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The Quintessence of Religions according to Ostad Elahi: reflections (3)

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This third article of reflection on the “Quintessence of Religions” is the last in a series dedicated to Ostad Elahi’s poem. After the question of “God” and that of “evil”, Leili Anvar’s commentary now invites us to reflect on the notion of the “good”.

About the “Quintessence of Religions”
(excerpt 3: the good)

“[…] Third, in every time and in every place
The good that the wise contemplate
That engenders order and peace in society
And that emanates from what is Right
Practice toward yourself and others
And avoid all that is contrary to it […]”

To give a “quintessential idea” of what the good is, Ostad Elahi reformulates here the two phases of the Golden Rule that determine what the theologian and philosopher Olivier du Roy defines as the “ethics of the reciprocity and fundamental intersubjectivity of man” (Olivier du Roy, La Règle d’or : histoire d’une maxime universelle, Paris, Cerf, 2012, tome 1, p. 17, translated from the French). The idea is to practice what is good for oneself and for others in equal proportions, by putting oneself in the place of others. The use of multiple action verbs (“practice”, “combat”, “do”, “act”, “apply”) points to the necessity to actively commit oneself to what is good. For Ostad Elahi, fighting effectively against evil consists in doing good and, beyond that, in becoming at one’s own level an active source of goodness. Much like evil, the good in itself cannot really be defined; it can, however, be identified through its source (“the good that the wise contemplate”, “that emanates from what is Right”) and its consequences (“that engenders order and peace in society”). Regarding the notion of “what is Right”, as stated earlier in this essay, it corresponds in Farsi to the word “Haqq”, a highly polysemic word that simultaneously means truth, justice, the law, and God himself. The source of what is authentically good must therefore be at once correct, true, in alignment with rights, and divine. When facing an ethical choice, reason should be used to verify if the principle we want to apply to do good is a correct principle. It is of course no easy task—literature on the subject is immense and very diverse. That is why the best criterion to evaluate whether an action that is deemed “good” really is good are the consequences that it engenders. “Respect”, “order”, “peace” and “what is right” are universal values that can be applied and recognized “in every time and in every place”. So there are two fundamental questions to consider when trying to apply a principle: on the one hand, does the principle you want to apply emanate from what is “Right” (Haqq)—that is to say, is it correct and in alignment with “the Truth”?; and on the other hand, will the action you want to undertake engender order and peace? We would certainly refrain from many deeds should we ask ourselves these questions before acting…

When Ostad Elahi refers to “order and peace”, he seems to refer both to social order—which, according to him, is the purpose of religious legislation (and has been replaced today in our democracies by secular legislation[1]) —and the inner peace of the sage (what Seneca called “the consistency of the sage” or “peace of mind”). In fact, the words “that engenders order and peace in society” imply that there is a profound interaction between oneself and others, and that inner peace as well as the peace of others and the order of society as a whole all depend on this interaction. For Ostad Elahi, wisdom is thus far from being a purely individual pursuit. In his view, pursuing what is good implies, of course, the individual development of what we call “virtues” but the condition for this development is to include other people in the process:

“[…] We must put into practice the precepts that are intended to draw us closer to God, such as prayer, kindness, altruism, and all that humanity deems to be good.” (Words of Truth, 449, draft of the forthcoming English translation)

The violence, misery, and disorder that can be seen every day in the news bear witness to the fact that a world where individuals do not take onto themselves to fight in their own hearts against evil, hatred and injustice is a world where there can be no order, peace, harmony or love. For Ostad Elahi, true wisdom consists in activating goodness within oneself so that it will become effective outside of oneself:

“The first condition, then, is having a “good intention”—that is, once you have committed to saying, being, and seeking good, such an intention becomes your “tree of benevolence,” yielding delicious fruit in this world and the next.” (WoT, 415)

Our interaction with others actually has an immediate effect on our own nature. Ostad explains this with “taste” metaphors:

“[…] Like honey, we must sweeten our being so that we can always benefit others. Just as honey is saturated with sweetness, we too must dissolve so much goodness and benevolence within us that, like honey, we become saturated with goodness. In general, if we are good and benefit others—that is, if we see what is good, speak what is good, and do what is good—in the first instance we will benefit ourselves, such that we are always happy, and then we will benefit others.” (WoT, 342)

This “sweetness of what is good” can be experimented at varying degrees by each one of us and can be developed, for it is within each of us that begins this almost alchemical operation on the soul’s very substance. It goes against the bitterness of the evil and negative thoughts that poison it. The Persian mystical poet Rumi whose works Ostad Elahi had profoundly meditated over, used another metaphor, that of the garden, to refer to the intimate space of thought where the roots of both good and evil take hold:

