Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mani and His Ideas, Heretics and Empresses

While many think that Mani and his followers were concentrated largely in the West, others encountered his teachings in the East, just as well. It is often surprising in the history of ideas to learn those which were concurrently in force. Most readers are familiar with the term Manichean as having to do with heresy, but who was Mani? What were his ideas? How were they transmitted from East to West? And Buddhism--what's with that?

Of all places, this interesting discussion came up in a book about the history of vegetarianism. Colin Spencer writes in A Heretic's Feast that Mani is thought to have been Persian and that his ideas spread via the ancient Silk Road. Here enters the story of the Empress Wu, who admitted one Manichean devotee to her court in about the late seventh century C.E. The man, Mihr-Ormuzd, presented the Empress with a book titled, Sutra of the Two Principles.

Along the trade route, the ideas of Mani flourished in many places; it was much influenced by Buddhism and took on some of its features. Today certain Buddhist sects are thought to trace at least  some of their practices back to these earlier ideas.  As for the Empress, she was much impressed that within the Manichean realm she could take a central role, unlike Confucianism which sidelined women. Mani taught about "the four attributes," a reference to purity, light, power and wisdom.

Under successive regimes, the Mani went underground, as it were, in reaction to oppressive regimes which distrusted foreign ideas. Their followers took on local customs and came to be regarded as sorcerers and exorcists. Many took up residence in Taoist held lands. Under Mongolian rule, they fared better and were more open in their practice. They were identified at that time as "Nestorian Christians" and referred popularly as, the Religion of Light.

In the West, more famously, they attached themselves to the major faiths; over time, their teachings were successively denounced. Manicheans were proclaimed heretics by Christians, Muslims and Jews, yet they persist most curiously within the faith systems of major religions, even today.

1 comment:

文佩齊華 said...

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