Sacred meal of the elect at a festival of thanksgiving for Mani.
Elicti writing, from a Manichaean book, Turfan oasis, Turkestan.
10th century Manichaean text from the Bezeklik grottoes.
World religion founded by Mani.
Manichaeism spread out over most of the known world of the 1st millennium CE, from Spain to China. But the religion disappeared from the West in the 10th century, and from China in the 14th century, and today it is extinct.
During the Roman Empire, Manichaeism got a strong position in North Africa — St. Augustine was a Manichaean for 9 years before his conversion to Christianity. For about 80 years starting in 762, Manichaeism was the state religion of the Turkic people Uighurs.
Manichaeism is the largest and most important example of Gnosticism. Central in the Manichaean teaching was dualism, that the world itself, and all creatures, was part of a battle between the good, represented by God, and the bad, the darkness, represented by a power-driven by envy and lust.
These two powers were independent of each other, but in the world they were mixed. Most human beings were built from material from the bad power, but in everyone, there was a divine light, which needed to be released from the dark material of the body. In Manichaeism creation is regarded as a cosmic catastrophe, this even applies to man.
What had happened was that the good forces had been forced to create the world, as a defense of the divine realms. The threat came from the bad powers that had discovered that there was a world of light, and this they could not resist. When the world and all creatures were created, the attacking darkness was mixed with some of the divine light.
While the battle between light and darkness had been fought in the cosmos until the creation, a creation made the world of man the new battleground. Everything that gives the light in this world belongs to the divine realms, while everything that absorbs light, belongs to the darkness.
In this world, small pieces of light are constantly disentangled from the darkness, and the sun and the moon are two chariots bringing these pieces from the world and back to the divine world.
The meaning of life is therefore the same as the meaning of the world, namely to participate on the divine side of this battle. Every man carries inside him a seed of light, and the only way to help free this seed from darkness is through gnosis.
Gnosis is the insight in this process of cosmic battle and insight on how to fight envy and lust. The actual liberation happens for human with dying of the gnosis.
The gnosis can be discovered by man’s intellectual capacities but is at the same time something that is revealed, through messengers like Buddha, Jesus, and Mani. Buddha and Jesus are depicted quite differently from what is the case in Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
Organization and Practice
There were two groups of Manichaeans, the class of elected, and the laymen. The class of elected had only male members, and they were the ones deemed to disentangle their seed of light from their bodies. They did not marry, did not eat meat, drink wine, or work. All they did was preach.
The laymen lived fairly normal lives. The married, but it was considered a good act not to have many children, as an increasing number of humans would mean that the light was spread in more bodies. They had only limited access to the teachings of Manichaeism and left much of the religious matters to the class of elected, who acted as their representatives.
The laymen attended weekly fasts, but little is known of both their and the electeds’ religious services. Central to what we believe that Mani picked up in India, is the teaching of transmigration of souls. What the laymen could hope for was that they would be reborn as elected.
We do not know how the Manichaeans decided who were elected, and who were not. Schooling and family background are two possible decisive factors.
There are only a few texts left after the Manichaeans, but Mani himself wrote many books. Most of these have been lost since the religion disappeared, and only fragments can be found in northwestern China and Egypt.