“If someone speaks well of another person, the good and the grace that they create return onto them, for in reality their praise and the good they speak, they speak to themselves. It is like someone who plants a rose garden and odoriferous plants around their house. Every time they look about them, they see flowers and greenery, they are in Paradise all the time. When speaking well becomes second nature and it becomes a habit to speak well of a person, then this person becomes dear to one, and when one thinks of them, one thinks of the Beloved and the memory of the Beloved is a garden brimming with flowers, and soulfulness, and joy. On the contrary, when one speaks ill of a person, they appear as an enemy, and when one thinks of them, it is as if one had serpents and scorpions, thorns and thistles in one’s mind. But since one can be surrounded by flowers and a garden of Eden day and night, why would one walk in a garden brimming with thorns and snakes?” (Quoted by Leili Anvar in Rûmî, Paris, Entrelacs, 2004, p. 214-215.)

Heaven and hell are therefore within ourselves and it is our actions and thoughts that bring them into existence for us here and now—before we even leave this world. If, as has been mentioned earlier, the eschatological horizon of ethics resides in the beyond, the practice and concrete consequences of ethical action can already be “tasted” here. In brief, achieving wisdom also means achieving happiness. The wisdom of all the ancient masters could actually be summed up as the pursuit of that particular happiness, the happiness of wisdom, the very condition of which is “the good life”. Cicero, referring to “the prince of philosophers”, says just that, when he writes to one of his correspondents:

“I maintain [that] supreme happiness does not need [possessions] at all. I have Socrates’s well-known demonstration to support me. For according to that prince of philosophers the disposition of a man’s soul indicates the man: the man indicates his speech: his speech indicates his actions: his actions indicate his life. Since, then, the disposition of a good man’s soul is laudable, the same applies to his life. His life is therefore morally good. And so, once again, we come to the conclusion that the good people are happy.” (Cicero, On the Good Life, Penguin Classics, 2005)

We can see here how a virtuous circle of wisdom is established: the practice of goodness transforms us and makes us wiser, enabling us to progress in the practice of virtue and to thereby become even wiser and happier, for we are closer to the truth and therefore to justice. This work deeply transforms us. We become one with ourselves, with what we truly are as human beings. At this stage, we no longer need to force ourselves because goodness manifest itself within us like a second nature.

“Wisdom, writes Anne Baudart, lies neither in desire and interest, whatever form they may take, neither in the collection of honours cultivated for their own sake. It is the privilege of those who devote themselves, with the help of reason, to the exercise of judgment, to the contemplation of truth, to the pure pleasure that they produce. […] The virtuous, just, wisdom-loving person, makes great strides “in decency, beauty, and merit”, ahead of the wicked and unjust person […]”(The Republic, IX, 588a).” (Anne Baudart, Qu’est-ce que la sagesse ?, Paris, Vrin, 2013, p. 66, translated from the French)

In Ostad Elahi’s view, this goodness, practiced with the highest demands on oneself is the necessary condition to reach wisdom and individual happiness, but it also has universal and altruistic benevolence as a prospect. While “The Quintessence of Religions” is a general presentation on what constitutes the common foundation of all spiritualities, Ostad Elahi enounces, in Words of Truth, the practical implications he has experienced in his own life:

“My guiding tenets are as follows:

  • Be kind toward all;
  • Be benevolent toward everyone;
  • Never seek revenge or wish ill upon anyone; and
  • Always strive to be of benefit, even toward those who have done me wrong. I do not even allow myself to harbor ill will toward anyone.” (WoT, 10)

For Ostad Elahi, goodness necessarily strives toward loving others. This is how he aligns the ethics of the sage with the universal love of the saint.

“Once we feel a sense of brotherly love toward our fellow beings and are kind toward everyone, our differences will disappear and our religions will become one. In other words, only when we genuinely and wholeheartedly do onto others what we would want for ourselves can we claim to be a true believer.” (WoT, 11)

>> Reflection <<

“Like honey, we must sweeten our being so that we can always benefit others. (…) In general, if we are good and benefit others—that is, if we see what is good, speak what is good, and do what is good—in the first instance we will benefit ourselves, such that we are always happy, and then we will benefit others.”

Have you ever tried to “practice what is good” (whether it be seeing what is good, speaking what is good or doing what is good) in your daily life in order for your being to become sweet “like honey”? How did you go about it? Did such a practice lead you to experiment this “sweetness of what is good”? In what way?

Feel free to share your thoughts, examples and experiences in the comments section.

