The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
The Persian origin of so considerable a portion of the Gnosis having been set forth in the foregoing pages, it remains to show what portion is due to a purely Indian source, and to indicate the channels through which a direct intercourse was carried on between the farthest east and the foci of Gnosticism, Alexandria and Ephesus. For the Christian Gnosis was indirectly the daughter of the Hindoo Gnosis, such as it was taught in the various mysteries; possibly in the Eleusinian and the Phrygian. For universal tradition made the first founder of mysteries, Bacchus, bring them direct from India; and Jove's μῆρος, the fabled birth-place of the god, may have been no other than Mount Meru, the Olympus of the Hindoo Pantheon. *
Certain Gnostic tenets concerning the duality of the Divine emanations, absorption into the god-head, asceticism, penance, and self-collection, are identical with the Buddhistic teaching upon the same points; of which agreement several remarkable examples will be adduced in their fitting place. But we are not left to mere conjecture on this point, for the actual circumstances of their importation from India are minutely detailed, in one case that doubtless had many parallels, by the laborious Epiphanius in his "Life of Manes," (Hæres. lxv.). †
This celebrated heresiarch, equally abhorrent to Zoroastrian and Christian orthodoxy, was by birth a Persian, named Cubricus; but who upon commencing his mission assumed the title of Manes, signifying in the Babylonian tongue "The Vessel," for the same reason, we may suppose, that Dante gives to St. Paul the epithet "Vas Electionis." This Cubricus had
been slave, and subsequently sole heir, to a certain wealthy widow who had inherited all the effects belonging to one Terminthus, surnamed in Assyrian "Buddas." This Terminthus had similarly been the slave of a rich Saracen merchant, Scythicus, who had studied the Greek language and literature in some place on the borders of Palestine (perhaps the school of Palmyra), and who "had there attained to eminence in the empty learning of this world." By constant journeys between his home and India, this Scythicus had amassed a large fortune. With this he settled down in Hypsele in the Thebaid, where he married a beautiful courtezan, whom he had bought and emancipated. "Here, out of sheer idleness and licentiousness, he set up to preach new doctrines, not derived from Scripture but from mere human reason."
These doctrines, from the nature of the case, can hardly have been of his own concoction, but, in all probability, things that he had picked up in India, where all the ancient emporia lay on the Guzerat Coast, the seat of the powerful Jaina (Buddhist) monarchy. A mere Eastern trader, a common Arab merchant who, after making his fortune by long and dangerous travels in the East, who could afterwards in advanced life set himself down to study, nay more, to attain proficiency in the Greek philosophy, must have been a man of no ordinary intellect. Assuredly it was not the mere want of anything better to do, (as his malicious biographer asserts), that made him turn preacher of a new religion. His marriage with the enfranchised courtezan looks like a theological addition, added to the portrait for the sake of so completing his resemblance to Simon Magus. The nature of the doctrines he was likely to imbibe in the great Indian marts, Baroche, Barcellore, Pultaneh, or in the semi-Grecian cities of Bactria, is attested to this day by the innumerable Buddhist temples and topes, with their deposit of relics yet studding the provinces this side of the Indus; and whose contents declare the flourishing state of that religion even when the country had passed under the rule of the Sassanian Kings of Persia.
But to return to Scythicus in his retirement: "Taking Pythagoras for guide, he composed four books, namely, 'The
[paragraph continues] Mysteries,' 'The Summary,' 'The Gospel,' and 'The Treasuries.'" (Pythagoras was then universally believed to have visited India, and there to have obtained the elements of his philosophy, which has a certain Brahminical character.) "After this, Scythicus made a journey to Jerusalem in the very times of the Apostles, and held conferences with the elders of the church upon the Origin of Evil, and such like points. But not being satisfied by their explanations, he took to preaching magic, the knowledge of which he had gotten along with his other wares from the Indians and Egyptians. But as he was showing off a miracle upon the roof of his house, he fell down and was killed. Upon this, his servant and sole disciple, Terminthus, instead of returning to his mistress at Hypsele, ran off with his money into Persia, where, in order to escape detection, he assumed the name of Buddas, which signifies "Wise." (This last fact proves incontestably the nature of the doctrines he and his master had been gathering up in their Indian travels; and the truth lying at the bottom of this story seems to be that he gave himself out for a fresh incarnation of Buddha, of which there had been seven * before his date.)
