile

His pampered and privileged youth was now but a distant whiff from the past. He had been brought to Rumelia from the Ottoman Capital in a carriage used for baggage, and housed, with his family, in the dead of winter in a summer house unfit for residency. Neither he nor his wife and children had the necessary raiments to protect themselves from the freezing cold. After accepting the Báb as a Messenger of God, and publically proclaiming his cause at the age of twenty-seven, his inherited properties were confiscated, his possessions looted and his body thrown into the infamous Black Pit. But his fate in exile and imprisonment was sealed after thousands of Bábis and other Persians began flocking to him and to seek his wisdom as “Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest” prophesied by the Báb. He had announced his own Messengership humbly. First to his family and thereafter to his immediate companions at the time when he was held in house arrest in Baghdad. But the news of his knowledge and his radiant presence, coupled with his inspiring revelations that were being disseminated in Writing, began to spread from mouth to mouth, and to attract curiosity and animosity in equal measure. Now in Adrianople, at fifty-one, he had already endured 16 years of banishment and incarceration in various parts of the Ottoman Empire. Yet even as he lay robbed, ridiculed and rejected, his mind remembered the triviality that is earthly glory, and his heart rejoiced in the eventual end of all earthly sorrow.

“In the eyes of those possessed of insight all this conflict, contention and vainglory hath ever been, and will ever be, like unto the play and pastimes of children.”

“Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more.”

– Bahá’u’lláh

November the 12th, 2012, marked the 195th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh

“His life is one of the most magnificent examples of courage which it has been the privilege of mankind to behold…” – A.L.M. Nicolas

What would call for a musketry of 750 riflemen to riddle a mild-mannered young man of thirty-one, a kindly demeanour and a peaceful purpose to a pulp of flesh and bone? What would cause a youth of only fifteen to beg the soldiers for the honour of being martyred with him? Yet so it came to pass. The youth Anís, and his young Master who held him in his embrace, were shot by three volleys of bullets, each volley fired by a file of 250 soldiers. The scene of this gorey spectacle was Tabríz, Persia, and the year was 1850. Over 10,000 spectators had gathered to observe the scene. The young man was known for his delicate appearance and his melodious voice. These were his last words as he serenely addressed the cheering crowds:

“O wayward generation! Had ye believed in me, ye would have followed the example of this youth, who ranks above most of you, and willingly sacrificed your lives in my path. The Day shall come when you will have recognized me, and I shall have ceased to be with you.”


The Shrine of the Báb in Haifa, Israel


The young man came from Shiráz, Persia. His father had died when he was but an infant and it fell on his uncle to care for the boy. After being sent back from a religious school for knowing too much, the boy took up his uncle’s trade as a merchant. He was well-known for his exceptional humility, fervour in prayer, quiet disposition and exemplary honesty in his business dealings. A siyyid, a lineal descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, he wore the characteristic green turban. A fervent messianic expectation of the promised Mahdi had reached the city with the arrival of 18 young theological students from Karbila, Iraq, who had espoused the millenarian Shaykhi school. On 23 May 1844, at the age of twenty-five, this Siyyid shared what he regarded a precious secret to the first of these youth arriving in the city. The clandestine interview took place in the Siyyid’s house in the dead of night. Mullá Husayn, his guest, was a student of scriptural prophecies and a Shaykhi who had recently been awarded the prestigious title of a ‘mujtahid’. Upon his arrival to Shiráz, Mullá Husayn had been seen by the Shirázi merchant in the city’s outskirts. The visitor was warmly welcomed to lodge at his house for the night. While serving his guest tea from a silver samovar, the host, almost casually, related that he is none other than the Promised One of all ages foretold by all the Prophets of old, the one they had come to find. Mullá Husayn later wrote that the love and kindness of his youthful host was such that had he no other claim to greatness, his virtue alone would have sufficed to convince him.

