1 minute read


Doctrine, Later History, Bibliography

Manichaeism is a now-extinct religious system characterized by dualism, asceticism, and an acute sense of worldwide mission. It originated in the teaching of Mani (216–277 C.E.), a Parthian raised in Mesopotamia in an Aramaic-speaking Jewish-Christian community known as the Elchasaites. He experienced visions in his youth that made him aware of a pantheistic presence in the world that he felt called upon to help liberate from its suffering. He broke with the Elchasaites (c. 240 C.E.), visited India, and upon his return to Mesopotamia formed his own religious community. He proselytized throughout the Persian Empire, and sent his disciples further afield to India, central Asia, and the Roman Empire. By the time of his death as a prisoner of the Persian king, Mani had succeeded in establishing a well-organized institutional structure that spread and preserved his teachings for a thousand years, despite nearly constant persecution.

Manichaeism arose in a highly cosmopolitan culture, in full awareness of antecedent west Asian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and various pagan and Gnostic sects, as well as the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions of South Asia. According to Manichaean teaching, Mani was the last of a series of divinely inspired prophets that included Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ. These divine messengers were sent periodically to particular regions of the earth to reform the true message from the corruption of time, an idea found also in Islam and the Baha'i faith. Mani brought the latest restatement of truth, and took the novel precaution of committing it to writing himself, rather than trusting his disciples to hand it down correctly. The rich Manichaean literary and artistic tradition is now reduced to fragments discovered in the twentieth century in China and Egypt, precariously supplemented for the modern researcher by polemical accounts from the religion's enemies.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Macrofauna to Mathematics