A class of naked ascetics (see, e.g., Vin.i.291), followers of
Makkhali Gosāla, regarded, from the
Buddhist point of view, as the worst of sophists. Numerous references to the
ājīvakas are to be found in the Pitakas, only a few of them being at all
complimentary. Thus in the Mahā Saccaka
Sutta (*) they are spoken of as going about naked, flouting life's decencies
and licking their hands after meals.
(*) M.i.238; see also S. i.66, where a deva praises Gosāla as a man who had
attained to perfect self-control by fasting and austere practices. He had
abandoned speech and wordy strife with any person, was equable, a speaker of
truth, a doer of no evil. That the life of the Ājīvakas was austere may be
gleaned from their condemnation of monks carrying parasols (Viii.ii.130).
But they never incurred the guilt
- of obeying another man's command,
- of accepting food specially prepared for them,
- of accepting food from people while eating,
- from a pregnant woman, or nursing mother,
- or from gleanings in time of famine;
- they would never eat where a dog was already at hand,
- or where hungry flies were congregated.
- They never touched flesh, fish or intoxicants,
- and they had a rigid scale of food rationing.
It is mentioned that they did not always find it possible to adhere to this
rigid code of conduct.
It is stated in the Tevijja Vacchagotta
Sutta (M.i.483) that far from any Ājīvaka having put an end to sorrow, the
Buddha could recall only one Ājīvaka during ninety-nine kappas who had even gone
to heaven, and that one too had preached a doctrine of kamma and the
after-consequences of actions. Elsewhere (M.i.524) they are spoken of as
children of a childless mother. They extol themselves and disparage others and
yet they have produced only three shining lights:
A fourth leader, Panduputta, of
wagon-building stock, is mentioned in the Anangana Sutta (M.i.31); there is also
the well-known Upaka.
There is no doubt that the Ājīvaka were highly esteemed and had large
followings of disciples (See, e.g., Pasenadi's evidence in S. i.68, apart from
Ajātasattu's visit mentioned in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta; also S. iv.398). They had
eminent followers such as high court officials (Vin.ii.166; iv.71) and that, for
centuries at least, they retained an important position, is shown by their being
thrice mentioned in the Asoka Edicts as receiving royal gifts (Hultsch: Asoka
Inscriptions, see Index).
The doctrines held by the Ājīvaka are mentioned in several places, but the
best known account is in the Sāmaññaphala
Sutta where they are attributed to Makkhali Gosāla by name (D.i.53-4. See
also M.i.516f). He maintained that there is no cause or reason for either
depravity or purity among beings. There is no such thing as intrinsic strength,
or energy or human might or endeavour. All creatures, all beings, everything
that has life, all are devoid of power, strength and energy; all are under the
compulsion of the individual nature to which they are linked by destiny; it is
solely by virtue of their birth in the six environments (chalabhijātiyo) that
they experience their pleasure or pain. The universe is divided into various
classes of beings, of occupations and methods of production. There are
eighty-four hundred thousand periods during which both fools and wise alike,
wandering in transmigration, shall at last make an end of pain. The pleasures
and pain, measured out as it were with a measure, cannot be altered in the
course of transmigration; there can be neither increase nor decrease thereof,
neither excess nor deficiency.
The fundamental point in their teaching seems, therefore, to have been "samsāra-suddhi,"
purification through transmigration, which probably meant that all beings, all
lives, all existent things, all living substances attain and must attain,
perfection in course of time.
According to Buddhaghosa (DA.i.161), in the
classification of the Ājīvaka:
- "all beings" (sattā) meant all kinds of animals, camels, cows, asses,
- "all lives" (pānā) comprised all sensitive things and sentient creatures
divided into those with one sense (ekendriya), those with two senses and so
- "all existent things" (bhūtā) denoted all living beings divided into
generic types - viz., those produced from an egg, or born from the womb, or
sprung from moisture, or propagated from seed;
- "all living substances" (jivā) denoted rice, barley, wheat, etc.
The division of men into six classes (chalabhijātiyo) is noteworthy.
Buddhaghosa describes these as being kanha, nīla, lohita, halidda, sukka and
paramasukka. This closely resembles the curious Jaina doctrine of the six Lesyas.
Given, e.g., in the Uttarādhyāyana Sutra (Jacobi's Jaina Sūtras ii.213). This
seems to involve a conception of mind which is originally colourless by nature.
The different colours (nīla, etc.) are due to different habits or actions. The
supreme spiritual effort consists in restoring mind to its original purity. Cp.
with this the Buddha's teaching in A.iii.384ff. and M.i.36.
