Mani and Manichaeaism
January 5, 2005
The "notorious" brand of eastern Gnosticism, known
as Manichaeaism, has been the subject of much interest to scholars
past and present. The Manichaean religion (named after it's
founder, the Persian sage Mani) spread rapidly through Asia after
its birth in the third century, and by the end of the fourth century,
had followers spanning from North Africa all the way to China.
Mani was born on the 14th April 216 AD in North
Babylonia, which was then part of the province of Asoristan, which
formed part of
the Parthian empire. Mani was born to Persian parents and his father
was a practising member of a Jewish/Christian Baptist sect who
called themselves "Elchasaites", therefore Mani was
inducted to Gnostic belief systems at an early age.
ports of his homeland were "gates to India and other areas
further east" and he was therefore also familiarized with
the teachings of Buddha and Zoroaster and Jesus, whom Mani later
cited as his forerunners. This knowledge, coupled with his Christian/Jewish
roots was to later manifest itself in the classic Manichaen practice
of reinterpreting local folklore or religious imagery of a culture
to incorporate Manichaean beliefs.
At age twelve, Mani encountered his "heavenly self"
called the "Twin" who revealed to him some "divine truths" on
how to live his life. The Twin or "Higher Ego" (also
called the "living paraclete") reappeared to him aged
24 and encouraged him to go forth and preach his word. Mani first
preached to his father and then to the elders of his family and
succeeded in converting them all.
The Manichaean doctrine of salvation
is proselytising, meaning that its followers seek to convert
others to their cause. As the state religion of the then current
Empire was Zoroastrianism, and permission was required to preach
a new religion, Mani was forced to lead missionary journeys to
Turan and Makran (modern day Baluchistan and Sind) where he converted
the Turan king and members of his court.
Mani continued to travel
around the region and was met with much hostility on his journeys,
especially from the Zoroastrians, however he managed to convert
many people and often appointed missionaries to carry on his
work after he left. He also sent missionaries such as Mar Ammo,
out missionary work on his behalf.
In 242.AD, Mani returned
to his homeland and managed to convert Peroz, the brother of
the then reigning king, Shapur I. There
existed a fond relationship between the two men and Peroz
was able to procure
an audience with the king. Mani even wrote a book, "Shapuragan"
in which he translates his teachings for the king's benefit.
Accounts differ as to whether Sahpur I actually converted
to Manichaeaism, but it remains clear that he was sufficiently
impressed by Mani
to make him a member of his court and grant him permission
to preach his doctrine within the state, much to the annoyance
Mani's permission to preach was renewed under Hormizd,
Shapur I's successor.
However, the next Sassanian king, Bahram,
was influenced by the Zoroastrian Mobad (high priest)
Kartir and he outlawed Manichaeaism. Mani was summoned to Bahram's
court where he was reportedly defeated in a theological
imprisoned in heavy chains. He died 26 days later in
still in chains.
It is interesting to note that his death
to as his crucifixion in Manichaen literature in conscious
imitation of Jesus' story, another example of the Manichaen
of utilizing or embellishing existing religious imagery
and incorporating their own ideas within them.
death the Manichaean church faced its bloodiest period of persecution,
the communities moving around
the region until the 8th century when the Uigur Turks conquered
area of central Asia referred to as Chinese Turkestan.
Manichaeaism was selected as their state religion
traces of Manichaeaism can be found in China up until
the 14th century.
Mani's upbringing and knowledge of other
religions was put to use when he began to lead his missions to
masses and it was a "custom among Manichaean missionaries
evidently with Mani himself) either to translate
the Aramaic names of the divinities of his faith into the
or to identify
these divinities with the divine beings of the
dominant local religion" (M. Boyce 1975).
In modern terms
a very good
strategy in terms of promoting their religion.
It is interesting to note that that Mani recognized three
under the name of Jesus in Manichaean myth. Mani
saw himself as the
successor to the prophet Jesus although he did
not believe that Jesus was
a human being, rather that he was in fact the
son of God who had taken on the appearance of man and had
on the cross.
Manichaeaism was a "dualistic"
religion, meaning that it was believed that reality consists
of two separate
entities, in this case, Light and Dark or Spirit
and Matter. Mani
taught that originally, Light and Dark existed
separately and became
joined through the course of events that he
goes on to detail in an "elaborate
mythology, harmonized deliberately from different
elements" (M. Boyce 1968).
To summarize the
basic points of the
there are several wars between the celestial
forces of good (light, Spirit) and evil (dark,
"created" and "evoked" who make up the Manichaean
pantheon. The numerous battles eventually
result in the creation of the earth and mankind.
