Date: Sat, 11 Apr 1998 14:42:34 -0400 From: Juan Cole
I believe there are at least three distinct approaches to the world religions in play in this discussion.
1) There is Baha'u'llah's pluralist approach, which is nominalistic and semiotic, and non-creedal. That is, Baha'u'llah is perfectly aware that different religions maintain different creedal propositions about theology, & etc. But for him those differences are not ultimately important. This is because he believes that words are merely signs (dala'il, isharat) or signifiers that *point* toward the transcendent Reality (haqiqah) or the Signified. Moreover, they always do so imperfectly and inadequately. Worse, the very *meanings* of these secondary signs are not fixed, but rather they have different connotations and even denotations to various people, depending upon what spiritual and intellectual maqam/station they have reached, and on the degree of their spiritual perception (idrak). Thus, different religions have different ideas about the Absolute (al-Haqq, God), in part because they use different 'signs' to point toward It, and in part because the theologies are formulated from within distinctive maqams/stations at particular historical points of time in a particular culture. Human beings wrangle over religion because they become attached to the outward form of the words (dogmas), to the signifier/sign rather than to the Signified (which is beyond all signs). So for Baha'u'llah there is no difficulty whatsoever accepting Hinduism into his discourse about the world religions. He is not worried that one will have to thereby adopt dogmas extracted as propositions from the Bhagavad Gita.
This is the meaning of the famous Tablet of Unity (Lawh-i Ittihad), which Shoghi Effendi translated in Gleanings and which I would translate as follows:
"Diverse religions! Turn your attention to unity, and bask in the light of harmony. For the sake of God, assemble in one place and cast out from among you those things that produce conflict, so that the entire world can attain to the rays of the most great luminary, and come to dwell in a single city and seat themselves in a common space. This wronged one from his earliest days until the present has had no other goal than what has just been mentioned. There is no doubt that adherents of all faiths turn their faces toward the most exalted horizon and are carrying out the commands of the Absolute Truth. In view of the exigencies of their specific era, the laws and ordinances of each religion came to differ. All, however, were from God, and derived from him--though a few religious movements did result from human obstinacy. Yes, with the aid of certainty smash the idols of delusion and disharmony, and cling to unity and concord! This is the most exalted word that was revealed from the archetypal Book. To this testifies the tongue of grandeur in its exalted station. That individual and all the friends must devote themselves to reforming the world and removing contention from among its peoples. Exert yourselves mightily in this. He, in truth, is the Helper, the Wise. And He is the Compassionate, the Generous."
Now, Baha'u'llah in calling for whatever produces strife to be cast out is not requiring that everyone pretend to speak from the same station, use the same signs, or attain dogmatic conformity imposed by some external body. As in the Tablet for Jamal-i Burujirdi, he recognizes that there will inevitably be differences in expressed theologies. He is voicing the hope that the members of various religions will *recognize* their underlying unity and understand that the signs are not important while the Signified is.
2) One can also have an Inclusivist, dogmatic belief in the unity of religions. (This is similar to Catholic Vatican teaching after Vatican II). In such an approach, truth can be captured in some dogmas which must be imposed on all believers, and to which they must publicly all assent. These dogmas are universally true, regardless of one's spiritual station or degree of perception, and anyone who hesitates about them is doing so as a result of some sort of spiritual or rational disorder. The dogmas are not mere signs, but actually express the absolute truth, and to reject them in whole or part is to make oneself an infidel. It may be admitted that other religions, such as Hinduism, have part of the truth, albeit in a partial and corrupt form, such that all the corrupt parts must be carefully identified and excluded. Thus, it becomes important to raise questions about whether Krishna was really a Manifestation of God (as `Abdu'l-Baha seems clearly to have thought he was), and to reject the Bhagavad Gita as corrupt or unreliable--lest one be forced to accept the dogmas associated with it, since religious truth is essentially dogmatic. This way of thinking, which it seems to me is completely different from that of Baha'u'llah himself, seems common in the contemporary Baha'i faith.
3) Then there is the academic approach to the History of Religions, in which Krishna's historicity itself would be questioned, in which the Bhagavad Gita would be seen as the late work of rishis or religious literati, and in which the Gita's teachings and mindset would be seen as completely different from and incommensurable with Western religious traditions such as the Qur'an.
I think all three approaches have been broached in the discussion so far. It seems to me that the answers to Stephen's questions will be very different depending on which approach we take.
If we begin with Baha'u'llah's pluralism, then 'prophet' and 'avatar' are simply signs with cultural baggage that point toward a religious phenomenon. Baha'u'llah, being the ultimate Synthesist or 'lumper' believed that these religious signs, despite their differences, had basically the same sorts of Referent. Thus, Baha'u'llah would certainly have said that the human figures Hindus call avatars are 'prophets,' and `Abdu'l-Baha used the very word for Krishna. Baha'u'llah says explicitly in the Qur'an that some prophets have emphasized their humanity (Muhammad said, "I am but a man like you") while others have stressed divinity (as Krishna is depicted doing in the Gita). A dogmatic inclusivist point of view, on the other hand, would stress the difference between the Western idea of prophet (navi, nabi) and the South Asian notions of avatar, buddha, etc.
Incidentally, I think suggesting that Krishna may have been a minor prophet (which seems counter-intuitive anyway) just begs the question, since it implies in Baha'u'llah's schema that he would stand under the shadow of a major prophet. Who would that be? Ram? Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani gives a number of criteria for someone being a major manifestation of God in Fara'id and *Miracles and Metaphors*. If he still means anything in the Baha'i theological tradition, it might be worthwhile examining his statements in this context.
In the Tablet I retranslated above, Baha'u'llah makes it clear that *most* religious traditions worship the same Absolute Truth. I don't know of anything about Sikhism that would disqualify it from being in that company by Baha'u'llah's criteria.
>(4). Do the traditions (say, about Krishna) in the Hindu family of
>religions reflect the existence of pre-historical "prophets" or are they
>due to a slow accumulation of understanding that is then "concretized" in
>the form of an invented personage of great authority? Or both?
This seems to me to be a different sort of question, phrased in a way that it could only be answered from the point of view of the secular, academic History of Religions discipline. From that point of view, the answer, with regard to Krishna, would probably be 'yes.' But if /Krishna/ is anyway only an imperfect 'sign' that points to some sacred Signified in the South Asian past, then such considerations are anyway not the most important thing about him.
Juan Cole History U of Michigan