Ājīvika is an anti-Brahminical philosophy, which literally translates to "following an ascetic way of life". The Ājīvikas were contemporaries of the early Buddhists and historical Jains; the Ājīvika movement may have preceded both of these groups, but may have been a more loosely organized group of wandering ascetics. Very little concrete information is known about the Ājīvikas.
Their scriptures and history were not preserved directly- instead, fragments of Ājīvika doctrine were preserved in Buddhist and Jain sources, and they are mentioned in several inscriptions from the Mauryan empire.
As a result, it is unknown to what degree the available sources reflect the actual beliefs and practices of the Ājīvikas; because most of what is known about them was recorded in the literature of rival groups, it is quite possible that accidental distortions or intentional criticism was introduced into the records.
Even the name 'Ājīvika' may have only been used by observers from outside the tradition
Some regard Gośāla Maskariputra (c. 484 B.C.) as the founder of the Ājīvika faith; other sources state that Gośāla was a leader of a large Ajivia congregation, but not himself the founder of the movement.
Gośāla is believed to have been a friend of Mahāvīra, the founder of Jainism. The Ājīvikas believed that transmigration of the human soul was determined by a precise and non-personal cosmic principle called Niyati (destiny) and was completely independent of the person's actions.
They are believed to have been strict fatalists, who did not believe in karma or the possibility of free will.
The emperor Ashoka's father, Bindusāra, was a believer of this philosophy, that reached its peak of popularity during Asoka's lifetime, and then declined into obscurity.
The Ājīvikas are thought to have existed in India in the 14th Century, but the exact dates and extent of their influence is unclear.
Inscriptions from southern India make reference to the Ājīvikas as late as the 13th Century, but by this point in history the term Ājīvika may have been used to refer to Jain monks or ascetics from other traditions."
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, etc.;
"all lives" (pānā) comprised all sensitive things and sentient creatures divided into those with one sense (ekendriya), those with two senses and so forth;
"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 Pūrana Kassapa.
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 sexes;
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
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),
Pūrana Kassapa, by propounding a theory of the passivity of soul, denied action;
Ajita Kesakambala, by his theory of annihilation, denied retribution,
Makkhali Gosāla, by his doctrine of fate, denied both action and its result.
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, mandadasaka,khiddā-dasaka,anna-dasaka,etc.
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 pannaka-bhūmi.
This seems to indicate a development of the mental and spiritual faculties, 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 Pūrana Kassapa.
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 Jātaka (J.i.493f).
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."