Monday, January 19, 2004

Mazdak and Mani

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 had been a really great personage and the founder of a new Faith. But no such finds have yet been discovered to rehabilitate Mazdak.
The Mazdakites were socially radical religious sectarians who dominated Iranian politics in the late CE 5th and early 6th Centuries. Mazdak of Fesa, building on foundations laid by earlier heterodox religious leaders from the same part of the country, apparently taught that good and evil are everywhere randomly mixed, even in the nature of God, and that the adept who mastered the occult correspondences governing the universe had no need of outward religious formalities.
Mazdak advocated a social program of vegetarianism, pacifism, anti-clericalism, and utopian communism. When the Emperor Kavadh (Ghob√Ęd), locked in struggle with the high aristocracy and perhaps seeking lower class support, converted to the new religion, Mazdak was able to start putting these theories into practice on a vast scale, opening government warehouses to the poor and closing all but three of the kingdom's Fire Temples. Mazdak's teaching was accepted by the masses very quickly. 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.
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.
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.
In remote areas, Mazdakism lingered for centuries, eventually becoming hard to distinguish from Central Asian Buddhism which it had always in some ways resembled. Later Islamic writers often use "Mazdakite" (like "Manichee") as simply a generic word for "heretic".

Picture of King Kavad I: