The “Four-faced God”

We read in the Holy Gospel of Mar Mani about the “the four-faced God.” For example: “Amen, Amen, Amen. Amen again, the four-faced God; glory and honour to the Amen, the Father of Greatness!” (34:6)

Manichaeans are strictly monotheistic, meaning that we worship only one God. There are many celestial beings in the heavens that are referred to as gods, but they are always lower in status than the Father of Greatness. When some of the older texts refer to the worship of these other gods, we understand this to mean that they are honoured, and not worshipped in the same manner which we worship Almighty God.

Our text above refers to “the four-faced God.” There are other scriptures in our tradition that uses this same phrase in reference to the Father of Greatness. Another phrase used in our scriptures is “four-fold God.” Since we know that God does not literally have a “face” because He is pure light, what does this phrase mean in our holy book?

The number four is used in two different manners to describe who our God is. These are qualities or special characteristics that we hold dear and attempt to emulate in our own lives. These are:

    1) highest level of holiness (supreme divinity),
    2) brightest light,
    3) supreme power and
    4) eternal and pure goodness.

These four qualities are also deities which “emanated from the bosom of the Greatness, who exercise and demonstrate, on behalf of the Father, holiness, light, supreme power, and His pure goodness.” In Central Asia, these particular characteristics are also known by the names of Ganesha, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva. Ganesha is the first among all four emanations. “He was the first of the manifestations of the qualities of the Father of Greatness, and indeed, is the very Wisdom of the Greatness, the Primal Being manifested in the form of the elephant-headed man. After Ganesha, one after the other, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva came forth from the bosom of the Father.”

These individual characteristics do not “replace” the Father of Greatness in our worship, but we worship God with knowledge of them, knowing what they represent. When Manichaeans have representations or images of these on altars or within their homes, they know they are not worshipping any particular quality of God, but rather we acknowledge those divine qualities in our worship.

These forms have been used in the Manichaean Scriptures for centuries. It is nothing new to us to see images of what would otherwise be known as “Hindu deities” in our homes, places of worship, monasteries and hermitages. These four manifested qualities and their images have been part of Manichaean tradition regardless of the “school” of Manichaeism in which one adheres. It would only be shocking for those not really familiar with our faith. Prof. Yar said, “In India, the ‘four faces (qualities) of God’ appear as traditional Hindu deities, while in China they take on more of a Buddhist style. And in Uzbekistan, they are usually represented without a face with the appearance of having two wings.”

Prof. Yar also said, “In traditional Hinduism, there are many legends surrounding the various Hindu deities, but not all of these legends were accepted as true by Manichaeans in those lands. They were always viewed through the light of Mani’s teachings and those of his apostles and missionaries. They were viewed as various qualities of God manifested in the flesh or rather some spiritual state such as an apparition or in visions.”

In one of the early visions, an apostle and nearly a dozen missionaries spoke of instructions being given to them to write down descriptions of the imagery they were seeing and to teach the other Hearers and Elect to “make for themselves or procure images of the Four Faces so they may recall daily the pure qualities of the Father of Greatness …When making offerings before each of the images, it is not the manifestation that is being worshipped, but rather the devotee is giving recognition in worship to the Greatness concerning the revelation of each characteristic. Worship the Father of Greatness and give Him thanks for revealing to you His qualities, for these were born from His bosom, wherein lies the Maiden of Light and His Treasury [Holy Spirit].”

Below is imagery from a Manichaean text dating between the 8th and 9th century A.D. depicting the four “faces” of God.

In Manichaeism, Ganesha represents wisdom, while Vishnu represents the protection of all things true as well as protection of Mani’s disciples from being harmed by the King of Darkness, while Brahma represents creation and re-creation, and finally, Shiva represents the destruction of matter.

Most Manichaeans only use Ganesha to represent all four faces of God. This practice is due to the fact that Ganesha was the first of the four and is referred to in our scriptures as the representation of the Pure Light from God.

(The above image is in the public domain.)