When I was younger, my father used to facilitate study institutes on one of the most mystical works of the Baha’i Faith called The Seven Valleys. Ever since then I’ve felt drawn to deeply spiritual works.
As a quick summary, Baha’u’llah’s book The Seven Valleys takes the reader through the various obstacles that the “mystic wayfarer” must traverse before reaching his/her divine beloved:
… the stages that mark the wayfarers’ journey from their mortal abode to the heavenly homeland are said to be seven. Some have referred to them as seven valleys, and others, as seven cities. And it is said that until the wayfarer taketh leave of self and traverseth these stages, he shall never attain the ocean of nearness and reunion nor taste of the matchless wine. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, in The Call of the Divine Beloved, p. 15.
Before I delve further into this spiritual journey, however, it’s helpful to set the stage for where the ideas for this work came from. I’ve only recently learned some of this history. The Baha’i version of The Seven Valleys is based loosely on a famous poem about similar valleys called “The Conference of the Birds,” written in 1177 AD by the celebrated Persian poet Faridu’d-Din-Attar, or Attar for short. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, penned The Seven Valleys, in part, because a Sufi leader asked him to share his thoughts on Attar’s Conference of the Birds.
The Conference of the Birds is, superficially, about birds, but, in reality, they just provide a metaphor for our human attachments and struggles. The basic story—which is quite fun really—involves a bunch of different birds who desire their own sovereign. They’re told, by a bird that functions as a leader and narrator in the poem, that the king of all birds is the Symurgh (pronounced see-morgh)—the mythical bird Western culture calls the Phoenix. Reaching him represents the epitome of existence, but one who treads the path to the Symurgh will face many difficulties that call for courage and sacrifice. Attar described the journey this way:
Hinges the World, and round about whose Knees
Into one Ocean mingle the Sev’n Seas;
In whose impenetrable Forest-folds
Of Light and Dark “Symurgh” his Presence holds;
Not to be reach’d, if to be reach’d at all
But by a Road the stoutest might apal;
Of Travel not of Days or Months, but Years—
Life-long perhaps: of Dangers, Doubts, and Fears.
Despite their initial enthusiasm, some of the birds come up with a variety of excuses about why they can’t go on this difficult quest. The nightingale was too attached to the rose, the duck needed his water, the parrot claimed he could not leave his cage, the heron wanted to stay in the lagoons where it could search for fish, etc. I’m sure this relates to the excuses we all come up with not to go on our own spiritual quests.
But, back to the bird story: some of the birds make it through the different valleys, like the valleys of search and detachment, but only a few survive the whole journey. The final group also has to go through a cleansing process before they become renewed and united with the Symurgh. Here’s the ending to one version of the poem:
Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside.
Baha’u’llah’s Seven Valleys has nothing to do with birds—and, blessedly, is shorter and more direct—but is similar to the Sufi poem in that it unveils the different stages one has to go through to cleanse or purify one’s soul to draw nearer to the divine.
In The Seven Valleys, different valleys have some similarities to Attar’s poem: the Valley of Search, the Valley of Love, the Valley of Knowledge, the Valley of Unity, the Valley of Contentment, the Valley of Wonderment, and, finally, the Value of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness.
While I like the basic story line behind the Conference of the Birds, I found it a little bit depressing because it seemed almost impossible for any of the birds to reach their ultimate goal. Baha’u’llah’s The Seven Valleys, in contrast, feels more positive and hopeful to me. It starts, for example, by alluding to humanity’s nobility and high station:
Praise be to God Who hath made being to come forth from nothingness; graven upon the tablet of man a measure of the mysteries of His eternity; taught him from the storehouse of divine utterance that which he knew not; made him a perspicuous book unto such as have believed and surrendered their souls; given him to behold, in this dark and ruinous age, a new creation within all things …. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, in The Call of the Divine Beloved, p. 11.
This article is adapted from Zárrin Caldwell’s Podcast on The Soul Salons: Exploring our Spiritual Heritage.