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Introduction by Juan Cole

It is well known that Baha'u'llah responded to the concerns of, and recognized the validity of, the religions of Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Muslims. The relationship of the Baha'i Faith to the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism is more complex, primarily because the Near Eastern religions constitute a 'family' of theological language-games that have interacted with one another intensively through history, whereas the South Asian traditions are quite different. Still, Baha'u'llah's son and successor, `Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), recognized that the Hindu figure Krishna was a 'prophet,' and said that the Buddha was a major Manifestation of the Eternal Truth. The Baha'i belief that all the great religions of the world are grounded in the same Unknowable Essence has led Baha'is to recognize Hinduism and Buddhism as true and valid expressions of humankind's yearning for the Absolute Truth, and to affirm them as predecessor traditions to the universal religion that Baha'is wish to implement as a precondition for world unity. One Baha'i scholar, Moojan Momen, has written a book aimed at showing some similarities between Baha'i and Hindu beliefs, and at suggesting ways in which obvious theological conflicts between the two might be resolved.[1]

It has not been widely recognized, however, that Baha'u'llah had some knowledge of Hinduism and that he responded to questions about Hinduism (and Zoroastrianism) put to him by the Zoroastrian agent in Iran, Manakji Limji Hataria (1813-1890). These questions and Baha'u'llah's replies are contained in a letter sent to one of Baha'u'llah's major disciples, Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani (1844-1914). The subjects discussed center on comparative religions, and Manakji repeatedly outlines what he understands to be Hindu doctrines and asks for Baha'u'llah's responses to them. I should say at the outset that these responses tended to be oblique, with much remaining implicit, but that they do clearly constitute a dialogue of Baha'u'llah with Hinduism, as well as with the other traditions covered. Here I am most interested in the former. The letter to Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, containing asides by Baha'u'llah's amanuensis, Mirza Aqa Jan Khadimu'llah, was printed in volume seven of the anthology, The Heavenly Repast (Ma'idih-'i Asmani) in 1972 or 1973 by the Iranian Baha'i scholar, `Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari. The tablet brings to the fore questions of what Baha'u'llah means by the unity of the world religions, and how he approaches this subject theologically and philosophically.

Not only was Baha'u'llah familiar with Hinduism, but he clearly expected that his nineteenth-century, literate, Persian-speaking audience would be, as well. A substantial literature on Hinduism existed in Arabic and Persian, especially in the latter, given that Persian was the primary literary and governmental language of Muslim-ruled India between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and continued to be vital in the subcontinent during Baha'u'llah's lifetime. The great medieval Iranian savant Abu Rayhan Biruni (973-1048) authored, around 1030 CE, a wide ranging description of Hinduism that became a classic. Medieval and early modern Muslim political ascendancy in North India led to a vast amount of translation from Sanskrit sources into Persian, the language of the bureaucracy and of most Indo-Muslim learning. Indeed, given the very large number of Hindu scribes and others fluent in Persian during this period, and the much smaller number of learned Brahmins with mastery of Sanskrit, it is likely that the majority of literate North Indian Hindus read their holy books in Persian during Mughal times (1525-1803).

The number of Muslim scholars who collaborated with Hindu pandits in making Sanskrit works available was not inconsiderable. Nizamu'd-Din Panipati rendered the widely influential Yoga Vasistha into Persian late in the sixteenth century at the behest of the Mughal ruler Jahangir while he was still a crown prince. The Mughal prince Dara Shikuh (1615-1659) did much to expound Hindu tenets in Persian, as well as translating important works such as the Upanishads. Since many Hindus also wrote in or translated into Persian, very large numbers of such manuscripts circulated among the literate classes, and many of these books demonstrably reached Iran. Persian descriptions of Hinduism, though varying in quality, were also quite numerous. An example of this literature is the anonymous School of Religions (Dabistan-i Madhahib), which examines Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and both branches of Islam at some length, and includes a brief description of Christianity. The author was probably a Zoroastrian of Iranian extraction, brought up in Patna, North India. From the School of Religions, which was lithographed at least three times in the nineteenth century, a Persian-speaking reader could learn of the four ages (sing. yuga) into which Hindus divided the history of the current universe, the first of which lasted about 1.7 million years and the last of which (our own) will endure for 400 thousand years. Such a cycle, over four million years long, formed a small part of mega-cycles, each of them a day in the life of the god Brahma. The author also described the Hindu belief in an ultimate Lord or God beyond the gods, called Vishnu, and his self-manifestation in a series of ten avatars. He reports that:

"They therefore assert, that for the purpose of satisfying the wishes of his faithful servants, and tranquillizing their minds, he has vouchsafed to manifest himself in this abode, which manifestations they call an Avatar and hold this to be no degradation to his essence . . . they have said, `Avatars are rays issuing from Vishnu's essence.' But these sectaries do not mean that the identical spirit of Ram, on the dissolution of its connection with his body, becomes attached to the body of Krishna."

