It’s just better to promote love and fairness and equality than it is to promote something you think is based on your religious beliefs. (Jane Wiedlin)

Egalitarian movements are nowadays very well known and they are usually associated with the period of Enlightment. With their peak in the 19th century, there can be found a variety of egalitarian movements across Europe and the rest of the World. However, they have not emerged in the 18th century, but they existed in Antiquity as well. This confirms the philosophical claim that people have always aspired to liberty. Mazdakism is one of these egalitarian movements from late Antiquity. It originated in the Sassanid Empire and even in the short period of time was accepted by the ruler himself mainly because of its attractiveness regarding Mazdak’s teachings about dealing with poverty and his disrespect for the Zoroastrian priests. This proved once again that religion is a very powerful tool of manipulation.

Mazdak was a Zoroastrian priest and a religious reformer who lived from the end of the 5th to the middle of 6th century A.D. Known as the Accursed, Zoroastrian priests regarded him as a heterodox who observed fasts, who appeared to cause disturbance among the faithful. He initially agreed with the fundamental doctrine of Zoroastrianism in respect to the antithesis between the two principles, Light and Darkness, or Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) and Ahriman. Mazdak’s teachings were in opposition to Manichaeism[1] because Mazdakism didn’t have a tendency towards a universal religion, but for the rebuilding of the Zoroastrian faith. Mazdakism, like Zoroastrianism, had a dualistic cosmology and, according to that, a dualistic worldview. Mazdak taught that there were two original principles: Light (the good) and Darkness (the evil). By a certain cosmic accident these two were mixed and started tainting everyone except God. Light is characterized by knowledge and feeling, acts on purpose, voluntarily, has insight and is perceptive. On the other side, Darkness is ignorant and blind and acts at random, by chance. This mixture has come to be by chance and at random, not on purpose and not on free will and, likewise, the deliverance (Light from Darkness) takes place at random, not by option. Mankind’s role in this life was to release, through good conduct, the parts of itself that belonged to Light. But where Manichaeism saw the mixture of good and bad as a cosmic tragedy, Mazdak viewed this in a more neutral, more optimistic way. [2]

Regarding the ethical area of Mazdak’s teachings, he constructs some of the most fantastic synthesis of oriental passivism and western activism with a certain portion of communist ideas from the Greek philosophy of the state. On one side, Mazdak accepts the principle of ascetism that comes from India. Only knowledge with its inner light can disperse the chaos of the material world. The only way of freeing oneself from the corrupt world is by abandoning the goods and values of that corrupt world. On the other side, Mazdak tries to develop a valid theory of society and state. According to his teachings, just ascetism is not enough, abandoning the goods and values of the corrupt world needs to be a path to the cleansing of oneself and to the objective harmonizing of the elements, which have become the prey of chaos. This is one of the main reasons why Mazdak is fighting for an ideal state. He asserts that the basis for leaving the materialistic world is the act of rejecting his own property and his women. Land and women (who were, according to Mazdak, the reason for discord, hatred and war) or, more accurately said, the principles of food and fertility must be a public good.[3]

At the very moment when the Zoroastrian church, who was tied to the state, found out about the new religious movement, Mazdakism was proclaimed a heresy. In the eyes of the established Zoroastrian church tied to the state the heretics were of several kinds: those who were unobservant of ceremonies and rituals, those who had secret doctrines and those who interpreted the Avesta very differently. There were even theological differences among the priests tied to the state and the state nominally supported these priests and allowed them to function.[4]

Mazdakites were also the advocates of free love, the founder himself rendered partners to his followers. Union of love is regarded as a partnership in fire, water and pasture and it is related to Mazdak who enjoined upon the subduing of passions so as to deliver the soul from evil and prevent the further mixing with darkness regarding the soul. Mazdakism was founded on the following primal principles: three elements (Fire, Water and Earth) and four Powers (Discernment, Understanding, Preservation and Joy), which corresponded to the four chief officials of the Sassanid state, seven Viziers and twelwe Spiritual Forces. When the Four, the Seven and the Twelve are united in a human being, that person is no longer a subject to religious duties. The idea of merging primal principles was a main point of criticism of the Zoroastrian clergy who was focused on the oppression of the Persian population, thus contributing to the increase of poverty and not concerning too much about spirituality of Zoroastrianism.[5]

Everyone, according to Mazdak’s teachings, should be given equal opportunity and equal share of the earthly possessions of God. But that natural order has been upset by the aggressive individuals for their own interests. Society should therefore return to that original ideal state. These revolutionary teachings thrived for a time in Sasanian Iran, and exercised a powerful fascination on the people. The crisis was brought to a head when, far from taking any initiative to stamp out the heresy, the king Kavadh I encouraged it, and finally converted to the heresy, thus turning himself and Mazdak into “socialist rulers”.[6]

You can read the second part of the article here.

References Veljačić, Čedomil, Filozofija istočnih naroda, Matica Hrvatska, Zagreb, 1958 Shaki, Mansour, The cosmogonical and cosmological teachings of Mazdak, Acta Iranica, Leiden, 1985, 527-543 Daryaee, Touraj, Sasanian Persia. The rise and fall of an empire, I.B. Tauris, London, 2009. [1] Dualistic religion which originated in 3rd century A.D. Persia and later spread through the Middle East and the Mediterranean until 6th century. It explains the world as a fight between good and evil, on the basis of the Old and New Testament, Buddha and Zarathustra tries to create a new religious syntesis. [2] Shaki, Mansour, The cosmogonical and cosmological teachings of Mazdak, Acta Iranica, Leiden, 1985, 527-543 [3] Veljačić, Čedomil, Filozofija istočnih naroda, Matica Hrvatska, Zagreb, 1958. [4] Daryaee, Touraj, Sasanian Persia. The rise and fall of an empire, I.B. Tauris, London, 2009 [5] Shaki, Mansour, The cosmogonical and cosmological teachings of Mazdak, Acta Iranica, Leiden, 1985, 527-543 [6] Daryaee, Touraj, Sasanian Persia. The rise and fall of an empire, I. B. Tauris, London, 2009 photo source