Sunday, 26 May 2019

Television or reality?

Recently, in the United Kingdom, a gentleman appeared on a “reality television” programme called “The Jeremy Kyle Show”. The show specialises in challenging people over their behaviour, and this gentleman was challenged to take a lie detector test. He “failed” the test, and was apparently so distraught by this that he seems to have taken his own life a few days later.

Many of these programmes have concentrated on relationships – between husband and wife, parent and child, and so on. They therefore reflect the many unresolved relationships which can develop within families. As society has somewhat lost its relationship with God, so people often put their whole faith in other people, making themselves vulnerable when other people’s acts fall short of their expectations. Families, like the world as a whole, need to be in harmony. Selfishness, or self-centredness, can disrupt the ordered life of a family. According to Abdul-Bahá: “The family, being a human unit, must be educated according to the rules of sanctity. All the virtues must be taught the family. The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered, and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother - none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary... All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved… the unity of the family must be sustained.”

In the Bahá’í view, we all need to work towards unity, rather than concentrating on the faults of others. We need to be able to accept people as they are, rather than criticising them for not being perfect. Abdu’l-Bahá said: “If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, look at the ten and forget the one. And if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, look at the one and forget
the ten.” He said that we should “never allow ourselves to speak one unkind word about another.” Each of us is unique, and we should recognise and welcome this human diversity. He also said, “In reality all are members of one human family - children of one Heavenly Father. Humanity may be likened unto the vari-coloured flowers of one garden. There is unity in diversity. Each sets off and enhances the other's beauty.”

Over the last few years, television has shown a lot of “reality” TV shows. People have been put into artificial situations – wife swaps, living in a house with about nine total strangers, living on an island with unfamiliar conditions, and so on – and the programme-makers, who do not seem to be interested in promoting the well-being of every member of humankind, rely on the fact that something will go wrong between the participants. Even preparing a meal has become a competition, with artificial time restraints and with observers present trying to make it more difficult than it should be. The meal is then critically judged, rather than thankfully consumed as something to keep us alive. And yet all this is asserted as “reality”.

The Bahá’í Faith teaches that in addition to the material world within which we live, there are spiritual planes of existence, which form a higher reality. Mankind was created to grow spiritually, to be ready to progress in spiritual ways. We should be concentrating not on the shortcomings of other people, but on developing good qualities in ourselves, so that we can grow more towards the perfection of God. Only if we align ourselves with the underlying Cause of the Universe will we be achieving any sort of reality – it does not come out of the television set.

[Picture courtesy of Getty Images.]

Friday, 26 April 2019

Krishna, The Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad

On Easter Sunday, 2019, a series of explosions took place at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Over 250 people were killed. Clearly, the Christian community was being specifically targeted, and the terrorists probably thought that the hotels tended to receive visitors from the Western world.

Most of the Sri Lankan population belongs to one of the four older religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. Although much-misunderstood by outsiders, Hinduism has at its core a moral code, enshrined in a book called “The Laws of Manu”. Many, but not all, Hindus regard Krishna as an “Incarnation of Vishnu” – in other words, as a manifestation of God in person. According to the text of the “Bhagavad-Gita”, Krishna Himself (or the divine spirit which He represented) said: “Whenever there is a decline of righteousness or religion, and a rise of unrighteousness… then I send forth 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.”

Gautama Buddha, the Enlightened One, taught The Middle Way, between materialism and extreme asceticism. A major part of His Teaching was the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes Right Understanding, Right Mindfulness and Right Conduct. In the Buddha’s words: “He in whom there is truth, virtue, pity, restraint, moderation, he who is free from impurity and is wise, he is called an elder.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, discussing teachings on personal behaviour, explained that “The real teaching of Buddha is the same as the teaching of Jesus Christ. The teachings of all the Prophets are the same in character.”

So, in the same way as the Buddha spent His time emphasising how His followers should behave, Jesus did so too. Much of Jesus’s teaching was in the form of parables. These were stories which illustrated a point of understanding or of conduct. Jesus taught: “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. He said: Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them! … Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them His children!” Bahá’u’lláh, referring to Jesus, stated: “Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee.”

Muhammad, recognised by a fifth of mankind as another of God’s Messengers, was likewise very meek in His behaviour towards others. He suffered years of persecution in silence, and never retaliated. He only allowed actions of self-defence when the entire city of Medina was being attacked. He set out Teachings on how both the individual and the community should behave: “Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law.” A high standard of behaviour was expected from His followers: “Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you.”