In one composite manuscript of Babi and Baha'i material that came into British Orientalist E.G. Browne's possession, a "Persian account of the Indian Saint Ramchand" is sandwiched among works by `Abdu'l-Baha and Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, and other Babi and Baha'i writers, indicating an interest in Hinduism among adherents of these movements. That Baha'u'llah was familiar with at least some of this literature is indisputable. At one point he answers a questioner who asked about the paucity of records about human history before Adam, and here Baha'u'llah defends a 'long chronology' wherein the world is of very great antiquity. He explains, "among existing historical records differences are to be found, and each of the various peoples of the world hath its own account of the age of the earth and of its history. Some trace their history as far back as eight thousand years, others as far as twelve thousand years. To any one that hath read the book of Juk it is clear and evident how much the accounts given by the various books have differed."[2]

The "Book of Juk" could also be transliterated as the "Book of Jug," a reference to the Persian translation of the Yoga Vasistha (Jug-Basisht), a work on Hindu mysticism probably written in the thirteenth century of the Common Era. Cast in the form of a dialogue purportedly between the Vedic sage Vasistha and his pupil Rama, this work shows influences of Vedanta, Yoga and even Mahayana Buddhism. As noted above, Nizamu'd-Din Panipati carried out a translation of this book in the late 1500s. The Safavid-era Iranian mystic Mir Findiriski (d. 1641) selected and commented on portions of Panipati's rendering of the Yoga Vasistha. Mir Findiriski gained a reputation at the court of Shah `Abbas in early seventeenth-century Isfahan for asceticism, and he is said to have become, after his journeys in India, a vegetarian and an adorer of the sun who refused to go on pilgrimage to Mecca lest he be forced to sacrifice sheep. The Yoga Vasistha appears to have been a popular work among those with Indo-Persian interests from about 1600 onward. It contains passages discussing the untold cycles of time in which Hindus believed, the multiplicity of universes, and the end of each in a cosmic night. In the story of the long-lived sage, Bhusunda, he is depicted as recalling a succession of 11 thousand-year epochs in the earth's history before the advent of humans, when lava, forests, or demons predominated. He adds:

"During my lifetime I have seen the appearance and disappearance of countless Manu[s] (the progenitor of the human race). At one time the world was devoid of the gods and demons, but was one radiant cosmic egg. At another time the earth was populated by brahmana (members of the priest class) who were addicted to alcohol, sudra (servant class) who ridiculed the gods, and polyandrous women. I also remember another epoch when the earth was covered with forests, when the ocean could not even be imagined, and when human beings were spontaneously created."

Baha'u'llah's wording makes it clear that he was familiar with the Yoga Vasistha, and it is remarkable that he felt no need to explain the reference to his readers, suggesting that many literate Persian-speaking intellectuals read this work as late as the nineteenth century.

Even more remarkable, Baha'u'llah clearly prefers the Yoga view of cosmology to a literal reading of the biblical-quranic short chronology, which would result in a world only six-to-eight thousand years old. Even the longer Zoroastrian figure for the age of the earth, 12 thousand years, strikes him as too limited. I would suggest that the intellectual context for this insistence on a long chronology is two-fold. First, Baha'u'llah accepts the common Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic and Avicennian premise that the cosmos is eternal. This belief had remained a point of dispute in Islamic thought between the philosophically minded and the scripturalists. The great mystic and clergyman Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) had attacked the Muslim philosophers for daring to contradict a literal reading of he Qur'an, wherein the world was brought into being at a particular point in time by God's creative word and so is not eternal or pre-existent. The later Andalusian follower of Aristotle, Averroes, strongly defended his master, but to little avail in the Islamic West. In the Arab world, al- Ghazzali's view largely won out. In Iran, however, the influence of the Avicennian peripatetics remained strong, so that many thinkers, Baha'u'llah among them, continued to accept the eternality of the universe. Baha'u'llah wrote, in the tablet that mentions the Yoga Vasistha, that God's "creation hath ever existed, and the Manifestations of His Divine glory and the Day Springs of eternal holiness have been sent down from time immemorial."[3] Second, the discovery by nineteenth-century European geologists and paleontologists that the world, and life, is very old, was becoming known among Middle Eastern intellectuals from the 1880s, and Darwinism was beginning to create controversy at regional institutions such as the Syrian Protestant College (later the American University in Beirut). Both the philosophical view of the eternality of the world and the modern scientific chronology that pushes the earth's age back to 4.5 billion years are relatively compatible with Hindu cosmology, but are impossible to reconcile with the short chronology of the biblical tradition, if taken literally. For a nineteenth-century Middle Eastern thinker with a philosophical, inquiring bent, such as Baha'u'llah, the Yoga chronology was a useful foil to the more limited cosmological conceptions of Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic traditions.

