The Sassanian Dynasty ruled over Iran for more than four centuries (226-642 A.D.) to all outward appearance with great splendour and glory. Yet when the Sassanian Empire came to grips with the desert Arabs, inspired with the new Gospel of Islam, the whole of this vast and splendid fabric crumbled to pieces within a short time. There was something essentially wrong in the body politic of Iran from the very commencement of Sassanian rule. Hidden underneath the outward splendour and the vast military achievements of the Sassanians there lurked the germs of decay.
All through the four centuries of Sassanian rule Zoroastrianism continued to be the "official state religion", but historians have also spoken of several "heretical sects". Apparently these were suppressed, but "we lack here the material necessary for forming a judgment because the triumph of the orthodox doctrine doomed to oblivion most of the views that deviated from it". In spite of this outward triumph of Zoroastrian orthodoxy, the fact remains that quite a number of "heresies" were formulated from time to time and two of them actually found a very considerable response among the masses. One such heresy was promulgated by Mani at the very beginning of the Sassanian era and another was the "heresy" preached by Mazdak almost at the end of the rule of the Sassanians. "It may be suggested that the simple fact of the existence of such heretical movements as Manichaeanism and Mazdakism is an indication of the presence of those germs of decay which foreshadowed the final downfall of the national faith in Persia".
The Sassanian Dynasty was established by Ardashir Papakan of the house of Sasan in the year 226 A.D. Ardashir headed the national revolt against the fratricidal struggles and the irreligious misrule of the Arsacid (Parthian) rulers of Iran. The Arsacid rulers were Zoroastrians in name, but they thought more of their own power and position than of their country of their religion. Politically the nation had suffered in the eyes of all the world, for the national capital had been taken and sacked by the Romans no less than three times within the course of one hundred years. Added to this shame were the "irreligious" and unorthodox ways of the Arsacid rulers, which gave mortal offence to Ardashir and his zealous followers. Ardashir headed the national movement against the Arsacids, who, the people believed, had led the country to the brink of utter ruin. The province of Pars (Persis) over which Ardashir had been ruling was the centre and rallying point of whatever was left alive of the ancient Zoroastrian Faith. Ardashir and his followers believed that it was only by the restoration of the ancient religion that a stable rule could be established and the people made content. Fired by this enthusiasm Ardashir led the double movement for the restoration of the ancient Faith of Zoroaster and for the establishment of the pure Aryan form of government in the land.
Ardashir himself was a priest, and his priesthood had been inherited from a long line of ancestors. The whole nation rose to his call, and Ardashir was wholly successful in both his objects. And when he died in 242 A.D. he left his newly founded empire to his son Shapur I. And whit it he left the following "testament" for his son to follow:
"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 interwined set up
"Before the wise....
"Each needeth other, and we see the pair
"United in beneficence".
Believing in this Ardashir had established a full-fledged theocracy in Iran. Himself a priest he followed strictly all the complicated ceremonial prescribed by his Faith, and like an enthusiastic and sincere believer he built up his empire upon the solid foundations of religion. This is clearly depicted on his coins, as also on all the coins minted throughout the Sassanian period. On the reverse of each coin we see a fire-altar flanked on either side by a human figure fully armed. One of these represented royalty, the secular power; and the other represented the Dasturan-Dastur (the High-Priest of the Empire), representing spiritual might. These are the "two brothers".
In this theocratic state established by Ardashir I there lurked already concealed the germs of decay. Such a theocratic constitution would naturally give special weight to the priesthood of one particular religion, and give special importance to one particular set of beliefs and dogmas. The Achaemenians had ruled over an empire much more extensive than that of the Sassanians, but their religious policy had been throughout one of tolerance toward all the various faiths of their subjects. The Sassanians, on the other hand, sought to achieve solidarity and unity through uniformity of belief (at least for the majority of their subjects) and in definitely assigning a higher position in the state to one particular Faith and to one set of religious practices and dogmas. This favoured position granted to Zoroastrianism naturally led the Zoroastrian clergy to think themselves as a sort of "chosen people" of God and slowly but surely worked into them a spirit of intolerance for all other beliefs.
It is indeed quite significant that the very first announcement of the new eclectic Faith of Mani should have been made on the very day that Shapur I, the son and successor of the founder of the Sassanian house, was crowned at Ctesiphon (20th March, 242 A.D.).
In Mani's own lifetime and in the country of its origin this new faith was "combated and execrated as violently by orthodox Zoroastrianism as it was by orthodox Christianity when it spread westward into the imperial domains of Rome". Until the beginning of the present (20th) century of Christ all the information we possessed about Mani and his teaching was from these two sources and we had nothing more. The Zoroastrian priesthood called him "the fiend incarnate" and "the crippled devil" (for he was lame), and Christian writers were equally abusive.
