The Baha’i Temple in India receives an average of 10 to 15,000 visitors per day. On Sundays and Public Holidays you can expect visitors ranging from 20 to 40,000, if not more. Nowhere else in the world do I know of an edifice that allows you to come in, free of charge with that many people. Strictly, no one is allowed to pay or make any such donation. The temples are maintained by funds contributed only by the Baha’is, residing all across the world. It must also be noted that all Baha’i Temples are made first and foremost for the community in large and then for the Baha’is. Its prime motive is to bring together people of all race, class, culture, creed, nationality and religions in oneness and unity for the dawning place of the remembrance of God.
In order for the smooth running of Baha’i Temples, they are also very much reliant on volunteers to make the time to serve sacrificially. It is a time for them to develop spiritually and selflessly, to build capacity by teaching, learning, assisting, and arising in service. Sacrifice is about letting go of something that is lower for something that is higher, not spiritually but materially letting go. Sacrifice does involve pain but it is also the bearer of joy. Abdu’l-Baha shares that –“Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favour and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth.” 1
It’s necessary that each individual strive to do their utmost best with such virtues as patience, tolerance, love, compassion, honesty, perseverance, resilience and most importantly humility. I recall, when I first entered the temple office I was asked to sit and read a temple guideline book. At the time I nervously skimmed through this 30-page booklet not fully digesting what I was reading. In it was a beautifully written letter by the Temple General Manager that shared a prayer by Abdu’l-baha:
“Lord, send down Thy benediction on whosoever serves this edifice . . .
Confirm him in every good deed among mankind;
open the doors of riches and wealth unto him;
and make him an inheritor of the treasures of the Kingdom which perish not; cause him to be a sign of giving unto the people…”
This prayer revealed the ideas, sentiments and qualities a volunteer would need for serving at the Baha’i House of Worship. This was the standard of magnanimity required to affect visitors to make them turn and question whom we were.
Volunteering at any Baha’i Temple of the world is no easy deed. It can be extremely challenging spiritually and physically. Equally, it’s the process of continually striving and advancing where a person is bestowed with so much blessing, understanding and wisdom. An individual grows only with tests and difficulties that are laid on their path. Challenges come in many forms i.e. language, food, culture, standing on feet hours on end, managing visitors by the thousands, briefing visitors hours on end, personality differences in volunteers, not enough volunteer assistance, and extreme weather are to name a few. It’s all about accepting and embracing the flaws we have and learning to arise above them together. Abdu’l-Bahá shared that, “The supreme need of humanity is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity.” 2
Most volunteer’s who do serve, serve for a minimum of one month; some serve for 2 or 3 months or even a whole year and then go back to their respective country of origin. No matter how long a person’s service may be, each and every moment of it is fleeting and precious. Before they realize it, it is the end and no one wants to leave, because ones experience is immeasurable. Volunteers form a certain attachment to the place, which is incomprehensible to grasp. For many volunteers service is a turning point as they acquire spiritual susceptibilities that they felt they could not achieve. It is empowering and at the same time inspiring to see such transformation right under ones eye, as I have seen. Wherever you see life there exists love and unity, just like there exists life in the temple that is codependent on volunteers.
Throughout the day volunteers are given set posts and responsibilities and to keep the flow of work going in a seemly manner they are rotated every hour. These posts are set in temple porch, entrance, inside, exit and information centre. The approach is very organic; visitors are welcomed and put in lines ready to be briefed. They then go inside, sit and pray as long as they desire. Once visitors exit they can collect pamphlets of their language. Many visitors from various countries are astonished to find pamphlets in their native language. It is a humbling experience to see their faces light up with joy. After that, visitors can choose to visit information centre or observe the panel exhibition down stairs or even bask in the sun at the steps of the lotus pool.
After an exhaustive and hard working day of service, all volunteers would assemble together for a reflection meeting. This was a time to reflect on the day’s event, identify needs, build capacity in each other and ensure we were on the same level. Volunteers would sit in a circle; share their story of struggles, challenges, learning’s, areas of improvements, teachings and questions they received from visitors that they had no answer to. These meetings were some of the most precious and priceless recollections I have.