Let us turn now to the correspondence between Manakji Limji Hataria and Baha'u'llah. Manakji was a Parsi, or Indian Zoroastrian, of the nineteenth century, born near Surat in northwestern India. From the age of 15 he earned his own way, becoming a commercial agent, and he came to Iran in 1854 via the Gulf and Iraq. He met Baha'u'llah in Baghdad at that time. In Yazd, Kirman and Tehran he labored to restore the houses of worship of the Zoroastrians, to ameliorate the conditions of that people, and to found schools. In 1864, Manakji went back to India, and there he reported on the straitened conditions of Zoroastrians in Iran to his co-religionists. In British India, where Bombay spun a web of international commerce, the Zoroastrians had emerged as a wealthy community of merchants, agents, go-betweens and investors, enjoying religious freedom. Manakji Sahib (`Sahib' being an Indian honorific) convinced the Parsis to send him back to Tehran as their philanthropical agent. With Bombay monies, he and his wife opened three schools in Tehran, but they found they needed to hire outsiders as teachers. Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, trained as a Shi`ite clergyman, became a Baha'i in 1876 and, when he lost his job as seminary teacher, took on employment from 1877-1882 as a teacher at Manakji's school and as the agent's secretary. It seems likely that the correspondence between Manakji and Baha'u'llah occurred during this period. Another, shorter letter of Baha'u'llah to Manakji in pure Persian is better known and was even translated into English early in the twentieth century.[4] Manakji, a great collector of Persian manuscripts, commissioned and edited a major chronicle of the Babi period, Mirza Husayn Hamadani's New History of the Bab (Tarikh-i Jadid), which was completed around 1882.

I here present a commentary on the exchange between Baha'u'llah and Manakji, in hopes of understanding the codes of discourse being employed. Baha'u'llah signals at the very beginning that he felt it unwise to reply in a straightforward manner to some of the Parsi agent's direct questions, since he would have necessarily been forced openly to make pronouncements at variance with the doctrines held by the Shi`ite clergy in Iran. This issue arose because Baha'u'llah was writing to someone outside the Baha'i community, someone whose correspondence might be read by employees (including Shi`ites). Major points of interest are Baha'u'llah's attitudes to Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. He was clearly well versed in the former, like some other nineteenth-century Iranian thinkers who looked upon the pre-Islamic religious heritage of Iran as a source of glory to be recovered. Many Iranians were fired by nineteenth-century archeological discoveries and decipherments concerning the ancient Achaemenids, Iranian rulers of most of the civilized world in the two centuries before the rise of Alexander the Great.

In his first question, Manakji outlines three possible types of sacred history, and asks Baha'u'llah which he prefers. The first type is the Zoroastrian, wherein, he says, it is maintained that there were altogether 28 prophets, including Zoroaster. These prophets, he says, all affirmed the same religion, and none arose to abrogate the essential laws and customs of the community. Manakji derives this view of his tradition largely from the apocryphal Dasatir, a Sufi-influenced work of Zoroastrian mysticism probably produced in the seventeenth century CE, wherein sacred history started with a very ancient figure named Mihabad, who was succeeded by other holy figures not mentioned in the ancient Zoroastrian scripture. Many Parsis adhered to such a chronology in Manakji's day. This schema involves many prophets but one unchanging Law.

In contrast, he says, Hindus conceive holy history in quite different terms. Manakji continues, "several of the bearers of a revelation to the Hindus said, `I am God. All creatures must enter under My authority. When discord and alienation afflict them, I shall advent myself and efface it.'"[paragraph 2] Without naming either, Manakji has here paraphrased for Baha'u'llah the words of Krishna in The Bhagavad-Gita: "Though myself unborn, undying, the lord of creatures, I fashion nature, which is mine, and I come into being through my own magic. Whenever sacred duty decays and chaos prevails, then, I create myself, Arjuna. To protect men of virtue and destroy men who do evil, to set the standard of sacred duty, I appear in age after age." These Hindu avatars, he explains, say that within them is the same soul that animated their predecessors. Further, they bring a new law.

Manakji makes an analogy between the Hindu schema (as he understands it) and that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, wherein Jesus abrogated the laws of Moses, who had in turn brought new laws not revealed in the time of Abraham. In regard to history, then, the Hindu cycle of successive avatars and the Christian belief in consecutive patriarchs and prophets leading up to the advent of Christ, have in common a doctrine that religious law can be changed by a new messenger of God. Manakji does not say so, but obviously Hinduism differs from the Christian tradition in having a more cyclical conception of time, as opposed to the Near Eastern idea of time as linear. Still, both of these views of sacred history contrast to Manakji's version of Zoroastrianism in accepting the possibility that aspects of divine legislation may be changed or abrogated over time.

Finally, he says, a new prophet came, who rejected all the previous revelations and insisted that the law he legislated be followed. Manakji was here referring to the Prophet Muhammad and to Islam. This statement appears odd, but Manakji was probably reasoning from what Muslim informants told him. Many Muslims after the earliest period were not very comfortable with their Judeo-Christian heritage. As a result, they developed a doctrine of the corruption of previous scriptural texts, saying the Jews and Christians had introduced alterations into the Bible after the advent of Islam. Muslims therefore typically did not read the Bible, and accepted from the biblical tradition only those aspects of it directly enshrined in the Qur'an itself or incorporated into the corpus of sayings attributed to the Prophet.

