Mani And The Religion of Light

September 2, 2017

 

 

 

 I am devoting a series of articles so as to share my studies about the influence of the dualist creeds of Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism on our modern religious thought in the Abrahamic sense. These faiths were persecuted and died, and were combatted with a zeal seldom matched in history. These faiths teach love, good works, deeds and thoughts. It was the Persian king Cyrus the Great who created the world's first charter of human rights, based on his Zoroastrian principles and the commands for humans to become cognizant and progressive beings as found in the Zend Avesta, Zoroastrianism's sacred scripture. Mani in his faith taught love for fellow humanity and considered himself a follower of Jesus the great light bearer, acknowledging religious teachers and their respective scriptures which came long before him. Yet the powers of their day did their utmost to destroy the last vestiges of these important and once popular, dynamic faiths, all the while incorporating much of their teachings and practices into what would become what the world would eventually know of as at first Judaism, then Christianity and Islam. Cyrus the Great's invasion of the Middle East in which he liberated the Jews who were taken into the Babylonian captivity and rebuilt their temple saw influence from Zoroastrianism enter into Abrahamism. The levels of heaven and hell, the ranks of angels and the prophecy of the last days, the struggle of good against evil found in the books of the Bible can be said to have their literary roots in ancient Persian religion, embellishing the established simple monotheist creed of the Semites. Elohe is equivalent to Ahura Mazda, supreme God of light and majesty and the source of all that is good, while the devil- or shaitan as he is known in the Quran, is the very same entity as the Persian Ahriman, the lord of the darkness. At the end of time Ahriman will be vanquished by Ahura Mazda and the world will be transformed into a new world just as the God of the Bible promises to rebuild a new Jerusalem. 

 

The long lost religion of Manichaeism was a major world faith in the era of Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages. It was the first world religion as it was to be found geographically on the shores of the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific via the then important Silk Road route. The faith was popular in North Africa, then part of the Roman empire. Saint Augustine was a supposed convert to Christianity from Manichaeism. It gained appreciation in the Persian lands, Central Asia then deep into China, followed devotedly by nobility and common folk alike.

 

Mani himself was born in what is now Iraq in the 3rd century. He traveled to India and East Asia, and learned of the many religions and their teachings. He preached from an early age, but came to the conclusion that all faiths, though different in features and cultural expressions, agreed on basic universal truths. Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, the Mandanean followers of John the Baptist, Mani saw them all as pathways to the same source of light and the human attempt to understand divinity. This he included in his faith teaching, thus creating the world's very first 'universal' faith. Rather than claim that only his way or any particular religion was true, Mani acknowledged all that humanity had created religions as a means to understand the divine mystery. All religions are true, he taught, since light illuminates the darkness, and all religions are but reflections and manifestations of that light, the source of goodness and beauty. 

 

Light and dark, good and evil, the universe and everything within exists in duality. Manichaeism explained the origins of creation in terms of an ongoing cosmic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, somewhat in the like manner of Zoroastrianism which claims that Ahura Mazda, god of goodness and light, struggles and keeps at bay Ahriman, the king of darkness, just as monotheism explains God and the anti God known as the Devil, sometimes also explained in the monotheistic narratives as the Lord of Darkness. In the monotheistic stories, light must overcome darkness, and humans are encouraged to do good works and stand for goodness, thus struggling against evil. This very Persian dualistic concept and the struggle between good and evil may have entered into the Abrahamic faiths perhaps via the conquests of Cyrus the Great when he invaded the Middle East. Angels and the many levels of heaven and hell are but two of the contributions of Persian religion to the Abrahamic world of the Semites as are the narratives of the last days. 

 

At the time of Mani's appearance in the Middle East, there were already Gnostic movements and schools happening that was part of the ongoing reformation of Judaism to which Jesus and John the Baptist were a part. The Gnostics explained the creation of the universe in mystical terms that are still rather difficult and complex to understand, and Mani was under their influence. Light existed and out of love and goodness created the dark to be seen. This palate of dark then took on a personality, if one will, of it's own and ever since it's bringing forth has been intent on blotting out the light. The two collided and creation- the big bang, occurred. All creation was corrupted ever since, with dark and light blending. This is the reason why there are good people in the world and beneficial animals and insects, and also why there are sharks, spiders, poisonous snakes, venomous lizards and people who are oppressors and tyrants, murderers with little or no compassion, people with good and bad temperaments, or the explanation as to why bad things happen to good people. The lord of darkness created matter, and the body is of matter. However rather than as in monotheism particularly in the Islamic narrative, where God creates Adam and the devil who is cursed and damned for not acknowledging God's greatest creation and thus promises to take as many of God's creations (human souls) with him to the fiery hell promised, in the Manichaean story it is the God of light who plays the trickster and breathes into each of the created beings of matter his own soul, thus granting the ability for each human being to discern right from wrong and utilize free will, cheating the devil of what he thought was a splendid and ultimate victory. Zurvan/God/the Lord of Light instills his spirit into every living thing. It is in this way that light exists with the darkness, the two forces constantly battling with each other. This is natural and in fact the way of the universe and indeed our very existence. We as human beings do what we can to do so as to bring about good in our world, thus being the torch bearers of the divine light that must counter the ever encroaching darkness. When the human race moves to a new understanding and an illumined spiritual paradigm, the whole universe will be ablaze with the light and nothing but the light will exist. All will return to harmony and balance, and our souls will for eternity exist in oneness with the Lord of the Light.