The Bahá’í Faith recognises the divine spirit present in all four of these Founders of religion. Some of the practical details of each religion will be different, because they appeared in different contexts, and at different times. But Bahá’u’lláh said: “If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith.” In other words, in essence, they are all One.

Bahá’u’lláh warned against religious fanaticism and hatred, which He described as “a world-devouring fire”. He urged people to, “consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship”. What the world really needs now is for people to recognise the essential oneness of the world’s religions, which will in turn help people to recognise the oneness and wholeness of the entire human race.

(Photograph courtesy of Getty Pictures.)


In March, 2019, I wrote a blog post about the attack on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, under the title, “Why?”

Friday, 29 March 2019


A national memorial service has been held in Christchurch, New Zealand, to remember the lives lost in the mosque shootings of 15th March. At 1.40 p.m. on that day, a man opened fire on the worshippers at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, apparently trying to kill as many of them as possible. He then drove to the Linwood mosque, where he repeated his actions. At these two buildings, he managed to put an end to fifty people’s lives.  Apparently on his way to a third target, his car was rammed by a police car, and the man was arrested, after a struggle. Why did he do this? He seemed to regard the Muslim worshippers as foreigners, as strangers, as interlopers.

The theme of the memorial service was “We Are One”, which is exactly the Bahá’í attitude.   Bahá’u’lláh teaches the oneness of all humanity, saying: “The incomparable Creator hath created all men from one same substance…” He teaches the oneness of all religions, writing: “There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subject of one God.”

Bahá’u’lláh stresses that all the religions were given to man for the same reason, which is the spread of good: “The purpose underlying the revelation of every heavenly Book, nay, of every divinely-revealed verse, is to endue all men with righteousness and understanding, so that peace and tranquillity may be firmly established amongst them.” Although, over the centuries, this purpose has often been lost, Bahá’u’lláh now re-emphasises it, and makes it central to all human behaviour: “O people! Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”

Bahá’u’lláh teaches that all humanity is descended from one original stock. His Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, explained how evolution is God’s chosen method, and asserts the oneness of mankind as follows: “God, the Almighty, has created all mankind... He has fashioned them all from the same elements; they are descended from the same race and live upon the same globe. He has created them to dwell beneath the one heaven… He has made no distinction in mercies and graces among His children.” The Universal House of Justice, which is the elected world body of the Bahá’ís, wrote: “Anthropology, physiology, psychology, recognise only one human species… Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice of every kind – race, class, colour, creed… everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.” 

The Bahá’í teachings warn against the danger of becoming too involved in contradictory opinions and viewpoints: “Do not allow differences of opinion, or diversity of thought to separate you from your fellowmen, or to be the cause of dispute, hatred and strife in your hearts. Rather, search diligently for the truth and make all men your friends.”

And as for the question, who has the right to live in New Zealand? The native Maoris, and the incoming British-based population, have accepted people from many other countries onto the islands. Bahá’u’lláh made it clear that land belongs not to one people, but to all people. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated it as follows: “This earth is one home and native land. God has created mankind with equal endowment and right to live upon the earth.” This is the basic Bahá’í principle of seeing the planet as one, as the home for all mankind. As Bahá’u’lláh put it: “The earth is one country, and mankind its citizens.”

The teaching that we should be kind to others even extends to ensuring that we do not even hurt anybody’s feelings: “Beware, beware, lest ye offend the feelings of another…”

So why did this man kill so many of his fellow human beings? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “All men are the leaves and fruit of one same tree… they all have the same origin… The only differences that keep them apart are these: there are the children who need guidance, the ignorant to be instructed, the sick to be tended and healed…” It seems that this man did not understand the fundamental truth that we are all one human race. Perhaps he is one of the lost souls who need guiding to a better understanding.

(Photograph courtesy of Reuters)

Saturday, 16 February 2019

The midnight sighing of the poor

On Christmas Day, 2018, a homeless man called Joby Sparrey died in the doorway of a shop in the small country town of Malvern, in England. He was one of several thousand people counted as homeless in the United Kingdom. There is no exact statistic, and no exact definition of homelessness, but a shop doorway is not a comfortable place to live at any time.

