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Purification of the Heart in Our Search after Truth

Nader Saiedi | Aug 17, 2020

PART 15 IN SERIES Nineteen Reflections on 19 Sacred Words

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Nader Saiedi | Aug 17, 2020

PART 15 IN SERIES Nineteen Reflections on 19 Sacred Words

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

Baha’u’llah began his mystical treatise called The Hidden Words with this powerful passage:

O Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.

This complex statement addresses humanity as “Son of Spirit,” indicating before all else the true identity of we humans as spiritual beings. 

A search for spiritual truth, therefore, is a precondition of the realization of the true identity of all human beings. 

Baha’u’llah defines the method of an unfettered and independent search after truth as purification of the heart. The human heart, as Baha’u’llah indicates in The Hidden Words, is the throne of God. But humans, through various forms of selfishness and attachment, have given God’s home to others. Through purification of the heart, all else is removed from the throne of God, and thus God returns to the human heart. Here humans become reflections of divine sovereignty, able to independently investigate and discover the deepest spiritual truths of life.

To impart a better understanding of this concept, Baha’u’llah discussed the same topic in his Book of Certitude, where he seems to name four distinct conditions for the independent investigation of truth.

1. Purification of the Heart with Methodical Doubt

The first and most important aspect of the purification of the heart is that one tries to think independently. This means that in order to know the truth one has to question one’s tradition, reject various forms of prejudice, and attain freedom of thought. The realization of this autonomy requires systematic doubt about all that one has been taught by parents, religious leaders, and society’s prejudices. 

The Baha’i teachings say that only after purging the heart from all blind assumptions and ideas can we start to see the truth. 

Interestingly, this aspect of the concept of the purification of the heart agrees with the famous idea of the 17th century French philosopher, Descartes, whose philosophy is based on the idea of methodical doubt. In fact, modern Western philosophy begins with the methodical doubt of Descartes. In Descartes’ philosophy, the essence of his method is that one has to doubt everything which can be doubted, and only accept what is rationally beyond any doubt. Descartes came to the conclusion that he can doubt everything, except the fact that he is thinking. 

It is also noteworthy that this same aspect of Baha’u’llah’s theory to some extent agrees with a basic idea of another well-known Western modern philosopher who came after Baha’u’llah. Martin Heidegger defined seeking truth as a process of unveiling, in the same way the world gradually discloses and shows itself to us. In a similar way, Baha’u’llah always said that the journey towards truth requires “tearing down all veils” – which means eliminating the illusions and mental constructs that hinder us from perceiving truth. 

In his Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah invited people to “tear the veils asunder” in such a way that even the inmates of the kingdom of God would hear the sound of that tearing. In other words, for Baha’u’llah the human soul and the human eye have the capability to see the underlying spiritual truth of reality. What prevents humans from seeing such truth are the multitudes of “veils” they have constructed between their hearts and the truth – so the road to truth is the path of removing those veils, which begins by doubting all socially-constructed presuppositions and superstitions.

2. Purification of the Heart as a Moral Commitment

While Descartes defined the method of truth as a process of methodical doubt, Baha’u’llah uses the term “purification of the heart.” For Baha’u’llah, such methodical doubt is impossible without the moral and ethical purification of humans. Therefore, the journey towards truth, especially spiritual truth, requires moral cleansing of the human heart as well:

Hearken thou unto the Words of thy Lord and purify thy heart from every illusion so that the effulgent light of the remembrance of thy Lord may shed its radiance upon it, and it may attain the station of certitude. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah

This kind of moral and spiritual cleansing requires detachment from selfish motives, worldly attachments, the desire for power and fame and the like. In fact, if one is obsessed with personal ambitions and power, he is never completely free to see reality in a true, impartial manner. Even in the realm of science we see that scientists and intellectuals sometimes violate the ethical rules of conduct, distort the data and their interpretation so that they can attain fame or material rewards. In fact, this is the classic reason why the clerics who weep for the coming of their promised One, always rise against him when he actually appears – revealing the worldly and selfish attachment of the clerics to their religious authority. 

