Published in the Australian Baha’i Bulletin Spring 2014
Should an indigenous person in their own environment be asked, ‘where is your holy book?’ they could justifiably reply, ‘you are standing on it’.
Peoples whose ancestors became literate have a history of recorded spiritual guidance called Scripture. Indigenous peoples on the other hand have no tradition of literature and thus, scripture. However, indigenous peoples have moral codes and cultural traditions that include great teachers that parallel the literate social groupings which rely on written scriptural guidance to sustain social cohesion. This begs the question, how did non literate societies gain and sustain their understanding of social cohesion? One possible answer is intimated by Baha’u’llah when He says: ‘Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world…It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp’. (“Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas” p142.)
Societies that live entirely in nature by hunting and gathering are sustained by their surroundings and come to understand nature has laws which human groups must mirror to survive. They understand that they must be honest with each other, cooperate and that life is holistic. Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux from North America is reported to have said, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the centre of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this centre is really everywhere, it is within each of us.” (The Sacred Pipe : Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux (1953), as told to Joseph Epes Brown)
Joseph Shepherd, after a year with the Ntumu tribesmen of the Cameroon rain forest, became aware that they concluded council meetings with proverbs rather than clear cut conclusions. He found it very difficult to comprehend but it was explained to him that proverbs had layers of meaning and, thus, satisfied everyone at one level or another.* Indigenous societies it would seem are able to sustain cohesive and moral groups without written scripture, possibly made easier by the smallness of the social units. Once groups become so large that many, if not most, in the group are strangers to each other, moral cohesion needs written guidance. Examples are the holy books of the world’s major religions. Those who travelled as missionaries and adventurers found it difficult to comprehend the bookless yet spiritual and orderly societies they met and the end result was often a cruel and violent exploitation of a vulnerable people.
Doris Pilkington Garimara (1937-2014), a noted Aboriginal writer, author of ‘Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence’ said of her younger days, ‘I actually despised my own traditional culture because we were taught to. We were told that our culture was evil and those that practised it were devil worshippers. I was taught to deny my own people- be ashamed of them even. The blacker your skin was, the worse individual you were.’ (Cited in her obituary. Sydney Morning Herald. April 14th 2014). The reason people held such ideas is explained in the Baha’i Writings. Most phenomenon is subject to a cycle, a wisdom easily gleaned and understood from nature. Religions are no exception and each major religion has its spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Unfortunately for indigenous people most encounter the followers of literate faiths when it is in its twilight, a time noteworthy for certain characteristics in its followers, believing they are God’s only or last chosen people making them superior to non-believers. Perhaps, most importantly, their ‘book’ sustains them and they have no meaningful reference points for people with a different book and definitely not for people without a book. Baha’is now understand that ‘evil’ does not have a life force, being what replaces ‘good’ when it is removed, in the same way that darkness replaces light. The devil is a construct that may have served a time and place in man’s spiritually based social development. ‘Good’ is rooted in human action, wherever and whenever it occurs and like the laws of nature never changes and cannot change.
Another name for ‘good’ action is ‘virtues’. Baha’u’llah has said, ‘Among them are trustworthiness, truthfulness, purity of heart while communing with God, forbearance, resignation to whatever the Almighty hath decreed, contentment with the things His Will hath provided, patience, nay, thankfulness in the midst of tribulation, and complete reliance, in all circumstances, upon Him. These rank, according to the estimate of God, among the highest and most laudable of all acts. All other acts are, and will ever remain, secondary and subordinate unto them.’ (“Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh”, sec.134, p.290) Thus, neither a person nor a culture can be considered ‘evil’ if they practice virtues. The virtues cited above would particularly ring true to indigenous peoples due to the suffering they have undergone over centuries at the hands of non-indigenous colonists. Baha’u’llah makes it clear in this quote that all other acts are secondary which would include the dogma, rituals and trappings of the ‘old’ religions.
With Baha’u’llah’s guidance it is now possible to forge a new interface between indigenous peoples and non-indigenous peoples. At the heart of that understanding is the notion that every person on the planet is equally valued and always has been and always will be. In the Baha’i world every person has a voice and a right to be heard and the listeners must have no hidden agenda and nothing to gain personally from their position, being elected because of their spiritual and intellectual qualities and record of service. Another understanding within Baha’i writings is ‘evolution’ in social development. Some social aspects are an idea, not an evolutionary process. For example, notions of equality are ideas not evolution. Equality of gender, race and education for example have to be fought for, a battle between those who think equality is a good idea and those who disagree. On the other hand technological progress and globalisation are evolutionary processes, not an idea. No matter what, technological advances and globalisation cannot be stopped. Thus, people have no other option than to make sense of it all and make it work for the benefit of everyone. Migration around the world, part of globalisation, is an evolutionary process not a policy. Baha’is inject the idea of equality into most aspects of life and particularly apply it to the process of globalisation. Thus, Baha’is are in a good position to promote understanding between peoples, explain change to those floundering with it, and bring everyone into the debate as equals.
(* ‘Leaf of Honey and the Proverbs of the Rain Forest’ Joseph Shepherd)