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.
The Babylonian 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 Sassanian 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, to carry 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 of the Zoroastrians. 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 debate and then imprisoned in heavy chains. He died 26 days later in 277.AD, still in chains.
It is interesting to note that his death is referred to as his crucifixion in Manichaen literature in conscious imitation of Jesus' story, another example of the Manichaen practise of utilizing or embellishing existing religious imagery and incorporating their own ideas within them.
After Mani's 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 a vast area of central Asia referred to as Chinese Turkestan. Manichaeaism was selected as their state religion in AD.762. The last 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 convert the masses and it was a “custom among Manichaean missionaries (originating evidently with Mani himself) either to translate the Aramaic names of the divinities of his faith into the local language, or to identify these divinities with the divine beings of the dominant local religion” (M. Boyce 1975).
In modern terms Manichaeans employed a very good marketing strategy in terms of promoting their religion. It is interesting to note that that Mani recognized three separate entities 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 only seemed to suffer death 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 creation story, there are several wars between the celestial forces of good (light, Spirit) and evil (dark, Matter) during which numerous gods' are “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 dark including 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, applicable in both a physical and moral sense.
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 only a little light and the act of killing was a sin as it caused pain to the light within them. Almost every act contained sin, according to the 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 Hearers to provide everything for the Elect so that they do not have to sin, for example the Hearers would commit “necessary sins” such 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 could hope 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 of salvation established by the Persian Mani was considered from the beginning as directly dangerous to the existing religious communities” (J.P Asmussen, 1975), namely the Christians and Zoroastrians. Indeed, in his writings, Kartir (an influential Zoroastrian leader of the third century) takes a lot of satisfaction in the fact that the Manichaeans suffered heavy persecution during his lifetime.
Christian polemic writers such as St. Augustine, who was actually a 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
There exists a slightly more objective view of Mani and his beliefs in the works of Islamic scholars such as Ibn 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 indeed was) and little reference is made to the detailed content of his belief system.
As it is plain to see, it would be increasingly difficult to conduct in-depth studies on any religious theology when there are little or no primary sources available. It would also not be wise to accept the information contained in the polemic writings of Christian theologians as pure fact, as their intent was to disrepute Manichaeism and they may have altered or even “demonised” the true ethic to suit their purposes.
An exception would be St. Augustine whose 9 years spent studying the Manichaean doctrine would 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 a hypocritical hierarchy in relation to the Elect and Hearers and he was not impressed by what he called their “pseudo-scientifical” claims of knowledge.
But 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 time a psychological impossibility. Manichaeaism was too burning a question to be subjected to sober, impersonal description” (J.P Asmussen, 1975).
The late 1800's/ early 1900's proved to be an extremely fruitful time in terms of Manichaean research. Not only were previous studies being updated and revised, but new source material was also discovered and made accessible to scholars.
Four archaeological expeditions, lead by German archaeologists Albert Grunwedel and Albert von Le Coq, were undertaken to Chinese Turkestan between 1902 and 1914, commonly known as the Turfan expeditions in reference to the Turfan basin area that they explored. During the course of these expeditions, an extensive amount of Manichaean art and manuscripts were discovered among the sand buried, ruined monasteries.
Back in Germany, the texts were handed over to the famous Orientalist F.W.K Muller who began to translate and publish the texts. These discoveries, especially the literature contained in the texts, heralded a new age in Manichaean research, as scholars were now able to study primary source material and view the writing in its original context.
They also proved to be invaluable in terms of gaining a better understanding of the Manichaean community and how they operated. The texts contain Hymns, didactic texts, and historical writings along with prayers, poetry as well as Mani's canon, which was divided into seven parts.
It is believed that some of the texts were actually composed by Mani himself in his mother tongue, Aramaic, and later translated by his disciples.
We now have a much more reliable and clearer picture of Mani's life and doctrine, as well as inside information regarding the Manichaean church as these texts were written “by Manichaeans for Manichaeans and moreover are from areas where Manichaeaism was the state protected religion” (J.P Asmussen, 1975).
The Turfan texts have provided us with an invaluable “insider” account of Manichaeism and allowed us to examine the subject from an objective viewpoint not previously accessible.
Bibliography — 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 1988 — Eliade, Mircea (ed), Encyclopedia of Religions, MacMillan 1987 — Klimkeit, H.J, Gnosis on the Silk Road, HarperSanFranscisco 1993 — 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