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A reporter asked me a two-part question once: Why are there so many famous Baha’is? And can fame and spirituality go together?
Yes, they can, the Baha’i teachings say—as long as the heart’s ambitions ascend to a more glorious goal than simply being famous on this material plane of existence:
Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of this world; their minds are so circumscribed by exterior manners and traditional interests that they are blind to any other realm of existence, to the spiritual significance of all things! They think and dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous delights and comfortable surroundings bound their horizon, their highest ambitions centre in successes of worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep! Like the animal, they have no thought beyond their own physical well-being. It is true that these necessities must be dispatched. Life is a load which must be carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of a human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 98-99.
The Baha’i teachings make it clear, however—the pursuit of fame and celebrity for their own sake, or for the sake of material gain alone, both have an inevitable end:
Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labors shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 204.
Instead of that despair, the Baha’i writings say, those who search for truth, discover the “inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit,” and then utilize their fame for greater spiritual purposes, can “shine and sparkle” forever:
Consider: eminent personages whose fame hath spread all over the world shall, erelong, fade into utter nothingness… no name and no fame shall they leave behind, and of them no fruit and trace shall survive. But as the effulgences of the Sun of Truth have dawned forth upon you and ye have attained everlasting life, ye shall shine and sparkle forevermore from the horizon of existence. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 104.
Baha’is have no fear of fame, as long as it fulfulls a purpose beyond itself. Baha’i kings and queens, film and television stars, musicians and composers and artists and scientists and activists and environmentalists and athletes have all risen to great acclaim in their fields, many of them famous throughout the world. In fact, I told the reporter who asked me the questions about famous Baha’is, the Baha’i writings encourage all Baha’is to seek distinction and achievement in their artistic and professional lives:
Encourage the children from their earliest years to master every kind of learning, and make them eager to become skilled in every art — the aim being that through the favoring grace of God, the heart of each one may become even as a mirror disclosing the secrets of the universe, penetrating the innermost reality of all things; and that each may earn worldwide fame in all branches of knowledge, science and the arts. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Education, pp. 27-28.
I hope that thou mayest be protected and assisted under the providence of the True One, be occupied always in mentioning the Lord and display effort to complete thy profession. Thou must endeavor greatly so that thou mayest become unique in thy profession and famous in those parts, because attaining perfection in one’s profession in this merciful period is considered to be worship of God. And whilst thou art occupied with thy profession, thou canst remember the True One. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 145-146.
True and lasting fame and spiritual distinction, the Baha’i teachings point out, do not come from our temporary, worldly achievements or talents, but instead from our souls—and the soul’s connection to God. When we do well in this world, when we achieve celebrity and wealth and applause, the glare of the spotlights can blind us to that true, everlasting light. As long as we focus our gaze on the greater light, on the one that shines eternally, we can find happiness:
When thou shuttest thine eyes to this dark world and lookest upward and heavenward, thou wilt see light upon light stretching from eternity to eternity. The reality of the mysteries will be revealed. Happy is the pure soul who does not attach himself to transient conditions and comforts, but rather seeks to attach himself to the purity, nobility and splendor of the world which endures. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 344.