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Brendan Cook  

    creative writing, Canada

Brendan Cook, 2005.
I was born in 1975 and live in Toronto, where I am a doctoral candidate in History. My parents became Bahá´ís when I was very young, and I was raised as a Bahá´í.

A Journey to Absurdistan is my response to the questions of tolerance and unity which I believe are so relevant to the current condition of the Faith. It reflects my academic background in so much that satire, from Erasmus and More and Quevedo, through to Swift, Pope, and Voltaire, has been one on my principal interests.
I have learned from my studies that humor and parable are often the best means to tackle the most sacred of subjects.

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Although I have not traveled as often or as widely as many people I know, I have seen some things which others perhaps have not. And in discussing the vital questions of the Bahá´í Faith, I am put in mind more and more of a visit that I made several years ago to Central Asia. Specifically, I recall a conversation I had when I attended services at a temple in Absurdistan. Little mentioned or even heard of today, Absurdistan is a small, semi-autonomous mountain region, wedged somewhere between Hoshiarpur and the Himachal Pradesh. It is rarely visited, and I have heard that many of the travelers who come there are reluctant to leave.

The temple itself was nothing unusual. Anyone who has seen the lovely gurudwaras of Northern India can already imagine the brightly decorated altar that graced the center of the hall. And the hymns sung by the three musicians to the accompaniment of sitar and tablas were much like what can be heard throughout the region. What caught my attention, however, were the devotions of the various people who came to pay their respects over the course of the morning. Nowhere else have I seen such diversity of worship. Some who approached the altar knelt, others bowed their heads, others lay prostrate before it, while some sat perfectly still. Some wore richly decorated fabrics, while others were clothed as simply as possible. And the gifts of food or money or tiny trinkets that were laid before the altar were as different as the worshippers who brought them. This seemed so strange to me that I immediately became curious to know the reason.

Now it happened that I was lucky enough to have a guide with me, like myself a young man, who spoke excellent English. And so I took the chance to ask him to explain what I was seeing.
"Why," I said, "do the people to the left of the altar bow so deeply?"
"They bow," my companion told me, "to relieve the souls of their ancestors. They believe that each person carries the burden of their deeds from this life into the next. By offering their submission before the sacred relics that lie upon the altar, they lighten the load borne by the spirits of the dead."
"But what about those on the right?" I asked. "Why is it that they do not do the same?"
"Because they do not believe souls bear any burden in the next life." My friend answered. "They feel prayers and devotions for the dead are unnecessary."
"And why," I said, "do the worshippers dress so differently? What does this signify?"
"Only a difference of opinion." Replied my friend. "Some people believe that fine and elaborate garments honor God. Others say that deliberate simplicity is best. They hold that ostentation is inappropriate."
This answer raised a new question for me. "But how do they regard one another? Are there no arguments when people hold such different opinions about the correct manner of worship?"
"But it is not only in their devotions that they differ." My friend said. "The worshippers at this temple have different opinions about life and death, about birth and marriage, and even the purpose of man's existence on earth. Some believe that souls migrate from one body to the next, others hold that each soul inhabits but a single body. Some worship only one God and some worship many. Some have one view about the age at which a boy or a girl should marry, some another. The rites practiced at funerals and weddings vary from household to household."
"But if their practices and beliefs are all so different," I interjected, "are there not great disputes between them? Has there ever been schism or accusation of heresy? How is the unity of religion preserved?"
On hearing this, my companion looked very thoughtful, and he waited a moment before replying. "Once," he began, "there was indeed much disagreement and division. Before the blessed Guru Lungar gave us the benefit of his holy guidance, there was very little harmony in the community. As recently as my great-grandfather's lifetime, the whole region was split in half by a violent argument over matters of religion."
"Was the difference of opinion so great?" I asked, growing curious.
"It was not." My friend replied. "It might be said that the greatest source of disunity lay in the likeness of the people's attitudes. You must understand that one of the most important teachings of our religion concerned the chole, in English a contract or bond, which exists between God and humanity. The highest crime conceivable and the most worthy of calling forth vengeance from heaven involved a violation or a breaking of this contract. Those who, through arrogance and obsession with themselves, attempted to alter the central beliefs and practices of our faith, were known as chole-subjee - in our language violators of the divine contract. No individual was held by the priests - for it was then priests who occupied the leadership of our religion - to be more abhorrent to God than these chole-subjee. The priests taught that avoiding all contact with the chole-subjee, even by members of their own family, was the only way to preserve the flawless garment of the faith intact. Anything less would undermine the uniformity of practice and belief upon which, according to the priests, the very integrity of our religion depended."
"And why did this system fail?" I said to my friend. "Did not the threat of shunning by the community deter people from these actions?"
At this my friend looked very sorrowful and shook his head. "It made no allowance for the strength of human stubbornness. The number of chole-subjee only grew, led in fact by rebellious priests, who proved more certain and inflexible in their opinions than ordinary believers. And all the while, the schismatics insisted that they were the true protectors of the faith, and that it was the first party who had caused the split. Soon the whole region was divided in half, with entire villages, even households torn apart. At first it was enough not to talk to the chole-subjee or do business with them, or to read from any of their heretical books: but the priests soon saw the need for more strenuous measures. There came a time when the members of different factions would not walk upon the same side of the road as those they considered chole-subjee. And they would cover their mouths and noses with towels rather than breathe the dust stirred up by their feet. In some villages, it was decided that even drinking from the same river or well as the chole-subjee must be avoided, and people would walk twice as far to get water rather than share it with the breakers of God's contract. When a wife became chole-subjee her husband would immediately divorce her and divide their home into two parts and both would live forever more in separate rooms as if they had never met. But this was the luxury of the wealthy. The poorer people had only a single room, but even they would draw a line through the center of the floor and proceed to live their whole lives without acknowledging one another again. In a few of these cases, an unfortunate person would speak to their former spouse by habit or cry out their name while lost in sleep, but these were severely punished by the priests. But by far the worst lot was reserved for those who insisted on remaining married to a violator of the contract.
These couples were shunned by both factions alike and were left to subsist of their own or starve by the entire community. For failure to shun the chole-subjee was considered sufficient to make someone chole-subjee in the opinion of each side of the conflict."
"Tell me," I implored my friend, "tell me: how was this situation remedied? How did you come to enjoy the harmony and unity I see today?"
"Through the wise suggestions of Guru Lungar." Replied my friend. "Guru Lungar came to our region when my great-grandfather was still a young man, and he attracted many followers with the teachings contained in his holy book, the Sri Varnu Manekji. In this book there were contained a number of wise suggestions, the chief of which were expressed in the five jalebis or principles. These principles we now teach to every child in Absurdistan, and they are as follows.

