Ridvan, also known as the Most Great Festival, celebrates Baha’u’llah’s time in the garden of Ridvan on the outskirts of Baghdad in 1863 where He publicly declared His station as a Manifestation of God. The Ridvan Festival is 12 days long and is also the time of year where Baha’is elect their local and national governing bodies, and every five years, the international governing body for the worldwide Baha’i community.
Today, Baha’is around the world commemorate the 12th and final day of Ridvan – a period to reflect on the day Baha’u’llah first proclaimed His message of unity to the world.
Ridvan is also the time when Baha’i elections are held. These elections are a time at which Baha’i communities all around the world prayerfully reflect on the spiritual wellbeing of their community. It is also a time to reflect on Baha’u’llah’s vision for unity and for communities to think about the path of service they will tread together over the coming year in their efforts to realise this vision.
What does unity mean, however, in a world in which prejudice and conflict are still widespread? And what role does the Baha’i community have in fostering global unity?
Unity – Not just the lack of disunity
As Baha’is, “unity” is a word we use often.
In a world struggling with the consequences of ethnocentricism and ultranationalism, many of us have friends from all over the world that we’ve formed deep spiritual bonds with and know what it’s like to feel like you have family in every part of the world you go to. My friends who have served at the Baha’i World Centre often tell me their stories of serving with Baha’is from literally every part of the world.
We’re fortunate to be protected by the Covenant from the sectarianism that has become synonymous with religion. We’re also fortunate to have access to verse after verse in the Writings which instruct us to eliminate every trace of prejudice from our hearts and show us what universal brotherhood and love look like in practice.
These experiences are all a beautiful and refreshing change of scenery from the disunity and conflict that is rife in our world. But what does unity really mean, beyond being simply the absence of conflict, hatred, divisiveness and prejudice? What will unity really look like when it illuminates relationships between people everywhere and sits at the heart of our societal structures?
And what do we, as Baha’is, need to do to advance this vision of unity?
Unity and Social Transformation
In its 2012 Ridvan message, the Universal House of Justice refers to the transformation that will occur when a community achieves unity in vision and action:
The purpose of every Manifestation of God is to effect a transformation in both the inner life and external conditions of humanity. And this transformation naturally occurs as a growing body of people, united by the divine precepts, collectively seeks to develop spiritual capacities to contribute to a process of societal change.
Unity within the Baha’i community is at the very heart of the efforts being made to achieve social transformation around the world. This unity not only empowers a community of people to work together for social transformation, but is in itself, a model for the rest of the world as to what unity looks like and what it can achieve. The Universal House of Justice, in the Ridvan message, continues:
To observe the Baha’i world at work is to behold a vista bright indeed. In the life of the individual believer who desires, above all, to invite others into communion with the Creator and to render service to humanity can be found signs of the spiritual transformation intended for every soul by the Lord of the Age. In the spirit animating the activities of any Baha’i community dedicated to enhancing the capacity of its members young and old, as well as of its friends and collaborators, to serve the common weal can be perceived an indication of how a society founded upon divine teachings might develop. And in those advanced clusters where activity governed by the framework of the Plan is in abundance and the demands of ensuring coherence amongst lines of action are most pressing, the evolving administrative structures offer glimmerings, however faint, of how the institutions of the Faith will incrementally come to assume a fuller range of their responsibilities to promote human welfare and progress.
Clearly, then, the development of the individual, the community, and the institutions holds immense promise. But beyond this, we note with particular joy how the relationships binding these three are marked by such tender affection and mutual support.
By contrast, relations among the three corresponding actors in the world at large—the citizen, the body politic, and the institutions of society —reflect the discord that characterizes humanity’s turbulent stage of transition. Unwilling to act as interdependent parts of an organic whole, they are locked in a struggle for power which ultimately proves futile. How very different the society which Abdu’l-Baha, in unnumbered Tablets and talks, depicts — where everyday interactions, as much as the relations of states, are shaped by consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Relationships imbued with this consciousness are being cultivated by Baha’is and their friends in villages and neighbourhoods across the world; from them can be detected the pure fragrances of reciprocity and cooperation, of concord and love. Within such unassuming settings, a visible alternative to society’s familiar strife is emerging.
What then is the role that we, as Baha’is, play in achieving this vision of unity?
In the 2012 Ridvan message, the House talks about three things: first, the duty of the individual to engage in consultation with humility and detachment; second, the importance of nurturing and encouragement on the part of the Baha’is institutions; and third, the whole-hearted involvement of Baha’i communities within the plans drawn up by the institutions. The Universal House of Justice also says the following:
So it becomes apparent that the individual who wishes to exercise self-expression responsibly participates thoughtfully in consultation devoted to the common good and spurns the temptation to insist on personal opinion; a Baha’i institution, appreciating the need for coordinated action channelled toward fruitful ends, aims not to control but to nurture and encourage; the community that is to take charge of its own development recognizes an invaluable asset in the unity afforded through whole-hearted engagement in the plans devised by the institutions. Under the influence of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, the relationships among these three are being endowed with new warmth, new life; in aggregate, they constitute a matrix within which a world spiritual civilization, bearing the imprint of divine inspiration, gradually matures.
It is in this manner, that the Baha’i world can act as a microcosm of the society we are working to achieve – a united humanity.
What are your thoughts on our roles – as individuals and communities – in achieving this vision of unity?
In her professional life, Preethi has dabbled in various combinations of education, community development and law. At heart, though, she's an overgrown child who thinks the world is one giant playground. She's currently on a quest to make learning come alive for young people and to bring the world's stories and cultures to them, with educational resources from One Story Learning.