"This Terminthus was himself a man of learning and conversant with his master's four treatises. He lodged in the house of a widow, where he used to hold conferences with the priests of Mithras, especially with two, Parcus and Labdacus, upon the Two Principles, and similar subjects. He, too, having been killed by accident, like his master, his landlady kept possession of all his baggage, religious books included; and in her turn bequeathed them to her servant Cubricus, the afterwards so celebrated Manes."
It is necessary here to point out a certain violent anachronism in the story as told by Epiphanius. If Scythicus visited Jerusalem at all, he must have done so before the year of its destruction, A.D. 70. His disciple, Terminthus, could therefore not have survived far into the second century. The landlady of the latter could for this reason have hardly had for slave Manes, who flourished about two hundred years later. It is,
however, possible that the works plagiarised by Manes had been preserved in her family down to the period of his service in it.
In this history of Scythicus, however disguised by tradition, we have at one view the complete history of the rise and progress of Gnosticism. We find an Arab merchant of a subtle and inquiring mind, occupying himself during his long and frequent sojourns at the Indian marts in studying the philosophy of these prevailing religionists, the speculations of the Buddhist monks, and equally investigating the secrets of the "wisdom of Egypt," when detained at the other headquarters of the Eastern trade. Then retiring from business, he goes to Palmyra for the purpose of studying Grecian philosophy, as then taught in its school, which philosophy would be no other than Neo-Platonism; thence returning home, he occupies his leisure in reducing to one harmonious system the numerous conflicting theories upon subjects too high for human knowledge, which he had so laboriously collected from the three great fountains of philosophy--India, Egypt, and Athens.
Finally attracted by the fame of a new religion that professed to throw the clearest light upon all things relating to God and Man, being preached at Jerusalem, he immediately starts for the focus of this new light, leaving behind him wife and property, only accompanied by one servant, himself an educated man, and his own treasured theological speculations. On his arriving at the Holy City, we find him (as might be expected from his previous training) grievously disappointed in his hopes of at last obtaining the solution of all the problems that had so long occupied his thoughts--for on subjects of that kind the Christian Presbyters could tell no more than what he had learnt already from the Rabbis of Alexandria, or the Jaina monks of Guzerat. Thus disappointed, he appears to have set up himself for a teacher of a new and higher doctrine, supporting his pretensions (after the customary fashion of the times) by miracle-working; and as a matter of course getting his career speedily cut short, for Jerusalem was not the place where a new religion would be promulgated with impunity by a single individual,
and that too an Arabian. His disciple, Terminthus, taking warning by his fate, resolves to try another school of profound wisdom, formed from time immemorial, but as yet unvisited by his master, and proceeds to hold discussion with the Wise Men of the East at their head college in Babylon, seeking for the final solution of his difficulties in the doctrine of Zoroaster. It is very probable that he, as the result of this study, engrafted upon the system of Scythicus whatever features of the Zendavesta appeared to him the most satisfactory, and consistent best with his preconceived ideas of the truth. It would be interesting to know whether he shaped all these fresh acquisitions into conformity with the original Indian groundwork of his master's system. As already observed, such appears to have been his course from the title that he assumed, declaring himself an eighth "Buddha," successor to the famous Guatama, founder of the religion, and like him commissioned to teach a new way of salvation. Terminthus, like his master, came to an untimely end. The Magi were not members of a powerful establishment who would suffer themselves to be puzzled and confuted by an over-wise foreigner, disputing so boldly--
still less to allow him to go off exulting in his victory, as his asserted follower Manes likewise found to his cost.
Manes himself appears to have belonged to the order of Magi (probably being admitted after gaining his freedom and changing his name), for he is reported to have been famous for his skill in astrology, medicine, magic, and painting! This last is curious; it shows that the Magi, like the mediæval monks, monopolised the arts as well as the sciences of their times. Whether he conceived the scheme from the accidental acquisition of the writings of Scythicus or not (M. Matter supposes him to have got his first inspiration from some Egyptian Basilidan who had found his way into Persia), certain it is that he first gave to these notions a definite shape, and constructed his system with such skill that it spread not merely all over the East but throughout Europe. In the latter region its importance
is evinced by the fact (mentioned incidentally by Ammianus) that Constantine himself, before finally changing his religion, following the Apostolical precept "Try all things, hold fast that which is good," carefully studied the Manichæan system under the guidance of the learned Musonianus, whom we must suppose to have been a great doctor of the sect. * Nay more, this religion, after long seeming extinction from the pertinacious persecution of the Byzantine emperors, again blazed forth with extraordinary lustre in the Paulicianism of the Middle Ages.
