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You’ll find the term ‘beauty’ oft-repeated and oft-emphasized in the Baha’i writings, with even Baha’u’llah himself being referred to as the ‘Blessed Beauty.’

But why is beauty so important to Baha’is? Its use seems to be far greater than of a mere noun or adjective, more than a word used to explain. Could this be another of those spiritual lessons hidden in plain sight?

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, obviously understood the essential role of beauty in the Baha’i gardens–hence his response to the query about the steepness of his garden paths as explained by his wife, Amatul-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum:

Many times Shoghi Effendi said: ‘I will always sacrifice utility to beauty.’ We would do well to deeply ponder this statement.

There is, I firmly believe, a relationship between this policy of Shoghi Effendi and a deep truth revealed in all God’s creation, but particularly emphasized in this Dispensation of Baha’u’llah. That truth is that beauty is a precious reality of this world and in the realms of the spirit. …We will never understand the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, nor, indeed, that Faith itself, until we ponder the significance of such words as these.” – Ruhiyyih Rabbani, The Completion of the International Archives, The Baha’i World Volume XIII, p. 422.

The beautiful gardens at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel attract visitors from all over the world. Similarly, Baha’i Houses of Worship on every continent on Earth offer gorgeous gardens to everyone.

Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel.

Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel.

So, what role does beauty play in a Baha’i garden that seeks to uplift the spirit and nurture spiritual sensitivity–such as those gardens created by the Guardian? Could that beauty possibly have an impact on our inner development? What might be the mechanism of this tool, available for the benefit of all? Can a garden lend itself to spiritual awareness?

First perhaps we need to consider what we mean by beauty: those qualities present in say, a garden, that give intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind–usually via the agency of our senses–such as a shape, color, pattern, texture or sound; viewing harmonious colors; the subtlety of a plant composition or the perfect contrasting of textures that might seize our attention and give us pleasure.

Beauty can serve as an attractant as well as an agent of distraction, capable of making us forget all else and transporting us to another frame of mind. It broadens our view by offering us an expanded understanding. This attraction helps us to appreciate deeply the things around us–things other than ourselves. Perhaps we are responding to the harmony of what we observe, and momentarily reflecting that harmony within ourselves.

Distraction is also useful, as it helps us to ‘break off the shackles of this nether world,’ allowing us to draw closer to spiritual perception:

It is natural for the heart and spirit to take pleasure and enjoyment in all things that show forth symmetry, harmony and perfection. For instance, a beautiful house, a well-designed garden, a symmetrical line, a graceful motion, a well written book, pleasing garments–in fact all things that have in themselves grace or beauty are pleasing to the heart and spirit… – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, p. 167.

In the quote above Abdu’l-Baha is talking about beauty as it is expressed in the arts. The Baha’i teachings encourage us to share with others the expressions of beauty mentioned by Abdu’l-Baha, rather than just wanting to possess them for ourselves. He also explains that beauty uses the physical senses–those which inform the spiritual senses as long as covetousness does not get in the way. This is how we can learn through our physical senses for spiritual growth – using the mechanism of the physical senses communicating with the spiritual senses.

To be beautiful, a garden must have harmony between the elements involved, although other tools, such as contrast and asymmetry, can be used to enhance harmony. This beauty must seem harmonious to the observer, often through senses other than just sight, otherwise it soon loses its attractive power. In this way, nature too can be perceived as beautiful because natural systems seem to have a built-in way of ‘rejecting’ disharmony and systems that clash between the types of plants, the textures, the organisms, the colors, and the animals.

They have all developed symbioses, or interdependent harmonies, which occur between the different elements and organisms involved. These harmonies (and thus nature’s beauty) are ever-changing and evolving–but always have a completeness, an harmonious system and yes, reveal a beauty in their operation and methods, and a seeming ease in the way they function. This in-built dynamism is also why the world of nature responds to development and refinement, is never static and exhibits great resilience.

With a garden most of us can say what is beautiful – what it is we like. But few of us can explain why it is beautiful to us, or even how it impacts us. This is the barrier that a spiritual person can become capable of breaching.

8 Comments

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  • Seema Adhikari
    Mar 03, 2018
    Such a good article.Makes me want to visit. Article I just read regarding definition of beauty https://daretodreamgirls.blogspot.com/2018/03/a-stereotypical-beauty.html?m=1
  • Guy Pierre Poulin
    Jan 02, 2018
    This is all fine and uplifting in an mature world. But beware, at the individual level, in the real world, it takes a lot of discipline to stay within budget and pay your credit card balance 😉
    • Bob Russell
      Jan 03, 2018
      One of the many challenges we will encounter, in this existence and the next.
  • Don Stevenson
    Jan 02, 2018
    Your contribution couldn't have arrived at a better time for me. My son, his wife and their young ones will arrive for a rare visit from England at the end of the week. I have been working in the garden, wanting it to be 'perfect' when they arrive. Yesterday, after having dedicated several hours to a particularly arduous tree pruning I suffered a pang of doubt, "Should I be spending this much time time on the garden?" Our garden is graced with many ornamentals and a collection of over 200 bonsai; there is still a lot to be done. Reading ...your article I realized something I had overlooked: my effort is nothing less than an expression of love. I deeply thank you Andrew for helping me realize that!
    Read more...
    • Andrew Blake
      Jan 04, 2018
      Hi Don,
      Well done - another valid connection made. Abdu'l-Baha synthesises the 'mechanics' of creation in the term love:
      "Love is the secret of God’s holy Dispensation... Love is the cause of God’s revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with the divine creation, in the realities of things."
      Another point comes to mind from your gardening: The Baha'i teachings tell us that work performed in the spirit of service is the same as worship.
      Happy gardening.
      Andrew
  • Jan 01, 2018
    I had the privilege of visiting the Junayn garden in Akka recently. Extraordinary use of unusual plants, succulents and cacti, make it a strangely beautiful place.
  • Jan 01, 2018
    Thank you Andrew for explaining this aspect of life simply but clearly. I loved the article!
  • Chloe Adriaans
    Jan 01, 2018
    Really enjoyed this article. I'd always struggled to understand why beauty (which seems like a shallow, materialistic thing) was so important to the faith. This explains everything perfectly. Thank you, Andrew!