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Safa's Spring Break

posted May 22, 2009, 1:42 PM by Pacific Rim
As a member of the Baha'i Faith, over spring break I was able to volunteer at the Baha'i House of Worship in Dehli. Calling it an impressive place visited by many people still feels like a bit of an understatement. On quieter days, the number of visitors runs around 20,000, while on Hindu holidays as many as 150,000 people pass through its gates. According to a CNN report, it is one of the most "visited buildings in the world." In keeping with the statutes of the Baha'i Faith, it is a place where people of all religions are free to silently pray and meditate for as long as they desire. Also, because the Baha'i Faith has no clergy, neither sermons or rituals are performed - only Holy Scripture from the world's major religions are read (or sung) inside. The Baha'i House of Worship (mirroring the practices of the Baha'i Faith) is free and open to all and does not accept donations from non-Baha'i s.

Another interesting aspect of the House of Worship is how it is received by the rest of India. Since its opening in 1986, The Baha'i House of Worship has been a symbol of India's diverse spiritual history, existing separately and above the many bloody religious conflicts that have shaped Indian history for centuries. The design of the Temple resembles the lotus, a symbol of purity inseparably associated with worship and religion in India. The example of communal harmony among religions set by the Lotus Temple has been applauded by Indian supreme court judges and politicians, especially in the wake of violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims over the recent destruction of an ancient mosque. My time volunteering there ended up being one of the most moving and spiritually insightful experiences of the India portion of our trip.

Of all the times to volunteer at the temple, spring break fell at a time that was filled with business and excitement. Not only was a nine-day Hindu festival just getting underway, bringing tens of thousands of rural villagers to the Temple, but Naw Ruz, the Baha'i New Year, fell about halfway through my time there as well. That evening, the House of Worship held a choir concert inside the temple, followed by a beautiful dinner afterwards. The picture of myself with some of the other volunteers is from this Naw Ruz celebration.

In only two short weeks I met a lot of amazing people. Volunteers came from all over, and before long I was learning Bhangra (a style of dance from Punjab) choreography with two guys from Afghanistan and Bolivia, being taught Farsi by several volunteers from the Middle East, exchanging metal licks (albeit via acoustic guitar) with a volunteer from Bangladesh who played in a death metal cover band, trading stories with my Jordanian roommate, and being shown around Dehli by a few local Baha'i youth who volunteered there in their spare time. It was wonderful to be able to forge friendships with people from such different cultures (and, quite often, with very different mother tongues) while working at the Temple.

For the volunteers, days went quickly and a little chaotically because of the sheer number of people passing through. Though there were set duties for us to perform (delivering the English or Hindi briefing, helping inside the temple, etc.), unexpected surprises cropped up every now and then during our single-hour shifts. During one such shift inside the Temple, I had to take emergency action to usher a quickly massing group of Indians in one of the Temple's corners back towards the centrally located marble benches. In each of the nine lotus petal corners of the marble prayer hall are writings of Baha'u'llah, the prophet founder of the Baha'i Faith. People often seem to think that something important is hidden beneath the one that says: “O Son of Being! Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants,” and as soon as one or two people start checking out the plant underneath the placard, ten more people rush to the corner. If left unchecked, before long thirty people will be jostling and pushing for a glimpse of a perfectly normal aloe plant and light fixture. Whether it's because people are used to images or holy relics being inside temples, or simply interested in the quote, I will never know.

That same day, while asking visitors to switch off their cameras and cell phones before they enter to help maintain silence inside, I was approached by a man from a professional school of photography in Amsterdam who had flown to Dehli to take pictures for a project on the Temple. He was also hoping to say some prayers for his grandfather who had recently passed away, but needed a prayer book. We were able to find him one, and later on he ended up staying to take pictures of the gigantic community Naw Ruz celebration, which incorporated Sri Lankan and Indian lamp dancing, a slam poetry performance by an Indian doctor, the aforementioned Bhangra dance choreographed and danced by the volunteers, and copious amounts of food for everyone afterward.

All of this happened amidst an ongoing flow of domestic and foreign tourists, Buddhist monks, Hindu women with bindis in bright saris and men in collared shirts, turbaned sikhs, architectural students, Sri Lankan and Bengali pilgrims, Christian nuns, traditionally dressed Muslim women and men, families and school groups. Because the House of Worship is not meant to convert people to or teach the Baha'i Faith, only pamphlets with basic information on the Temple's creation and the basic history are offered if requested by visitors or tour groups when exiting the Temple. Nevertheless, to accommodate the visitors, we had pamphlets in Hindi, English, Urdu, Bengali, Sinhala, Tamil, Telugu, Assamese, Tibetan, Chinese, Malayalam, Japanese, Korean, and a whole range of European and South Asian languages, just to name a few.

In the Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah emphasizes the establishment of "unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world." Abdul'Baha, a lesser but still prominent figure in the Faith, likens the human race to a flower garden, with each flower adding its unique color and fragrance to create the overall beauty of the garden itself. Volunteering at the Temple gave me an opportunity to see this principle in practice, and take home some memories that I will cherish for many years to come.

(Article by Safa)

"The fundamental principle enunciated by Baha'u'llah...is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society"

"The Baha'i Faith recognizes the unity of God and of His Prophets, upholds the principle of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all forms of superstition and prejudice, teaches that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord and harmony, that it must go hand-in-hand with science, and that it constitutes the sole and ultimate basis of a peaceful, an ordered and progressive society. It inculcates the principle of equal opportunity, rights, and privileges for both sexes, advocates compulsory education, abolishes extremes of poverty and wealth, exalts work performed in the spirit of service to the rank of worship, recommends the adoption of an auxiliary international language, and provides the necessary agencies for the establishment and safeguarding of a permanent and universal peace."

-Shoghi Effendi