Walking into the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney can be puzzling for a first-time visitor.
The Temple, which celebrates its 50th anniversary from September 18 to 25, has elements of similarity to the places of worship of other faiths. Yet, it is clearly different from them. If you were to ask a newcomer to describe the building, the answer might well be this: “With its dome, it almost looks like it could be Christian. The design also reminds me somewhat of a mosque. Once inside, I find the balconies reminiscent of those in a synagogue.”
Then the visitor would start to identify the differences. For a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Catholic, it might seem strange that there are no statues. There are also differences in the kind of services held there. There is no sermon or commentary. No musical instruments accompany the voices raised in prayerful song.
There is a good reason for all of this.
The aim, as I understand it, is to prevent distractions to any worshipper intent on praying, reflecting and meditating, thereby minimising the barriers between the individual and the word of God as found in the sacred scriptures. During times when there is no service being held in this Temple – and in the other six around the world – those present are free to pray, meditate and reflect in silence. When a service is being held, there are readings from the scriptures of the Baha’i Faith and other great religions of the world but there is no clergyman or leader to put an interpretation on them via a sermon. When the choir sings from the scriptures, there are no instruments distracting from the holy words.
Baha’i temples, also called Houses of Worship, are not intended for sectarian purposes. Their design ensures that everybody, regardless of religious or ethnic background, feels comfortable and at peace. These temples serve to foster the unification of mankind, a key principle of the Baha’i Faith.
In 1912, when ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, was at the site of the future Baha’i Temple in Chicago, He said:
… the original purpose of temples and houses of worship is simply that of unity—places of meeting where various peoples, different races and souls of every capacity may come together in order that love and agreement should be manifest between them . . . that all religions, races and sects may come together within its universal shelter.” Promulgation of Universal Peace
When talking about future temples He referred specifically to Australia and New Zealand, saying:
… there will be many here and elsewhere; in Asia, Europe, even in Africa , New Zealand and Australia. Promulgation of Universal Peace
The official designation of the Temple in Sydney is “the Mother Temple of the whole Pacific area” and “the Mother Temple of the Antipodes”, indicating its significance not only in Sydney and the rest of Australia, but also to New Zealand and the islands of the Pacific. (The term “mother” indicates there will be many more temples in the future).
There is even a connection with Persia. The heightened persecution of the Baha’is in Iran in 1955 led to a decision to replace construction of the Temple in Tehran with two new Temple project – one in Kampala, Uganda, and one in Sydney, Australia.
Spiritual Implications of Design
The structural requirements of all Baha’i temples are that they have a dome, be round and have nine sides. The sides are symbolic of the essential unity underpinning the great religions of the world.
That doesn’t mean all temples have to look the same. Far from it. The design of the Temple in India was influenced by the lotus flower, and that of the Chilean temple now under construction was inspired by elements of the natural world.
I find the Sydney Temple to be in harmony with the natural environment because I can appreciate the natural bush setting through its many windows and enjoy the complementary green and gold colour scheme inside. But it is more than just aesthetics. In the Temple, I experience a lightness of feeling and what I recognise as a spiritual atmosphere.
The late Dr Peter Khan, a Baha’i scholar, said it was his view that the temples become holy because they were built in accordance with divine prescription (as conveyed by Baha’u’llah Himself), which leads to a concentration of spiritual power in them. In fact, Baha’u’llah said that visitors who pray there are blessed.
Referring to Temples by the title of Mashriqu’l-Adhkár , which means “Dawning-place of the praise of God,” Baha’u’llah says:
Blessed is he who, at the hour of dawn, centring his thoughts on God, occupied with His remembrance, and supplicating His forgiveness, directeth his steps to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and, entering therein, seateth himself in silence to listen to the verses of God, the Sovereign, the Mighty, the All-Praised. Promulgation of Universal Peace
I find it touching that Baha’u’llah encourages the teaching of the scriptures to children for the specific purpose of ensuring that they can recite verses from them in the Temple, and partake of these blessings. (Children’s services are held annually in the Sydney Temple.) He says:
Teach your children the verses revealed from the heaven of majesty and power, so that, in most melodious tones, they may recite the Tablets of the All-Merciful in the alcoves within the Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs. Kitab-i-Aqdas
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Temple in Sydney, it is inspiring to recall the intense sacrifice made by the small community of Australian Baha’is in the 1950s to pay for the building and to arrange its construction. It was a huge struggle to raise the money. As is always the case for such projects, the privilege of contributing to the Funds was open only to Baha’is.
This means a lot when you take into account the promise by ‘Abdul’-Baha that the “the emanations of spiritual power and inspiration” destined to radiate from Temples will largely be dependent upon the range and variety of the contributors, as well as upon the nature and degree of their sacrifice.
Proclaiming the Principles of the Faith
The Temple, known as a “silent teacher”, has long proclaimed three basic Baha’i principles.
From the moment it opened, the Sydney Temple held services that included readings from the scriptures of the great religions. This was very unusual in Australia in the early years and the Temple became a pioneering venue in the national interfaith movement. In my view, these interfaith services are a powerful testimony to the underlying unity of the religions, a core belief of Baha’is.
Another important Baha’i principle was also highlighted from the start. At the laying of foundation stone in 1958, the most prominent Baha’i present was a woman, Clara Dunn, who, with her husband, Hyde, had brought the Faith to Australia in 1920. In 1961, the completed Temple was officially declared open by another woman, Madame Ruhiyyih Rabbani – also a high official of the Faith. The role of these two women emphasised the Baha’i commitment – both in theory and practice – to the equality of women and men.
Yet another principle that the Temple proclaims, by virtue of its very existence, is that of service to humanity. ‘Abdu’l-Baha has stated that in the future, the Temple will form the centre of a cluster of humanitarian institutions made up of: a hospital; a drug dispensary for the poor; a travellers’ hospice; a school for orphans; a home for the infirm and disabled; a university for advanced studies; and “other philanthropic buildings” open to people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The Temple already serves the surrounding community. Visitors – Baha’is or not – are always welcome at the Temple, which acts as a spiritual haven for all. Events are held on the Temple grounds to promote Baha’i principles such as peace, reconciliation, the equality of women and men, and human rights for all. There are also public services every Sunday at 11am. In a very real sense, the Sydney Temple is everybody’s Temple.
It is also a great place for a school excursion! Check out this great video of a visit by children from a public school in Sydney.
The Temple as a structure is intriguing, beautiful and inspiring. But I like the reminder of ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
The real temple is the very Word of God; for to it all humanity must turn and it is the centre of unity for all mankind. The Promulgation of Universal Peace
You can click here to find out more about the 50th anniversary events or visit the Facebook page!
Header photo is of the Baha’i Temple (or House of Worship) in Sydney, Australia, taken by Alex Proimos via Flickr.