 

Jesus is an important figure in Manichaeism and is considered such a 'light bearer'. The reason for the popularity of Mani's religion in the Roman world is at once complex and simple. It may be difficult to understand how a religion that recommended celibacy for it's clergy and abstention from eating meat: both ideas informed by the fact that sex and procreation are the act that brought forth matter, and meat is dense matter...could have taken root in the Christianized Roman world is confusing at best. However, there was in the early centuries of Christianity much disagreement among various groups who held different views of Jesus' nature. There was the ongoing struggle between the monophysites, who held that Christ was one with God in body and spirit, and the deophysites who claimed that Jesus's body was distinct from his godly being. Mani's teachings held a simpler explanation about the great teacher and being of light named Jesus. His body, as every body, was of matter, thus not as important as the soul, which upon crucifixion went to be one with the Father. This narrative certainly influenced Christianity, but at the time it was a simple solution to an ongoing and complex argument. Manichaeism spread like wildfire especially in North Africa where the debates were hotly contested. This also brought about the wrath of the now Christian Roman church, and Manichaeans were persecuted by the now Christian Roman empire as much as early Christians were persecuted by the then pagan emperors. This threat to the dialogue had to be eradicated. Saint Augustine is said to have been a Manichaean who converted, then argued for Christianity. We don't know all the facts about him, or whether he actually denounced Manichaeism or not as his works were used by the church to denounce Mani. But we do know that he introduced many aspects of Mani's teachings. Vegetarianism was recommended for fasting and celibacy for the priesthood became the mandatory n the Catholic church, optional and personal in the eastern churches. The subject of the battle between good and evil, light and dark, is found in many books of the Bible, and the Book of Revelation reads like a Persian dualist epic. Recalling the popular 60's song by the band The Byrds who incorporated the theme and spirit of the book of Ecclesiastes into a melody, the lyrics state that "to every season, turn turn turn, a time to be born a time to die, a time to sow a time to reap..." Manichaeism and the tradition of dualism is evident in these and other scriptures in the Bible which allude to light, the dark and all the physical matter and the attributes which exist between these two entities. 

 

Perhaps one of the most debated scriptures which was left out of the Bible is the mysterious Book of Enoch, and Mani utilized part of that text in his own Gospel, known as the Book of Giants. There are references in the Bible to giants and angels, and the Book of Enoch goes into detail about how the universe came to be via the acts and struggles of the angels of light and the angels of the dark. Enoch is said to have lived in a time before Noah, and is also acknowledged as a prophet in the Quran. His book was ignored for centuries and is now being studied for it's content. While a wild and imaginary visionary recital that may seem an excellent source for a fantasy movie, the Book of Enoch was purposely ignored and denounced. The question we are forced to ask is "why?" yes, the explanations are seemingly too complex and involved for common people to understand and ponder, but like all texts which are records of thoughts and ideas of a once predominantly illiterate human past, the narrative deserves to be studied and the reasons for it's omission scrutinized. it is through the study of such ancient texts that we can discern what may have been the truth as held by people living in a different time era and thinking climate.

 

Mani's teaching came into conflict with the politicized religions of the Roman and Persian empires. While Mani was protected and encouraged to make converts under the Persian king Hormisdas, after the ruler's death he eventually came into conflict with the jealousy of the Zoroastrian priesthood known as the Magi. Persia and Rome were engaged at the time in nearly constant warfare, and each empire had to consolidate it's accepted religious narratives to unify the empires. Mani was seen as a threat to what was the state religion, and he was tried and imprisoned by the Persian monarch Bahram. Just as Jesus was accused by the Sanhedrin, as Moses had to confront the Egyptian priests and Luther centuries later would face the wrath of what he saw as an erring church, Mani was seen as a heretic and a blasphemer to the organized and clergy of the Magi, thus a threat to the royal power of mighty Persia. The great teacher was said to have died in prison but the Shahinshah/king of kings, so as to send a message to those who might dare to challenge the status quo and question his power and rule, had Mani's body cut in half and stuffed with straw, displaying each part of the body on two portions of the palace walls. Like Jesus he would attain to the light by dying, His body, which he considered but a miserable lump of matter that imprisoned the soul of light, would simply be used by other beings of matter and their tyranny....agents of the lord of darkness...to make a show and give a warning to all of what was seen as treason. Mani, like many of his followers who would follow him in centuries after his death, would attain the light. His death was a victory to his followers, an act of freedom for his soul kept in a prison fashioned by darkness, but his legacy lived on in the narratives of light and dark, good and evil found in the very faiths that were used to oppress the followers of his religion of light and love.

 

  

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