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ĀJĪVIKAS , or Ājīvakas, an Indian heterodox sect, founded in the sixth century bce by Makkhali Gosāla, an approximate contemporary of the Buddha, on the basis of earlier groups of unorthodox ascetics. After a period of popularity, the sect lost ground in northern India, but survived in the south until the fourteenth century or later.

The Founder

Makkhali Gosāla figures in the Pali scriptures of Theravāda Buddhism as one of six heterodox teachers frequently mentioned together as successful founders of ascetic orders. Also among these is Mahāvīra, the founder of Jainism, described under the Pali name Nigantha Nātaputta. In Buddhist Sanskrit sources, Gosāla is mentioned under the name Maskarin Gośālīputra, in the context of the six ascetics. The Śvetāmbara Jaina scriptures record his name as Gosāla Makhaliputta. The Jain Bhagavatī Sūtra is our main source for the story of his association with Mahāvīra. Parts of this account are much elaborated by the later commentator Jinadāsa Gaī in his commentary (Skt., cūri ) to the Āvaśyaka Sūtra. From this it appears that Gosāla, a young ascetic of doubtful antecedents, encountered Mahāvīra when the latter had been an ascetic for two years. The pair spent some seven years together, wandering over the Ganges valley, after which they parted company. Then, after six months of severe penance, Gosāla is said to have acquired supernatural powers, and to have proclaimed himself a "conqueror" (jina, a title also given to Mahāvīra).

It appears that Gosāla quickly gained a following among many nondescript ascetics who were already known as Ājīvikas, probably implying that they took lifelong (ājīvat ) vows. His base was the then-important city of Sāvatthi (Skt., Śrāvastī), near Ayodhyā in central Uttar Pradesh, where he made his headquarters in the workshop of a lay disciple, the potter woman Hālāhalā. Some sixteen years later, he died in the same place. According to the Bhagavatī Sūtra, his death took place following a confrontation with Mahāvīra, after which he contracted a high fever and became delirious, but it appears that his own followers declared that he had ended his life by voluntary starvation resulting from a penance of six months' duration. Shortly before his death he is said to have had a conference with his six leading disciples, at which the Ājīvika scriptures were codified. The date of his death cannot be determined exactly, but it appears to have occurred a year or two before the death of the Buddha, approximately 484 bce.

The ĀjĪvika Ascetic Order

The naked monks who followed Gosāla appear to have subjected themselves to rigorous and painful penances. The initiation into the Ājīvika order involved pulling out the hair by the roots and grasping a heated lump, presumably of metal. Its members established regular meeting places (sabhā ) in various towns of the Ganges plain. They seem to have been in demand among the laity as prognosticators, and they were credited with magical powers. The Ājīvika order also enlisted women ascetics, but they are only mentioned in passing and we know nothing about them. As with the Buddhists and Jains, it appears that their most important supporters were wealthy merchants and their families. The Ājīvika monks were frequently accused by their rivals of sexual laxity, and of eating large and sumptuous meals in private to compensate for their public penance and fasting. We have no means of discovering whether these accusations had any truth in them, or whether they were mere products of odium theologicum. The fact, however, that both the Buddhists and the Jains looked on the Ājīvikas as their most dangerous rivals is a measure of the popularity of the latter, particularly in the fifth and fourth centuries bce, when the traditions of the heterodox sects of India were taking shape.

The Ājīvika ascetics often ended their lives voluntarily with a penance lasting six months, during which their intake of food and drink was gradually reduced until they died of hunger and thirst. This practice has something in common with the sallekhanā of the Jain monks, and was evidently not carried out in every case.

