Final Project- The movement of the Manichaean tradition along the Silk Road

Manichaeism is the epitome of the Silk Road experience. Essentially, it is a Gnostic dualist religion, founded by the prophet Mani in Sassanid Iran, who preached the eternal cosmic battle of good and evil forces. The unique feature of this so-called ‘Silk Road tradition’ is its embracement of Adam, Zoroaster, the Buddha and Jesus as valid prophets preaching the same eternal truth as Mani. Along with recognizing these personages, Manichaeism further recognizes elements of other indigenous cultures, such as Hindu gods and Persian deities in some regions along the Silk Road. The Manichaean tradition’s inclusive outlook is one of the main factors which enabled its transmittance along the Silk Road, and subsequently it’s flourishing as well.  The tradition foremost embodied the essential characteristics of the Silk Road itself; The religion developed almost as an exchange of ideas between the Eastern and Western cultures, culminating in an institutionalized religion. Every new region it spread to, the Manichaean tradition incorporated some aspect of the region’s religious practices or doctrine into its own, e.g. In China, the Manichaean veneration of the Buddha as a previous incarnation of the prophet Mani. The growth of the Manichaean tradition paralleled the growth of the Silk Road, starting out as a small Gnostic sectarian tradition with the advent of the Silk Road in Eurasia, reaching the peak of its influence at the height of the prominence of the Silk Road and finally declining and diminishing with the Silk Road itself. This research project is going to address the factors underlying the transmission of Manichaeism along the Silk Road, of how such a small Gnostic sect came to rival the Christian and Buddhist tradition at the height of its prominence along the Silk Road. The Manichaean pluralistic belief, inclusive of Christian Buddhist, Zoroastrian and indigenous doctrine, enabled and even catalyzed the spread of this tradition along the Silk Road, by providing a strong appeal to the locals, encouraging  its followers to become more broad-minded and adapting a religiously tolerant outlook and finally, by presenting its doctrine as the complete and unadulterated  truth.

One of the most significant ways in which the Manichaean pluralistic doctrine influenced the growth of the religious movement along the Silk Road from the Persian Empire all the way to China is through its strong appeal to the locals. The prophet Mani’s message was universalistic by nature, addressing all segments of the population. His teachings did not entail any discriminatory practices, making no distinction between the rich and the poor, the highly educated and the illiterate, different ethnic backgrounds etc. The core tenets of Mani’s teachings uses simple concepts such as the embodiment of light and darkness by good and evil forces, and does not require any sophisticated learning for its most basic comprehension. This egalitarian nature of Manichaeism played a significant role in attracting followers as the oppressed especially viewed this movement as a respite from the oppressive societies they were compelled to live in. However the majority of the concepts introduced by Mani were not incredibly innovative or completely new from the dominant religious ideologies of the time. His concepts of salvation and damnation, eschatological beliefs of the end of time, and of the ‘coming’ of a Messiah are all borrowed concepts from the preceding monotheistic traditions. Although in Manichean belief, there is no outright acknowledgement of a Divinity which is all-encompassing, there is a strong sense of belief in the god of light, which shows that Mani to an extent advocated a monotheistic belief. The common concepts found in Manichaeism did not hinder its growth, rather it drew people’s attention and provided them with a sense of familiarity. Manichaeism also drew attention from the general populace due to the prophet Mani’s claim that he had superseded the previous prophets of the region’s dominant traditions, namely Zoroaster, the Buddha and Jesus. Such a claim was essentially able to gain a following due to the rapid changes which were taking place in the regions due to the implementation and utilization of the Silk Road. The Silk Road not only radically changed the economic structures of the regions along its path, these changes also had substantial, far-reaching consequences on the social structures as well. Merchants gained a much higher prominence in society as there was a great increase in mercantile wealth with the advent of the Silk Road while the warrior classes’ influence and power greatly diminished. Such precarious times proved to be opportunistic for Mani as the people were accepting of the changes that were affecting their lives. Adapting to a new religious affiliation may have seemed viable at such a time as it complemented the transformative processes the social institutions were undergoing in the Silk Road regions.

