Many people in the area know Carol McKiel as the director for the Cherokee County Health Coalition. She’s an advocate for healthy lifestyles through proper diet and exercise. She also spearheads a campaign to help people stop smoking.

What few may know is McKiel is an adherent of the Bahá’í faith.

The Bahá’í faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh in the mid-1800s, sprang from the Bábi’ religion – both born in the Middle East, namely Iran. Both stemmed from Islamic theology.

The early 19th century was a period of messianic expectations in many lands. Deeply disturbed by the implications of scientific inquiry and industrialization, earnest believers from many religious backgrounds turned to the scriptures of their faiths for an understanding of the accelerating processes of change.

In Europe and America, groups like the Templars and the Millerites believed they had found in the Christian scriptures evidence supporting their conviction that history had ended, and the return of Jesus Christ was at hand. A markedly similar turmoil developed in the Middle East around the belief that the fulfillment of prophecies in the Qur’an and Islamic traditions was imminent.

The most dramatic of these millennialist movements emerged in Iran, and focused on the person and teachings of a young merchant from the city of Shiraz, known to history as the Báb. From 1844-’63, Persians of all classes were caught up in a storm of hope and excitement, aroused by the Báb’s announcement that the Day of God was at hand, and that he was “the One” promised in Islamic scripture. According to the Báb, humanity stood on the threshold of an era that would witness the restructuring of all aspects of life.

In some respects, the Báb’s role can be compared to John the Baptist in the founding of Christianity. The Báb was Bahá’u’lláh’s herald: His primary mission was to prepare the way for Bahá’u’lláh’s coming. Accordingly, the founding of the Bábí faith is viewed by Bahá’ís as synonymous with the founding of the Bahá’ís Faith.

McKiel elaborated on her perception of Bahá’u’lláh, and her faith in relationship to Christianity.

“Bahá’ís follow Bahá’u’lláh,” said McKiel. “We believe he is the latest of the prophets of God. In Christian terms, we believe him to be the return of Christ, and these days are the fulfillment of previous prophecies. Bahá’ís do not believe in the destruction of the world in the end days; instead, we believe the world will be renewed and the Kingdom of God will finally be established on earth - but not for a long while yet. We still have a lot to learn before we get there.”

According to McKiel, Bahá’ís believe that a prophet of God has both a human and divine nature. The divine nature of each prophet – Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed and Bahá’u’lláh – came from God and was the same for each.

There are both benefits and challenges associated with being a Bahá’í in Tahlequah.

“The challenges primarily come from not being a Christian,” said McKiel. “There is an assumption by many Christians that affiliation with a faith tradition other than Christianity means I am deprived of a relationship with God. This can make relations a bit tense with some sincere and well-meaning Christians, because they want to ‘save’ me. I am confidant that I do have a relationship with God, and that I receive his love and guidance.”

Another challenge McKiel faces is lack of companion Bahá’ís.

“There are so few of us here,” she said. “ The Bahá’ís in Tahlequah get together for devotions and holy days, and we enjoy one another’s company, but we miss having more Bahá’ís around. Tulsa and Springdale [Ark.] each have larger Bahá’í communities, and sometimes we go there for programs.”

Traditions in the Bahá’í faith differ from Christianity, and McKiel sometimes finds it difficult to observe her faith’s holidays.

“Since we are non-Christian, we do not practice Christmas, although we enjoy the spirit of the holiday,” said McKiel. “Our gift-giving time is in late February. We give each other gifts and have special get-togethers for four days before our fasting period. In March, we fast from sunrise to sunset for 19 days. Since no one else is fasting, the work schedule is not very sympathetic. I still have to attend lunch meetings and maintain my energy level at afternoon meetings. I have learned how to attend lunch meetings during the fast and not look too longingly at others’ food. The other challenge is that our holy days are not work holidays. Christians have all their holy days off from work.”

According to McKiel, more than five million Bahá’ís live in about 200 countries around the world. There are no clergy in the faith. “Bahá’ís believe every individual must develop his or her own relationship with and understanding of God,” she said. “Each person must independently seek the presence of God and his guidance through daily prayer, meditation, and reading of scripture.”

The administration of affairs is through the election of nine Bahá’ís from the community, called Local Spiritual Assemblies. A national representative body has headquarters near Chicago, and an international body, the Universal House of Justice, is based in Haifa, Israel.

McKiel finds a number of benefits in being Bahá’í.

“Bahá’ís believe every person has a connection with God, because every religion comes from God. In that way, we can have spiritual fellowship with anyone,” she said. “Bahá’ís believe God has sent messengers, or prophets, to different people at different times. The religions they founded lead people to God, and their writings are the word of God to the human heart. Bahá’ís believe any human being who sincerely seeks God will find him.”

Besides being able to find spiritual fellowship with any person, being a Bahá’í helps McKiel understand the chaos around the world today.

“Bahá’ís believe that the world is going through a transformation,” said McKiel. “Humanity is learning how to get along together in a global community. Bahá’ís believe that eventually we will overcome the problems we are having today and build a spiritual, global community in the future. We believe that we need an international government to solve disputes and eliminate wars; that there is only one human race, and we should not use skin color as a means to separate people; and that we need to have an economy that does not allow the poor to starve while there is so much plenty. We believe the world is trying to figure this out at present, and it is not an easy lesson.”

