Dr. R.  Banerjee (Chinese and Central Asian Scholar) Dr. R.  Banerjee


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R. Banerjee


Years ago, Indians used to talk about China's insularism, and the "Middle Kingdom" looking down at all foreigners as "barbarians", obviously taking the other quarter's disinformation with a pinch of sugar. Gradually, as our direct channel of information from China opens up, we see a Taj Mahal Being hidden behind high walls. The garden of art in China is a fascinating field with such magnificent varieties catching the eye. Here, I propose to deal with one of the varieties - the manichaean art and culture. With the opening up of the Silk Road trade as a result of explorations in Central Asia by Zhang Qian (the Ambassador of Han Emperor Wu), many religious ideas and art motifs and other things came to China from the West in the 2nd and 1st centuries B. C. Among them mention may be made of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. The history of Buddhism and Zoroastrianism in China is well known. Little attention, however, is paid to Manichaeism and the manner in which it spread to the east including Chinese Turkistan (now Xinjiang, i.e., the "new territory" in its Chinese name) and China, particularly the coastal provinces.

Manichaeism was propounded by a cultural reformer called Mani who was born in 216 AD in Cteshipan in Babylonia which was then part of Persia. Mani procalimed himself a prophet and the messenger of god in Babylon, although he was not of Babylonian origin, but an Iranian descendant. His father, Patil (Pattikos in the hellenized form) was native of Hamadan, and his mother, Maryam was a member of the princely family related to the  ruling Arsacid Dynasty. The name Mani is perhaps of Semitic origin, and the term Manichaios is a hellenization of the Aramaic Mani Hayya, Mani the Living. In Manichaen texts this epithet is often given to transcendental and benevolent things or beings. Mani is also called Mar (Aram, i.e. lord). His Chinese name, "Mo-mo-ni", is a version of Mar Mani - Lord Mani. The environment in which Mani spent his youth accounts for the strong elements of eclecticism and syncretism that were his teachings. Mani was brought up in a liberal atmosphere. His father, by temperament, was inclined to mysticism, and was devoted to the study of the religious sects.

Mani was an exceptionally gifted child and he inherited his father's mystic temperament. It is said that communications of s supernatural character came to him. He travelled far and wide including Turkistan (cin), India, Iran etc. with many disciples to carry out evangelism. After forty years of travel the returned with his retinue to Persia and converted Peroz, King Shapur's brother to his teaching. The Zoroastrian priesthood, however, hatched plots against Mani by poisoning the ears of the king. After a brief period of hiding Mani was captured and crucified at the age of 65.

Manichaeism may be regarded as a ramification of Gnosticism. Central to the Manichaen teaching was dualism, conceiving the world and all its creatures in the Great Divide between the good, represented by Light, and the bad, represented by Darkness - any Mani personified Light or was the God of Light. Mani had thus adopted Zoraster's dualistic doctrine of the fundamental struggle between light and darkness, soul and matter. He also drew from the teachings of the gentle and humane Buddha certain lessons for the conduct of life to be acceptable everywhere by mankind. This eclectic character was the strength and the basic nature of Manichaeism.

Mani lifted a leaf from Buddhism. He divided his followers into two categories. First, the Elect or Perfect, who led a life of celibacy and extreme austerity, exemplifying the highest standard of life, and who dedicated themselves to the task of preaching the doctrine. Women as well as men were received into the order. The Elect wore white robes, which covered their bodies entirely. Even the hands were not to be seen unless they had to work - then the need not be covered. Various types of headgear, which indicate the specific ranks of their bearers, were worn in addition to the uniform white robe. There is an interesting painting from Chotscho, that shows a high priest with a distinctive headgear which evidently belonged to the Elect. 

