Three extinct Religious Philosophies of Iran: Mithraism, Manichaeism, Mazdeism

“When monarchs honour “The Faith then it and royalty are brothers, “For they are mingled so that thou wouldst say:- “‘They wear one cloak’. The faith endureth not “Without the throne nor can kingship stand “Without the Faith; two pieces of brocade “Are they all intertwined set up…Before the wise “Each needeth the other, and we see the pair “United in beneficence.”

Throughout the human history, we notice that man has been searching for concepts beyond his grasp to understand his own place in the Cosmos. As a psycho-physical or theomorphic being, religious response is one of the natural reactions that he has manifested over the ages. In other words, it is most natural for him to be ‘religious’. The definition of religion, throughout human history, has remained flexible; and being an adjusting organism, man has adopted himself successfully to the changing environment of culture and religion.

Ancient civilisations have had their religions that suited their concepts and those religions served them well because they suited their environments and cultures. Many of those religions became extinct with the downfall or obliteration of those civilisations. There are many other reasons like migration, new discoveries, scientific and geographic changes, wars or new concepts of different religions that can also be cited for the extinction of religions.

The religions may die but the religious response of human beings never dies. He is always in search of the real purpose of his life and this thought process will continue for ever to keep ‘religions’ alive. Many such thoughts and religious philosophies were developed by and adopted by different societies and cultures, in some instances lasting for few centuries. However, many of these ‘religions’ disappeared leaving no sacred scriptures or other primary evidence. The subjects of this essay are three such religious philosophies, namely, Mithraism, Manichaeism and Mazdeism. The three, primarily, influenced the Iranian society and the religion of Zoroastrianism, the main faith of that society at the time.

Mithraism

Mithra was an Indo-Iranian God. He is still worshipped in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Before Zoroaster (6th century BCE or even earlier), the Iranian had a polytheistic religion that had been brought by the Aryan migrants living in Iran. With the advent and influence of Zoroaster, the Aryan found themselves persecuted for their beliefs and migrated further into India. Their polytheistic beliefs were absorbed in the Indian Vedic religious philosophies and Mithra or Mitra (brother/friend in Sanskrit) became a primary deity represented by Krishna.

The most important ceremony of Mithraism was the slaying of the white bull which resulted in the miraculous creation of the moon, the stars, the planets and the heavens. Plantlife and all creatures were born from this sacrifice and day and night began to alternate. With the bull’s death and the creation of the world, the struggle between Good and Evil began that continues even today. Zoroaster denounced the sacrifice of the white bull. However, it was difficult to remove these beliefs from the hearts of the Iranian noble class who cherished these myths from pre-Zoroastrian times. The sacrifice of the bull was later included in the Indian Vedic Text as well, where Mitra sacrifices a god named Soma, who appears in the shape of a white bull or as Moon.

Mithraic relief with original colors (reconstitution), c. 140 CE–160 CE, Jona Lendering, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Zoroastrian religion became the royal faith starting from Darius (522-486 BCE). However, all kings of the Achaemenid dynasty, although Zoroastrians, were tolerant towards old religions and beliefs. This resulted in the slow corruption of the Zoroastrian religion, monotheism suffered as polytheistic ideas were included in hymns and Mithra replaced Zoroaster as the guardian of the righteous in this world and as judge at the Chinvat Bridge in the hereafter. Within a century, these innovative ideas were eliminated by Zoroastrian belief; and when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire (330 BCE), total chaos occurred and the establishment disappeared. By the time Alexander the Great had gone nothing of worship of Mithra remained in Iran. However, Mithra remained an important central figure of worship in the Roman world, India and later on in other European countries. In the European countries, Mithra inherited the mythologies of Demeter and Dionysus and as a result acquired many practices like miraculous birth, baptism and adoration of the shepherds.

Mythology, Theology and Practices etc.

There are no sacred scriptures, books or documents available to be certain about what Mithraism was. The only sources of information are various temple reliefs that have been found in the temples of Mithra in Western European countries. Mithraic temples or sanctuaries were underground caverns that were decorated with frescoes, reliefs and statues of minor deities. A narrow aisle was flanked on both sides by a broad, raised bench on which worshippers kneeled or reclined. On one end of the bench, there was always the relief representing the sacrifice of the bull and on the back was a representation of the repast of Mithra and the sun god. A meal was always served to the initiates as part of worship. The sanctuary always contained a well for washing and ablutions.

Only men were admitted to this religion but there was no hierarchy. The initiates were organised in seven grades and passing through each grade was considered to be the ultimate aim of each initiate. Initiates were supposed to perform ablution (baptism) in the sanctuaries and were made to kneel and prostrate blindfolded.