In addition to appealing to the locals, Manichaean pluralistic belief enabled the tradition to travel along the Silk Road due to the religious toleration it was promoting among its followers. Mani’s inclusive outlook did not denounce any tradition which prevailed in the regions Manichaeism was being adopted in, and in fact Mani was placing very little emphasis in distinguishing between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ religious institutions. His whole-hearted embracement of Adam, Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus enabled his followers to regard the other prevailing traditions namely Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Christianity as valid religious institutions as well. The central figure of Jesus in Manichaean doctrine proved crucial in the adaptation and endurance of this tradition at certain places and at certain points in time. Christianity was a major force in the Silk Road at the time of Manichaeism’s inception, especially in the western domains all the way through to the Central Asian regions. Even though Christians may not have been the outright targeted population for conversion by Mani, he was well aware that his followers were only going to thrive and gain favour through the veneration of a common figure as their co-religionists. This particular veneration of Jesus also helped the Manichean community living along the South China Coast safeguard their religious practices from persecution, by being identified as Christians and thus gaining the approval of the local Chinese authorities. Other than incorporating the symbols and doctrine of dominant religious traditions, Manichaeism also incorporated the symbols and deities of indigenous traditions, in particular the Hindu deity Ganesha into its fold, demonstrated by the image available in the article, Manichaean art and calligraphy by Hans-Joachim Klimkeit. Mani was allegedly claiming to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, Lord Krishna, Zoroaster and Jesus depending on the context in which he was carrying out his preachings. Such strategic claims fostered a spirit of toleration among the Manicheans and the other religious communities and this particular feature greatly assisted them in gaining the approval of authorities to practice in different regions along the Silk Road.

The final key feature of the Manichaean pluralistic belief which facilitated the rapid growth of Manichaeism along the Silk Road was the presentation of the Manichaean doctrine as the complete and unadulterated truth. One of the features Mani consistently stressed on was that the religious traditions preceding Manichaeism were all various forms of the same truth. However, Mani preached that with the advent of his teachings, the preceding religions had become defunct and obsolete and Manichaeism was in fact presenting the most complete truth to humanity. This particular claim made by Mani paralleled one of the primary outcomes of the advent of the Silk Road, which is that all previous trading means had become defunct due to the new system of trading introduced by the Silk Road. The people living along the Silk Road were quite readily accepting of the new methods of exchange which were taking place and as a consequence were accepting new ways of doing things in general. Mani did not preach that his religious tradition was the only way of attaining salvation, he simply laid it out as the best, most efficient way of attaining it. Such a feature proved to fare quite prominently in the cultures Mani was addressing as the people of these regions at the time were looking for the most efficient means of conducting their affairs. The Silk Road for example, was the most efficient means of trading so this concept of Manichaeism being the most efficient means of attaining salvation made it greatly appealing thus drawing in a large number of locals. However, Mani’s truth was not significantly different from the truths professed by the prophets of the preceding religions. He professed a belief in good and evil and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Mani professed a belief in the saving grace of God, in sin and redemption. And finally he professed a belief in the end of time when a promise Messiah will come to save the earth from destruction. Such beliefs were not a complete innovation of Mani’s, they were borrowed mainly from the monotheistic beliefs of Christianity. His views, far from opposing the Christian doctrine were in fact complementary to the Christian beliefs, as they simply added a new dimension to it. Mani’s claims therefore, attracted a substantial following who entrusted their faith in this relatively new syncretistic movement in various cultural regions along the Silk Road.

It can be concluded that the Manichaean pluralistic doctrine enabled the spread of the tradition along the Silk Road in three main ways, by appealing to the local needs, by promoting religious toleration and finally by presenting itself as the complete and unadulterated truth to humanity. Even though at the height of its influence and power, Manichaeism even managed to rival the Catholic Church, the religious institution has not persisted till the present day and is now believed to be extinct. So the essential question one might ask is, how did this come to be? Manichaeism barely survived the collapse of the Silk Road, losing followers mainly through persecution and by conversion to other faiths. As the Silk Road was superseded by sea routes as a more efficient trading means, Manichaeism as a religious institution gave in as well, unable to develop a method of sustaining itself without the Silk Road. The parallel rise and fall of the Silk Route and the Manichean religious institution is a vivid example of the interdependence of social and economic institutions and can be strongly likened to the interdependence of institutions in the post-modern world today in which globalization has made the social and cultural institutions of the world increasingly more dependent on the capitalist economic system.


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