Manakji, then, sees three different paradigms for prophetic history in the world religions. In some traditions, prophets come serially but affirm a single unchanging Law. In some others, avatars or prophets come sequentially, and can abrogate the laws revealed by previous holy figures. Finally, some traditions wholly reject their predecessors and accept nothing from previous prophets. Manakji wants to know which view of holy history Baha'u'llah approves of.

Baha'u'llah in his reply draws on the theophanology, or ideas about the Manifestations of God, that he had developed some 20 years earlier in the Book of Certitude. He points out that in Judaism, Moses brought divine legislation, but was succeeded by a large number of prophets who acted as vehicles for revelation without altering the Mosaic law. He therefore sees the situation Manakji describes for Zoroastrianism as mirrored in Judaism. This schema of serial prophets with no alteration of the divine law, then, holds good for particular religious traditions, and is a special case within a larger tableau of progressive revelation. Major prophets like Moses and Zoroaster legislate and, whereas minor successors like David do not, major new prophets such as Jesus and Muhammad can arise to abrogate the past divine law and institute a new one.

Baha'u'llah goes on to challenge Manakji's third category, of the new legislating prophet (Muhammad) who altogether rejects his predecessors, maintaining that the Arabian Messenger of God never adopted the position attributed to him by the Parsi leader. He proves it by quoting Qur'an 3:1, "Alif. Lam. Mim. God! There is no god but He, the Living, the Merciful. In truth He sent down to thee `the Book,' which confirmeth those which precede it. For He hath sent down the Torah and the Evangel aforetime, as man's Guidance; and now hath He sent down the Salvation." Muhammad therefore affirmed the Pentateuch and the New Testament, and saw the Qur'an as a further installment in this series. That is, the Muslim idea of serial revelations with new religious laws being instituted from time to time by `Prophets endowed with constancy' is not materially different from the Christian or the Hindu schemas. Baha'u'llah therefore disallows the third case as based on a misunderstanding, and he folds the first case (of sequential non-legislating prophets) into the second. Baha'u'llah therefore succeeds in eliminating Manakji's three-fold distinction among religious traditions and incorporating them into a single, over-arching theory of progressive revelation.

The final question concerned which sort of messenger from the divine is superior among the three types. Baha'u'llah says that in some ways all messengers from God, whether legislating prophets or not, are equal as theophanies and bearers of revelation, and this is what the Qur'an means when it says, "We make no distinction between any of His Messengers."[2:285] On the other hand, clearly the legislating Manifestations in some ways enjoy precedence, and this is why the Qur'an also says, "And We preferred some of the Messengers over others."[2:253]

In his answer to Manakji's first question, Baha'u'llah does not directly address himself to the Hindu examples adduced. I think we must read this silence as assent. That is, Baha'u'llah's approach to other religious traditions was highly ecumenical, as is witnessed by his acceptance of the validity of Zoroaster and of the Bible, neither of which most Iranian Shi`ites accepted, and he seemed entirely willing to have examples from Hinduism constitute part of the discourse about the world religions. The Yoga Vasistha, with which Baha'u'llah was familiar, also briefly summarized the story of Krishna and Arjuna. There is nothing in Manakji's paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita to which Baha'u'llah had any reason to object, given his own ideas. Manakji's characterization of the Hindu conception of the avatar consists in the bearer of revelation: 1) proclaiming his divinity, 2) insisting that all accept his authority 3) coming when social discord and disaffection are prevalent, 4) declaring himself the return of his predecessor, and 5) instituting a new revealed law. The precise contours of Hindu theology are lost in this sort of summary, such that the ideas of Rama and Krishna as incarnations of Vishnu, and of reincarnation and karma, are not described in any detail.

What is reported sounds remarkably like Baha'u'llah's own prophetology as developed in the Book of Certitude. Baha'u'llah wrote, "Were any of the all-embracing Manifestations of God to declare: "I am God!" He verily speaketh the truth and no doubt attacheth thereto."[p 178] For Baha'u'llah, messengers from the Eternal Truth are not merely prophets, but are theophanies, manifestations of the names and attributes of God in this world. Their theophanic status authorizes them to employ theopathic language, though this discourse is in some sense metaphorical and does not imply an identity of essence between them and God. Seen in this way, Krishna's pronouncement that he is God would therefore be unexceptionable. Baha'u'llah also very emphatically taught that the commands revealed by the Manifestation of God must be obeyed implicitly.

Baha'i scriptures say that Manifestations of God are sent especially at times of social and spiritual unrest. The advent of the theophany is called a Day of God, and is identified with eschatological symbols such as the darkening of the sun and the fall of the stars (which Baha'u'llah interprets figuratively). In the times leading up to the appearance of the Manifestation, Baha'u'llah says, "the break of the morn of divine guidance must needs follow the darkness of the night of error. For this reason, in all chronicles and traditions reference hath been made unto these things, namely that iniquity shall cover the surface of the earth and darkness shall envelop mankind."[p 32] The idea that the deterioration of moral order precedes a new irruption of divine presence and grace, then, is held in common by the Bhagavad-Gita and the Book of Certitude.