In the period of the Mauryan empire (fourth to second centuries bce), or at least during the reign of Aśoka, the Ājīvikas appear to have been particularly influential in the Ganges Plain. In his Seventh Pillar Edict, Aśoka ranks them third, after the Buddhists and Brahmans, in a list of religious groups that he patronized, and before the Jains and "various other sects." This list probably represents the order of merit in the eyes of the king. The importance and popularity of the Ājīvikas at this time may also be gauged from the fact that they were the recipients of a number of artificial caves, about fifteen miles north of Gaya in modern Bihar, not far from the scene of the Buddha's enlightenment. In the Barabar Hills, two caves contain inscriptions stating that they were given to the Ājīvikas in the twelfth year after Aśoka's consecration, and a similar inscription states that a third cave was dedicated in his nineteenth year. A fourth cave, adorned with an impressive facade, contains no inscription, but appears to belong to the same period. In the nearby Nagarjuni Hill, there are three similar caves, with inscriptions to the effect that they were dedicated to the Ājīvikas as shelters during the rainy season by King Daśaratha, one of Aśoka's successors, immediately after his consecration as kinga sure indication of his favor. Taken together, these caves and inscriptions form an impressive record of the importance of the Ājīvikas at the time. The caves are probably the oldest excavations of their kind for the use of ascetics in the whole of India. Although they are not very large, their internal walls are so brilliantly polished that enough light is reflected through the low entrances to make it possible to read a newspaper with ease. These, however, are the only significant archaeological remains of the Ājīvikas to have survived.

After the Mauryan period, the Ājīvikas lost ground and, with the exception of the Tamil sources mentioned below, only a few passing references to them occur in later literature. South Indian evidence, however, shows that they survived there until the fourteenth century. Among the numerous inscriptions recording the transference of village taxes for the upkeep of local temples, at least seventeen mention the Ājīvikas, in most cases in connection with a special Ājīvika tax, presumably paid by lay Ājīvikas. This indicates that they were not looked on with favor by the local government authorities, and were at a disadvantage in comparison with the more orthodox sects, though the tax does not appear to have been heavy. Of these inscriptions, the greatest concentration is found in Karnataka state to the east and northeast of Bangalore, and in the Kolar district of Tamil Nadu. The presence of Ājīvikas is attested as far north as the district of Guntur, just south of the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh, and as far south as Kilur, about forty miles inland from Pondicherry.

Three important Tamil religiophilosophical texts, Maimēkalai, Nīlakēśi, and Śivajñānasiddhiyar, composed by Buddhists, Jains, and Śaivites respectively, contain outlines of Ājīvika doctrines. The most useful and informative of these is Nīlakēśi, probably written in the ninth century ce. In this text the heroine Nilakesi visits a number of teachers one after the other in search of the truth. Among these are the Buddha himself and Pūraa, the leader of the Ājīvikas, a figure of great dignity dwelling in a hermitage adorned with fragrant flowers. Probably the latest surviving evidence of the Ājīvikas is to be found in the astrological text Jātaka-pārijāta, written toward the latter part of the fifteenth century by Vaidyanatha Dīkita.

Doctrines of the ĀjĪvikas

The teachings of Makkhali Gosāla are summarized in this passage from the Buddhist Dīgha Nikāya:

There is neither cause nor basis for the sins of living beings; they become sinful without cause or basis. Neither is there cause or basis for the purity of living beings; they become pure without cause or basis. There is no deed performed by oneself or others, no human action, no strength, no courage, no human endurance or human prowess [that can affect one's future, in this life or in later ones]. All beings, all that have breath, all that are born, all that have life, are without power, strength and virtue, but are developed by destiny, chance and nature, and experience joy and sorrow in the six classes [of existence]. There are 8,400,000 great kalpa s through which fool and wise alike will take their course and [ultimately] make an end of sorrow. There is no question of bringing unripe karma to fruition, nor of exhausting karma already ripened, by virtuous conduct, by vows, by penance, or by chastity. That cannot be done. Sasāra is measured as with a bushel, with its joy and sorrow and its appointed end. It can neither be lessened nor increased, nor is there any excess or deficiency of it. Just as a ball of thread will, when thrown, unwind to its full length, so fool and wise alike will take their course, and make an end of sorrow. (Dīgha Nikāya, vol. 1, pp. 5354)

This eloquent passage makes clear the fundamental principle of Ājīvika philosophy, namely niyati, usually translated as "fate" or "destiny." The Ājīvikas were, in fact, fatalists and determinists. Buddhism, Jainism, and orthodox Hinduism, on the other hand, all emphasize the power of human effort (puruakāra ) to affect human destiny. This proposition Gosāla and his followers categorically denied. Every being is impelled by niyati to pass through immense cycles of birth, death and rebirth, according to a rigidly fixed order until, in his last birth, he becomes an Ājīvika monk, dies after a long final penance, and enters a state which the Ājīvikas appear to have called nirvāa. Probably the Ājīvikas, like the Jains but unlike the Buddhists, believed that the final state of bliss was to be found in the complete isolation of the soul from matter and from other souls.

