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The Prophet Mani and his Universalist Faith

The Silk Road ran through what had been the Parthian empire and was now Ardashir's Sassanid empire. It was a road on which ideas spread. On it, Jews who had fled from their homeland, and after the Jews came Christians. Buddhist ideas came on it from India and mixed with 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 the year 216 in a village near Ctesiphon, by the Tigris River. 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 the year 100, a group believed to have celebrated the Sabbath, practiced vegetarianism and believed in circumcision, a group that condemned the apostle Paul and criticized what it called falsehoods in Christian scripture and Mosaic law – a sect that would die out around the year 400.

The Prophet Mani

An artist's concept of Mani the Prophet

In the year 228, four years after Ardashir took power, when Mani was about thirteen years-old, a Parthian prince from the former Seleucid capital, Seleucia (a few miles from Ctesiphon), rose up against Ardashir but was cut down. It was said that just after this, 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 because of his youth that he should avoid proclaiming his revelation publicly.

Beliefs from the variety of religious cults appeared in a new creed that Mani developed. By the time Mani grew into adulthood he saw commonality in various religions. He was trying to put the various ideas into a comprehensive whole, 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. He 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 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.

Manichaean Doctrine and Organization

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 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 a compromise or 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.  They were not obliged to adhere to any religious practices. They merely had to believe.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. reserved.