Joby Sparrey was born and raised in Malvern, and was therefore known to a lot of people in the town. I do not actually know how he came to be without a home, but the important point is that society allows this to happen. All human beings are inter-related, so he was a distant cousin of mine.

In addition to those sleeping on the streets, under bridges, and in one-man tents, there are thousands more people “sofa-surfing” in the homes of friends, or in hostels, hotels, “bed and breakfast” accommodation and the like, because they have no home of their own. Some of these people are more likely to appear on an official statistic than are the nameless people on the streets, especially if they have children with them. Bahá’u’lláh, Who had His home and possessions taken from Him, had direct experience of being homeless when He was in the mountains of Kurdistan. He also suffered from imprisonment, torture and exile. He wrote: “O children of dust! Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth.” Knowing that the physical conditions in which a person lives are usually due to external factors, He urged us not to judge, even if we suspect a person to be in error: “He should forgive the sinful, and never despise his low estate, for none knoweth what his own end shall be.”

When humanity has sorted out its political divisions, and created a world-wide economic system, there will be a universal net of protection for the most vulnerable people. Among the list of fundamental principles of the Bahá’í Faith is the elimination of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. No-one should be destitute. One of the most basic roles of the Local House of Justice – the elected Bahá’í body of the future - is to ensure the welfare of the most needy. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, stated that “They must do their utmost to extend at all times the helping hand to the poor, the sick, the disabled, the orphan, the widow, irrespective of colour, caste and creed.” This “helping hand” surely includes help for those who have become addicted to harmful substances. In Iran, where the Bahá’í community developed much earlier than in most countries, the Bahá’ís built up a model welfare system which worked for decades, until it was disrupted by hostile government forces. Bahá’ís foresee that in the future every town and village will have a local “storehouse” which will make payments to those whose necessary expenditure exceeds their income. (The storehouses of local, national and global communities will of course be interlinked.)

Crucially, however, a new spirit of mutual love and understanding must pervade the human race. One of the most basic Bahá’í principles is the oneness of humanity. This has fundamental implications for social conditions, according to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:  "You must turn attention more earnestly to the betterment of the conditions of the poor. Do not be satisfied until each one with whom you are concerned is to you as a member of your family. Regard each one either as a father, or as a brother, or as a sister, or as a mother, or as a child. If you can attain to this, your difficulties will vanish, you will know what to do.” He also stated that in the future, people would not be able to sleep if they knew that someone in another part of the world was without basic necessities. Homelessness, as experienced by people living on the streets in the richer countries, takes other forms in other parts of the world. Many cities have enormous areas on their outer edges occupied by shanty towns or favelas – thousands of homes constructed  of branches, corrugated iron sheets, pieces of plastic or old sacks. Hundreds of thousands live as refugees in camps, in tents kindly provided by others, but with little in the way of dignity or possessions. There are many causes of homelessness across the world, but surely in the richer countries at least, it should be within our capacity to eliminate the problem in our own small towns and cities.


I wrote much more about the proposed “storehouse” system in my blog post entitled “There *is* a better way”, published in April 2016:

Friday, 11 January 2019

Turn your radio on

Both Prince William and Prince Harry have made it their business to support causes relating to mental health and to encourage people to seek help, specifically via their “Heads Together” charity. But unfortunately it seems that the gap between the professional help available and the need among the UK population is widening. Between 2003 and 2015 the number of people in the British Isles being treated for mental health issues almost doubled to 1.8 million. Significantly, these figures include growing numbers of children and young people. In 2008 it was estimated that around 10% of the children in Britain have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem. The number of 10-14 year-olds attending Accident and Emergency departments because of self-harming has risen by 70% since 2014. The British government announced this week a Ten Year Plan for the National Health Service, a major part of which is to improve mental health care for young people as a consequence of the growing concern.

There are many things which affect a person’s mental health, but one of the underlying problems must surely be that fewer people nowadays realise their own worth, their own place in the universe, and their own capacity for making a difference. The Bahá’í Writings say: “Know thou that every soul is fashioned after the nature of God, each being pure and holy at his birth.” But people often do not recognise this and do not nurture the spiritual side of life. Many people do not have a conscious relationship with God. In the past, when most people believed that God cared for individual people, they believed that He cared for them personally. They may, or may not, have felt that their parents and wider family really cared, but they felt that they were part of a creation cared for (in some measure) by its Creator. Bahá’u’lláh, speaking as the mouthpiece of God, announced: “O Son of Being! Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee.” He seems to be saying that the individual has to turn towards God in order to recognise the love with which God surrounds each soul. A possible parallel is with radio reception. Radio waves are everywhere around us but a radio is incapable of receiving anything until it is switched on. In the same way, the individual human being needs to take a positive step and turn towards God, thereby opening a channel of communication.