[1] ^ See for example Words of Truth, 16: “Many religious prescriptions have little to do with spirituality and were primarily intended to address social matters (e.g., laws regarding inheritance). Thus, such matters and issues of daily life can be addressed according to various conventional laws, whereas in that which concerns spiritual questions all the religions have spoken uniformly.” Also, WoT, 344 (on the three categories of laws : religious laws, social laws, and ethical laws.)

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  1. PS Apr 03, 2018 6:26 pm 1

    One thing that has helps me to stay positive when faced with scenarios that could lead me to speaking ill of others, is to remind myself that everyone possesses that divine particle which is worthy of love and respect and that I should see the good in them for His satisfaction only. When I imagine myself in their place in the same scenarios, I realise I wouldn’t do better than them.

  2. N Apr 04, 2018 7:13 am 2

    As PS said above “When I imagine myself in their place in the same scenarios, I realise I wouldn’t do better than them.” I’ve had the same experience, and if ever I did better, it was only the times that I asked God to help me, otherwise I would do even worse. When you experience these feelings then you can be sympathetic towards others in action, like listening to their problems without judging them, or advising them by just listening to them, and if you already experienced similar problems, you can feel their pain and problems in your heart. In this case you can pray for them and ask god to help them. Because you know how much it hurts.

  3. A. Apr 05, 2018 8:35 am 3

    “Heaven and hell are therefore within ourselves and it is our actions and thoughts that bring them into existence for us here and now—before we even leave this world.”

    I have had a series of experiences that helped me identify an important weak point: vengefulness. This weak point manifests itself especially when trying to educate my children. Faced by their (sometimes extreme) stubbornness and disobedience, I realize that I tend to punish them, or envisage punishments, out of a desire of retaliation rather than education.

    One day I asked the Source for help and I was confronted with behaviors that made my desire for revenge extremely intense. So intense that I was confused and could not reason objectively. This allowed me to grasp how bad the problem was.

    The best solution I found was to wait until I had calmed down and was able to think logically again. For instance, if I get extremely angry in the morning and start “dreaming” of revenge, I do not take any action; I don’t even suggest any course of action to my spouse. By the end of the day the fog of my imperious self is usually less intense and I am be able to take more level-headed decisions, guided by my sound reason.

    I have seen that praying the Source is really soothing and enables me to transition from a state of angst to a state of inner well-being where I really want to educate my children and nothing else.

  4. Peter Apr 05, 2018 10:14 pm 4

    I have never decided to become “sweet like honey”, but this article gave me such motivation to go for it.

  5. P Apr 08, 2018 10:41 pm 5

    “Always strive to be of benefit, even toward those who have done me wrong. I do not even allow myself to harbor ill will toward anyone.”
    This is a particular weakness of mine. I am mostly inclined to be kind towards those who are kind to me. However, it is infinitely more difficult to replicate this behaviour in vivo towards those I perceive as having wronged me/not being worth of my kindness.

    Having read this fantastic article, I am going to try and remind myself that honey is perpetually sweet to all that taste it and as such I cannot allow myself to pick and choose with whom I seek to adopt this behaviour. As Ostad Elahi has said, “…only when we genuinely and wholeheartedly do onto others what we would want for ourselves can we claim to be a true believer” and therefore it is incumbent on me to try and practice this towards all if I want to be able to achieve the ultimate goal of perfection.

  6. Homayoun Apr 08, 2018 11:15 pm 6

    Ever since I was a child I have noticed that some people are not sweet, they are not kind, they act without thinking, and the end result is not good for others around them; but most importantly they themselves are suffering the most from their actions.

    I told myself that I wanted to learn from such people by doing the opposite of what they do; but I could not fully achieve it – now that I am familiar with Ostad Elahi’s teachings, I feel I have the tools to be able to fully achieve this goal (putting God’s satisfaction as the ultimate Goal), but also I started noticing the good in others (I see that people who are not acting properly still have goodness in them).

    I still have much to learn and to put into practice before I can become “sweet like honey”, but at least I know it is possible, and working on it. For example, I have started trying to be kind to everyone I encounter during the day; such as the uber driver (speaking kindly with him – giving him good ratings), people working in a hotel or conference room (speaking with them – instead of ignoring them), the person who is cleaning the hotel room that I am staying at (writing a daily thank you note with some money as a show of my gratitude for their hard-work), being polite – kind – considerate toward people who work for me (not taking their work for granted – coaching and mentoring them; rather than raising my voice or being unkind to them), spending time with family and friends (listening to them and asking how I can help them), …

  7. Nooshie Apr 10, 2018 4:19 am 7

    I have never considered myself as sweet. In fact, events in my life had caused me to distrust and dislike most people. However, ever since I have started studying Ostad Elahi’s teachings, I have been trying to practice being good to others and seeing the good in them; sometimes successfully and other times unsuccessfully. I have now come to believe that the ultimate way of being the source of goodness is the practice of compassion and empathy. To paraphrase a quote: “A true human being rejoices in the happiness of others and shares in their sorrows.” Despite all my efforts to be good over the last two decades, the concepts of compassion and empathy were, to a large extent, foreign to me. However, this long-term practice had prepared my soul to finally come to understand these concepts.

