The Mandaean Religion of Iraq – Exploring the World Religions
By James Bean
Copyright January 1998 – All Rights Reserved
The story of the Mandaeans (Man-day-yens) somewhat resembles the experience of Native American tribes; may they survive; may their ancient wisdom be shared with humanity.
In the 1970’s professor Kurt Rudolph wrote his definitive book on the nature and history of the Gnostic religion called, “Gnosis.” In the chapter titled, “A Relic: the Mandaeans,” he recorded that at the time there were only about 15,000 Mandaeans left and the number of Mandaean priests were rapidly dwindling. He described them as a community in somewhat of a state of crisis not only due to a shortage of priests but also because of the growing spiritual and cultural gap between the elders (who are the keepers of the ancient Knowledge) and the younger generations of Mandaean laity. Kurt Rudolph wrote, “The continued existence of the community will essentially depend on whether or not it succeeds in solving the problem of a necessary adaptation to the modern world. Only in this way will the oldest Gnostic religion, with its two millennia of history in which it developed its independent Aramaic idiom and lifestyle as did no other Gnostic sect of the past, be able to survive in the future.” (“Gnosis,” Harper Collins) And those words were written long before the rise of Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War, and the current madness that has cursed that region for many years.
Some Mandaeans (literally, “possessors of secret Knowledge”) live in Iraqi cities like Baghdad and Basra. There’s a large Mandaean population that resides in smaller market towns and villages of the marshland in southern Iraq, and near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Iran also has a Mandaean population; many of them dwell along the river Karun in Rhuzistan province. The Prophet Mohammed called them “Sabians,” i.e. “baptists or “baptizers,” a name which occurs in the Quran and which enabled them to continue under Islam. Islam also categorized them as “a people of the book,” a religion that possesses their own ancient scriptures. Another factor that has traditionally enabled them to operate in the Islamic world is their affiliation with John the Baptist. John the Baptist is one of their greatest prophets.
Though the historic connection between John and the Mandaeans is hard to verify, it is indeed possible they are descendents of disciples of John the Baptist, who 2,000 years ago had a large number of followers which believed him to be a great Master if not the awaited Messiah. After John’s death, the New Testament portrays Jesus as being the spiritual successor, but other leaders in John’s community might have seen things differently. Like Jesus, others might also have claimed to be John’s successor and thus would have become the leaders of a John-community that maintained it’s independence from the Jesus Movement, instead remaining what they were — an unorthodox baptismal sect of the Trans-Jordan.
According to scholars of Mandaean studies like Werner Foerster, indeed the origins of the Mandaeans do go back to the Jewish tradition of first century AD Palestine and the region of the Jordan river. Foerster states in “Gnosis II,” published by Oxford University Press, that in the context of the Jewish war of independence and the consolidation of Orthodox Judaism after AD 70, “its position as a minority opposition evidently led to the persecution of the community and finally to its emigration from its native Jordan territory to the east, to begin with in Harran and the median hill country, then in the southern regions of Mesopotamia.” Eventually the community settled in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where they could continue the ritual of baptizing initiates in “living waters” (rivers) symbolizing the connecting of their souls with “heavenly Jordan rivers of Light.”
FAMILIAR-SOUNDING NEW TESTAMENT-ISH OR JESUS-LIKE SAYINGS
This ancient religious community, also known as the Nazoreans, still uses a dialect of the Aramaic language; they possess a huge quantity of wonderful scriptures, mostly in the form of psalms or hymns.
Before I begin a study of some visionary writings in the Mandaean scriptures I want to share some examples of passages that sound somewhat “familiar” to our ears — new testament or Jesus-like passages. These would be words spoken by those who came from the same Aramaic-speaking Semitic milieu as did Jesus and other Messiahs of the middle east:
“I am a shepherd who loves his sheep; I protect the sheep and the
lambs…I carry them and give them water to drink from the hollow
of my hand until they have drunk their fill.”
“A fisherman am I, who am the elect among the fisherman, the chief
of all the fish-catchers.”
“Give bread, water and shelter to the poor and persecuted people who
“Love and support one another.”
“When you see anyone who is hungry, then satisfy his hunger. When
you see anyone who is thirsty, then give him to drink, for
whosoever gives, receives.”
“Whoever releases a prisoner will find a Messenger of Life advancing
to meet him.”
“My chosen! Do not put your trust in the kings, rulers, and rebels
of this world, nor in military forces, arms, conflict, and the
hosts which they assemble, nor in silver and gold…their gold and
their silver will not save them. Their authority passes away and
comes to an end.”
The words “seek and you will find” appear on numerous occasions in the Mandaean scriptures as well, in fact, much more often than in the New Testament. And, the term “Place of Life,” often used in the Mandaean texts, also appears in the Gospel of Thomas.
