Mani (216 – 277) was a painter and theologian who preached in 3rd century Persia. His teachings became Manichaeism, a religion that peaked in the 9th century and rivalled early Christianity. Mani envisioned a global faith that combined the teachings of Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and could breach cultural and linguistic divisions. Persecuted in Persia and Rome, Mani’s teachings spread as far as China and North Africa.
Mani was born to a Jewish-Christian sect near modern-day Baghdad. He was of Parthian descent and lived under the Sassanian Dynasty, who were staunch Zoroastrians. At age 20, Mani heard the voice of his ‘divine twin’ urging him to leave home and preach the word of God. Mani travelled the Silk Road to India, where he learned from Hindu and Buddhist sages. In his lifetime he gained more followers than Jesus. He detailed his teachings in six known books that he wrote and illustrated:
- Book of Giants
- Fundamental Epistle
- Living Gospel
- Mani Codex
Mani wrote the Shapurangan for Emperor Shapur of Persia. It failed to convert him, though Shapur tolerated and protected Mani’s followers. As none of the originals survive in full, what we know comes from fragments, quotations and discussions by other authors.
Manichaeans believe in a dualistic universe. Good and Evil are separate and equally powerful forces. Both are uncreated and eternal. Originally the worlds of Light and Darkness were separate and the Earth was born from their collision. Humans are essentially (Good) spiritual beings trapped in (Evil) material bodies. The battle between Good and Evil takes place in the human soul. The Divine Father sent prophets to guide humanity back to him. These included Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Mani. Only through prayer, fasting and the and rejection of evil can one’s soul escape the cycle of reincarnation and reunite with the World of Light. The truly evil join the World of Darkness when they die.
The faith combines Zoroastrian dualism with Biblical revelation and Buddhist enlightenment. In his books, Mani detailed his cosmology with coloured illustrations. He sought to reform Zoroastrianism and turn it from its ethnocentric origins as a religion for Persians and Medes to a universal missionary faith for all mankind as the early Christians did with Judaism. As a painter, he believed the arts in all their forms were sacred and divine.
After years abroad, Mani returned to Persia in AD 272. The Zoroastrian clergy considered his teachings a dangerous heresy. In 273 the new king, Bahram I, imprisoned Mani and ordained his execution. Mani was flayed alive, his body stuffed with straw and crucified over the gates of Gundeshapur. Bahram banned Manichaeism and expelled its followers from Persia.
In the West, Manichaeism spread across Roman Italy and North Africa. Saint Augustine was a Manichaean before converting to Christianity. Through him, dualistic tendencies seeped into Catholic thought, particularly regarding Heaven and Hell. Manichaean teachings strongly influenced medieval heretics like the Cathars, whom French crusaders exterminated in the 14th century.
The Uighurs adopted Manichaeism and it spread through western China. Their empire collapsed in the 840s, however, and they later converted to Islam. Manichaeism thrived in China until purges drove it underground. Today only a few sects still practice the faith, and only one temple remains – a remote shrine in Ca’oan, China that was long disguised as a Buddhist temple.