    A friend of mine just had a very timely windfall of good fortune and I found myself to be genuinely happy for her without a hint of envy. This was a feeling that I had never experienced before to this extend and I felt that it lit up my soul. On the other end of the spectrum, I heard news of another friend who has become gravely ill. Again, for the first time I genuinely felt sad and empathetic for my friend and her family. This feeling propelled me to pray for her and her family from the bottom of my heart. I believe that genuine well wishing through the sincere practice of compassion and empathy imbues the spiritual space with sweetness.

    1. yan Apr 13, 2018 8:00 am 7.1

      @nooshie: I was overwhelmed after reading your experience. I have been striving to work on a few of my weaknesses for a long time, yet I have not seen any tangible progress or success. I had almost lost all hopes and motivation. Although I technically knew that hopelessness is one of the biggest sins and that it is the last trick the imperious self plays to make you lose the battle, practically, I couldn’t handle my hopelessness in the face of repetitive failures anymore. Now, when you said you fought for two decades and recently saw the results, something clicked!
      Now, I feel and I understand that we might not yield the results of our efforts linearly, but hopefully exponentially; meaning that we might work hard for many years and not see any results, and all of the sudden, we wake up one day, something clicks, and we see all the results, although we might not get to see them in this life.
      To elaborate more about the difference between linear and exponential (non-linear) we can use this analogy: let’s say you study a new and complicated subject for 3 hours, you don’t understand a single thing in the first 2 hours, however, all of the sudden something clicks, and you understand everything in the last hour. In other words, you don’t learn and understand 1/3 of the topic at the end of the first hour, 2/3 at the end of the 2nd hour, and 3/3 at the end of the 3rd hour; conversely you learn and understand all the subject during the last hour and nothing during the first two hours. So we could say that learning a complicated subject is a non-linear process, it is exponential, and if I don’t understand this mechanism I will lose the battle.
      Now, that I look back, I see that I have had a similar experience with prayer. I would say that the quality of my prayer has improved and is improving, not linearly but exponentially. So, I guess understanding non-linearity could be a key to cultivate patience and subsequent success in practicing spirituality.

      1. tom Apr 20, 2018 3:31 am 7.1.1

        thanks yan for a great analysis of non-linear learning. it makes so much sense.

      2. Homayoun Apr 26, 2018 6:56 pm 7.1.2

        I like your analysis of linear and non-linear learning. Thanks for sharing.

  8. maysam Apr 10, 2018 8:01 pm 8

    Thanks a lot for this article.
    In my opinion, all of our social interactions must be based on the golden rule. That is, if i do not like a particular act, I should not do it for other people. If I do not like to be judged (negatively), I should not judge people. Or i I want to be respected, I must respect other people. I think that we should practice the golden rule to be successful in our life.

  9. adissam Apr 15, 2018 1:11 pm 9

    “Have you ever tried to “practice what is good” (whether it be seeing what is good, speaking what is good or doing what is good) in your daily life in order for your being to become sweet “like honey”?”

    Here’s something I saw on tv. A contributor to a TV news program was reporting about a story, and then she briefly lost track of her ideas, but even before everyone could notice it, her colleague intervened with the right words, “yes, it’s exactly that”. She then carried on having had the time to gather her thoughts…

    I found that it was very elegant and sweet from a colleague.

  10. N May 02, 2018 2:12 pm 10

    I find practicing what is good more attainable in my everyday life towards the people I like and respect. On the other hand it has been an ongoing challenge to be kind and benevolent towards those I dislike or who annoy me for whatever reason. Even more so to speak well of them! I pray in the mornings to be kind towards all but as soon as I get into my workplace I feel like I fail. I just try to treat each day as a new chance to try to combat my imperious self on this front and to just start with the little victories like smiling at someone I dislike or trying my hardest to refrain from speaking poorly of others.

  11. RZ Aug 01, 2018 2:51 am 11

    This is a constant battle for me with a lot of ups and downs. I am still struggling to “practice what is good” with those who are very close to me. With the small circle of my close family I am showing less patience and less understanding. I am trying to be aware of my actions, and try to detect the signs of my selfishness as soon as possible. Sometimes, I am able to control myself, and even overcome my desire to act selfishly. However, sometimes I notice my imperious self after I have already failed. What I am focusing on right now is not loosing my temper when my close family members are doing something that I dislike or disapprove.

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