The Festival of Ridvan – those festive, joyous holidays the worldwide Baha’i community celebrates between April 21st and May 2nd every year — provides the occasion for the holiest and happiest days of the Baha’i year.
The Ridvan Festival commemorates the anniversary of the garden sojourn where Baha’u’llah declared his mission outside Baghdad during the twelve days before his banishment to Istanbul (then called Constantinople) in 1863. Baha’u’llah had been exiled to Baghdad ten years earlier in 1853 by a Persian government that feared the rapid spread of his teachings and their progressive impact on society; and now, because his teachings continued to spread and threaten the clerics, Baha’u’llah was being sent into further exile as a result of pressure from that same government.
We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem Us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment…. That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this? – Baha’u’llah, The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. VIII.
The weeks before Baha’u’llah’s symbolic sojourn in this verdant garden had been tragically sorrowful ones for his friends, followers and family. Informed of the government’s order – which would remove Baha’u’llah from Baghdad and tear him away from most of them forever — they mourned and lamented, crowding in and around his house in large numbers.
In the midst of this sadness, Baha’u’llah began to announce the mission of his new Faith to a widening circle of believers. With this action, Baha’u’llah transformed the occasion of his banishment from tragedy to triumph.
Today, the eve of Baha’u’llah’s banishment from Baghdad to Istanbul is commemorated each year by Baha’i communities around the world, not as a time of sorrow or regret, but as a festival of great joy. The holiday stands as a demonstration, despite Baha’u’llah’s repeated exiles, of the power of the Manifestation of God to create good from evil, bring forth light from darkness, and win victory from seeming defeat:
The Iranian government believed the banishment of the Blessed Perfection from Iran would be the extermination of His Cause in that country. These rulers now realized that it spread more rapidly. His prestige increased, His teachings became more widely circulated. The chiefs of Iran then used their influence to have Baha’u’llah exiled from Baghdad. He was summoned to Constantinople by the Turkish authorities. While in Constantinople He ignored every restriction, especially the hostility of ministers of state and clergy. The official representatives of Iran again brought their influence to bear upon the Turkish authorities and succeeded in having Baha’u’llah banished from Constantinople to Adrianople, the object being to keep Him as far away as possible from Iran and render His communication with that country more difficult. Nevertheless the Cause still spread and strengthened. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 221.
Baha’u’llah’s declaration of His mission in the Garden of Ridvan gave new faith to the handful of believers whom he chose to hear this new message. Moreover, it infused the entire gathering in the garden with joy and life. Even those who were completely unaware of the declaration reported feeling a sense of happiness and joy. These feelings are reclaimed by the Baha’is each year during of the celebrations of this Most Great Festival.
Because Baha’u’llah spoke out against all forms of tyranny and oppression, the Ridvan period is also designated as the time when Baha’is around the world elect the democratic institutions that will serve them during the coming year. Baha’is have no clergy, so Baha’i communities are governed and directed by democratically-elected bodies of nine people called Assemblies. Elections for Baha’i Local Spiritual Assemblies (in every locality where Baha’is reside) and National Spiritual Assemblies (in every country) are held each year during the twelve days of Ridvan. Every five years, the Universal House of Justice is elected during this same period.
In gathering to say prayers and silently cast their ballots for the institutions that will help inspire and guide them through the year, Baha’is symbolically renew their covenant with Baha’u’llah, affirm the Baha’i teachings on freedom of thought, liberty of conscience and right of speech, and redeem that momentous declaration in the Garden of Ridvan, affirming the structure of a living world community established in Baha’u’llah’s name.