The Baha'i Faith does not believe in reincarnation, so, on the face of it, the idea of an avatar as the reincarnation of a preceding theophany would be an alien one. In fact, the Babi and Baha'i religions accept the idea of an eternal return that resembles the doctrine prevalent among ancient stoics and Neoplatonists. Human beings are seen to possess a soul (nafs) on the one hand and, on the other, attributes (sifat). Although the soul upon death goes on to another plane of existence in the never-ending journey toward God, never returning to earth, its complex of personality-attributes can recur later in history. Baha'u'llah writes, in interpreting a verse of the Qur'an that identifies Muhammad with past prophets, "If thou sayest that Muhammad was the 'return' of the Prophets of old, as is witnessed by this verse, His Companions must likewise be the 'return' of the bygone Companions, even as the "return" of the former people is clearly attested by the text of the above-mentioned verses."[5] Baha'u'llah, then, says that all the founders of the major religions possessed a unity on the plane of attributes. Each was a `return' of the others. He quotes esoteric Shi`ite sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, wherein he says, "I am all the Prophets," and "I am the first Adam, Noah, Moses, and Jesus."[6] Something very like the Hindu belief that each avatar is a return of his predecessors, then, also exists in the Baha'i Faith, though the return is phenomenological (having to do with appearances) rather than ontological (having to do with being). Finally, Baha'u'llah did acknowledge the authority of the major Manifestations of God, such as Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, to legislate new religious laws and to abrogate former ordinances.

This exercise of matching Baha'u'llah's teachings with those of Krishna as reported by Manakji can only be, of course, heuristic. Baha'u'llah's cautious silence has made it necessary for us to attempt to reconstruct the Baha'i-Hindu dialogue implied in this tablet. The exercise is made all the more plausible when we consider Baha'u'llah's reference, elsewhere, to the Yoga Vasistha, with its implication that basic Hindu ideas were well enough known among the more adventurous literate Iranians of the time that they could be referred to with no further explanation. What can be said is that Baha'u'llah replied to Manakji's set of distinctions among Hinduism and other religious traditions by downplaying the differences and subsuming the various schemas of sacred history under his own conception of progressive revelation.

Manakji next asks a question about the relationship of God to the world, and outlines four positions. The first is metaphysical monism, which states that all visible beings are identical with the Absolute Truth. In India the Upanishads advocate this position, and it was systematized by the great Hindu theologian Shankara Carya (b. 788 C.E.) . The second is metaphysical dualism, wherein God and the creation are recognized as different from one another, and prophets are seen as mediators between the divine and mundane realms. The prophetic religions of the Near East tended to adopt this position. There did also exist in India important theists who differentiated between creator and creation (such as Ramanuja [d. 1137 C.E.]), and even full-fledged dualists such as Madhva (1238-1317 C.E.), who made an absolute set of distinctions between the Lord (Ishvara) and the human soul. The third position identifies God only with the celestial spheres, and not with the entirety of creation. The fourth is the deist position, that God created Nature from eternity, and it thereafter regulates itself (pp. 151-52).

Baha'u'llah replies that of the four stances outlined, i.e. monism, metaphysical dualism, Neoplatonic panentheism, and deism, the second is "closer to piety" (p. 152). The Arabic word taqwa has connotations of the "fear of God" as well as piety, and Baha'u'llah appears to mean by this phrase that metaphysical dualism, the assertion that the creation is other-than-God, best ensures that proper reverence for the ineffability of the Unknowable Essence is maintained. Baha'u'llah admits, however, that the other stances can also be maintained, not on the level of being or ontology, but on that of manifestation. That is, all things are manifestations of God's names and attributes, and therefore it is possible to see God in all things. Baha'u'llah's stance here resembles that of the Sufis who rejected existential monism, the unity of being between God and creatures, but agreed that great mystics can attain a state wherein a non-ontological unity of the divine and the phenomenal world is apparent to them. Of course, it would have been equally possible for Baha'u'llah simply to say that the Shankara school of monism is incorrect as ontology, and he elsewhere says as much about Sufi pantheism. But his approach is to stress commonalities, to show the ways in which seemingly opposing theological positions can be reconciled. Thus, monism of the sort found in the Upanishads and Shankara's writings is not simply a propositional error, but is rather an accurate description of a valid mystical perception. Because the universe is itself theophanic, it is possible to see the manifestations of God in each created thing. Nevertheless, in Baha'u'llah's view God's necessary being continues to be sharply distinguished from the contingent being of created things.