3. Purification of the Heart as Universal Love

Although Baha’u’llah defined an important aspect of the purification of the heart as negation of selfish desires, he went beyond this negation and emphasized a third dimension of purification.  

This dimension is affirmative – namely, the true seeker must love all, treat all with dignity and kindness, and try to help all in need. In this connection, Baha’u’llah even defines kindness to animals as a necessary condition of recognizing truth.  

At first, this may seem contradictory to the Baha’i principle of objectivity and fairness. Baha’u’llah stated that to be fair, one should go beyond love or hate so that one would become free of prejudice and partiality. Yet, this is part of the amazing complexity of Baha’u’llah’s discussion. While one should go beyond love or hate towards particular objects or ideas, one should also be characterized by a general and universal love for all beings. 

A pure heart, which makes attaining truth possible, is a heart that loves all beings, all people, and all groups. Ironically, this is the essence and most important precondition of destroying all kinds of prejudice. Prejudice is the product of particularistic attachment to a specific group of people. Therefore, when we reduce our identities to only love one religious, ethnic, national, racial, political or gender group, we see others outside those groups as strangers or enemies. This narrow particularistic definition of identity gives birth to prejudice and partiality. In fact, the Baha’i teachings say, any prejudice prevents us from the realization of truth. 

Baha’u’llah clearly warned us never to reduce our individual identity to one particular group. Among Western sociologists it was Emile Durkheim who defined the precondition of the realization of science and scientific method in terms of the emergence of the concept of humans as humans, where all humans are perceived to be equal. Baha’u’llah mentions a number of characteristics of this sense of the purification of the heart. Discussing the conditions of a sincere search after truth, Baha’u’llah wrote:

“He should succour the dispossessed, and never withhold his favour from the destitute. He should show kindness to animals, how much more unto his fellow-man … He should not wish for others that which he doth not wish for himself, nor promise that which he doth not fulfill… He should forgive the sinful, and never despise his low estate, for none knoweth what his own end shall be. How often hath a sinner, at the hour of death, attained to the essence of faith, and, quaffing the immortal draught, hath taken his flight unto the celestial Concourse.”

4. Purification of the Heart as Courage

The final dimension of purification of the heart in Baha’u’llah’s discussion of search after truth is courage. This concept – related to the previous meanings and yet distinct – points out that any culture of prejudice and traditionalism requires two forms of cowardice. 

First, throughout history various religious or political ideas have been imposed by violence, the sword, persecution, discrimination, and intimidation. For example, the emergence of new and creative concepts have been frequently met by censorship, discrimination, and coercive responses by the guardians of reactionary thought, all to intimidate investigations of any new idea. But this cowardice is not confined to violent forms of external coercion. Traditionalism and prejudice depend on a second form of subtle coercion, namely reducing religion to a question of biological inheritance and social tradition, which makes people conform to the religion of their fathers. In other words, the security of habit and the internal force of imitation forces people to never think about spiritual truth. In this way tradition persists not by external threat or coercion but by the internal habits of imitation and inheritance. 

That is why understanding truth requires the force of moral and intellectual courage. One can search after truth, question tradition and prejudice, and be willing to change one’s beliefs only if one has the courage to know. In a society where the clerics use coercion, seeking truth requires the willingness to sacrifice everything, including one’s own possessions and life. But even in a situation of apparent religious and political freedom, thinking for oneself and transcending the culture of habit and imitation requires the courage to go beyond one’s internal sense of security.  

For that reason, the Bab made light a symbol of both truth and self-sacrifice. Light is what makes truth visible, the Bab pointed out, and yet light sacrifices itself in order to illumine others. Among the western philosophers it was Kant who defined enlightenment by the phrase “dare to know.” 

Although Baha’u’llah’s discussion of the method of seeking truth calls for the transformation of individual human beings, this same teaching simultaneously proclaims a call for fundamental social transformations as well. Since humans are defined as spirit, consciousness, and spiritual capacities, they cannot be reduced to the level of objects or beasts. The Baha’i principle of the independent investigation of truth defines all humans as sacred, endowed with rights and capable of thinking for themselves.

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