Manichaeism: Third Century Inspiration

A young visionary brings together radically different religions and forms a new worldview of peace and unity.

January 7, 2015    BY Linda Johnsen

The world religions frequently make headlines these days—sadly, they’re most often in the news when they clash violently with each other or with “non-believers.” We’ve become so accustomed to religious strife that it seems inevitable, so it is difficult to imagine that elements as diverse as Christian piety and Buddhist meditation could be brought together in a single faith. But for 15 centuries, just such a religion of unity was enthusiastically practiced. Entire regions of the ancient world embraced this eclectic new faith. It was called Manichaeism.

We’ve become so accustomed to religious strife that it seems inevitable.

Mani, the movement’s founder, was born in AD 216 in the region now known as Iraq, then part of the powerful Persian Empire. He was raised in a strict Christian sect, the Elkasites, which had strong roots in Judaism.

As a boy, Mani was exposed to many types of spirituality. The Persian Empire was the center of Zoroastrianism, whose adherents believed God would conquer Satan at the end of time and resurrect the dead. Numerous Gnostic groups also shared the landscape, preaching the existence of a transcendent God of pure light into whose realm purified souls enter after a long cycle of reincarnation. In addition, Buddhists had introduced the concept of bodhisattvas, selfless saints who committed this life and all their future lives to guiding others toward enlightenment. (Mohammed, whose teachings would later dominate the Near East, had not yet been born.)

At the age of 24, Mani had a life-transforming epiphany. “I experienced everything past and present through my higher Self and merged in it completely,” he wrote. This vision of all-encompassing unity helped him see the good in all religions, and how they could be brought together in a grand synthesis.

Shortly after this epiphany, Mani, like so many other spiritual aspirants before and after him, embarked on a pilgrimage to India. For more than 3,000 years, Persians had been visiting the subcontinent. Some were merchants seeking gems, spices, and other exotic goods for which India was famous. But others were spiritual explorers like Mani who were attracted by India’s sages, known then as now for their wisdom and yogic powers.

Shortly after this epiphany, Mani, like so many other spiritual aspirants before and after him, embarked on a pilgrimage to India.

In that era Buddhism was practiced widely throughout northern India. Mani was profoundly influenced by the Buddhist masters he met there, and later incorporated many Sanskrit terms in his writings. But he was particularly impressed that in India, although practitioners of various Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu sects hotly debated each other, religious persecution was comparatively rare. Compassion and peace, within and without, were important components of these Eastern traditions. Mani hoped to use his vision of unity as the basis for a new worldview that would bring together the violently opposed religions of the Near East: among them, pagans, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.

When he returned to Persia, Mani began teaching that the same God had sent different prophets to different nations. Zoroaster’s mission had been in Persia, Buddha’s purpose was to enlighten souls in India and China, and Jesus’ work was in Palestine and the Roman Empire. Mani thought of himself as the latest in this lineage of prophets, whose job it was to seamlessly meld these great traditions. He appears to have had little trouble attracting converts to his inspiring, peaceful vision. He was deeply committed to non-violence; his disciples lived a quiet, contemplative life marked by clean living, vegetarianism, and spiritual self-discipline. No less a figure than the king of Persia, Shapur I, was impressed by Mani and supported his mission.

A Grand Synthesis

Gnostic Influence.
Some of Mani’s doctrines, particularly their heavily Gnostic flavor, may seem strange to us today. Gnosticism had been a hugely important mystical tradition since at least Jesus’ time, and heavily influenced early Christianity. Both the Gospel according to John and the letters of Paul in the New Testament contain distinctively Gnostic elements. The Christian community Mani grew up in was Gnostic.

The Gnostics believed in two Supreme Beings: an entirely good God of pure spirit, and a lesser God of evil spirit (the “Demiurge”) responsible for pain and death. According to Gnosticism, the kingdom of heaven is a realm of pure light where souls exist in blissful communion with the Supreme Spirit. The Demiurge created the physical universe in order to trap these souls, who become stuck in matter like flies caught on flypaper. According to Gnostic doctrine, this world is not our real home, and our bodies are not our true nature—in our deepest core, we all possess this understanding. We are aliens here, forced to struggle for existence in a world of evil and injustice, all the while knowing in our heart of hearts that our true home lies in heaven. Mani incorporated these beliefs in his teachings, pointing his followers away from the physical world to a non-material plane of existence where purified souls can commune with the all-loving Supreme God.

