A Lotus for a Temple

Published on 25th December, 2016, in Mumbai Mirror

It has in the last few years become an iconic symbol of Delhi, the lotus shaped Bahai house of worship. Built in 1986, an architectural marvel that attracts millions of tourists, this building has three rings of nine petals each: the inner most ring is of closed petals, the second ring of opening petals and the third ring of opened petals. Within is a place where 2,500 people can sit and pray in any way they like, silently, without disturbing others. There is no congregational leader or speech from the pulpit, or no ceremonies. Just silence, and an inner journey.

Baha is an Arabic-Persian word. It is neither a name nor a noun; its an adjective meaning ‘glory’ of God. Thus Bahai faith is the glorious faith or the faith of glory. In Arabic script, 28 alphabets are linked to numerical. These are called the Abjad numerals. The number obtained by adding the alphabet/numbers that make up a holy name or a verse is seen as significant and holy. For example, the number 786 refers to the phrase used at the start of any activity, Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, which means in the name of Allah, the most Merciful, the most Beneficient. Likewise, the numericals that consitute the word Baha make up the number 9. Hence the 9 pointed star is the symbol of the the Bahai faith. Hence the three rings of the nine petals that make the lotus temple. The nine also refers to the nine major faiths of the world: Bahaism, Judaism, Islam, Christainity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Shintoism and Sikhism.

The three rings probably refer to the three pillars of the faith: one God (the creator); one universal religion (that all religions come from the same source), and one humanity (all are equal, and deserve respect, even though there are diverse races and cultures). The faith believes that humans have a rational soul and so have the ability to establish communion with God through prayer that facilitates inner journey and through service that facilitates outer journey. The three rings also perhaps refer to the three worlds: that of God above, that of his manifestations in between, and that of human at the bottom.

Bahai believes in messengers of God who tell humans how to live their life best. Each successive messenger edits the message to suit the historical and geographical context. The messengers include Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and also Krishna and Buddha. The recent messengers were Bab (founder of Babism in Iran) followed by Bahaullah (founder of the Bahai faith). The Bahai believe that that Bab was the forerunner of Bahaullah, just as John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus. Bahaullah was clearly familiar with Zoroastrianism and Buddhism and Hinduism. He saw Krishna as a messenger and Bhagavad Gita containing God’s message. He saw himself as Kalki, the final avatar as per many Hindu Puranas. This inclusive nature of the Bahai faith, recognizing all faith leaders as messengers of God, has made it very popular in the global secular circles.

The founder of the faith lived in 19th century Persia but was later exiled by the Ottaman kings. He died in exile and is buried in the land that would later, after the Second World War, become Israel. Though apolitical, the faith has a history of being persecuted by authorities in Iran due to its association, over history, with the British, the Russians, the Freemason Lodge and the Jewish state, and the internet if full of conspiracy theories. But for the average visitor to the House of Worship, the apolitical nature of the faith, the desire to unite rather than divide, is very evident.

That the faith is rooted in Abrahamic mythology is obvious. Hence, the belief in one God who gives messages via messengers. Hence, the importance given to a gathering place for worship, and to the absence of imagery. Hence, the confusion of avatar with paigambar. Hence, the discomfort with homosexuality, though not outright hostility that we find in some Christian churches, and in most Islamic schools. Hence, the belief in tithe/zakat, the contribution of a portion of non-essential income to the faith to be used in public works including building of House of Worship. To contribute, you have to be a member of the faith. Initially, the faith was led by an individual, as is common in the many communities of Shia Islam. However, Bahai now functions more democratically through elected representatives and appointed individuals.

Bahai religion has spread to 200 countries and there are eight Houses of Worship currently, besides India, in USA, Uganda, Australia, Germany, Panama, Samoa, and Chile. Plans are afoot to build them in other locations. While in Abrahamic religions, a House of Worship is where the faithful gather to pray, or to listen to the holy texts, in Hinduism, a temple is a house of God, where one goes to see (darshan) God and make offerings and petitions to him. We often overlook these distinctions hence what the Bahais call a place of worship becomes Lotus ‘temple’ for Indians.