Manakji's next question is more practical. He notes that in Islam, a distinction exists between the law as a field of study (fiqh) and the sources (usul) of law (at least the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet, though most schools accepted other sources, as well). In Islam the classical example for this sort of question is the prohibition on alcoholic beverages. The Qur'an itself only forbids wine, so the question arises of whether this narrow interdiction in the source text has any wider implications. According to the jurisprudence (fiqh) worked out by Muslim clergymen in the medieval period, a specific law can have wider application. For instance, the reason given in the revealed texts for the prohibition of wine is that it clouds the mind. By analogy, then, all substances that cloud the mind should also be forbidden, including, e.g., barley beer. Disagreements arose about the precise extent to which such analogies could be taken, and the Muslim science of the principles of jurisprudence is notorious for its openness to abuse or to idiosyncratic rulings by individual clergymen. The Shi`ite Akhbari school rejected the science of the principles of jurisprudence altogether, relying solely on a literalist understanding the two main sources, the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet and the Imams. Manakji contrasts the tension in Islam between legal fundamentalism and judicial activism to the situation in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, where he says that the textual sources have primacy. In the latter religions, he says, law is not conceived to exist apart from its scriptual sources (p. 154). Ironically, Manakji argues that Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are much more "fundamentalist" (in the modern Western Protestant sense of scriptural positivist) than Islam, which rather has developed a sophisticated scholastic apparatus for legal interpretation.

Baha'u'llah takes a stance critical of the way the principles of jurisprudence had become a license in Shi`ite Islam for interpreters of the law, or mujtahids, to define the law in a high-handed way. He points out that in Islam an early proponent of the principles of jurisprudence was the Sunni, Abu Hanifah, and since Baha'u'llah was from a Shi`ite background this statement may be a way of questioning its validity. He goes on, however, to play down the difference between legal strict constructionists and believers in the principles of jurisprudence. He says that since the Manifestation of God (himself) is alive and can be asked about the meaning of the law, there was no need among Baha'is in the 1880s for a discipline such as the principles of jurisprudence (pp. 155-56).

Manakji’s next question puts Baha’u'llah in a very delicate situation. He says that some of the former Manifestations declared the meat of the cow ritually pure, whereas others forbade it. One allowed the meat of the pig, while others prohibited it. The meat of cows is forbidden in Hinduism, of course, whereas Judaism and Islam forbid pork.

In his Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah had declared all things in the world ritually pure. This declaration was only one of the many ways in which he had abrogated Islamic law, which was the most controversial thing he did. That is, giving up the shari’ah or Muslim canon law was considered apostasy by the clergy, the punishment for which was death. Since Manakji had Shi’ite Muslims in his employ, who might gain access to this letter, Baha’u’llah declined openly to declare that such dietary restrictions had been abolished in the Baha’i religion. He does insist that nothing in the universe has been inscribed with the words, “this is prohibited.” Rather, it is the Word of God that rendered things pure or impure, and these restrictions can change from dispensation to dispensation. No religious law is eternally valid. Through his doctrine of progressive revelation, Baha’u’llah affirms that the dietary prohibitions of past religions were authoritative in their own dispensation, but had to give way to later, different, revealed systems of law (pp. 161-62).

Manakji says that Hinduism and Zoroastrianism are tolerant religions, the adherents of which associate in friendship with everyone. He contrasts them to other religions, which harrass and persecute those they consider unbelievers. Which, he wants to know, is the way acceptable to God? In answer, Baha’u’llah firmly and unequivocally condemns persecution deriving from religious intolerance. Religion must be, he says, a source of unity and concord, of compassion and empathy. Religious hatred is absolutely forbidden (pp. 162-64).

Manakji divides the religions into three groups according to their attitude toward conversion. He says that Zoroastrians and Hindus will not accept converts. Christians accept new believers into the fold, but do not insist on their conversion. Muslims (and, he says, Jews [sic]) demand the conversion of others to their religion and if anyone declines they consider it lawful to usurp his wealth and family members (p. 164). Manakji was clearly altogether ignorant of Judaism, which rather resembles Zoroastrianism and Hinduism in being slow to accept converts.

Hinduism itself differs in this regard according to seat. Brahminical Hinduism, it is true, does not accept the principle of conversion, or even the right of a Hindu to travel abroad over “black water.” On the other hand, bhakti or devotional sects are more open to converts, as are modern reform movements. His positioning of Christianity is historically suspect, since at least some Christians in history aggressively suppressed the pagan religions of Greece and Rome, instituted an Inquisition even against Christians, virtually wiped out the Mayan and Incan beliefs and assaulted the other Native American religions. As we shall see, Baha’u’llah also takes issue with his characterization of Christianity as practiced in history. Manakji’s characterization of Islam is inaccurate, but has a basis in medieval Muslim jurisprudence. Islam recognizes the right of protected minorities who believe in monotheism and a divinely-revealed Book to maintain their religious beliefs under Muslim rule. Some Muslim clerics limited these protected minorities to the Jews and Christians, while others accepted Zoroastrians, as well. Of course, law or no law, some Muslim rulers persecuted Jews and Christians occasionally. In India, some accepted Hindus as a protected minority, but most clerics called for them to be given a choice between conversion and death. Since Hindus formed the vast majority of the Indian population, no Muslim ruler found this policy of forced conversion a feasible one in the long term.