When we listen to the radio, we tend to give it due attention and respect. In religious terms, regarding something with respect is termed “worship”. Bahá’u’lláh gave a short prayer which can be said every day, preferably around the middle part of the day: “I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.” There is an awful lot in this short prayer, but someone saying it makes a very positive affirmation that they have a role, that they have a purpose. They affirm that they have been deliberately created, and are not simply some worthless accident. They affirm that God is their help when they are in danger – and surely one of the dangers people face at the present stage of humanity is the danger of falling apart mentally. The message is that God is there for them, and that they do matter.

If our purpose in life is to know God, this means that we have to recognise the good qualities which God possesses in perfect measure: perfect love, for example. Bahá’ís believe that we are here on earth to learn, to develop these good qualities so that we become more perfect, more like God. We are told that if we do not develop these good qualities, such as kindness and generosity, then we will be lacking in the next world. Bahá’ís therefore establish classes for children which start by teaching these virtues, and discuss ways in which they can put them into practice. Each child needs to have a healthy balance between having regard to their own happiness and having regard to the needs of others. Human beings of any age gain satisfaction and pleasure from being of service to others. Directing ourselves outwards, towards the society of which we form a part, helps us to have a healthy mind, spirit and body. Instead of facing the danger of becoming trapped in a cycle of introspection, if we go out and help others, we find that we are actually helping ourselves as well. The Bahá’í Writings say: “Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts” and “Think ye at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race.” In this context, the Junior Youth Groups which the Bahá’ís are now running world-wide not only give the young people a sense of their own worth, and a friendly space in which to talk about any problems, but also give them direct experience of looking at society to see what needs there are, and then setting out deliberately to do something to solve them. They learn how to make a difference, and that has a positive effect on their own well-being.

For older teenagers and adults to be able to improve their spiritual connections, Bahá’í communities have developed what are called “study circles”. It was found that the first and most fundamental subjects for study were topics such as what the nature of the soul might be, the nature of prayer, the purpose of life and what happens to the soul in the next world. Obviously, each person who participates in these study circles brings their own understanding, but it is the sharing of ideas with others which is so important. By discussing these spiritual subjects, people see that there is a meaning to life and they have a definite goal.

To move in a positive direction, each person needs to establish a relationship not just with society, as part of a community, but also with the Creator. We need to turn our radios on.


Heads Together

Saturday, 13 October 2018

We can go backwards, or we can go forwards

When we look at the things that are wrong in the world, and the many problems we have, it is easy to forget that it has taken us very many generations to make this much progress. But we now operate in national groups, rather than as families, clans or tribes; to some degree, stronger countries are supporting weaker countries, through aid, by supplying peace-keeping troops, and in providing support after disasters; we have an increasing understanding between people of different religions; we have the United Nations, which is a brave attempt at international co-operation; and we have neighbouring countries co-operating in economic groupings in various parts of the world. All of these have been moves forward.

But in the last few years, it seems as if we have started going backwards again. One country has been allowed to “annex” part of another, with no real action having been taken by the world. Trade wars are breaking out between the most powerful trading nations. There are constant tensions between the states that have nuclear weapons, and those that might be developing them. Countries are trying to undermine one another through cyber-attacks. Diplomacy has been replaced by hostile actions. In some quarters an insular patriotism is replacing world vision.

Some people do not seem to have noticed that we all live on one planet! We are just one world. For thousands of years, the history of the human race has been a history of rival camps, and there has been a theme of the few trying to control the many - those with a less well-developed conscience deciding on the lives of everybody else. But we can now see our planet, our home, in just one photograph. With modern equipment, we can communicate instantly with people anywhere on the planet. As we are one planet, and one world, we need to act as one mankind. Bahá’u’lláh said: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” We need to replace outworn ideas, such as unlimited national sovereignty, with a world view. As Bahá’u’lláh put it: “Let your vision be world-embracing.” From religious rivalry, we need to go forward to religious unity. In Bahá’í eyes, the different religions are all from God, and are as chapters in one book. In essence there is no difference between them: “Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same. Their unity is absolute.”