In Manichaean myth, everything was made up
of light and
animals, plants and even mans soul. Salvation,
according to Mani, could
be obtained by liberating the imprisoned
light in the world and avoiding any injury to it,
both a physical
For example, the light of
the soul could
be increased through
virtuous acts while eating plants helped
the light of the body. Eating animals was wrong
as they contained
and the act of killing was a sin as it
caused pain to
the light within them. Almost every act
contained sin, according
Manichaean ethic; even eating plants
was reported to be not free from wrongdoing.
For practical purposes the Manichaean
community consisted of two classes, the Elect and
the Hearers. It was
the job of the
to provide everything for the Elect
so that they do not have to sin, for example the Hearers would
as harvesting crops.
The Elect lived
a life similar to Monks,
they were celibate, they were not
allowed personal possessions and they
lived on alms given to them. Only
the Elect could expect Paradise after death, the best a Hearer
for was to be reincarnated
as an Elect member due to his diligent
service in this life.
During its heyday, the Manichaean church
and its followers were persecuted
as "The doctrine
the Persian Mani was considered from
the beginning as directly dangerous to the
communities" (J.P Asmussen,
1975), namely the Christians and
Zoroastrians. Indeed, in his writings, Kartir (an
takes a lot of satisfaction in the
fact that the Manichaeans suffered heavy persecution
such as St. Augustine, who was
practising member of the Manichaen
community for nine
years before his conversion
to Christianity, also attacks the
Manichaean doctrine harshly in many
of his works, criticizing Manichaean
beliefs and practices
exists a slightly more objective
view of Mani and his beliefs in the works of Islamic
al Nadim (who
appears to have based his accounts
on original Manichaean texts), although
in many of these texts, Mani
is mainly remembered as a skilled artist and
painter (which he
made to the detailed content
of his belief system.
As it is plain to see, it would be
increasingly difficult to conduct
on any religious theology
or no primary sources available.
It would also not be wise to accept the
theologians as pure fact, as
their intent was to disrepute Manichaeism
altered or even "demonised"
ethic to suit their purposes.
An exception would be St. Augustine whose 9 years
make him both an extremely
dangerous opponent to the Manichaeans,
as well as an invaluable and reliable
source of information on
the subject. He left Manichaeaism
as he felt unsatisfied by what he saw as
in relation to
and he was not impressed
by what he called their "pseudo-scientifical"
it is clear when looking
at the literature of
the period, that there
exists a lack of an unbiased view,
maybe "An objective evaluation
of Manichaeism was perhaps at that
Manichaeaism was too burning a question to be
subjected to sober,
The late 1800's/
early 1900's proved to be an
in terms of Manichaean
Not only were previous
studies being updated
also discovered and made
accessible to scholars.
Four archaeological expeditions, lead by German archaeologists
von Le Coq, were undertaken
to Chinese Turkestan
between 1902 and 1914,
commonly known as
expeditions in reference
to the Turfan basin
the course of these
expeditions, an extensive amount of
Back in Germany, the texts
the famous Orientalist
who began to translate
and publish the
in the texts, heralded
a new age in Manichaean
now able to
study primary source
view the writing
in its original context.
also proved to
be invaluable in terms
a better understanding
of the Manichaean
how they operated.
The texts contain Hymns,
along with prayers,
well as Mani's
canon, which was
divided into seven parts.
It is believed that
some of the texts
by Mani himself
later translated by his
now have a much more reliable
well as inside
regarding the Manichaean
church as these
areas where Manichaeaism
was the state protected
us with an
-- Asmussen, J.P, Manichaean Literature, Delmar 1975
-- BeDuhn, Jason D, The Manichaean Body, John Hopkins
University Press 2000
-- Boyce, Mary, The Manichaean Hymn-cycles in Parthian,
Oxford University Press 1954
-- Boyce, Mary, The Manichaean Literature in Middle Iranian,
in Literatur (Handbuch der orientalistik) 1968
-- Boyce, Mary, A Reader in Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian,
E. J. Brill 1975
-- Bryder, Peter, Manichaean Studies, Lund plus ultra
-- Eliade, Mircea (ed), Encyclopedia of Religions, MacMillan
-- Klimkeit, H.J, Gnosis on the Silk Road, HarperSanFranscisco
-- Le Coq, A.von, Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkestan,
Unwin Brothers 1928
-- Whitfield, Susan, Life along the Silk Road, University
of California Press, 2002
-- Wood, Frances, The Silk Road, British Library 2002