Buddhist Influence.
Like his hero, the Buddha, Mani recognized that this world is full of suffering, but believed there is a way out of this condition—the path of non-attachment and kind deeds. Mani went so far as to model his congregations on the Buddhist sanghas, or communities, he had visited in India. These included a monastic inner core of renunciates who, like the Buddhist monks, led strict lives of meditation and asceticism. They ate one meal a day, abstained from meat and alcohol, and treated other beings—including plants and animals—with kindness. They devoted their lives to study and contemplation, and produced extensive libraries.

Like his hero, the Buddha, Mani recognized that this world is full of suffering, but believed there is a way out of this condition.

As in Buddhism, these celibate monks were supported by lay practitioners who led simple, ethical family lives while aspiring to become monks one day themselves. They followed the lifestyle Mani laid out for them—one of prayer, fasting, and abstaining from idolatry, theft, extramarital sex, deception, and murder (including the killing of animals). The Manichaeans believed that purifying themselves of attachments to the material world would free their innermost soul from the painful limitations of physical life. The chain of reincarnation would be broken and the soul would ascend to the dimension of bliss beyond the physical cosmos—the realm of pure spirit.

A Marriage of Tradition.
In other respects, Mani diverged sharply from Buddhism. The Buddha did not teach the existence of an evil, lesser God or encourage his disciples to turn to God for divine assistance. Here Mani’s teachings have more in common with Jesus and Zoroaster. Like these great masters, he believed in a loving Supreme Being through whose grace humanity can be saved. That grace comes in the form of the spiritual mentor, who reminds aspirants of their true nature and initiates them in techniques of self-purification that uncover their immortal souls and release them into everlasting life in spirit. However, Mani did not accept that even as great a being as Jesus could die for others. Like Buddha, he taught that all souls must do their own spiritual work; no prophet can do it for them.

Clearly, Mani’s unitary vision held enormous appeal for people throughout the Old World.

In this way Mani incorporated what he felt was best from Christianity, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism in his new movement, and honored teachers from all these traditions. Many of Mani’s ideas resonate with yoga practitioners even today. Like the Manichaeans, many of us try to live pure, simple lives, to keep our inner vision trained on spiritual goals, and to respect all religions. The promise of a universal spiritual system that leads us beyond religious bigotry and violence is as appealing now as it was then. Indeed, the amazing speed with which Manichaeism rose to the status of a world religion shows that his teachings struck a chord with a host of followers. The new faith would eventually flourish from Europe and Egypt all the way to central Asia, spreading through new regions even as it was being suppressed in others. A thousand years after Mani, Marco Polo found a Manichaean congregation as far east as China. Clearly, Mani’s unitary vision held enormous appeal for people throughout the Old World.

Collapse of the Dream

Today the Manichaean tradition is extinct. What happened?

Mani was seriously mistaken in thinking that everyone would be happy to embrace a new faith. After the death of Shapur I in AD 272, the new Persian king set out to eradicate all religions in Persia except orthodox Zoroastrianism. Four years later, at the age of 60, Mani was arrested and condemned to death. He died in prison, a martyr for the cause of religious tolerance.

The spread of Islam brought an end to Manichaeism throughout the Near East and central Asia, as it did to Buddhism in India, by destroying the monasteries where the elders of both those traditions lived and taught. Manichaeism fared no better under Christianity. The Christian Church gradually repudiated its Gnostic roots and committed itself to the doctrines we consider orthodox today. Christian theology no longer included the belief in reincarnation and spiritual liberation, and instead embraced the Zoroastrian prediction of a great war at the end of time led by a divine savior, and the resurrection of the dead in their former physical bodies. The Church also vehemently rejected the notion that Mani, or any other prophet, was on a par with Christ.

In Europe, the word “Manichaean” was eventually loosely applied to any community that espoused beliefs even remotely connected to Mani—including groups who practiced non-violence or vegetarianism. In 1209, the Roman Catholic pontiff sent troops into Béziers, France, where they killed 20,000 men, women, and children because of their Manichaean-related beliefs. By the 17th century, Manichaeism was virtually extinct except for a few surviving congregations in the Far East.

Now more than ever, we need to take his message to heart.

Today, we yoga students engage in spiritual practices that have important elements in common with Manichaeism. This ancient tradition helped popularize meditation, vegetarianism, and the principles of non-violence and non-attachment. In an age when religion seems to divide people across the planet, Mani’s ecumenical vision offers a way for seekers of different faiths to come together in a grand, mutually respectful synthesis. Now more than ever, we need to take his message to heart.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.