Throughout the ages, humanity’s spiritual, intellectual and moral capacities have been cultivated by the Founders of the great religions, among them Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and—in more recent times—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
These Figures are not simply ordinary people with a greater knowledge than others. Rather they are Manifestations of God, Who have exerted an incomparable influence on the evolution of human society. While each of Them has a distinct individuality and a definite mission, the Manifestations of God all share in a single, divinely-ordained purpose—to “educate the souls of men, and refine the character of every living man…”1
The Manifestation of God is the light-bringer of the world. Like the arrival of spring, His coming releases a fresh outpouring of spirit into creation and has a universal effect. When humanity has entered its “winter,” this new “sun” appears above the horizon and “shines upon the worlds of spirits, of thoughts and of hearts…” Then, “the spiritual spring and new life appear, the power of the wonderful springtime becomes visible, and marvelous benefits are apparent.”2
With the coming of each Manifestation, new forces are released that, over time, increasingly permeate human affairs, providing the main impulse for the further development of consciousness and society.
This process—in which the Manifestations of God have successively provided the guidance necessary for humanity’s social and spiritual evolution—is known as “progressive revelation.” If God were to be likened to the unapproachable sun, the source of all light and life in our own solar system, then the Manifestations of God might be compared to mirrors that perfectly reflect the sun’s light in a form that human beings are capable of comprehending. “These sanctified Mirrors…are one and all the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty.”3
Since the purpose of all these divine “mirrors” is one and the same, no distinction should be made between Them. Bahá’u’lláh writes, “If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith.”4
If all the great religions can be considered to be one in essence, founded upon the same reality, how then can we understand the differences—particularly regarding social practices—between the teachings of the various Manifestations of God?
Each Manifestation may be seen as a skilled physician. He has a complete grasp of the nature of the body of humanity and is able to prescribe the appropriate cure for the ills of the world—one that best meets the requirements of the time in which He appears. Referring to His own Revelation in this age, Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy.”5