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Manichaeism was a religion founded in Mesopotamia during the first half of the third century CE; it incorporated aspects of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. While almost universally attacked by the mainstream religions of the West, the teachings of Manichaeism came to shape debates within the Abrahamic traditions concerning the nature of good, evil, humans, and the world.
Manichaeism was founded by Mani (or Manes; 216–276 or 277 CE), a Persian prophet who proclaimed himself “the messenger of God come to Babel” and the Paraclete (Holy Spirit). He held that God had revealed himself at various times and places in human history: as the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, and Jesus in Palestine. Mani believed that each of these figures taught that the path to salvation came through gnosis (spiritual knowledge) rather than through faith or acts. In 242 Mani set out to disseminate his message publicly, traveling extensively in Central Asia and, according to some sources, visiting India and China. While only fragments of his written works survive today, they reveal that Mani certainly had familiarity with the Christian synoptic Gospels and the epistles of Paul, Jewish Orthodox and noncanonical texts, Zoroastrianism, and Mahayana Buddhism. He reportedly said: “As a river is joined to another to form a powerful current, just so are the ancient books joined in my writings; and they form one great wisdom, such as has not existed in preceding generations” (BeDuhn 2000, 6). Mani’s challenges to the Zoroastrian priesthood, the Magi, led to his execution in 276 or 277.
Mani’s teachings, however, spread rapidly. By 370 Manichaean churches could be found throughout much of the Roman Empire, from southern France to North Africa. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), the profoundly influential Christian bishop and theologian, served for nine years as a Manichaean novice before his conversion to orthodox Christianity in 386. While violently suppressed in the old Roman provinces in the sixth century, Manichaeism continued to flourish in Persia and Chinese Turkestan for centuries, even becoming the state religion of the (Chinese) Uighur Empire (eighth century to mid-ninth century CE) in 762. In Western Europe, especially France, a significant revival of Manichaeism occurred in the eleventh to thirteen centuries. It was labeled the Albigensian heresy and its challenge to the Roman Catholic Church was perceived as so great that Pope Innocent III (reigned 1198–1216) ordered a crusade against the “scourge of God,” bringing a violent end to the movement in the West. In China, Manichaeism persisted until 1600.
Beliefs and Cosmology
Like the Zoroastrian and Gnostic belief systems that influenced it, Manichaeism portrays the universe in radically dualistic terms. The universe is constituted by two oppositional forces: light and darkness. Light corresponds to the spiritual realm, the realm of goodness. Darkness corresponds to the material and bodily realm, which is evil. History is to be played out in three stages: a golden age when the realms of darkness and light are distinct and separate; a middle age in which light and darkness battle for control of the universe; and a final age in which the realms again will be separated, with the spiritual returning to the realm of light and the material being relegated to the realm of darkness. We presently are in the middle age, the time of the great cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.
The realm of light is ruled by and equated with God, who is known as the King of Light or the Father of Light. The material realm is ruled by an independent and powerful Archon (God) of Darkness, or Hyle (matter), who uses the process of creation to trap light in a fleshly cell. The two gods are in cosmic battle, with the universe as their battlefield. Christ, the Buddha, and other prophets came to earth to impart to humans knowledge of how to release the light imprisoned within the material realm by the God of Darkness. In some Manichaean depictions, the creator God of Genesis is the Archon of Darkness, and Christ is the serpent in the garden, imparting good knowledge to Adam and Eve as a path to liberating the light. In China, Mani himself became known as the Buddha of Light.
Manichaean dualism and its resulting cosmic war are used to account for the existence of evil in the world: evil emerges in this realm when the Archon of Darkness wins a battle over the good, but not omnipotent, King of Light. All material creation is evil in its very conception. Humans, being spirit incarnate, are in a tragic and flawed state, subject to evil and ignorance through the imprisonment of their spiritual essences in fleshly bodies.
Prescriptions and Practices
Because during this life humans live in the corrupt, material realm, Manichaeism attempted to separate them from the actions of the Archon of Darkness as much as possible. Manichaean clergy (the Elect) were held to the highest standards of purity: sexual abstinence (since each new birth constituted another spirit imprisoned in the flesh and hence a victory for the forces of Darkness), vegetarianism (since meat was judged to be more highly impure than vegetables), refusal to participate in food preparation (since the chopping of even vegetables harmed the light trapped within them), and abstinence from all forms of violence against human or animal (for the spiritual light could be liberated properly from living entities only by knowledge, not by slaughter).
Of these priestly prohibitions (likely a reflection of the influence of Buddhism), only the dictate against all forms of killing was required equally of the Manichaean laity, making Manichaeism a completely pacifistic religion in theory. The actual practice was somewhat different, with Manichees who fell short of the ascetic ideals often attributing their failings to a determinism resulting from their role as pawns in the cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness.
In contemporary intellectual discussions, Manichaeism is most often used as a pejorative term, describing a radical dichotomy between good and evil that allegedly misconstrues the nature of reality. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, writes that it is “a Manichean heresy to assert that war is intrinsically evil and contrary to Christian charity” (National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1983, 162). The historian Bernard Lewis claims that the tendency of some forms of modern-day Islam to demonize Christians and Jews as “enemies of God” is attributable to Manichaeism’s influence on Islam. Whether such accusations are fair or not, the Manichaean depiction of the world as a place of cosmic conflict between the forces of the spirit and those of the flesh doubtless has had a profound influence on modern Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions of humans and the world.
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