1. The first and the last purpose of religion is unity.
2. The religion that causes hatred is no religion.
3. In matters of religion each person must do as they will.
4. A law that has outlived its use is law no more.
5. No teachings, including these, should be followed indiscriminately.

"Among other things," said my guide, now warming to his subject, "Guru Lungar declared an end to the schism that had fractured our community. He taught that the unity of religion is not endangered by difference of belief or practice, but by the decision to treat this diversity as a threat to unity. The first person to declare the actions or opinions of another unacceptable is the first to break the divine contract. As long as differences are tolerated, unity will be preserved, regardless of how great those differences may seem. This is the system according to which we have all lived here up until the present day. Each person has their own understanding of the divine, and each person offers worship in their own way, but all treat each other as the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch. Love, and not uniformity is the foundation of this agreement. And because the priesthood has been abolished, we no longer suffer from the arrogance and conviction of priests who in former times would have been the instigators of disunity. For it was our sad discovery that the priests were the first to lay claim to defining the correct pattern of doctrine and worship: and as Guru Lungar taught, to be certain one's own opinion is correct is to be certain that others are wrong. Therefore it was felt that harmony could be best preserved if all manner of priests were forever banished from the community. Some priests gave up their calling and stayed here, while others wandered off to regions where their skill at smelling out heretics and schismatics was still welcome. All who remain are united in the recognition that before God, we are as one soul within a single body."
On hearing what my friend told me, I felt the tug of competing emotions. "I am happy," I began to say, "that things have ended so well for the people of Absurdistan, but I am also sorry to think that this state of affairs does not exist everywhere in the world. Why do you suppose that this is? Is it because of your region's remoteness that other peoples have never learned from your example?" Here my friend grew sad - sadder in fact than I could ever remember having seen him before. "I only wish this were the reason. But we know the truth all too well. For it is not because so few people have heard of Absurdistan that they have not followed us in tolerance. Among the most valued teachings of our beloved Guru, we repeat the lesson that if the rest of the world will not emulate us, it is because they love discord and conflict too much. Above all, we understand that men and women find it necessary to conceive of their fellow human beings as separate, and to treat what is separate as evil. This is because it requires a great deal of religion to love others, but even a little is sufficient to hate them. Since the love of God has never found a firm root in the human heart, the religious conceptions of most of the world have remained entirely negative. People define themselves not according to what they are, but by what they are not. What they do not believe matters more than what they do and their liveliest faith lies in denying the faith of others. There is little hope of changing this, and the people of Absurdistan are only happy in that they have found a better way of life for themselves."

I left Absurdistan not long after that, but the words of the young man who had served as my guide stayed with me. While I do not claim that they hold out any remedy for the world's problems, I believe they point to some of the causes. No more than my friend can I imagine how humanity might be able to move from a religion of hate to a religion of love, but I still believe there was much truth in what he said.

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