Religion in Iran

Mazdakism
By: I.J.S. Taraporewala


Just as Mani's eclectic Faith was a pointer at the germs of decay in the Sassanian body-politic, so also Mazdak's teaching was a pointer at the inevitable downfall towards which the Sassanian Empire was heading. Mani came within one generation of the establishment of Sassanian rule in Iran; Mazdak came towards the end of that rule, about a century before the Empire was overthrown by the Arabs. Both these movements were fiercely and ruthlessly uprooted in the land of their origin, and to all outward appearance it seemed as if the authority of the theocratic state was amply vindicated. But the triumph over Mazdakism was short-lived. There is another similarity between these two movements: Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic writers have poured unbounded vituperation against both. These unfriendly writings are our only sources of information regarding the teachings of Mazdak. As regards Mani a great deal of new and valuable information has come to light since the Turfan discoveries in 1902. These have shown Mani have to been a really great personage and the founder of a new Faith. But no such finds have yet been discovered to rehabilitate Mazdak.

Still Mazdakism may be viewed as a symptom which indicated a deep-seated cancer in the body-politic of Sassanian Iran. Therefore we should judge this movement after accepting the principle embodied in the saying, "By their fruits shall ye know them".

The founder of the Sassanian dynasty was one of the supermen of history. He was a born leader of men and he led his country and his people to a renovated existence. A man of great fixity of purpose, he carried out to the full the task he had set before himself, and he left to his son a newly established empire, a renovated religion and hundreds of well-trained and enthusiastic men and women ready to carry on the work to its fulfilment. Shapur I, the son of the founder, Ardashir I, was worthy of his father, for he also was a great leader, far above the average. He established the new empire and completed the task of the revival of Zoroastrianism to the satisfaction of all concerned. He loyally carried out his father's admonition, regarding Faith and Royalty as brothers. He fixed firmly and finally the theocratic constitution of the newly established Sassanian empire. By this Zoroastrian clergy acquired powers second only to those possessed by the king himself. And naturally also the landed aristocracy of Iran came in for a good share of political power and emoluments.

Of course, it was never the intention of either Ardashir I or of Shapur I that these two great sections of Iranian society the Zoroastrian clergy and the landowners - should become the oppressors of the masses. As long as the king at the top was a strong man he could hold both these sections in check and could stand between them and the masses. Both Ardashir I and Shapur I understood that the masses would give full support and would be loyal to the state provided they got justice from their king, and so both these rulers were eager to see that justice was done to the meanest of their subjects.

But once the strong hand of the king at the top was removed the two powerful sections would naturally try to consolidate their own power over the masses and to gain new privileges. In justice, however, to the Zoroastrian clergy it must be mentioned that the spread of Christianity throughout Iran was a constant and growing menace to the newly revived Zoroastrian religion. To add to these difficulties the Christian Roman empire was steadily growing more and more menacing and truculent. Rome was always trying to find some pretext to make war on Iran, nor was Iran at all behind to find excuses for a fight. Armenia, which held a strategic position between the two empires, was itself torn by the religious strife of the Armenian Zoroastrians and Christians; and Rome and Iran being both theocratic, the affairs in Armenia almost always kindled the flames of war. And in these wars the landholders were ever an important factor for they ensured the victories of Iran. And so we find the power of both the Zoroastrian clergy and of the Iranian landholding aristocracy daily growing stronger and more firmly established. When the king was a man of easy-going and pliable temperament both these sections consolidated their gains and tried to acquire yet more. And all this was at the expense of the masses.

Ardashir I and Shapur I did all they could to ensure that the masses got a fair deal. But when they were gone a succession of weaker men ruled the empire from 272 to 309 A.D., which gave time enough to the wasted interests to work their will in the state.

Then came Shapur II (the Great), a unique figure in history. He was a posthumous son, and the succeeded to the empire before he was born. The vested interests naturally looked forward to a fairly long period of minority (at least fifteen years) and they had hopes of moulding the baby king's character to suit their own purposes. But Shapur was a superman, even greater than the first two rulers of his line and at a very early age he gave clear indications that he had a mind of his own and a will also to get whatever he wanted, and that he was a true-born ruler of men. Shapur II wished to curb the powers of the Zoroastrian clergy and of his landholders, for he was wise enough to appreciate the dangers if these were left unchecked. But other events outside Iran forced him to side with his clergy and his aristocracy. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, carried away by his zeal for Christianity, proclaimed himself to be the spiritual head of all the Christian in the world (including, of course, the Christians of Iran). This was more than Shapur II, the proudest of the Sassanians, could tolerate. The poor Christians of Iran found themselves placed in a very false position, torn between two loyalties, to the king of their own country and to the head of their faith, the Roman emperor. Whenever there was war between Iran an Rome (which was practically always0 the Christian of Iran looked upon as foes and "fifth columnists" and had to pay the penalty. This gave the vested interests of good opportunities to launch fierce persecutions against the Christians, to which Shapur II, with his offended pride, was not unwilling to lend his support. So on the whole during the long reign of Shapur II (lasting for seventy years) the vested interests had their own way more or less in spite of the strong king.

