Manichaeism, a Universalist Faith
An artist’s concept of Mani the Prophet
from Wikimedia Commons
Persia was between India and the Roman Empire, and the Silk Road ran through it, making Persia a crossroad of ideas. It had Jews who had had fled from their homeland. After the Jews came Christians. Buddhist ideas were imported from India, and there was the indigenous Zoroastrianism. And into the mix of religious ideas arose a blend the various religions into a universalist faith:Manichaeism (pronounced mani-KEY-ism).
The founder of Manichaeism, Mani, is believed to have been the son of Parthian royalty, born in a village near Ctesiphon and a boy when Ardashir overthrew Parthian rule. As a young boy, Mani might have been taken by his father into a cult called the “Practitioners of Ablutions” — a cult that believed in washing away sins in baptisms. Or the group may have been the Elkesaites, a Jewish-Christian sect that arose around the year CE 100, a group believed to have celebrated the Sabbath, practiced vegetarianism, believed in circumcision, condemned the apostle Paul and criticized what it called falsehoods in Christian scripture and Mosaic law — a sect that died out around the year 400.
In the year 228, when Mani was about thirteen years-old, a Parthian prince in the city of Seleucia (a few miles from Ctesiphon) attempted but failed to restore Parthian rule. It was said that just after this failure, Mani had a revelation from God, a command to leave the religious community to which he belonged. God, it was said, told him that he did not belong in that community and told him to keep aloof from impurity and that because of his youth he should avoid proclaiming his revelation publicly.
Mani’s father had acquired a variety of religious ideas, and beliefs from the variety of religious cults were to appear in the new creed that Mani developed. By the time Mani grew into adulthood he saw commonality in various religions, and he saw himself as having a universal message. When he was around twenty-five, he claimed that he was obeying an order from heaven to abandon passions and spread the truth. He consciously imitated the apostle Paul and began traveling about in Ardashir’s empire preaching his new creed. He claimed that God called on him to preach as God had called on others before him. Mani claimed that he was the successor to prophets such as Zarathustra and Jesus, and he claimed that he was the helper promised by Jesus — as described in John 14:16. He claimed that he was the final prophet and that other religions were limited in their effectiveness because they were local and taught in one language to one people. Mani hoped that his message would be heard in all languages and in all countries.
Mani traveled to Parthia – a part of Ardashir’s empire — to become a stronghold of his faith and a base for missionary expeditions into Central Asia. He attracted followers whom he called upon to do missionary work in order to convert the entire world. Mani went to northwestern India, where Ardashir’s son was leading an army and extending Ardashir’s rule. And while there, Mani strengthened the Buddhist element in his faith. He learned Buddhist organization and propaganda techniques and proclaimed that he was successor to the Buddha. Mani sent disciples to Egypt, and he traveled as far west as the border of the Roman Empire to strongholds of Mithra worship, where he tried to associate himself with Mithraism. Mithraism – believed to have originated among the Hindus — had been popular among the Parthians and had grown in Mesopotamia, Armenia and northwestern Persia during the first centuries BCE and CE. Mani had heated discussions with Mithraic priests, and he strengthened the Mithraism in his doctrine. Mani argued also with Zoroastrians, and he compared his beliefs with theirs. In Media, where Zurvanite Zoroastrians were strongest, Mani attempted to reform their movement.
Mani believed that his views were the most advanced and the sum and perfection of all religious wisdom. With worldly knowledge having become a greater part of religious thought, this included Mani’s positions on the origins of the universe, anthropology, history, botany, zoology and geography. Like the Zoroastrians and Zurvanites his movement had an encyclopedia. He proclaimed belief in the Buddha and acknowledged the god of the Zoroastrians. He proclaimed belief in Jesus Christ and that he had taken the best of the New Testament and cleansed it of accretions and falsifications. And, like the Christian Marcion, he rejected Judaism’s Old Testament.
Mani saw himself in agreement with the Zoroastrian belief that the universe was in a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. But where Zoroastrians saw their god Mazda as stronger than the force of evil, Mani held that the forces of evil dominated the world and that redemption — the triumph of good — would come only with a determined struggle by a select group of devotees. Mani saw the eating of flesh as the first great sin of Adam and Eve (Gehmurd and Murdiyanag). And he believed that redemption for humanity would come by abstaining from eating meat and by fasting. He taught that someday a final purification would occur, that the earth would be destroyed, that the damned would collect into a cosmic clod of dirty matter and that the kingdom of goodness and light would separate from the kingdom of evil and darkness. This, he claimed, would come as the result of people rejecting evil.
Mani organized his followers into three groups. The first group was called The Elect. The Elect lived ascetically and devoted themselves to redemption: to separating the kingdoms of light and darkness by living as purely as possible, living ascetically, and by fasting on Sundays and Mondays. They ate mainly fruit and drank fruit juice, believing that fruit contained many light particles, that water was not heavenly like fruit juice because it was simply matter. In the pursuit of redemption, the Elect was forbidden to eat or to uproot plants, to cut down any tree or kill any animal, and, like Buddhist monks, the Elect was obliged to follow complete sexual abstinence and marriage.