In the Anguttara Nikāya (iii.383-4) a similar doctrine is attributed to
Gosāla's theory (D.i.54; see also S. iii.211) of the divisions of the universe
into fourteen hundred thousand principle states of birth - (pamukhayoniyo) and
into various methods of regeneration - viz.,
- seven kinds of animate (saññigabbhā) production, i.e. by means of separate
- seven of inanimate (asaññigabbhā), such as rice, barley, etc.;
- seven of production by grafting (niganthigabbhā), propagating by joints,
such as sugar cane, etc. -
seems to show that the Ājīvaka believed in infinite gradations of existence,
in the infinity of time, and also in the recurrent cycles of existence. Each
individual has external existence, if not individually, at least in type. In the
world as a whole everything comes about by necessity. Fate (nigati) regulates
everything, all things being unalterably fixed. Just as a ball of string when
cast forth spreads out just as far as, and no farther than it can unwind, so
every being lives, acts, enjoys and ultimately ends, in the manner in which it
is destined (sandhavitvā, samsaritvā dukkhassantam karissanti). The peculiar
nature (bhāva) (DA.i.161) of each being depends on the class or species or type
to which it belongs.
Among the views of the Puthusamanas (other teachers), the Buddha regarded the
doctrine of the Ājīvaka as the least desirable. It denied
- action (kiriya),
- endeavour (viriya),
- result of action (kamma),
and was therefore despicable (patikhitto) (A.i.286).
The Buddha knew of no other single person fraught with such danger and sorrow
to all devas and men as was Makkhali; like a fish-trap set at a river mouth,
Makkhali was born into the world to be a man-trap for the distress and
destruction of men (A.i.33).
According to Buddhaghosa (DA.i.166),
It has been suggested (E.g. Barua.: Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy, p.314)
that Makkhali Gosāla's doctrine of the eight developmental stages of man (attha
purisabhūmi) was a physical antecedent of the Buddha's doctrine of the eight
higher spiritual ranks (attha purisapuggalā).
Buddhaghosa gives the eight stages as follows: manda, khiddā, vīmamsana,
ujugata, sekha, samana, jina and panna. DA.i.162 ; see also Hoernle's
Uvāsaga-Dasāo, ii. p.24, where pannaka is given for panna. op. J. iv.496-7,
- The first stage extends from the first day of birth to the seventh.
- In the second stage those who have come from evil states cry constantly,
those from happy conditions smile, remembering their past lives.
- The third stage is marked by the infant beginning to walk with the help of
others. The time of his being able to walk alone is the ujugata-bhūmi.
- The period of study is sekha-bhūmi,
- of leaving household life, samana-bhūmi;
- the period of knowledge (vijānana),
- of constant association with teachers, is the jina-bhūmi and
- the last stage when the jina remains silent (pannaka), is called the
This seems to indicate a development of the mental and spiritual abilities,
side by side with physical growth, an interaction of body and mind.
There seems to have been a great deal of confusion, even at the time of the
compilation of the Nikāyas, as to what were the specific beliefs of the Ājīvakas.
- Thus in the Mahāli Sutta of the Samyutta Nikāya (iii.69) some of Gosāla's
views (natthi hetu, natthi paccayo sattānam sankilesāya) are attributed to
- The Anguttara Nikāya in one place (i.286) apparently confounds Makkhali
Gosāla with Ajita Kesakambala,
- while elsewhere (iii.383-4) Pūrana Kassapa's views regarding the
chalabhijāti are represented as being those of Makkhali.
There was a group of Ājīvakas behind Jetavana. The monks saw the Ājīvakas
perform various austerities, such as squatting on their heels, swinging in the
air like bats, scorching themselves with five fires, and they asked the Buddha
whether these austerities were of any use. "None whatever," answered the Buddha,
and then proceeded to relate the Nanguttha
The Ājīvakas used to be consulted regarding auspicious days, dreams, omens,
etc. (See, e.g., J. i.287 and MT.190).
There was a settlement of Ājīvakas in
Anurādhapura, and Pandukābhaya built a residence for them. Mhv.x.102.
Thomas, following Hoernle, thinks that the term (ājīvaka) was probably a name
given by opponents, meaning one who followed the ascetic life for the sake of a
livelihood. Op. cit., p.130. But see DhA.i.309, where the different kinds of
religieux are distinguished as acelaka, Ājīvaka, nigantha and tāpasa.
For a detailed account of the Ājīvakas see Hoernle's Article in ERA. and
Barua.'s paper in the Calcutta University Journal of the Dept. of Letters, vol.ii.
Hence we cannot infer that the name which was found as late as the thirteenth
century always refers to the followers of Makkhali Gosāla. This point is
certainly worth investigating.