The central Mithraic philosophy revolves around the sacrifice of the bull and the creation of the universe. The doctrine of the soul is intimately linked with the myth of creation. The soul of man came down from heaven crossing the seven spheres of planets. The soul, while crossing the spheres of Venus and Mars picked up the vices of passion and war and was finally caught in the body. It is the duty of every man to liberate the divine part of the soul from the body and make its journey back through the seven spheres to the eternal abode of the ‘fixed stars’. This ultimate noble end was achieved by Mithra when he left the earth and travelled in the chariot of sun god. The seven grades, mentioned above, refer to different levels of achievements by the initiates. The rise in grade of each Mithraist represented the travel of soul towards its goal of ‘fixed stars’.

In spite of its great influence over Roman Empire and Europe, Mithraism never became the faith of the West. It was finally defeated when Constantine accepted Christianity and thus Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.

The triumphant Christian Church ultimately destroyed the temples and sanctuaries of Mithra and on many sites Christian churches were built thus obliterating many Mithraic caverns. Nevertheless, the transfer from Mithraism to Christianity was neither sudden nor impeccable as Christianity slowly absorbed many ideas of Mithraism as part of the cultural heritage of Europe.

Manichaeism Mani or Mane (c 216-76 CE) was the founder of this religious philosophy. A Persian by birth; he was brought up as a Zoroastrian. He tried a synthesis of various religions to form a new ‘Universal’ religion. In other words, Mani aspired to bring the East and West into closer union through a combined faith which was an amalgam of known creeds of his day. He claimed himself to be the Paraclete, as promised in the New Testament. He acknowledged his indebtedness particularly to Zoroaster, Jesus and Buddha. From Zoroaster, he took the doctrine of the primordial struggle between spirit and matter as a basis for solution of good and evil. From the teachings of Buddha and Jesus he extracted the principles of life that should, ideally, be followed by all. He added to his teachings some doctrines of Hinduism, beliefs from surviving Babylonian religions as well as some Neo-Platonic doctrines. This admixture of belief made it easier for people of any faith to adopt this ‘religion’.

The teachings of Mani were well received in the beginning and even King Shapur I of the Sasanian dynasty became his friend and protector. However, the orthodox Zoroastrians opposed Mani’s views and the opposition grew so much that Mani had to leave the country and go into exile. During his wanderings throughout Central Asia and China, his religion spread and he acquired a large number of followers among the Uigurs Chinese where this faith continued until 9th century CE when Uigurs lost their kingdom. However, Manichaeism continued to exist sporadically in the East.

When Mani returned to Iran after nearly thirty years of exile, the king of the time, Behram I, put Mani to death, persecuted his followers and his religion was banned throughout the Iranian Empire. The persecuted followers migrated to Egypt, North Africa and through Spain to Europe. Most of the believers of this faith in Europe were considered to belong to heretical sects and they were persecuted ruthlessly. One very notable Manichaean was St. Augustine of Hippo who was brought up in this faith. St. Augustine later converted to Christianity and became a veritable opponent of Manichaeism.

In 382 CE, Theodosius I issued a decree of death for Manichaeans and declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire. This resulted in the slow death of Manichaeism in the West by the 5th century CE.

Theology, Beliefs and Practices etc.

Manichaeism is a pure dualistic religion, denying the Omnipotent God. According to Mani, the struggle between Good and Evil will continue to eternity. Mani taught that Light was Spirit and therefore Good while Darkness was Matter and hence Evil. Mani preaches three “Ages”. The first “Age” was before this universe came into existence when Light and Darkness were entirely separate. In the second “Age”, our present age, Darkness burst through into the region of Light which has resulted in perpetual and universal struggle. The third “Age” will see the final triumph of truth and Light and complete separation as in the first “Age”. This separation will bring about the Last Judgement. The idea that Light will triumph in the end, means that Manichaeism teaches a form of salvation.

Mani preached a rigorous ascetic life and emphasised complete chastity and celibacy. Mani taught that there is a spark of Light in all human beings that can bring about salvation in the end.

Mani issued commandments for his followers. The main commandments were love, recognition of Divine inspiration in great religious teachers; and insisted on pure life, purity of thought and deed. He totally opposed warfare. He taught that human body was contaminated by Dark matter but by following the teaching, body will be rid of all the dark matter and human being will be restored to purity and Light.

Mazdakizm

The Sasanian Empire of Iran lasted nearly four hundred years, from 226 until 642 CE, until desert Arabs inspired by the religion of Islam, destroyed the Sasanian Empire and introduced new faith and new ideas in the country. Manichaeism came at the beginning of the Sasanian Empire, Mazdakism came at the end. Throughout Sasanian rule, Zoroastrianism was the official state religion of Iran and other religious philosophies were forcefully suppressed by the orthodox hierarchy of Zoroastrian. In spite of this many, ‘heretical’ religions and sects were formed from time to time and disappeared. Mani came at the beginning and Mazdak came at the end of Sasanian era. Both movements tried a synthesis of various religious movements. Mazdak could be easily called a Bolshevik Communist. Indeed he was more extreme in some of his ideas. He not only preached equal distribution of worldly possessions, but also preached equal distribution of women among men.