In any case, they believed that free will was an illusion. The criminal might imagine that he consciously chose to rob and murder, and the pious believer might think that he gave up the world and became an ascetic of his own free will; in fact, the power of niyati left only one course open to them. This doctrine of niyati seems to have been developed by the South Indian Ājīvikas into a theory suggesting that of Parmenides, that the universe was, on final analysis, completely static. "Though we may speak of moments," says the Ājīvika teacher Pūraa in Nīlakēśi, "there is really no time at all." This doctrine was known as avicalita-nityatvam, or "unmoving permanence."

The cosmology of the Ājīvikas was evidently very complex, but it is impossible to interpret accurately the ambiguous and obscure phrases referring to this in the texts. The Ājīvikas certainly postulated an immensely large universe, which passed through an immense number of time cycles. Each soul (jīva ) was bound to transmigrate through eighty-four lākh s (1 lākh = 100,000) of such cycles before reaching its inevitable goal of release from transmigration. For the southern Ājīvikas, however, even this desirable goal might not be final, for it appears that only a few souls were fated to remain in bliss for all eternity; the rest achieved only "cyclic release" (maala-moka ), and were ultimately compelled to return to the world and begin another cycle of transmigration.

The southern Ājīvikas appear to have absorbed the doctrine of seven atomic substances attributed by the Buddhists to another contemporary of the Buddha, Pakudha Kaccāyana. These seven substances are earth, water, fire, air, joy, sorrow, and life. According to the Pali version of Pakudha's doctrine, these seven are uncreated and unchanging, "as firm as mountains, as stable as pillars." The Tamil Maimēkalai, however, states in its treatment of Ājīvika doctrine that the atoms combine to form molecules in fixed proportions. The soul was also atomic, in the sense that it could not be divided, but in its natural disembodied state it is said to be of immense size, 500 leagues (yojana ) in extent.

There are indications that some of the South Indian Ājīvikas made a kind of divinity out of their founder Makkhali Gosāla, called in Tamil Makali; he has become a god (tēva ) who, according to the text Nīlakēśi, occasionally descends to earth to stimulate the faith of his followers. For this school of Ājīvikas, the earthly teacher of the sect is Pūraa, evidently the same as Pūraa Kassapa, another of the six heterodox teachers of the Pali scriptures.

Thus it appears that, at the end of their existence, one school of Ājīvikas was assimilating its teaching to that of the devotional Vaiavas, while another, closer to the original teaching of Gosāla, was slowly absorbed by the Digambara Jains. No definite survivals of Ajivikism can be traced in any branch of modern Indian religious life, but it is possible that echoes of Ājīvika determinism may be heard in some of the gnomic wisdom of South India, for instance: "Though a man exert himself over and over again, he still only gets what comes on the appointed day."

See Also



The only monograph on the subject is my own History and Doctrines of the Ājīvikas (1951; reprint, Delhi, 1981), upon which the foregoing article is largely based. For a critical notice, see Helen M. Johnson's review in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 74 (1954): 6365. The two best earlier studies are A. F. R. Hoernle's "Ājīvikas," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 1 (London, 1908), and Benimadhav Barua's "The Ājīvikas," Journal of the Department of Letters (University of Calcutta) 2 (1920): 180.

The chief reference to the Ājīvikas in the Pali scriptures is to be found in the Sāmañña-phala-sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, which has been translated by T. W. Rhys Davids and C. A. F. Rhys Davids as Dīgha Nikāya: Dialogues of the Buddha, 3 vols. (London, 18991921). The most important Jaina source is the Bhagavatī Sūtra, 3 vols. (Bombay, 19181921); there are other editions of this work, but, to the best of my knowledge, no English translation exists.

A. L. Basham (1987)