From national rivalry, we need to go forward to world unity. From economic systems run on the principle of “survival of the fittest”, we need to go forward to fair treatment for all. New laws need to be enacted at a global level, ensuring a minimum income for every person, and limiting the unreasonable extremes of personal wealth. The Bahá’í Writings state that the workers should have a share in company profits, by right. Every enterprise is in reality a collective enterprise, with some people providing the financial input and ideas, and others their labour or skills. Therefore: “According to the Divine law, employees should not be paid merely by wages. Nay, rather they should be partners in every work.”

But any new world-wide economic arrangement has to follow a global change in the governmental system. Instead of world leaders denouncing one another, why are they not consciously trying to build world peace? Bahá’u’lláh, in the nineteenth century, urged the world’s most powerful rulers to bring about a universal peace conference, to reach a universal peace treaty. In 1985, the Universal House of Justice, which is the Bahá’í world body, pointed out that: “The holding of this mighty convocation is long overdue.” They nonetheless had the confidence to write in the same document that “World Peace is not only possible but inevitable.” It is the next stage in the progress of humanity. Let us drive further forwards rather than putting the world into reverse.        

Monday, 27 August 2018

The doctors are calling “Time!”

The medical profession has finally concluded what many of us have suspected for years, which is that the drawbacks associated with the consumption of alcohol outweigh the one positive effect that alcohol seems to have. It has long been known that alcohol significantly increases the risk of developing a wide number of ailments. It is also obvious that alcohol consumption leads a certain proportion of people directly into severe problems – drunkenness, addiction and mental health issues, each with further social and medical issues of their own. Some people have taken the view that for this reason alone, society should stop drinking – for the sake of the vulnerable ones.

The one advantage which has been found is that (specifically) red wine lessens the chance of heart disease. As red wine is a known trigger for migraine, we migraine sufferers have long been puzzled by that one! But now, a huge survey of individuals across 195 countries has found that even those who drink a very small amount of alcohol have a greater risk of contracting a number of diseases, including seven specific cancers. As alcohol consumption increases, so do the risks, exponentially. And crucially, the doctors who compiled this huge survey, now say that the risks from cancer and other diseases far outweigh any possible improvement in heart conditions.

Although Jesus and His disciples drank wine (this may have been less risky than the water that was available to them), a number of the World Teachers of the past have advised their followers against the consumption of alcohol. Two clear examples are the Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad. This is one of the reasons why two-thirds of the world’s population avoid it – meaning that across the world, drinking alcohol is definitely a minority habit.

Bahá’u’lláh, writing for this age, likewise advised His followers to avoid alcohol, saying: “It is inadmissible that man, who hath been endowed with reason, should consume that which stealeth it away.” He saw spirituality as far more beneficial than chemical intoxicants: “Beware lest ye exchange the Wine of God for your own wine, for it will stupefy your minds, and turn your faces away from the Countenance of God…”  

At a time when medical science was in its infancy, Bahá’u’lláh was very clear about the most direct effects of alcohol on the human brain, with its undesirable results: “Alcohol consumeth the mind and causeth man to commit acts of absurdity.” Since that time it has been discovered that alcohol does indeed destroy brain cells, and also that the human liver cannot cope with significant quantities of this particular chemical. In addition, correct chemical balances in the brain lead to more complete development of other aspects of the body. Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, once said: “Experience has shown how greatly the renouncing of smoking, of intoxicating drink and of opium conduceth to health and vigour, to the expansion and keenness of the mind and to bodily strength.”

Although many people regard alcohol as a form of stimulant, medically it is the opposite – a depressant and an inhibitor. Perhaps meditation and prayer are two more effective ways of reaching inner happiness than alcohol seems to be. Another could be recognising our natural place in the world by re-connecting with nature, through spending time in parks, woods and the countryside generally. Bahá’u’lláh said: “Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator... Nature is God's Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.”

According to another recent survey, fewer young teenagers in Britain have been turning to alcohol. Perhaps they are beginning to realise that there are better ways of finding happiness. If there is a God, it follows that there ought to be a purpose in life. For Bahá’ís, that purpose is growing in spirituality, and growing towards perfection – that is, towards God. People have no need for alcohol  if they have something better, so prayer, meditation and a connection with nature may well be the answer. Maybe it is “time” to find out.

Photograph courtesy of Getty Images