Very little is known about Mazdak (son of Bombad) except that he preached his religious and social doctrines at the end of fifth century. That period is known for uprisings and revolts in the Sasanian Empire. After a long period of rule by indifferent monarchs, decay and corruption had set in and the common man was suffering injustices, inequality and poverty. The teachings of Mazdak that included elements from many religious systems including Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism inspired the common man by its principles of pacifism, chastity, equality and justice. Mazdak also believed that all creation was a result of primordial dualism of Light and Darkness. He put forward a complicated system whereby an individual can attain redemption by understanding the powers of letter, words and numbers etc., and having once attained that revelatory knowledge, he need not perform any more religious observances. Mazdak’s greatest appeal, however, lay in his emphasis on abolishing of social inequality. He stressed the principles of social equality. Everything was to be shared as communal property, including wives and concubines. King Kavad was so impressed with these ideas that he introduced number of laws related to Mazdak philosophy of social justice. However, implementation of such laws shook the very foundation of Iranian society. The nobility and the Zoroastrian priesthood joined together against king Kavad and deposed and imprisoned him. Two years later, Kavad escaped and with some help regained his throne. Kavad decided to abandon the Mazdakites who were involved in many uprisings, looting and abduction of women.

Under Kavad’s reign and continuing under the reign of his son, the famous Khosrow I (Chosroes I) known as “Nosherwan the Just”, Mazdakite movement was crushed and their religious leaders including Mazdak were massacred, their books and literature was burnt and their properties and goods confiscated.

Thus, the Mazdakite movement as such was eliminated, but its ideas persisted and spread for many centuries. Their name appears in many places as an inspiration for social revolutionaries.

The Iranian prophet Mazdak being executed

Theology, Beliefs and Practices

There is very little knowledge of what Mazdak taught his followers and no scripture or literature survived to provide true details of his teachings. Mazdak’s ideas are natural reactions to the state of Iran in his days. His socialist ideas were in direct contrast and a protest against the corrupt system and class struggle. At the same time he also preached high morality, love, pacifism, self-restraint and rejection of sensual pleasures. He also forbade the eating of animal flesh. He maintained that all sensual pleasures were the cause of hatred and strife among people. Like Mani, he stressed the dualism of Good and Evil of Zoroaster as well as purity of natural ‘elements’, fire, water and earth. Beyond these details, there is no knowledge available of what he actually taught or the forms of worship that his disciples adopted. We can safely assume that since Mazdakism held fire, water and earth as sacred, their form of worship must have been the same or similar to Zoroastrianism.

The three religious philosophies briefly described above do not seem to be revelatory religions; but only human efforts to synthesise moral precepts for a higher ideal of life. These efforts were nothing but a part of search of human beings of their place in the cosmos – a search which is as old as humanity itself. Whatever their conclusions, Polytheistic, Dualist or Monotheistic, provided them and their followers with spiritual satisfaction and inspiration during their lives. We can safely conclude that ancient religions demonstrate the highest of human thinking in the limited circumstances of their cultural and intellectual experiences. If we believe in the Spirit in the heart of all sons of men, we can only find its evidence in the expression of the thoughts even in cultures long forgotten or extinct. The men of the past belong to the same family of humanity. It is pertinent to remember that we shall also be known as ‘story of the past’ sometime in the future.

Acknowledgements:

The author wishes to express his gratitude to the authors of the literature cited in the bibliography.

Bibliography Introductry Quotes

1. (The Shah-nama of Iran by Firdousi. Advice of Ardashir I to his son Shapur I (242 CE). English rendering by brothers Warner, (London, 1912) vol. 6, pp 286-287; (Courtesy of Vergilius Ferm, op cit.)

Mithraism

  • John R. Hinnell, The facts on File, Dictionary of Religions, Oxford, England, (1984)
  • John R. Hinnell, Mithraic Studies, London (1975)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 11, pp. 288-290
  • S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, McGill-Queen’s University (1933).

Manichaeism

  • V.W. Jackson, Zoroastrian Studies, Columbia University, New York, (1928)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Samuel N.C. Lieu, Manichaeism inLater Roman Empire and Med. China, London, (1985)
  • Nicholas J. Baker-Brian, Manichaeism – An Ancient Faith Rediscovered, London (2011)
  • Taraporewala, “Manichaeism” in Forgotten Religions (1950) edited by Vergilius Ferm

Mazdakizm

  • V.W. Jackson, Zoroastrian Studies, Columbia University, New York, (1928)
  • S.A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, McGill-Queen’s University (1933) Information On Mazdak is sparse and scattered.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica,
  • United Kingdom Wikipedia

Disclaimer

This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Salim Ahmad Malik Sahib

Salim Ahmad Malik Sahib

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