The Shirázi youth revealed to Mullá Husayn and the rest of his initial 18 disciples that his sole purpose, as a Messenger of God, was to prepare the way for the imminent appearance of an even greater Messenger –“Him Whom God shall make manifest.” But he also cautioned that to embrace his cause was to put oneself in mortal peril. He warned that his public announcement was destined to result in violent persecution, nation-gripping bloodshed and, eventually, his own martyrdom at the hands of the Persian priestly elite. A bold claim to Messengership in succession to Muhammad, him who was deemed the ‘final prophet’, would undoubtedly be met with violent persecution by the orthodox Shí’áh clerics of Persia. Thousands of adherents, from all walks of life, were to flock to his Cause in a short period of time, despite a near-certain prospect of violent persecution, torture and death. A score of unbiased and notable first-hand observers of Qajáric Persia in the 19th century, not the least of which were Lord Curzon of Kedleston and Comte de Gobineau, would attest in their voluminous accounts to the two decades of violent turmoil in Persia following the peaceful revelation of this merchant. His declaration, quite foreseeably, caused alarm amongst the Orthodox Shí’íte clergy. But the brutal torture and persecution of his followers was prompted neither by fairness nor necessity.

At that fateful night in Shiráz, the intuitive learning, the flawless appearance, the powerful words and the heartfelt courtesy of this Shirázi Siyyid stirred Mullá Husayn to his depths. Fully aware of the mortal perils ahead, he spontaneously arose to proclaim the young merchant’s bold claim and forthwith dispatched, under the Siyyid’s instructions, on horseback to the capital Tehran. As to his mission to the capital, the Siyyid offered Mullá Husayn only these veiled words:

“A secret lies hidden in that city. When made manifest, it shall turn the earth into paradise.”

This gentle Siyyid was the Báb (“the Gate”). His is a true story.

“Why do we suffer?” is one of the most human of queries. Without fail, we tend to ask the question in the 1st person: “Why me?”  But what about the 3rd? “Why they?” Why is it always the greedy varlet that winds up blessed with superb health and abundant wealth, and the meek tiller of a barren field who dies bent by a life of toil and hardship? Let’s venture even further. Why have the most saintly and noble to have ever trodden this earth suffered far more than most of us puny mortals bewailing our plight? Where is the justice and fairness in that? Surely it can’t be because they deserved it. So what right do we have to think our lot is a punishment from God?

Indeed, the mark of a true prophet is suffering. And not just any kind of suffering, but the devastating kind that targets your loved ones, destroys your body and gives you a rude reminder that you are really nothing but a spit bowl for the rich and powerful. Perhaps none more than the great prophets have experienced first-hand and unabated the most brutal aspects of humanity and yet remained utterly unwavering, till their hour of death, in their inspirational call upon man to do only that which is good, noble and enlightened. And doing it with a passion too. Moses was an orphan and an exile hunted by his oppressors. Jesus was an impoverished vagabond ridiculed as a fatherless child and ultimately executed. Muhammed was driven out of his home into the desert and a war was brought on him and his loved ones for simply believing in God.

Despite their ability to attract masses, well-fed gurus basking in admiration within the safety of their extravagant ashrams, honey-tongued opportunists inviting generous donations by abusing religious sentiment, privileged eccentrics selling self-help books with a fluffy spiritual philosophy, and inspirational preachers flying their learjets betwixt jam-packed stadiums, simply won’t compare. True prophets, in the annals of world history, are a mere handful. But they do exist. And what’s little short of amazing: the moral message of their recorded teachings is near-identical. “You, my friend, are much more than meets the eye. Know that, grow up and beat the odds!”

The greatest inspiration has ever come from those that overcame all odds, remained unbending in doing good and refused to shirk in their commitment to high-minded ideals even in the face of violent persecution and torture. Perhaps that is why it is the greatest souls amongst us that have suffered the most. Nothing less would inspire the rest of us to transcend ourselves.

