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