Mani’s second group was an accommodation with worldly realities. This group was called the Hearers. They followed Mani’s teachings but they also did what was forbidden for the Elect: they worked in the making of food, and they had sex and created children. They furnished the elect with food and drink, led a normal life, even eating meat, but they were obliged to fast on Sunday, and like the Elect they observed an entire month of fasting prior to the principle feast of the year: the Bema festival.
The third group of Mani’s followers was necessary in making Manichaeism a popular religion. This third group was not obliged to adhere to any religious practices. They merely had to believe.
Ardashir died in 241 or 242, and he was succeeded by his son, Shapur I. Shapur invited Mani to his coronation. He invited Mani to speak to him in person, and he granted that Manichaeism could be taught freely through the empire, Shapur hoping perhaps that his support of Manichaeism might contribute to a wider spectrum of loyalty.
Shortly after Shapur succeeded his father, the Romans finally retaliated against Persian aggressions against their empire. Off and on into the next decade Shapur fought the Romans in Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor. Shapur took Mani and Zoroastrian priests with him on his expeditions, with the Zoroastrians more favored, wearing their conical hats and white cotton robes, the white representing light and purity. With their rituals, the Zoroastrian priests cleansed the conquered lands of demons, and in the conquered lands they established their fire temples to commemorate Shapur’s victories. In seeing indigenous religions as competitors, they spoke of smashing idols and destroying the dens of demons. As advocates of good, they saw no evil in war itself or in Sassanid imperialism. Mani, on the other hand, perhaps because of his broader view of culture, developed an opposition to war.
Shapur shared Mani’s appreciation of different cultures. He enjoyed talks with Greek philosophers and decreed that all people, including Manichaeans, Jews, and Christians should be left free in their worship, and he persuaded the Zoroastrian priesthood to include in the Avesta works on metaphysics, astronomy and medicine borrowed from the Greeks and Indians. He created an accommodation with the Jewish leader in Mesopotamia — Samuel. Samuel accepted that Sassanian law would be respected in Jewish courts and that taxes to the Sassanid government would be paid.
The Christians under Shapur were also tolerated. By the time of Shapur, Christians had become a noticeable minority in Mesopotamia. Christian evangelists had arrived as early as the first century, mainly in Jewish communities. More Christians arrived during Shapur’s rule, with his invasion of Syria. Shapur deported the populations of Damascus and other cities that he had conquered, sending large groups of Greek speaking Christians from Syria to the provinces of Persis, Parthia, Susiana and the city of Babylon, where they were allowed to organize their own communities and follow their own leaders.
With the spread of their communities, the Christians attempted to unite and describe diocese boundaries. Disputes arose between Christian communities that spoke Syriac and those that spoke Greek. A Christian bishop, Papa bar Aggai, at the capital, Ctesiphon, claimed patriarchal rights — as had the Bishop of Rome — and the bishop of Ctesiphon remained in rivalry for influence with the Christian leadership in Nisibis.
The Zoroastrians, meanwhile, were offended by Christian beliefs, foremost by the belief in a god that was the creator of all rather than the creator just of goodness. The Zoroastrians were offended also by the Christian belief that Jesus was both a god and born of an impure, earthly woman, and they were offended by the idea that a god could be crucified and die. The Christians on the other hand, drawing from their Jewish tradition and the law of Moses, were offended by the Zoroastrians not condemning marriages between close relatives.
Shapur I died sometime between 270 and 273, and he was succeeded by his son, Hormizd. Mani received from Hormizd the same permission to teach that Shapur had granted him. But after only a year in power, Hormizd died, and he was succeeded by another of Shapur’s sons, Bahram. With practicing a religion being a privilege granted by the king rather than a right, Manichaeism, Christianity and Judaism were threatened by the whims of any succeeding monarch. Mani was probably aware of the danger that came with Bahram’s accession to power, for he decided to leave for the east, to the Kushans around Bactria, where he could count on protection. But Bahram prohibited Mani’s travel.
The zealous Zoroastrian priest, Kartir, had been elevated to chief priest. And, with Bahram’s support, Kartir launched an attack on the Manichaeans. Manichaeism was criticized for not identifying itself with the Sassanid Empire, and Persia’s landed elite saw Manichaeism as a threat because its power base was people of the cities and merchants. A bill was presented to Bahram with accusations against Mani, and Mani was ordered to present himself to Bahram at the royal residence. Mani’s arrival there created a great sensation. The King spoke to Mani with hostility, and Mani asked whether he had done anything evil. The king responded with rage and reproached Mani for various ethical transgressions. The king was most displeased by Mani’s dislike of war. Mani, in turn, spoke of his services as an exorcist. The king stopped Mani’s attempt to defend himself and ordered Mani and three of his followers chained and sent to prison. There, Mani died in less than a month and became a martyr to his followers. The year was 276.
Persecution of Mani’s followers followed his execution, and many of them scattered. Manichaeism had already reached Syria, Palestine and Egypt. It spread into Armenia, and it spread into Sinkiang, where it would become the state religion of the Uigur Turks. In the Roman Empire, often at war with the Persian Empire, the Manichaeans were seen as representatives of a foreign power and as dangerous aliens. That Mani had not been a supported of the Persian Empire’s wars was the kind of fine point often overlooked, and the Romans persecuted the Manichaeans, in a era when Christians were also persecuted. And without the backing of the brute power of a major state, Manichaeism would all but disappear.