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PostAfterlife in the Baha'i Tradition: "The Tale of the Two Fingers" (Vincent Littrell, USA, 11/04/18 4:25 am)
On 19 October John Eipper inquired about the Baha'i concept of the afterlife: "Is there an alternative for the wicked and undeserving--i.e., eternal torment or Hell?"
From the Baha'i perspective, the only physical/material existence is this physical universe we currently live in. Baha'is believe that the individual human soul continues to exist in spiritual form (i.e. non-physical) after death. Below are comments from Baha'u'llah (the Prophet founder of the Baha'i Faith) that set forth some of the Baha'i conception of the human soul. I say "some" here, because on this subject alone within Baha'i scripture there are copious amounts of writings that fill very many pages:
In Baha'i scripture, the entire purpose of divine revelation is connected to the development of the human soul and the hour of death itself. This provides further insight into the importance of the human being in creation. In Baha'i thought the human being (therefore the human soul) is God's most noble creation, and the purpose of all divine revelation through those appointed by God to do so, past, present and future, is to prepare the human soul for the moment of death.
Baha'u'llah says, "The Prophets and Messengers of God have been sent down for the sole purpose of guiding mankind to the straight Path of Truth. The purpose underlying Their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High." (Gleanings of the Writings of Baha'u'llah LXXXI)
Baha'u'llah further says, "Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter." (Gleanings of the Writings of Baha'u'llah LXXXI)
Baha'is are taught that the purpose of a human life in this physical world is to strive to perfect the qualities of the soul through use of one's free will, to come to love and know the Creator, and to prayerfully strive to align one's life and day-to-day actions and deeds with the will of God. Still, after death the soul can progress and develop towards perfection. In other words, even after death a soul can still improve itself or be improved upon by divine grace, the prayerful intercession of others, and other ways.
Baha'u'llah further states, "Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. The Maids of Heaven, inmates of the loftiest mansions, will circle around it, and the Prophets of God and His chosen ones will seek its companionship." (Gleanings of the Writings of Baha'u'llah LXXXI)
Baha'is are taught that the "worlds of God are infinite," and that this physical world we live in is but a "shadow world" here for our training. My understanding is that the more in alignment with the will of God a person's soul is oriented, the more enabled that soul is for movement and action in the next, spiritual worlds of God. I think similar to life in this world, people who have developed and trained their souls properly in the physical world are given "missions" and responsibilities in the next worlds after death. How one has developed attributes that are in alignment with the will of God in the physical world reflects on the capacities of that soul to properly function, move, maneuver, and exist at a fuller capacity after death.
Baha'is are also taught that the station of the human soul is lofty and that its existence after this world is eternal, no matter who the person is or the state of development a person's soul. There are references in the Baha'i scriptures to spiritually dead souls, i.e. souls that have not developed and are in a low state of existence because of willful failure to develop spiritual attributes while they lived in the physical world. With that said, full human understanding in this physical world of what awaits a soul after death is veiled, because to truly understand what awaits us after death could very much inappropriately distract us from our purpose for life here in the now (as if enough doesn't already). In Baha'i thought, God's law forbids suicide. Humans are supposed to face the tests they undergo in the physical world.
On this issue then, regarding the sanctified soul and a true understanding of the hereafter, Baha'u'llah says, "If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul in the worlds of God... his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station... The nature of the soul after death can never be described, nor is it meet and permissible to reveal its whole character to the eyes of men." (Gleanings of the Writings of Baha'u'llah LXXXI)
There is an anecdote of Baha'i history where Baha'u'llah allowed a man to have more knowledge of the afterlife. This knowledge resulted in a suicide. I can't speak to the truth of the matter precisely, but a story I've heard more than once over the years from different tellers and I take to have a degree of truth is called "The Tale of the Two Fingers." The gist of the story is as follows: there was a man who was a member of Baha'u'llah's close inner circle (in what capacity precisely I cannot say, though one descriptive was that he would sweep the pathways near where Baha'u'llah resided). Despite the tremendous station of Baha'u'llah as a Manifestation of God and the awe he inspired amongst his followers, this gentleman kept pestering Baha'u'llah for a fuller explanation of the afterlife. Baha'u'llah would say "no" to the request, and yet the man persisted with the question for a period of time. Finally, for reasons I'm not precisely aware of, Baha'u'llah acceded to the request. He held up two fingers of his hand and told the man to "look between my two fingers." The man looked and thereafter for the next three days he was observed in a near trance-like state, not focusing on tasks at hand and not connected to his surroundings. After the third day in this state, the man slit his own throat and died. Baha'u'llah is said to have said something like, "though suicide is forbidden this self-shed blood was of the purest nature." The man was allowed to get a sense of what awaits in the afterlife, and after receipt of that knowledge he wanted nothing to do with this physical world. As a Baha'i having been taught suicide is forbidden, I think Baha'u'llah had to know precisely what he was doing when he imparted this knowledge of the afterlife to the requesting man. In Baha'i belief nothing happens without reason and Baha'u'llah, despite the injunction against suicide, was allowed by God to share this knowledge to this man, knowing what was likely to happen.