“Know ye that trials and tribulations have, from time immemorial, been the lot of the chosen Ones of God and His beloved, and such of His servants as are detached from all else but Him, they whom neither merchandise nor traffic beguile from the remembrance of the Almighty, they that speak not till He hath spoken, and act according to His commandment. Such is God’s method carried into effect of old, and such will it remain in the future. Blessed are the steadfastly enduring, they that are patient under ills and hardships, who lament not over anything that befalleth them, and who tread the path of resignation.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 204)

It is, paradoxically, easier to believe in the goodness of man and the underlying oneness of all humanity when it is proclaimed by someone who has undergone torture, banishment and 40 years of imprisonment without losing faith in these ideals. Since childhood Bahá’u’lláh had earned a reputation as the compassionate and prodigal son of Mírzá Buzurg, a well-respected minister serving at the Sháh’s court. His was a silken life of luxury and privilege. At the age of 27 he did the unimaginable. He ceased to be a Shí’ah Muslim and became a follower of the Báb. By declaring as a Bábi he forsook all chances of a comfortable life paved for him by the powers-that-be. Even before accepting the Báb he had, at 22 years of age, declined an offer from the Prime Minister to advance a ministerial career at the Sháh’s court. Instead he had chosen to consecrate his home to helping the poor of Tehran with his wife Ásiyyih Khánúm. One of the rooms in his large mansion was transformed into a ward for tending sick women and children. The couple had earned the twin-titles “the Father of the Poor” and “the Mother of Consolation.” Ásiyyih Khánúm, a woman of great beauty and grace, came from one of the richest families of Persia. Yet their life of comfort and security was not to last. In Tehran, upon receiving a letter from Mullá Husayn containing some verses of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh spontaneously embraced the Báb’s Message and became one of his most ardent and influential followers due to his high social standing. He went forthwith, on a horseback, to spread the Báb’s message in his native district in northern Persia, fully aware of the perils with which such a mission was fraught. He attracted many new fervent followers and roused the ire of the fanatical Shí’ah clergy. He was arrested.

Bahá’í Prisoners

Bahá’u’lláh was paraded bare-footed through the streets of Tehran to his prison-dungeon and pelted with stones by the angry crowds on the roadsides. He was thrown into the dungeon of Siyáh-Chál with a 100-pound chain placed on his neck and stocks put on his feet. The Siyáh-Chál, “The Black Pit”, was a former sewage reservoir turned into an underground prison. It was basically a deep underground tunnel, housing some 150 prisoners including 30 Bábis, which had only one outlet. It was so narrow and low that only sitting in a crouching position was possible. Many died in the prison. Much heavier chains were placed on Bahá’u’lláh’s shoulders than on the other prisoners. His chains were known by the names Qará-Guhar and Salásil. During his four-month stay in the pitch-black and filthy dungeon, the chains left a permanent imprint on his stature and cut into his flesh.

The Sháh and the ministers expected Bahá’u’lláh to die in the Black Pit under the weight of his chains. The mother of the Sháh in particular was insisting on Bahá’u’lláh’s immediate execution. According to some reports the Sháh was worried about more prominent martyrs inciting fresh support to Bábism. Prince Dolgorukov from the Russian Legation intervened on Bahá’u’lláh’s behalf, owing to Bahá’u’lláh’s excellent reputation as a man of virtue. Prince Dolgorukov is reported to have told the Persian authorities in no uncertain terms that Bahá’u’lláh is not be harmed or Persia shall hear from Russia. As a consequence, the death sentence was not carried out and the Siyáh-Chál sentence was interrupted after four months of stay.

Instead, Bahá’u’lláh was banished from the country and ordered to live under house arrest and imprisonment for the remainder of his life. He was to remain under incarceration in some of the most forbidding places in the Ottoman Empire, far away from “bewitching” any more Persians. Prince Dolgorukov offered refuge in Russia which Bahá’u’lláh cordially refused. The British offered refuge when Bahá’u’lláh was in Baghdad and later the French offered him assistance whilst he was in Adrianople, which were also politely turned down.

Until the end of his earthly journey, Bahá’u’lláh was adamantly reluctant to exchange his claim — that he had brought a new message of unity and brotherhood from God — for personal freedom or temporal ascendancy. Neither did he allow persecution or confinement to shackle his inner freedom. No amount of torture could corrode his faith in the underlying goodness of man.

Why should we then let lesser disappointments shake ours?

“O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Part I Arabic, #51)

“O SON OF MAN! For everything there is a sign. The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Part I Arabic, #48)