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What defines a civilization? Usually, we think of it as a unified, organized society with a comparatively high level of cultural development, along with an appreciation of art, science, and spiritual reality.
Who starts civilizations? The Baha’i teachings say they typically form around the powerful revelation of a new messenger of God:
Blessed souls—whether Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius or Muhammad—were the cause of the illumination of the world of humanity. How can we deny such irrefutable proof? How can we be blind to such light? How can we dispute the validity of Christ? This is injustice. This is a denial of reality. Man must be just. We must set aside bias and prejudice. We must abandon the imitations of ancestors and forefathers. We ourselves must investigate reality and be fair in judgment.
… these holy souls were all sent of God. All of them have sacrificed life, endured ordeals and tribulations in order that They might educate us. How can such love be forgotten? The light of Christ is evident. The candle of Buddha is shining. The star of Moses is sparkling. The flame ignited by Zoroaster is still burning. How can we deny Them? It is injustice. It is a denial of complete evidence. If we forsake imitations, all will become united, and no differences will remain to separate us. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 345.
Our ancestors made spectacular advances in their civilizations when Krishna, Buddha, and Zoroaster appeared in the East. By looking at the regional conditions when they appeared, their spiritual and social teachings, and the remarkable changes accomplished by their followers, we can begin to appreciate the power of the creative Word of God, and the impact of His messengers. We can see that human history receives its primary motive power from the prophets.
Krishna and the Hindu Religion
Archaeological discoveries indicate that immigrants arrived in the area we now know as the subcontinent of India by 6000 to 7000 BCE, but it was much later, in about 4000 BCE, that permanent settlements were built. People first settled in the Indus River Valley, which today separates India and Pakistan, where primitive agriculture started to develop along with the use of stone tools and weapons.
Most authoritative sources place Krishna’s birth at about 2900 BCE in the region of Uttar Pradesh, a northern province in present-day India. The teachings of Krishna are revealed in an epic tale entitled The Bhagavad-Gita, often called the “New Testament,” by Hindus, because it proffered a major advance in the worship of God, included yoga and new forms of meditation. Additionally, Krishna revealed that we should actively worship God by our deeds. He also taught his followers the difference between body and soul, the difference between matter and spirit, principles of discipline and meditation, and the importance of knowledge.
In 1856, British engineers in search of a new path for a railroad discovered the remains of the Harrapan Empire, an advanced civilization which had prospered from 2500 to 1900 BCE and extended over 1000 miles across northern India. Its two major cities, Harrapa and Mohenjo-Daro, although separated by 400 miles, were almost identical, with streets laid out in a precise grid-like pattern, with two- and three-story houses built with uniform bricks, public water wells and an underground sewage system, providing for 40,000 residents. While artifacts exist, including more than 2,000 seals with religious connotations that connect the people to the Hindu religion, confirmation will have to wait for a “Rosetta Stone,” or some other means to decipher the language of the seals and other artifacts. This civilization, so advanced for its time period, reflected the power and profundity of Krishna’s revelation.
Gautama Buddha and Buddhism
Following the demise of the Harappan Empire, India reverted back to agricultural and pastoral societies with smaller village settlements, which over time gradually grew and extended eastward to the Ganges River, eventually providing the basis for the development of another urban society.
Historians generally recognize that Buddha was born into a warrior class family which lived along the Ganges River, and while there are many conflicting stories about his date of birth and early life, his revealed teachings are without dispute. His teachings about the “Middle Way” proposed a way of life between the extremes of the rigid Hindu Orthodox creeds and rituals, and the other extreme of withdrawing from everyday life, in a manner proposed by some ascetics of the time. Buddha taught the Dharma, a method of applying the universal laws of nature to the proper conduct of our lives. He explained the Dharma’s four overriding truths that describe our human condition, and revealed the steps of its Eightfold Path, which summarize a code of conduct that that could lead a person toward a state of nirvana.
A few hundred years after Buddha’s death, Buddhism reached its pinnacle of influence in the 3rd Century BCE, when Emperor Ashoka started to practice Buddha’s teachings in his rule of the Maurya Empire. He established a new order, ruled with principles of nonviolence, respect for parents, and religious tolerance. He instituted international trade with neighboring countries westward to the Roman Empire, developed a banking system, new coinage, and a business loan system, all of which led to rapid economic growth and prosperity. That early Buddhist civilization provided support for literature and religious writings, art, architecture, and infrastructure. Ashoka’s beautiful palace, an architectural marvel trimmed with silver and gold, stood for six centuries in the capital city, which had well-planned streets, large market places, and public meeting places. From it, the Western Road stretched 1,150 miles across India, just one indication that Buddha’s teachings had created a flourishing civilization.
Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism
Even though the soil in the area we now know as Iran did not have abundant fertility, pioneering efforts to raise grain there started around 7000 BCE, and by 5000 BCE numerous small settlements had developed. However, early settlers developed the skills to make stone tools and weapons, which provided a basis for trade with the more prosperous farmers in neighboring Mesopotamia. The discovery of gold, silver, and lead generated more expansive trade. Small kingdoms developed, followed by small empires around the time of Zoroaster’s birth, sometime between 1000 BCE and 600 BCE.
The sacred scripture of Zoroaster is recorded in the Zend-Avesta, and includes a mixture of hymns, prayers, and laws. He revealed the message that there is only one God, not many—and he also taught that the one God is omnipotent, existing outside the material world. At the same time, the Zend-Avesta was the first holy book to portray a personal God who wanted a relationship with individual human beings. Zoroaster taught that man should strive for ethical conduct, celebrate life and the good things of the world. He referred to God as Ahura Mazda, Who embodied truth and righteousness. However, he also identified another primal force, who represented the lie, darkness, and evil. He taught a theology that portrayed a universal struggle between good and evil—with the ultimate triumph of good. Zoroaster said that man had free will and the ability to act in a righteous way, with an ultimate just reward for carrying out merciful, virtuous actions.
Starting as a collection of semi-nomadic tribes on the Iranian plateau, the Zoroastrian Persian Empire under the rule of Darius the Great reached its pinnacle of power and influence in the 5th century BCE. The society built new roads, became both a land and a maritime power, established regular communication between Africa, Asia, and Europe, and developed the world’s first postal system. They created art in many forms, including metalwork, elaborate rock murals, weaving, and architecture. Darius the Great gave full credit to Ahura Mazda for his rise to power and the distinctive method that he developed to rule. He had a strong sense of justice and truth, understood the difference between right and wrong, allowed his subjects to speak their native languages and practice their own religions. He ruled an empire that stretched from the Indus River in the East, to Greece and Egypt in the West, and continually traveled among several magnificent palaces, with the central point of control in Persepolis.
The teachings of each of these great early Eastern religions established equally great civilizations:
God sends Prophets for the education of the people and the progress of mankind. Each such Manifestation of God has raised humanity. They serve the whole world by the bounty of God. The sure proof that they are the Manifestations of God is in the education and progress of the people. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 41.
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