So, back to John's question about "Hell" and "eternal torment." Yes, the Baha'i writings are full of warnings to those who turn away from truth and live lives that are not in alignment with God's will. And Baha'is are clearly taught what God's will is for today's day and age, for this religious dispensation. The Baha'i authoritative writings cover much and are designed for guidance to a world-unifying humanity. But Baha'is are also taught about the supremely forgiving and loving nature of God, that God created mankind out of love, and that God understands and knows the very innermost thoughts and motivations and contexts for such for every human being. He understands all aspects of one's existence and where that truth fits in the greater cosmos. So yes, Baha'is are taught that at the hour of death one is made to know the worth of his/her life, and that the individual is allowed to see what was important or not about his or her life. (Baha'is sometimes refer to this as the "review of life" after physical death.) So, one's life is assessed and judged and people's souls are sent to where the attributes and even powers they have developed during their physical life allow them to function and continue to progress. In Baha'i thought, the levels of human existence in the afterlife are essentially numberless but are (for want of a better word because I conceptually oversimplify here) "stratified" in some respect. Those in "lower" levels of existence, though allowed to progress within their level of existence, cannot understand nor access the realities of higher levels unless by the God's grace (which I believe does happen; God forgives and is merciful, giving "gifts" to those who don't deserve it).
Concepts of "Hell" and "torment" in the Baha'i view have spiritual connotations and meanings then. If at death one is given an understanding of the worth of their life while in the physical world and that life was one of dissipation and lacking in development of spiritual attributes, a form of "hell" might be the pain associated with this understanding. In life there is pain associated with loss of those loved in life, i.e. the breaking of a love or friendship connection with a fellow human being. How much more pain if you are made to know that your way of life wasn't in critical respects in line with the truth, and hindered or prevented a deeper connection with one's Creator? In this regard Baha'u'llah states:
"O Son of Being!
Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant." (The Hidden Words by Baha'u'llah (from the Arabic).
Even in this life here on physical earth, the pain of truth can be "hellish" or tormenting in a sense. The truth can indeed hurt. The Baha'i conception of the afterlife is complex and tremendously nuanced. The human soul is a beautiful and supremely complex creation that we cannot fully comprehend. God's treatment of the human soul is never simplistic, and anything I've said here about the Baha'i conception of the afterlife is gravely inadequate because words can't really be put to a reality that cannot be conceived in this world.
One more issue then that is connected to all I've presented above: As I've stated, in Baha'i thought life in this physical world is a training ground for development of spiritual attributes for the afterlife. Stating one believes in God is only the beginning of the test. You say you believe in God? Prove it! A Hidden Word of Baha'u'llah states:
"O Son of Being!
Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants." (The Hidden Words by Baha'u'llah (from the Arabic).
Therefore, for those whom claim belief in God and of whom He chooses to test that belief, He finds and with the precision of the most dexterous of surgeons using the finest-edged scalpel. He exploits their weaknesses to see how they choose to respond. In my personal case, I find it fascinating how this process plays out in that I have reached a point in my journey where I'm pretty sure I'm able to identify pretty quickly the purpose of a test I'm undergoing and even in the knowledge, because the weakness that is being cut into with such scary precision is so integral to a mode of my personal "being," that even in my personal awareness of the ongoing test it is extremely difficult to reorient my frame of thought and my ego to make a correct decision to overcome the weakness. And sometimes the correct decision isn't made in a particular moment, and the test comes again...sometimes even a more difficult one.
God doesn't give one a test that that one must ultimately fail, but sometimes getting to success, to making the right decision to overcome a character flaw or spiritual weakness, is a painful and lengthy process that requires prayer and divine assistance. And, sometimes even after one has successfully passed a certain test, then a harder one in the same vein comes anyway, the passing of which builds further on the strengths gained from passing the first one and so on. In Baha'i theology development of one's personal relationship with God through prayer and internal communion is a critical aspect of the development of the soul. The purpose of this ultimately is to prepare the human soul so that it is ready for that moment of death.
"O Son of Being!
Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds." (The Hidden Words by Baha'u'llah (from the Arabic).
JE comments: Extremely complex and nuanced indeed, but Vince, you've done a masterful job of explaining a concept very few of us know about. Attaining "grace" (for lack of a better word) in the Baha'i tradition is certainly not for the intellectually lazy.
I hope all WAISers will give this essay the careful reading it deserves.