Principles emphasized by the Bahá’ís include:

• The oneness of humanity.

• The equality of men and women.

• The elimination of prejudice.

• The elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty.

• The independent investigation of truth.

• Universal education.

• Religious tolerance.

• The harmony of science and religion.

• A world commonwealth of nations.

• A universal auxiliary language.

According to “The Bahá’ís,” a publication of the International Bahá’í Community, the Bahá’í faith is an independent religion, not a sect of Islam, as many believe. The misconception stems from the fact that the ounder, Bahá’u’lláh, and the early followers emerged from an Islamic society. Today, religious scholars recognize that such a reference would be the equivalent of calling Christianity a “sect” of Judaism, or referring to Buddhism as a “denomination” of Hinduism.

Hinduism is the third largest religion worldwide, behind Christianity and Islam, touting about 837 million followers, or 13 percent of the world’s population. According to www.religioustolerance.org, Hinduism is regarded as the world’s oldest organized religion. It differs from Christianity and other Western religions in that it does not have a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization.

Dr. Nimesh Patel, an optometry resident at Northeastern State University, is Hindu, and finds the religion thought-provoking.

“Hinduism is a very complex religion and it takes years to understand,” he said. “Although I was brought up as a Hindu, I really didn’t understand much of what we practiced until I took it upon myself as a teenager to learn more about my religion. I can probably be truthful when I say that I learn something new about Hinduism every day.”

According to Patel, Hinduism is both a religion and a way of life.

“Hindus follow a way of life that is explained in the Vedas [holy scriptures],” he said. “Hindus believe there is one supreme God; however, the Vedas state God is infinite and everywhere, hence we have many deities. The Vedas also explain Dharma, which are God’s divine laws.”

Hinduism is commonly viewed in the West as a polytheistic religion, or having more than one deity; however, Patel said the scriptures indicate only one God.

“According to the Vedas, there is only one God, but God is infinite and does manifest in infinite ways,” he said. “Keeping that in mind, on a daily basis I will pray to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, lord of all existing beings; Brahma, god of generation; Vishnu, god who sustains; Mahesh or Shiva, god who destroys; Ambe, god of strength, and Saraswati, god of wisdom. There are many more deities.”

The word “karma” has become a buzzword in modern society, but outside of the Hindu faith, few probably have a deep understanding of its true meaning.

“Hindus also believe in karma, defined as the sum of all that an individual has done, is doing and will do,” said Patel. “By following the Dharma in the Vedas, Hindus believe their karma will help them reach moksha [freedom or salvation].”

Patel indicated karma and transmigration - reincarnation - are interrelated. Hindus believe their actions can affect their current life or future lives as a cause-and-effect relationship.

“We believe the Atman [soul] will reincarnate until we reach a state of moksha [freedom, salvation],” said Patel. “Moksha from the cycle of life and death is the ultimate goal of Hindu religious life. When moksha is reached, the Atman will unite with the supreme being, God. This union can be achieved through true knowledge [gyana or jnana], devotion [bhakti], or right work [karma]. Purity, self-control, truthfulness, nonviolence and compassion toward all forms of life are necessary prerequisites for any spiritual path in Hindu Dharma.”

Like so many area non-Christians, Patel must travel out of town to worship with a group, but also finds a way to include faith in his daily life.

“Hindus meet together at temples to worship,” he said. “The closest temple to Tahlequah is the Hindu Temple of Greater Tulsa. Most Hindus will also have a small, designated prayer area in their house or apartment where they will pray, meditate or sing religious songs [bhajans].”

The 2006 Hindu Festival Calendar at about.com listed over 40 religious holidays and festivals, and Patel participates in a number of them.

“At this time, we are celebrating Navratri,” he said. “Navratri is celebrated for nine days, and began Sept. 23. The first three days are dedicated to the Goddess Durga [warrior goddess], followed by three days of devotion to Goddess Lakshmi [ goddess of wealth and prosperity], and the last three days are dedicated to Goddess Saraswati [ goddess of wisdom]. During these nine days, Hindus will gather and dance, invite each other over for sweets, and some will also fast.”

Despite the large number of observances, Patel has found one to be extremely popular.

“The most popular of festivals, in my opinion, is that of Diwali, which is Oct. 21 this year,” he said. “Diwali is the festival of lights, and it commemorates the returning of Rama and Sita to their kingdom Ayodhya after 14 years of exile. We will put little lamps in our windows and light fireworks and share sweets on that day.”

Patel is ambivalent on whether the practice of his religion is difficult in this country.

“It is difficult at times, especially when a festival comes along,” he said. “Many times, we have to ask relatives in India to send us clothes, sweets and other traditional items. Many of the holidays we celebrate as Hindus do not coincide with American holidays. However, the Indian and Hindu associations in Tulsa always celebrate all the holidays, and that really helps. Having a temple in Tulsa helps Hindus get together and celebrate various holidays and other cultural events.”

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