The world’s a stage
Posted by Sen on April 26, 2009
One of the friends said:
… an elderly lady once told me that Shoghi Effendi had said that the earth would “fall off its axis and spin wildly for three days”… well, I’ve searched and searched for anything even close…
The source of this is a tablet written by Abdu’l-Baha, translated by Ahmad Sohrab, and printed in his diary ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Egypt, page 297. In this tablet Abdu’l-Baha compares the world of September 1913 to a spectacular stage play on which actors such as kings and cabinet ministers play their parts. Towards the end he writes (in Sohrab’s translation):
When thou considerest … the fruit of all these theatrical performances, thou wilt see with thy real eyes, that they are the results of an illusory mirage and their sweetness is as bitter poison. A few days shall roll on their axis, and all these conditions will become non-existent, evanescent and completely forgotten.
This text was then reprinted in Star of the West Magazine, Vol. 4 No. 16, December 31 1913, page 273 with quite a few changes:
when thou observes these things with the eye of reality, thou wilt see that the outcome, result and fruit of all these theatrical performances are mirages and their sweetness is bitter poison. A few days the earth shall roll on its axis, and these fleeting visions will be completely forgotten.
Abdu’l-Baha in Egypt was not published until 1929, but Sohrab typically posted installments from his diary to the Bahais in America. Presumably Star of the West has taken his translation and has revised it themselves, without reference to the Persian. The Star of the West version of this tablet was also typed up and circulated in mimeograph: there is a copy in the Barstow Collection #123D.
What these lines actually say is “Within a few days all these things will pass from existence to non-existence…” The Persian text has no word for “earth” or “roll” or “axis” – all these elements have been introduced by the translation and editing process. I will give a full translation of the tablet below, but first I want to follow the tracks of the image of the earth rolling on its axis.
The misunderstanding of what is meant arose in the Bahai community in the 1980’s, not so much from the insertion of the word ‘earth’ into Sohrab’s already rather free translation, as from the citation of this image in isolation, in the context of apocalyptic speculations. The image was picked up by Ruth Moffet in her New Keys to the Book of Revelation. In its day, New Keys was one of the weirdest books in the Bahai secondary literature. It is the progenitor of Robert Rigg’s The Apocalypse Unsealed, which deals not only with the Book of Revelation but also with the number of ‘pyramid inches’ in the Great Pyramid of Giza, the signs of the zodiac, gematria and the 72 Stupas on the great Temple of Siva. Riggs takes Bahai literature into the world of pendulums, Atlantis, pyramids, and auras. That’s beside the point, except as an indicator that there is a lunatic fringe Bahai literature, and a readership for it among the Bahais. So when Moffet quoted to these readers just the words “a few days the earth shall roll on its axis, and these fleeting visions will be completely forgotten,” without the original context, and placed it in a section of her book about the apocalyptic tribulations to come, she led a certain section of the Bahai community to think in terms of a global catastrophe lasting a few days: a polar shift. That’s the form in which this image been adopted in some of the minor Bahai sects, such as the Jensenites today. And that’s how I heard the story when I was a young Bahai, in New Zealand around 1982: the earth’s axis shifts, there are huge tidal waves, and somehow the Bahais emerge from the ruins into a world without governments or other religions, to write a new chapter of history on a slate wiped clean. Our “Bahai” in those days was a hodge-podge of Christian apocalypticism, the popular TV series ‘Survivors’, Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision, communes and cottage gardens, and some Bahai teachings.
Naturally lunacy of that sort is far removed from what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha actually taught. They were intelligent and well-informed people, relating to the world of their time in intelligent ways. In late 1913, nationalism and Bolshevism were stirring, the working classes and the colonies were becoming restless, nations were preparing for war, finance was going global and the new rich were living in a fool’s paradise, flaunting their wealth. In that context, Abdu’l-Baha wrote this tablet, not about the world rolling on its axis, but about the world as a stage on which actors play their parts for a time until, when the curtain goes down and the lights go on, reality asserts itself.
The original of this tablet has been published in the Persian series of Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, volume 3 page 37. Abdu’l-Baha writes:
O you who cling to the unsullied hem of His robe, O offshoot of the Sacred Lote-tree: with keen eyes examine the world and its inhabitants, which is the most immense theatre. See the host of souls who race in the arena of profit and loss; observe on all sides the waves of the sea of folly that are unmistakeably evident. Every man of understanding can hear clamour, insurrection and uproar. There is contention and conflict between the powerful and the disempowered, a war of sword and spear and bow and arrow between the noble and ignoble. Hosts of soldiers are drawn up for battle on each side, on every height the artillery are in perfect order. The flash of the swords of enmity can be seen from a great distance, the sharp darts of bitter enmity and their lightening flash in the midwinter night bewilder the sight. In short: the instruments of contention and conflict, of struggle and war, have been gathered and are marshalled in good order.
Meanwhile, on one side, the streets are full of the sounds of musicians and their instruments; the melodies of the lute, hand bells and pipes, singing and frolicking, joyfulness and glee. Then look to the other side, what corrupt ostentation! See the ornamentation and gold and jewellery of worldly people, the adornment and allure of earthly vanities and possessions, and the apparent refinement of perishable things, of dust and clay. At another point, hear cries of “Woe!” and groaning. The protestations and sighing, plaintive cries and bitter complaining have reached the gate of heaven. These are the tremulous voices and groans of the suffering, the lamentation of the poor, the harrowing wails of those drowning in a sea of catastrophe. On one side there is the burning heat of separation, the fire of cravings, and the fiery tongues of desire. Here one sees the kings, sighing in their perplexity, the cabinet ministers with no understanding and no strategy; there one sees such conflict, on the battlefield of opinion and rhetoric, among leaders who are themselves confused: all is passion and tumult, scheming and changing, tearing down and building up, and praising and blaming the leaders of kingdoms and regions. In short, if you observe all these campaigns with a discerning eye, seeing their reality, end results, outcome and fruit, they are the mirage on the plain, their honey is a poisonous draught. Within a few days all these things will pass from existence to non-existence, to extinction and nothingness.
But when you shut your eyes to this dark world and look upward and heavenward, you see light upon light, you see what is constant and firmly established, you see the eternal and unchanging, you see the realities of mysteries. Happy is the pure soul who is not attached to this tainted and besmirched world, but rather seeks to attach himself to the purity, independence and eminence of the world that endures.