Ajivika movement founder Makkhali Gosala (c. 484 B.C.E.) (also known as Maskarin Gośāla or Gosala Mankhaliputta) was an ascetic teacher in ancient India. He was the same age as the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, and the 24th and last Tirthankara of Jainism, Mahavira.
Since the Ajivikas’ scriptures and history have not been explicitly preserved, very little specific information about them is available. Instead, passages from Buddhist and Jain texts that have been preserved, together with inscriptions from the Mauryan kingdom (322–185 B.C.E.), provide us with our grasp of Ajivika ideology. Due of the intense polemic in the accessible resources, it is therefore unclear how much the current sources represent the true beliefs and practices of the Ajivikas. Bias and biases may thus have been included into the records, given the majority of what is known about the Ajivikas comes from the literature of competing tribes. Potentially, only outsider observers would have used the name ‘Ajivika’. The Ajivikas, however, seem to have been a nomadic community of traveling ascetics (samanas or sanyasins).
The Life of Makkhali Gosala
Makkhali Gosala’s life, much like his philosophical system, is shrouded in obscurity. He is believed to have lived during the 6th century BCE, a time when the Indian subcontinent was a hotbed of philosophical and religious ferment. Very little is known about his early life, and even his birthplace remains a matter of debate among scholars. What we do know is that he was a contemporary of two of India’s most influential spiritual leaders, the Buddha and Mahavira, and engaged in philosophical debates with them.
Key Beliefs of the Ajivika School
The Ajivika school of thought, founded by Makkhali Gosala, was characterized by several key beliefs:
- Determinism: The Ajivikas held a radical form of determinism, asserting that every event, including human actions, was preordained and beyond individual control. This deterministic worldview, known as “niyati,” stood in stark contrast to the Buddhist and Jain emphasis on personal agency and moral responsibility.
- Niyati: Niyati, or cosmic fate, was a central concept in Ajivika philosophy. It posited that all beings were bound by a cosmic law that governed their lives. This belief in predestination left little room for free will.
- Asceticism: Like many philosophical and religious groups of the time, the Ajivikas practiced asceticism. They lived austere lives, renouncing worldly pleasures and possessions in their quest for spiritual realization.
- Reincarnation: The Ajivikas, like other Indian traditions, believed in the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). According to their teachings, one’s circumstances and destiny were determined by niyati, and this cycle continued until one achieved liberation from it.
Debates and Decline
Makkhali Gosala was known for engaging in philosophical debates with other contemporary thinkers, most notably Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism). These debates served as a platform for the exchange of ideas and the exploration of fundamental philosophical questions.
Despite its influence during its time, the Ajivika school gradually declined and eventually faded away as a distinct tradition. Several factors contributed to its decline, including the emergence and spread of Buddhism and Jainism, which offered alternative paths to spiritual liberation.
Makkhali Gosala and the Ajivika school of thought are important historical figures in the mosaic of Indian philosophy. While their beliefs were radical and deterministic, they played a role in shaping the intellectual and spiritual landscape of ancient India. Today, the Ajivikas are largely forgotten, but their legacy reminds us of the diverse and complex tapestry of ideas that have enriched the philosophical heritage of India. Studying figures like Makkhali Gosala offers us a glimpse into the intellectual ferment of a bygone era and the fascinating interplay of ideas that shaped the course of Indian philosophy.