THE FIRST WAVE OF GNOSIS
There was some kind of transformation in thinking that took place 2,000 years ago in the middle east which lead to the birth of scores of new religious movements both within and outside of Judaism, including the Sethians, the Essenes, and various forms and expressions of Christianity. Many of these are categorized as “Gnostic,” meaning they focused upon spiritual/mystical Knowledge. This was the time of the first wave of Gnosis in the western world — the spark was lit. Some souls started to believe that it was possible for them personally to KNOW the Mysteries of God and the Heavens, and they sought spiritual wisdom & guidance from various masters, mystics, prophets and apostles that were around at that time. For the Nazoreans (Mandaeans), John the Baptist was God’s Teacher who had been sent “from the Light” to baptize or initiate souls into the experience of the Knowledge of Life, the “Great Life,” a Name for God in the Mandaean scriptures.
There are some examples of visionary literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls, various descriptions of things going on in the heavens. The Mandaean texts seem to be a continuation of that visionary tradition of Light-mysticism and Ascension-mysticism. In my view the Mandaean scriptures probably represent the most heavenly or otherworldly documents of the west, brimming with out-of-this-world visions of God, descriptions of the heavens, souls, angels, and life after death. They speak directly to both the heart and soul of the reader through hymns and prayers of incredible beauty.
THE COMING OF THE MESSENGER OF LIGHT
The role of the Heavenly Messenger is to give the mystic experience of LIGHT to souls and eventually guide them back up to the Place of Light, the Mandaean term for the highest heaven where the Great Life (God) resides. Here are a couple of passages from Mandaean holy books on Manda-d-Hiya — the great heavenly redeemer:
The Illuminator of the Worlds of Light
IN THE NAME OF THE GREAT LIFE,
SUBLIME LIGHT BE PRAISED
“From the Place of Light I came forth,
from you, Bright Habitation.
I come to touch hearts,
to measure and try all minds,
to see in whose heart I dwell.
Whoever thinks of me, of him I think;
whoever calls my Name, his name I will call.
Whosoever prays my prayer from the earth,
his prayer I will offer from the Place of Light.
“I came and found the truthful and believing hearts.
When I was not dwelling among them,
yet my Name was on their lips.
I took them and guided them up to the World of Light.
“I became the Illuminator of the Worlds of Light.
I became a king to the Nazoreans, who receive praise
and stability through my Name.
And by my Name they ascend to the Place of the Light.
As for the elect righteous who put me on as a garment,
their eyes were filled with Light,
and Manda-d-Hiya [Knowledge of Life] was established
in their hearts.”
EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT
The mystical encounters recorded in the scriptures of the Mandaeans may seem at times like ancient near-death experiences (NDE’s), the visions of souls who were embraced the Light long ago:
“When I arrived at the water-brooks, a discharge of Radiance met me.
It took me by the palm of my right hand and brought me over the
streams of death. Radiance was brought and I was clothed in it.
Light was brought and I was wrapped in it…
“[Prayer] Son of the Good Ones, show me the way of the divine beings
(spirits, angels) and the ascent upon which your father rose up to
the Place of Light.
“He [the discharge of Radiance] rose and took me with him and did not
leave me in the perishable dwelling.” (Canonical Prayerbook)
This is my interpretation. In the above account, after this soul crossed over to the other side, it was met by a “discharge of Radiance,” (according to another translation) a deliverer or guide who not only escorted the soul into the beyond, but also gave the soul its heavenly robe of Radiance — a garment made of Light. It’s unclear to me if the soul literally was given a robe to put on, or if perhaps this is another way of describing the process of leaving the body at death, taking OFF the robe of the physical body, which caused the soul to see itself as a being of Light. In any event, the soul then prays for its helper and guide to be escorted upward to the Place of Light. In another version of this account it says:
“I lifted mine eyes to heaven and my soul waited on the House of Life.
And the Life (God) who heard my cry sent toward me a deliverer.”
This version also describes the encounter with the heavenly being (discharge of Radiance) who escorted the soul over the waters of death, and accompanied it during the ascension up to the Light-world. The hymn concludes with these words:
“Life supported life, Life found its own. Its own self did Life find,
and my soul found that for which it had looked. Renowned is Life
and victorious.” (Canonical Prayerbook)
VISIONS OF THE GREAT LIFE IN THE PLACE OF THE LIGHT
Souls in the Place of the Light are described as luminous beings living
in a world of infinite Light with a Supreme Being of Light. The heavens
of hyperspace are traversed by spiritual streams of “Living Waters,”
tributaries of the Heavenly Jordan river of Light. And souls are described
as radiant beings that shine upon each other like stars do in the center of our galaxy:
“They are a thousand thousand miles distant from one another
and yet one is illumined by the other’s Radiance.”
The primary name for the highest God in the Mandaean tradition is “The Great Life.” Many of the hymns in the Canonical Prayerbook begin with this invocation:
“In the Name of the Great Life,
Sublime Light be Praised.”
“Living One,” a term found in the Gospel of Thomas and in eastern Gnostic writings, is used in Mandaean texts for God. The Great Life is also referred to as the King of Light, a limitless Radiant Being of compassion and love:
“He is the Light, in Whom is no darkness,
the Living One, in Whom is no death,
the Good One, in Whom is no malice,
the Gentle One, in Whom is no confusion,
the Kind One, in whom is no venom of
bitterness.” (Gnosis II)
The term “Great Spirit” is also used on several occasions in the Mandaean scriptures. ////////