Mani (c. 216–277), a self-proclaimed "apostle of Christ" who spoke in Syrian, a version of the Aramaic language in which Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) taught, proclaimed that his church would preach a universal religion that would be for all people, regardless of nationality or tongue. The well-educated child, born to a Persian family that lived near Babylon and who worshipped with the Elkesaites, fell under the influence of Gnostic teaching and began to devise a philosophy that saw life on Earth as a constant struggle between good and evil. When he was only 12, Mani experienced his first religious vision and perceived an angelic being who declared itself his heavenly twin and who promised always to be Mani's helper and protector. When he was 24, the twin appeared again, and he instructed the young visionary that it was now time to leave the Elkesaite community and to begin his public ministry.
Mani believed that his visions qualified him to preach a new gospel that combined the words and works of Jesus with other great messianic teachers. He sought to pattern his life after that of St. Paul (d. 62–68 C.E.), and he called himself an apostle through the will of Christ before he set out on his extensive missionary travels. However, unlike Paul, Mani believed, as did so many Christian heretics, that as the Son of God Jesus could not have been born of a woman and he would never have subjected himself to a death upon a cross. In true apostle fashion, however, Mani did heal the sick and the lame, and he did perform miracles. In addition, he wrote seven holy texts, ranging from a collection of his letters to his "Living Gospel" and his own version of the "Acts of the Apostles."
According to Mani's theology, in the beginning of the universe the powers of good and evil, light and dark, were placed in two different spheres. The Father of Greatness personified the principle of goodness and light, the divine and the spiritual. The Prince of Darkness represented the principle of evil and the material. Over time, the world became a place of constant struggle and turmoil between an evil kingdom of darkness and the particles of light and goodness that had eventually become ensnared in matter. To assist him in the great battle, the Father of Greatness created the Mother of Life, who produced Primordial Man as an instrument of light to combat the powers of darkness. With the assistance of the Living Spirit, a second divine personage fashioned by the Father of Greatness, Primordial Man fought the forces of the Prince of Darkness. In the process of the great struggle, the physical Earth was created as a kind of by-product of the raging cosmic energies. Although Primordial Man was defeated by the Prince of Darkness and his children devoured by the monster, enough of their light leaked out to enable the Third Messenger, another creation of the Father of Greatness, to rescue them. Humans were later produced by the mating of demons who had inadvertently swallowed particles of light, and it would be Jesus who would at last awaken human beings to the spiritual realization that they each contained a spark of the divine light within them.
Mani taught that continued spiritual warfare was an unpleasant fact of life on Earth, and it was being conducted daily in the hearts and minds of all human beings. By responding to Mani's Gospel of Light, a person could awaken to the persistent earthly dualism of good and evil and activate the particles of goodness trapped within his or her own fleshly bodies. Once these elements of light had been released, the newly awakened individuals could hope to progress to a higher existence in the afterlife. While they remained in their bodies on Earth, however, they must accept their state of sin and acknowledge that they would never be able to conquer the state of wickedness that encompassed the physical world. Those whom Mani deemed "the Elect" would rise directly to the kingdom of light when they died; those "hearers," individuals who had merely heard the Gospel of Light being preached, would have the opportunity of experiencing additional incarnations before achieving such elevation. All disbelievers, those who rejected Mani's gospel, were destined to hell when Jesus returned to bring about the end of the world.
Manichaeans were taught that the particles of light and goodness remained trapped in evil matter and that all living things, including plant life, were sentient beings to be respected. Hunting and meat-eating were forbidden, and Manichaeans were strict vegetarians. Later, when Mani had a vision of vegetables screaming as they were about to be pulled from the ground, gardening and farming were also discouraged. To solve the dilemma of what food his followers might partake for nourishment, he advised the eating of melons, fleshless vegetables of concentrated goodness and light, that separated themselves from the parent vine when they were mature.
Mani first traveled to India with his new Gospel of Light, then turned back to Persia at the summons of Emperor Shapur I (d. 272), who became a strong adherent of the young man's universal religion, gave Mani permission to preach throughout his kingdom. In spite of the support of Shapur I, the Magi, the official Zoroastrian clergy who had unrivaled supremacy in Persia for many centuries, detested Mani and believed his "new" religion to be nothing more than an amalgamation of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, and a wide assortment of other doctrines. At the instigation of the Magi, Persia's next ruler, Bahram I, who ruled from 273–276, ordered Mani arrested, interrogated, then executed, his head impaled on the city gates and his body thrown to the dogs.
Mani's death did little to thwart the zeal of the ever-growing number of new Manichaean missionaries, and his religion came to be preached in eleven languages and spread from North Africa to China; there it continued to thrive as a living faith from the T'ang dynasty (618–907) to the 1930s. In Europe, Manichaeism remained quite strong in Sicily, Spain, and southern France until the sixth century. Although the sect posed little threat to the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, the term "Manichaean" was used interchangeably with "heretic." Elements of Manichaeism have survived in minor ways in various secret societies, most frequently in its symbolism.