Reflection is a very powerful instrument; Baha’u’llah says, “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.” 3 Through consultation, consolidation and elevated conversations we would become so united and aware of each other. Reflections always began with a prayer chanted in Hindi, namely – “God is sufficient unto me…” and ended in English. When volunteers chanted this in harmony the four walls would echo for minutes on end and we would sit in silence trying to digest this beauty. It was a feeling of complete bliss and serenity.
A lot of gratitude goes towards the dorm parents who on the 1st day took us in and showered us with love and kindness. With patience and forbearance they showed us the way to enhance our service. If volunteers were not upholding the cleanness of rooms etc, they were readily told by dorm parents to keep that of utmost priority. Such simple actions made us appreciate and value the importance of being organised and prioritizing. It was because of them we never missed home or family; there was a real sense of kinship. I had actually started my service on the 1st day of fasting, which in itself was a fantastic occurrence. Along with the fasting came many Baha’i Holy day celebrations, and those too were magnificent occasions.
One defining moment I have of my service, which is so beautifully and vividly captured in my mind is when my post was in entrance. My duty was to greet and welcome with both hands put together each and everyone. When visitors would make their way up and form lines, I would smile and look right into their eyes with utmost humility and love. As this happened over a period of time they all began to emulate the same sentiments I was giving them. With gradual ease, like a drop of rain submerging into an ocean it occurred to me, that God exists in all. When I was looking right into each and every visitor’s eyes, I was looking right into God, the purity and goodness that exist in all. This beautiful notion gave me a warm feeling inside; that I am not alone; my journey in this world may be a personal one, but I am one with all.
Selfless service puts things in perspective towards who we are as human beings. Allowing us to identify, focus and polish on our higher nature. Shoghi Effendi explains that, “The more we search for ourselves, the less likely we are to find ourselves; and the more we search for God, and to serve our fellow men, the more profoundly will we become acquainted with ourselves, and the more inwardly assured. This is one of the great spiritual laws of life.” 4
To be continued…
Snapshot of Baha’i Lotus Temple Visitors
(1) – Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
(2) – Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 338
(3) – Kitáb-i-Íqán / Par 251-292, Bahá’u’lláh
(4) – Lights of Guidance, Section 391, Page 115, From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, February 18, 1954
On the 27th of December 2011, I revisited the Baha’i House of Worship in India. Below is an account of my visitation and the recollections I have of my beautiful service.
Its been almost one year since I last saw the Baha’i Temple in India, also known as the “Lotus Temple” or “Kamal Mandir” to the locals of India. I had the privilege and bounty of serving at this blessed place all throughout the year of 2010. When such a huge amount of time is spent in one place, it eventually leaves a mark in your heart that cannot be removed. So much has happened as I attempt to relive and reflect on those special moments a year ago.
Firstly, I exit the New Delhi International airport and hire a taxi straight to the temple. I tell the driver “I want to go to the Baha’i Lotus Temple.” He knows exactly what I am talking about and we are off into the busy road of New Delhi. It’s winter, but not quite as cold as last year. The smog is dense and it’s taking some time for me adjust with the breathing, but I’m surviving. Many things go through my mind, mainly the anticipation of seeing a beautiful white marble building. For a brief moment I stop and observe the craziness of India from my car window. It’s miraculous! All of it! How does this place work? What makes this go around? I just don’t understand and I certainly don’t have an answer to it.
After forty minutes of sitting in a car we get very close to temple vicinity, my driver veers up the road and I can just about see the head of the lotus flower. My heart misses a beat, but I try to remain calm. I am close; so close “can this be true?” I question myself. There is traffic at the gate for the cars to go in and park. I tell the driver to let me off here and I’ll see him in a few hours at the car park. He obliges.
I walk to the temple entry and show my bag for check up. In that moment, I wonder if any security member remembers me. Not yet. I make my way to the main temple pathway. I see it with such clarity it’s unbelievable. I quickly take out my camera and snap the thousandth photo of this edifice, which I never seem to get bored off. I walk and consciously take each step with great honour, but my face continues looking onward at the temple.
