Thayer Watkins


Mani was born to a Persian family in the third century A.D. in Mesopotamia not far from the present city of Baghdad. As a child he had a religious vision and in his early twenties he felt compelled to announce himself as a prophet and began to preach. He gathered a following and organized a church. But when his influence became known to the Zoroastrian priests they had him declared a heretic and banished from the Persian Empire.

Mani wandered about for 18 years, reputedly in central Asia, Tibet and north India. He not only gathered converts buy he assimilated the religious ideas of the places he preached and Manichaeism was distinctly eclectic. From the very beginning Mani sought to synthesize the major religions. He called himself an apostle of Jesus and gave credit to previous religious leaders as prophets propounded the same basic religion as himself. As a consequence of this synthesis Manichaeans could purport to be Christians in Christian lands, Zoroastrians in Persia and Buddhists in Buddhist lands.

After his 18 years of wandering Mani returned to Persia at an age of near sixty. At first he was accepted and protected by the Emperor, but again the Zoroastrian priesthood plotted against him and induced the Emperor to order his execution. Mani was executed in a most horrible manner and his skin stuffed with straw was displayed as a warning against any future heretics.

Mani's death did not end the religion but did drive it underground. It survived for several centuries. It penetrated the West and Augustine, later to become Saint Augustine, was for nine years a Manichaean. The Turkish tribe, the Uighurs, converted to Manichaeism. The Bogomils in Bulgaria and the Cathars in northern Italy and southern France were probably Manichaeans. Manichaeism probably survived until the 15th century.

The doctrines of Manichaeism are rather abstruse. According to Mani the Supreme God created the worlds of Light and Darkness. In the ancient past age these two worlds were totally separated. The elements of Darkness penetrated into the world of Light and produced Evil which is the commingling of Light and Darkness. This commingling of Light and Darkness is the material world we know. Human also are a commingling of the darkness of matter with the light of spirit. Humans, according to Mani, should help promote the eventual separation of the worlds of Light and Darkness. This involves not killing creatures or plants.

The Manichaean community was divided into the Elected and the Hearers. The Elected were to lead a life of austere devotion; celebate, vegetarian and poor. The Hearers were to revere and care for the Elect and, if they could, aspire to become one of the Elect.

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