The head is encompassed by a solar disc and the crescent moon laid around it. Mani was venerated among the Uighurs as Kun ai tangri, esun-moon-godi.  The symbols of sun and moon occupy an important place in Manichaean cosmology and these two celestial bodies emit spiritual light and enlighenment. The second category of Mani's followers comprised the Auditors or Hearers as the laymen of the community were called. Both the elects and hearers are disciplined by Mani's ten commandments. Manichaeism keeps seven seals for its emblem. Four of these were doctrinal, comprising: (1) Love for the god-patriarch; (2) Faith in the sun and moon as the great orbs of light; (3) Reverence for the divine elements in Primal Man; and (4) A recognition of the inspired office of the great revealers of religions. The other three seals were of a moral and ethical nature relating to the standard to be observed in day to day life.

Manichaeism was a typical trans-regional and trans-cultural religious movement. Paradoxically, the writings of Europe from Britain (including the Encyclopaedia Britannica), Russia and other countries hardly mention the influence of Buddhism on Manichaeism, But, the scholars of China and Japan have highlighted this influence. We know that when Mani preached in Turan in India, the local people took him as the Buddha. The Manichaean documents in Sogdian script also described Mani as Buddha. All this points to the hybrid character of Manichaeism which was preached east of Iran as different from its other stream that penetrated into Europe and northern Africa. We, therefore, can divide the Manichaean religio-cultural movement into two: (1) Western Manichaeism and (2) Eastern Manichaeism. Western Manichaeism did not survive long. By the end of the 6th century there was hardly any trace of it in the Roman Empire. But, Eastern Manichaeism was quite tenacious, lasting beyond the first millennium of our common Era.

Modern enquiries on Manichaeism in China was sparked off by the discovery by Sir Aurel Stein in 1907 of several Manichaean texts in Chinese along with many thousands of Buddhist scrolls from cave no. 17 of the Dunhuang Grottoes. The Stein collection of Chinese manuscripts (now housed in the British Museum, London) comprises some important Manichaean compendium of the teaching of the Sect. The example of Sir Aurel Stein was followed by Professor Paul Pelliot of France. He was an eminent scholar conversant in Chinese language. During his expedition in Central Asia he paid a visit to the Dunhuang Grottoes and took away from there academically valuable Chinese manuscripts including Manichaean documents to Paris (which are housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale). Among these documents there is a small fragment of Manichaean text containing a summary of rules for the Manichaean religious organization.

Chinese scholars have begun to trace the genesis of Manichaeism in China and discovered the presence of its culture as early as the post-han period, around the 4th century. In Jin Shu (Annals of Jin Dynasty), there are two references which deserve our attention. There was a man named Liu Hong in Luoyang who gathered more than a thousand followers to his Guangming (light) belief which could be Manichaeism. (Jin Shu, Juan 86) Another man Hou Ziguang, also of the Jin Dynasty, said he was the son of the Budha coming from a foreign country named Daqin. He also gathered several thousand followers and proclaimed himself the "Great yellow Emperor". (ibid, Zaiji 6). He also could be a Manichaean convert having acquired his belief either in Europe (which was called Daqin) or in Asia Minor. 

The most intriguing thing lies in the two Dunhuang manuscripts collected by Pelliot which were the fragments of the Laozi hua hu jing (The Canon about Laozi's reincarnation in a foreign country). In the first juan (fascicle), it mentions that 450 years after the passing away of Laozi, he flew to a neighbouring country in a gust of air of ziran guangming dao (the natural and bright Tao) passing through the Sunyata, and was born as a prince. Then, he left the palace and joined Tao, assumed the title of Momoni and turned the Dharmacakra (the wheel of truth). Then, he preached erzong (Two doctrines) and sanjie (three worlds). This discovery sparked off a warmth of interest among Chinese scholars who made inquiries about the text of Laozi hua hu jing which was authored by a Taoist priest, Wang Fu, during the Jin Dynasty in the 4th century AD. Here, Wang Fu seemed to be using the information from Manichaeism to achieve his aim - making belief that Buddha was an incarnation of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi, who was revered as the patriarch of Taoism.







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