Finally I am put in line. Behind me, stand a foreign couple, seemingly contemplating to not go inside. Perhaps it’s the lack of trust with giving their shoes. I’m not sure but I quickly intervene and confirm that they must go up and that the safety of their shoes is in good hands. I explain that inside is a beautiful prayer hall where people of different religions and backgrounds can sit in a unified manner and pray to that one Almighty God, who is of unknowable essence. For a moment the couple are taken aback at my knowledge of this place. However, they have no idea that I used to serve here, that this was my home and refuge, that I am a Baha’i. With my confirmation they gladly except and decide to visit the temple.
It’s a strange feeling to take off my shoes and be given a token number. I have not been through this process before; moreover I am a visitor and not a volunteer. I smile and thank the wonderful man working in the shoe keeping area. As I slowly stride up the stairs, I swiftly take another photo. I can’t help it! 1st entrance is closed. It seems to be busier than usual, so 2nd entrance is being used. The crowd is easier to maintain with 2nd entrance open. I walk straight into line. There is a young foreign volunteer who is nervously calling out “Please, one line!” most of the people listen and some don’t quite understand. As the young boy passes by me, I smile and whisper in his ear “Just say – Ek Line, they will understand”. The boy is new and inexperienced, nevertheless, I know in a few days he will get the gist of it all and speak with much strength and vigour.
Briefing has finished for the 1st batch of visitors and now it’s our turn. The volunteers guide us into entrance two. Within a matter of minutes the entrance is full and the volunteers stop the line from additional people coming in. Briefing begins in Hindi, which I can understand. I listen very intently and after a few minutes it begins in English. I make eye contact with the volunteers, smile and thank them as I walk in.
Briefing has always been one of the most special aspects of service for me. I used to do it in both languages for hours non-stop until my throat would give way. It was a gratifying experience and I absolutely loved it! All eyes gazing at me, all ears listening to what I say. I was the warm centre of attention. The words that came from my mouth were based around the Baha’i writings and shared the importance of prayer. It questioned people to think about what is prayer? “Prayer is a loving conversation with God; it’s like a ladder that brings us closer to God.” Why do we pray? “In the highest prayer men pray only for the love of God, not because they fear him or hope for bounty.” Briefing was there to set the scene for all visitors for what this edifice stood for, to be completely detached from themselves and the world around them. This prepared all visitors to walk in and immerse themselves in a deep meaningful conversation with their creator. It was special. I felt special being able to impart such knowledge to all who listened.
This form of briefing was very new at the time when I had actually started service and it took sometime for all volunteers to become accustomed to it. I remember in the beginning I would have sweaty palms, a quivering voice and become very anxious whenever I was told to brief. This was due to the lack of faith in myself, however that all changed with time. Briefing is not necessarily easy to learn, it takes time, practice and it’s about having complete faith and focus in your ability to pass on a message from the core of your heart. Once that is achieved you have mastered briefing.
As I walk in I am in complete awe of the marble structure, the magnitude and exquisiteness of the interior, the curves and arcs as they meet at the centre of the Ringstone symbol. It’s all so beautiful and majestic. I search for a seat close to the front where there are few people sitting. Quietly, I sit and begin praying with the remembrance of God. I pray… and I pray some more… little by little my eyes well up and slowly a tear trickles down my face. I try my utmost best to keep everything in, but I no longer can. With each passing moment, I begin to reflect and reminiscent on my year of service. It’s another world, another time, another reality that cannot be fathomed, described or explained, it has to be lived and it has to be experienced in its true form.
So what exactly is it about this place that gets me? How can I justify my service and experience? It’s hard to point out a singular reason. It could be everything and the whole thing. It’s ones journey of finding themselves through selfless acts of service. It’s ones way of learning and deepening as a spiritual being. It’s ones way of sharing the word of God and teaching to their best of knowledge. It’s ones way of meeting so many friends who have the same unified vision. It’s appreciating the culture; it’s appreciating the ample visitors that come and go as they wish. It’s India as a country. It’s love, it’s emotion, it’s beauty, it’s humility, it’s the smiles on the faces, it’s the array of people and the stark contrasts; it’s the air, it’s the diversity of religions and the prayers that are chanted under the one lotus. Come to think of it… it is absolutely everything!
There is nothing more purifying, pleasing or soothing for the soul then to be selfless. Ones motive and intention ‘just to be of service’ for mankind and expecting nothing in return is the most beautiful and pragmatic thing any human being can do. It is a reflection of who we are and need to be if we are to accomplish a united world.
To be continued…