After Shapur II came a long succession of very ordinary kings and during over one hundred years (379-487 A.D.) there was only one king who was really well above the average. That was Bahram V (Bahramgore, the Hunter of the Wild Ass), but he was busy most of the time with wars with the Huns. One important event happened in the days of Bahram V and that was the final separation of the Iranian Christian Church from the Orthodox Church of Byzantium. The fratricidal strife between the Christians and the Zoroastrians had been going on with ever-increasing ferocity and bitterness ever since the days of Shapur II. Thousands had lost their lives; the manhood of Iran was slowly but surely being bled to death. But after the separation of the Iranian Christian Church from Byzantium the Christians found comparative peace. Still the religious hatred and fanaticism on both sides were of too long a growth to die out completely. Violent polemical writings continued on both sides.

Meanwhile the masses were being ground down relentlessly by the vested interests and seem to have sunk to the deepest depths of poverty and misery. The unsuccessful wars of Firuz I (459-483) against the Huns added to the prevailing discontent. The conditions in Iran soon after the death of Firuz I were almost exactly the same as those prevailing in France on the eve of the French Revolution or in Russia at the end of the First World War. The fruits of these centuries of oppression were soon to be visible in the revolutionary and communicate preaching of Mazdak, who began his work about 488 A.D.

We can but make a guess at the social conditions of Iranian masses by observing the extra violent language in the preaching of Mazdak and in the extremes to which his doctrines went. Even more significant was the extreme rapidity with which Mazdak's teaching was accepted by the masses. Within the course of a few months his followers could be counted by the hundred thousand: and in every part of the vast empire they were drawn from every stratum of society from the king downwards. The king at that time was Kawadh (488-531 A.D.) and in the beginning he openly declared his sympathies with the new preaching. But the vested interests were seriously perturbed and so strongly were they entrenched that the king was forced to leave his throne for a few years (499-501).

Mazdak might well be termed the first Bolshevik in history. Indeed, in some respects Bolsheviks might be regarded as lukewarm compared to Mazdak; he not only preached communism in worldly possessions but he also advocated an equal division of women among men.

When Kawadh was restored to the throne in 501 A.D. he was made wiser by experience and he withdrew his open support of the Mazdakites. He clearly recognized the seed from which this terrible tree of Mazdakism had grown, and he tried his best during the remaining thirty years of his reign to see that the conditions of the masses were made more tolerable. But he was not strong enough to remove the root causes of Mazdakism. That was reserved for a far greater man than Kawadh. It was his son Khusrav I, known to all Orient by his title Noshiravan, who freed Iran from the Mazdak frenzy.

Khusrav was the favourite son of Kawadh and had been his father's closest friend and consellor during the closing years of Kawadh's reign. Khusrav was easily the greatest ruler Iran ever had. Indeed, he may rank among the six greatest kings in the history of the world. He clearly saw the imminent danger to both the state and the religion from Mazdak's teaching and the first thing he did was to suppress the movement with an iron hand. But at the same time he saw justice done to the masses. Like a good physician he removed not merely the symptoms of the disease but he removed the disease itself. With equal firmness he brought under control the oppressors of the masses. Quite early he won the title of 'Adl' (the Just), for Justice was his watchword. Under his strong and just rule peace and prosperity returned to Iran, and the masses were satisfied. For this achievement his grateful subjects with one voice called him Anushak-Ruban or Noshirwan (he of the immortal soul). To posterity he is known as Noshirwan alone, the most glorious name ever bestowed upon an earthly ruler.

Mazdak was certainly a successor of Mani, because his movement was not merely social but was essentially religious. His extreme ideas were certainly a menace both to society and to religion. They certainly threatened the very existence of Zoroastrian priesthood, and so very naturally he was violently abused by Zoroastrian writers. He has been called Ashemaogha (a disorter of truth) and one commentator on a religious text explains this epithet by adding, "like Mazdak, the Son of Bamdad". The mildest epithet used for him by Zoroastrians is "accursed".

Mazdak's ideas are a natural corollary to the state of Iran in his days, and to the condition of the masses that he had seen with his own eyes. He felt himself obliged to preach extreme communism and an absolute community of possessions, including women. Very likely he was moved by the idea that desperate diseases need desperate remedies. At the same time he also preached a higher ideal of life. He pointed out the value of self-restraint and renunciation of all sense-pleasures including animal food. For this last teaching he has been called "the devil who would not eat". He asserted that the desire for pleasure and possessions constituted the universal cause of all hatred and strife. He also like Mani laid stress on Zoroaster's teaching of the two essential principles of Good and evil which pervade our life on earth. He also enjoined the strict purity of God's "elements", fire, water and earth. But we have very scanty positive knowledge of what he actually taught.

Mazdak was treacherously murdered and many of his closest adherents lost their lives at the same time. Then followed a systematic suppression of all Mazdakites, often with much bloodshed. But though outwardly uprooted and completely destroyed the teachings of Mazdak continued to flourish for several centuries after his murder. Under the rule of the Islamic caliphs of Baghdad several "heretical sects" have been noted by historians. They all seemed to get their inspiration from the teachings of Mazdak, for they cite him as their authority. But what is more surprising and very significant is that many of these "heretical sects" have coupled the name of Mazdak with that of Zoroaster, the Prophet of ancient Iran.