Baha’u’llah expresses his consternation that “the Hindus and Zoroastrians do not allow others to enter into their religions.” He says that such a policy contradicts God’s purpose in sending Messengers, which is to guide His servants and organize their affairs. He further suggests that this exclusion of outsiders is the result of a late, in-grown insularity, and that the widespread ruins of Zoroastrian fire temples attest to the religion’s universal, missionary character in ancient times.

He disputes Manakji’s characterization of Christianity as a religion that does not insist, and discusses the nineteenth-century Christian missionary enterprise as a concerted effort to induct young children of other cultures into the church. Baha’u’llah says that the proper attitude is for believers to offer their religion to their friends as a free and generous gift. Should the friends not accept it, they must avoid at all cost allowing any feelings of hatred or dislike to grow up (pp. 164-66). Again, Baha’u’llah attempts to undermine the distinctions Manakji makes among the world religions. He suggests that ancient Zoroastrianism (and by analogy, Hinduism) was once open to converts, and denies that it was ever ethically permitted in any religion (therefore including Islam) to impose forced conversions. He is also not convinced of the absolute difference between Christianity and Islam as missionary religions. His vision is of a liberal society wherein competing religious discourses are allowed to co-exist, with the most persuasive gaining the converts.

Manakji’s next question is about religious pluralism versus religious exclusivism. Zoroastrians, he says, believe their religion is best, but will admit that other religions are valid (haqq). By analogy, they say that a prime minister is the best source for information about the king, but that other, lower palace officials do possess some information of that sort, as well. Thus, Zoroaster is the divine prime minister, whereas the other prophets and holy figures in the world religions are mere chamberlains and sergeants-at-arms. Still, all are denizens of the celestial palace and valid reporters of its affairs. In contrast, he says that Hindus believe no meat-eater can enter heaven, and that the religions of Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses maintain that whoever does not accept their truth cannot attain paradise. John Hick has characterized the view that all religions are equally valid as pluralism. The view that one’s own religion has all the truth, but the others possess some part of it, he calls inclusivism. He terms “exclusivism” the idea that only one’s own religion is true and salvific, whereas the others are false. Manakji characterizes Zoroastrianism as inclusivist, but says Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are exclusivist (pp. 166-67). He later admits, however, that Hindus and Zoroastrians believe themselves created from Brahina and the First Intellect, respectively, and that they are therefore different from and better than other humans, who have grosser origins (p. 168).

Baha’u’llah replies that when Zoroaster said his religion was more sublime than all others, he was referring to the prophets who came before him. Baha’u’llah refers Manakji to the Book of certitude, wherein he had explained that all the Manifestations of God in one sense enjoy the same station, but in another are differentiated. In the Baha’i schema of progressive revelation, the most recent Manifestation of God, by virtue of his historical position, brings a more complete message; but he is not spiritually or ontologically superior to the others. He simply arrives at a different, more mature world-historical moment. The Baha’i stance is therefore one of pluralism at the level of the theophany, and inclusivism at the level of serial time. Baha’u’llah suggests that the Hindu position as reported by Manakji contains contradictions. On the one hand, Hindus are tolerant pluralists admitting that there are many paths to God. On the other, some at least believe that meat-eating consigns non-Hindus to hell. Baha’u’llah has here identified a real tension within Hinduism, between the tolerance and universalism of the high philosophers in the vedanta tradition, and the narrow ritualism and casteism of the petty pandits. The contrast is between the Mahatma Gandhi and the Brahmins who excommunicated him for crossing the black waters to England. Baha’u’llah finds the contrast especially puzzling because in his own religion valid belief is identical to the attainment of paradise. That is, entry into paradise begins with the recognition of the truth, even in this world. Heaven is a never-ending path toward God, a processual state, rather than a physical place. He concludes, “Every one of the Prophets hath come from the Absolute Truth” (pp. 167-68). Baha’u’llah also insists that all humans have been created by the Will of God, and none may claim a special origin. Moreover, he demythologizes stories such as an origin in Brahma or in the First Intellect, saying that no one knows anything about the origins of the universe. He believes the universe, in fact, to be eternal with regard to time. Temporally, it has always existed. The cosmos is, however, originated in the sense that it is caused by God; it has always been being caused by God, however. He appears to oppose this Neoplatonic cosmology, with its universalist overtones, to the particularistic and almost tribal origin-myths quoted by Manakji (pp. 168-70).

The interchange between Manakji and Baha’u’llah involves a tension between analysis and synthesis. Manakji proceeds by identifying a set of related phenomena, the world-religions of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and then dividing them into different categories according to their theological and social positions. Zoroastrianism and Hinduism are thus theologically and socially tolerant, but are closed to conversion. In contrast, he depicts Islam as not only open to conversion, but as aggressively insistent on it, and as being theologically and socially intolerant. Christianity serves as a mediating middle term between these oppositions. It is tolerant like Hinduism but open to conversion like Islam (Figure 1). Baha’u’llah positions the Baha’i Faith as the mediating term, as more tolerant than Christianity and just as open, though he also insists that all the religions ought ideally to have had these characteristics.