The grand purpose of the scheme of Manes was the reconcilement of the two religions, which had by that time come to dispute the empire of the world--the flourishing, though still unrecognised Christianity of Rome, and the equally vigorous but newly revived Zoroastrism of Sassanian Persia. Calling himself the "Promised Paraclete," Manes accepted the gospel, but only after purifying it from all taint of Judaism, whilst he utterly rejected the Old Testament. But whilst Zoroaster makes all to begin in the harmony, and to end in the mutual reconciliation of the Two Principles, Manes declares these Two Principles immutable and existent from all eternity as they shall continue for ever to exist. His Good is Zoroaster's "Lord of Light"; but his Bad is Satan-Matter, deliverance from whose bondage is to be obtained only through the strictest asceticism. From the Christian Church he borrowed its institution of presbyters and deacons, being sensible how greatly that organisation had conduced to its rapid development, and in his own enterprise it met with almost equal success. Manes was a genuine Pantheist, teaching that God pervaded all things, even plants (of which tenet I subjoin a singular illustration from his once ardent follower, St. Augustine); he also adopted the entire theory of Emanations, exactly
as it was defined in the older Gnostic systems. St. Augustine's words are ('Confessions' iii. 10): "And I, not understanding this, used to mock at those holy servants and prophets of thine. * And what was I doing when I mocked at them, except that I myself was mocked at by thee, being seduced gently and by degrees into such absurdities as to believe that the fig weeps when it is plucked, and likewise its parent tree, with tears of milk? Which same fig, however, should any holy man eat, that is to say, after it has been plucked through the sin of another, not by his own, he would mingle with his bowels, and breathe out of it angels, nay more, particles of God himself, in his sighs and eructations whilst praying, which same particles of the Supreme and True God would have been bound up in that fruit, had they not been set at liberty by the tooth and stomach of the chosen saint; and I, like a wretch, believed that greater compassion ought to be shown unto the fruits of the earth than to man, for whose sake they were created. For if any one not a Manichæan, being an hungered, should ask for the same, it would have been thought a crime, worthy of capital punishment, if a single mouthful thereof were given to him." Compare the following rule of the Buddhist priesthood: "They will not kill any animal, neither root up nor cut any plant, because they think it has life." ('Ayeen Akbari,' p. 435.)
Manes invented a theory of salvation, so very whimsical that it ought to be inserted here, to recreate the wanderer in this dreary and dusky theological labyrinth. "When the Son came into the world to effect the redemption of mankind, he contrived a machine containing twelve bowls (cadi), † which being made to revolve by the motion of the spheres, attracts into itself the souls of the dying. These the Great Luminary (the sun) takes and purifies with his rays, and then transfers to the moon; and this is the method whereby the disk, as we call it, of the moon is replenished." Epiphanius triumphantly refutes this theory
by asking how the moon's disk was replenished during the nine hundred years that elapsed after the Creation before any deaths took place?
But the career of this inventive heresiarch was speedily brought to a close. The Persian king, Varanes I. (about the year 275), alarmed by the rapid spread of these new doctrines, convoked a General Council of the Magi to sit in judgment upon them; by whom the unlucky apostle was pronounced a heretic, and a traitor to his own brethren, and sentenced to be flayed alive.
42:* The bearer of the phallus (lingam) in the grand Dionysian procession celebrated by Ptolemy Philadelphus was blackened all over with soot, doubtless to indicate the native country of that very equivocal symbol.
42:† The earliest authority, however, (drawn upon by Epiphanius also), is the "Disputation of Archelaus and Manes," held at Charrae in A.D. 275-9. This book was written in Syriac, but is only extant in a Latin version.
44:* The seventh having been that Sakyal who, from Benares, diffused Buddhism all over the peninsula.
47:* "Constantinus enim cum limatius superatitionum quæreret sectas, Manichæorum et similium, nec interpres inveniretur idoneus, hunc sibi commendatum ut sufficientem elegit; quem officio functum perite Musonianum voluit appellari ante Strategium dictitatum." Ammianus xv. 6. The sainted Emperor's eulogists have carefully hushed up this trait of an inquiring spirit, anxious to weigh the relative merits of the existing rivals of Catholicism.
48:* Alluding to the Manichæan rejection of the Old Testament as a divine revelation.
48:† In the notion of this machine may be traced the influence of the study of Plato in the school of Palmyra, for it is unmistakably borrowed from the eight concentric basins set in motion, one inside the other, by the fingers of the Fates, so minutely described in the Vision of Er the Pamphylian.