In 1902-1903 the first expedition to the Turfan region in Central Asia was sent from Berlin and it was led by Gruenwedel and Huth. This was followed by the second one in 1904 led by Le Coq, and by a third one led by Le Coq and Gruenwedel. This last carried on the work from 1905 to 1907 and it resulted in bringing "a veritable treasure trove" of Manichaean Fragments to Berlin. These documents from Turfan include fragments from the original works of the Manichaean Faith, and considerable portions of a once extensive Manichaean literature. These are in a dialect of Pahlavi, in Sogdian, in Old Turkish and in Chinese. All these have been deciphered and skilfully edited and translated, and they have shed considerable light on Mani's life and teachings. From these we can conclude that "Manichaeism was not only an offshoot of Zoroastrianism in a way, and the parent of various heretical movements in Christianity, but was also a factor for centuries in the religious life of Central and Eastern Asia".
Mani was a Persian by birth and was probably also brought up as a Mandaean 1. His father was a well-to-do man of considerable learning and with distinctly eclectic tendencies in matters of religion. Mani was born about 216 A.D. At the age of about twenty he had a spiritual vision and inspired by divine revelation he came forward as a new prophet. His endeavour was to make "a synthesis of elements from various existing religions to form a new religion, eclectic in character, and inspired by the favour of his own idealistic enthusiasm, one that should not be confined by national borders but be universally adopted. In other words, Mani's aspiration was to bring the world, Orient and Occident, into closer union through a combined faith, based upon the creeds known in his day".
Mani's teaching is designedly a synthesis. He has specially acknowledged his indeptedness to Zoroaster, buddha and Jesus, whom he regarded as "poineer revealers of truth which he came to fulfil". From Zoroastrianism he took the doctrine of the fundamental struggle between Spirit and Matter as the basis for the solution of the problem of Good and Evil. In the teachings of Buddha he found the essential lessons for the conduct of life which should be accepted by all men everywhere. And in Jesus he recognized "the verified ideal of Life". He supplemented his teaching by incorporating the doctrines of Hinduism, and the old Babylonian beliefs which had survived to his days. And in his teaching we may also trace a strong admixture of Gnostic, Neo-platonic doctrines. This eclectic character of Mani's teaching made it easier to be adopted by any person professing any faith, for they would pass themselves off as a sect of their original creed. As it was Mani's teaching was received kindly at first, and even King Shapur I became his friend and protector.
But this new teaching did not quite suit the orthodox and narrow-minded Zoroastrian priesthood. Opposition to Mani's views grew stronger daily and at least Shapur I had to advise Mani to leave the country and to go into exile. Mani thereupon left Iran and for many years wandered about all over Central Asia, penetrating as far east as China. It was during these years of wandering that he gave final shape to his teachings, which were then committed to writing. His creed spread rapidly throughout Central Asia and he had a considerable number of followers among the Chinese. His faith continued in the East till about the 17th century of Christ.
Mani remained in exile till the death of Shapur I in 272 A.D. He came back to Iran and was well-received by Shapur's successor Hormazd I. But when Hormazd I died after a very short reign (272-273 A.D.) his successor, Bahram I, showed his strong dislike for Mani by putting him to a horrible death. His followers were cruelly persecuted and the Faith of Mani was banned throughout the whole Iranian Empire. So his followers migrated westward and southward. Passing through Egypt the religion spread all along the northern coast of Africa and from there it penetrated to Sicily and to Spain and thus spread all over Europe. For several centuries it continued active all over Europe disguised as various "heretical" sects of Christianity. One very notable Manichaean was St. Augustine, who was brought up in this Faith in his youth before he took up his active work for the Church of Christ. In Bulgaria Manichaeism appears as the sect of the Bogomil (beloved the God), in Italy it appeared as the Cathari, another "heretical" sect. The last record of this religion is found among the Albigensis in southern France, who were ruthelessly massacred by the orthodox Catholics there.
In the East the stranghold of the Manichaeans was the kingdom of the Uigurs, and there they flourished in peace until the Uigurs themselves lost their kingdom. In China they seem to have faded out gradually.
The main teaching of Mani concerned the struggle between Good and Evil. This is due, according to him, to the existence of the Twin Principles from the beginning and the struggle is to go to all eternity. Mani taught that Light was Spirit and hence "good" and that Darkness was Matter and consequently "evil", Mani recognized three principal "Ages". The first "Age" was before this visible universe came into being, when the Two Principles were entirely separated. In the second "Age" our present age, Darkness burst through the dividing partition into the region of Light, and this resulted in universal conflict. The third "Age", which will see the final consummation, will bring the final triumph of Truth and Light and the complete separation, as in the first "Age", of the Realm of Light and the Realm of Darkness.