Figure 1: Manakji’s View of the World Religions as Semiotic Square

Zoroastrianism               tolerant----------closed
Hinduism                        |\               |
                                | \              |
                                |  Christianity  |
                                |              \ |
                                |               \|
Islam                       intolerant----------open

Baha’u’llah’s rhetorical stance is one of peace-maker and ecumenist rather than that of analyst. He is concerned to show that the distinctions among the world religions made by Manakji are over-drawn, to demonstrate that a unity underlies them. His answer to Manakji’s first question set the tone, which did not vary thereafter. Whereas the Parsi agent saw conceptions of sacred history to differ radically among Zoroastrians, Hindus and Christians, and Muslims, Baha’u’llah subsumes all these schemas under the framework of universal progressive revelation. He accepts Manakji’s characterization of Hinduism and Christianity as believing in successive holy figures, some of whom have the authority to bring a new religious law. He points out that in fact, the Islamic view of sacred history is similar. And he sees the particularism of Judaism and Mahabadi Zoroastrianism, which have clung to a single law despite the advent of several prophets, as a feature of single religions that can be incorporated into a larger pattern of universal sacred history. In the other questions, as well, about tolerance and intolerance, conversion, and inclusivism versus exclusivism, Baha’u’llah strives to show the unity of the world religions. In many instances, the differences between him and Manakji have to do with his concentration on the ideal, and the Indian’s on the actual behavior of religionists. Thus, Baha’u’llah believes Zoroastrianism was and should have been a universalistic missionary religion, despite the nineteenth-century Zoroastrian practice of refusing converts admittance. In this historical point, he is correct, since in Achaemenid and Sasanian times there certainly were converts to Zoroastrianism. He suggests that Hindu pantheism should be seen as an attempt to understand the theophanic nature of the cosmos, ignoring the grounding of the Shankara school in a monist ontology. Wherever possible, Baha’u’llah seeks to establish common ground, to point out similarities, and to demolish Manakji’s lattice-work of fine distinctions.

I see a strong resemblance between Baha’u’llah’s way of speaking about the diverse theologies of previous religions and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s conception of “language games.” After having discussed the issue of the God-world relationship, Baha’u’llah says, “today a new cause hath appeared and a new discourse is appropriate.” He appears to be saying that each past religious tradition developed a specific discourse, which was internally valid as a system of thought, and which successfully characterized some aspects of the divine and its relationship to the world. The appearance of a new Manifestation of God, however, initiates a new discourse, which should then be preferred because of its greater appropriateness to the age in which it develops. The theology of the new Manifestation forms a “grammar,” a set of rules governing speech about the divine for believers. As Wittgenstein wrote, “new language-games . . . come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.” One challenge for those who use the idea of “language-games” to understand the theologies of the world religions lies in avoiding the impression that one is attempting to detach the religions from any real referent or to protect them from reasoned inquiry into their validity.

I think Baha’u’llah is suggesting something else. Each religion involves a language-game with its own vocabulary and grammar, which is an individual form of life shaped both by the attempt to describe the numinous and by cultural and historical context. The Unknowable Essence and the hereafter are extremely complex, existing on different planes and even, in the instance of God, possessing a different sort of Being than mundane human reality in this world. The complexity of the referent of religious language allows it to be validly described in more than one manner, as in Rumi’s parable about the blind men and the elephant. That it should be possible to perceive God in more than one way is not surprising, given that in quantum mechanics even an electron can be experimentally perceived both as a wave and as a particle. Gestalt psychology has also shown that certain drawings, such as a contoured goblet, can also be configured by the eye as two faces staring at one another. Thus, for Baha’is God is both somehow personal and an impersonal Unknowable Essence, is both manifest in all things yet utterly different from them ontologically.

None of this should be taken to say that no religious belief is susceptible of reasoned falsification or modification, only that the referents of religious language are so intricate and ambiguous that a straightforward application of the Aristotelian principle of noncontradiction becomes more difficult than it would be in, say, inorganic chemistry. In regard to some beliefs in the world religions, the principle of noncontradiction is inapplicable, just as it is in regard to the wave-particle distinction in atomic physics. The relativism of the Baha’i system is not absolute, since Baha’u’llah insists on the greater validity of the most recent theological language game, which forms a touchstone for previous religious forms of life. Baha’u’llah believes this primacy of the recent derives, not from the intrinsic superiority of the latest message, but simply from its world-historical position, such that phenomenological unity and equality among the religions is not incompatible with progressive revelation.


[1] Moojan Momen: Buddhism and the Baha'i Faith (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995).

[2] From Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, section LXXXVII.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For a translation of this tablet, see Tablet to Mánikchí Sáhib at the Baha'i Reference Library.

[5] Book of Certitude, p 151.

[6] Ibid p 152.

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