To understand any spiritual reality, one needs to read the Holy Writings and meditate upon them. Another source from which the individual may learn is nature itself, through an examination of the principles of nature, provided he can relate his findings to the truths enshrined in the Holy Writings. The combination of the two can enable him to grasp a measure of the reality of any spiritual subject, including the human soul. A word of warning is needed, however, 8 in that whereas the Holy Writings are self-sufficient sources for the understanding of spiritual truth, the study of the laws of nature will have to be harmonized with the Writings. Otherwise, by merely employing some principles of nature in one's study of spiritual life, the result could be misleading indeed.
A deeper understanding of religious truth may be realized when the individual recognizes the fact that God's creation is one entity. The spiritual and physical worlds are not separate entities, but parts of one realm of being. The laws and principles governing the world of nature are similar to those which operate in the spiritual worlds of God, in the world of religion and in the world of man. To give an example: we note a great similarity between the laws governing the life of a tree and those which motivate the life of man, both physically and spiritually. We note that the tree thrusts its roots deep into the soil and draws on the minerals in the earth for its food. The soil is inferior to the tree; the tree is nevertheless dependent upon it for its existence. In spite of this dependence, the tree grows in the opposite direction, away from the soil. As if disliking the soil, it raises up its branches high towards the sky. This is similar to man and his state of detachment from the material world when his soul aspires to spiritual things and renounces earthly desires.
By growing upwards, away from the soil, the tree becomes the recipient of the rays of the sun, the most precious thing in this physical world. As a result of the outpouring of energies released by the sun, the tree becomes verdant and produces beautiful blossoms and fruit. Of course, the growth of the tree is involuntary. But let us suppose that it had a choice and, because it loves the earth and is dependent on the soil, inclined its branches downwards and buried itself in the ground. Then it could no longer receive the rays of the sun; in the end, it would rot away.
The same principles apply to a human being who has to live in this world and work to earn a living, and who depends upon material things for his existence. God, however, has destined in His Covenant with man that the soul of man should become detached from the things of this world and aspire towards spiritual realms. But unlike the tree, which has no choice, man has free will. If he chooses to disregard the provisions of the Covenant and to fall in love with the world, its vanities and its material attractions, then he becomes a bondslave of earthly things and his soul, deprived of the power of faith, becomes impoverished.
On the other hand, when the individual aspires to spiritual things, turns to the Manifestation of God, and does not direct all his affections towards this mortal world, then his soul becomes illumined with the rays of the Sun of Truth and will fulfil the purpose 9 for which it has been created. The above example showing the similarity between tree and man demonstrates that the physical and the spiritual worlds of God are related to each other by similar laws. It is therefore possible to discover some spiritual principles by examining physical laws. Similarly, the basic laws and teachings of a religion can be seen as the laws of nature in a higher realm. The difference is that as the laws of a lower kingdom are applied to a higher kingdom, certain features are added which are absent in the lower one. This fact was noted in the above example; the added feature is that man exercises his free will to decide his own destiny, while the tree grows involuntarily, the element of choice being absent in the vegetable kingdom.
In one of His Tablets [P-9] Bahá’u’lláh states that every created thing in this physical world has some counterpart in the worlds of God. In order to identify these, we can turn to the words and utterances of the Manifestations of God and be guided by their explanations. For example, the study of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá leads us to believe that a counterpart of the Manifestation of God in this physical kingdom is the sun. As the sun pours out its energies upon this earth and is the cause of life, so is the Manifestation of God in relation to humanity. The study of some of the characteristics of the sun could help us to appreciate some of the powers and attributes of the Manifestation of God, to the extent of our human limitations.
We may ask what the physical counterpart of the soul is in this world. It seems from the study of the Writings that it is the embryo growing in the womb of a mother. From a study of the latter, we can deduce some attributes and characteristics of the former. We can observe striking similarities between the two; for example, we note that the embryo begins its life as one cell. There are no limbs and organs at first, but the cell has the capacity to multiply, and in the fullness of time become transformed into a perfect human body. Similarly the soul when it is first created is a 'heavenly gem'. It is without experience and its qualities and powers are latent within it, but it is capable of acquiring these latent qualities progressively in the course of a lifetime. God has decreed that the embryo develop limbs and organs while shielded within the womb. Similarly, He has ordained that the soul develop spiritual qualities in the course of its association with the body. It is in this life, this womb-world, that the soul can acquire divine virtues and perfections. If it so chooses, it can become the repository of knowledge, of wisdom, of love and all the other attributes of God.
The growth of limbs and organs in the embryonic life, and the development of spiritual qualities by the soul, are governed by the same principles. But there is a major difference. The growth of 10 the embryo is involuntary and dictated by nature, while the soul has freedom of choice. This is an added dimension granted to the soul which does not exist in the physical world of nature.
In a Tablet revealed in honour of Haji Muhammad-Ibrahim-i-Khalil, a believer of note from Qazvin, Bahá’u’lláh states:
"And now, concerning thy question regarding the creation of man. Know thou that all men have been created in the nature made by God, the Guardian, the Self-Subsisting. Unto each one hath been prescribed a preordained measure, as decreed in God's mighty and guarded Tablets. All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition." [P-10]
Another similarity between the soul and the embryo is that the latter grows within the womb for only a short period of time. It is a transitory stage, not designed as a place to live in for ever. This world is also of limited duration for the soul. It is not a place of eternal residence; every human being will inevitably have to depart from it. The goal of life for every child is to die to the womb and be born into this world, its next world. So is the goal for the soul, whose ultimate destiny is to depart from this world and enter into the spiritual worlds of God.
Another similarity between the soul and the embryo is that the child must develop his limbs and organs in the womb of his mother. If he is born without some of these, he will be handicapped, for he is unable to acquire them in this life. The soul too must develop spiritual qualities in this world. The acquisition of wisdom, knowledge, love, humility and all other divine attributes is possible only in this earthly kingdom. We note that some limbs or organs seem to be useless in the womb-world. For instance, eyes are incapable of seeing there, but when the child is born, the light will bring vision to his eyes. The combination of the two -- eyes acquired in the womb, and the rays of light existing in this world -- endow a human being with vision. Similarly, the virtues and perfections which the soul has acquired in this world, combined with the conditions of the spiritual worlds which are unknown to us while on this mortal plane, will cause the soul to progress in the next life.
As long as a human being lives in this world, the soul and the body are associated with each other. When death takes place, this association comes to an end; the body will return to its origin, which is the earth. The soul also returns to its origin which is the spiritual worlds of God. The embryo begins its life as one cell, but ends up as a perfect human body by the time of its birth. The soul is the same. When it first emanates from the spiritual worlds of God, it has no 11 powers. But if it has grown properly, lived a good life on this earth, and acquired spiritual qualities, then it returns in a state of might and glory to its own original habitation. Manifesting the signs of God and possessing divine attributes, it retains its own individuality and identity, and as Bahá’u’lláh promises, it will associate with God's Messengers and Chosen Ones in the realms above.
[1 For further information about him, see The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, vol. 2, pp. 259-261.]