The Ajivika Sect of Ancient India

Published: 04.05.2012

The Ajivika Sect of Ancient India

The Ajivikas, 'Followers of the way of Life,' are an ascetic order that started at the time of Buddha and Mahavira and lasted until the fourteenth century. The exact nature of Ajivika doctrine is unclear because the sect's own texts have not survived. It is believed the original Ajivika texts were written in an eastern Prakrit, perhaps similar to the Jain Prakrit Ardhamagadhi. Quotations and adaptations from these texts appear to have been inserted into Jain and Buddhist accounts of the Ajivikas. Makkhali Gosala is regarded as the founder leader of the Ajivikas and one source of his teachings is the Buddhist Digha Nikaya. Three Tamil texts, the Manimakalai of the Buddhists, the Nilakesi of the Jains, and the Sivajnanasiddhiyar of the Shaivites, all contain outlines of Ajivika doctrine. The Nilakesi of the ninth century CE tells us most and is about a heroine Nilakesi visiting teachers in search of the truth, including Buddha and Puranan, leader of the Ajivikas, a dignified figure living in a flowery hermitage.

The basic principle of the doctrine according to Gosala was niyati, fate or destiny. The Ajivikas were rigid fatalists and determinists, seeing niyati as the sole determinant of every happening. No human effort could have any effect against niyati and therefore karma is a fallacy. Nirvana was only reached after living through an immense number of lives, which proceeded automatically like the unwinding of a ball of thread, the last life being as an Ajivika monk. After twenty-four years of asceticism, Gosala enumerated the six inevitable factors of life: gain and loss, joy and sorrow, and life and death, together with the two 'paths' of song and dance.

Ajivika cosmology was very complex with a vast universe passing through an immense number of time cycles. Each jiva, soul, transmigrates through eighty-four lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000) of cycles before release. The southern Ajivikas saw only a few jivas remaining in nirvana while most jivas achieved only mandala-moksa, cyclic release, having to return to the worldly cycles.

Purana Kassapa (the Puranan of the Nilakesi), perhaps an older contemporary of Gosala, added the view that a murderer or robber commits no sin and likewise there was no merit in becoming an ascetic, for with niyati there was only one course left open to them. Pakudha Kaccayana, a contemporary of the Buddha, held an atomic theory with seven substances, earth, water, fire, air, joy, sorrow, and life, that are uncreated and unchanging. This was absorbed into the Ajivika doctrine of the negation of free will and moral responsibility. It was argued that since future events are already determined then in some way they already exist. The Ajivika teacher Puranan in the Nilakesi says "Though we may speak of moments, there is really no time at all." This was the theory of avicalita-nityatvam, unmoving permanence. And to the Ajivikas the soul was also atomic and could not be divided. In its natural state outside the body it is immense in size, five hundred leagues (yogana) in extent.

There are close links with Jainism. Gosala claimed to be the twenty-fourth tirthankara, and as a disciple of Mahavira for six years until a split, there are doctrinal similarities between Ajivikism and Jainism. In fact, Gosala may have influenced Mahavira over nudity and he rejected the alms-bowl, a view adopted by the Digambara Jains. There are inconsistencies in Jain karma theory inexplicable without referring to Ajivika doctrine. Mahavira disagreed with Gosala's antinomian doctrine and way of life, and the Buddha strongly condemned the Ajivika doctrine of niyati.It is very possible that the Jains and Buddhists distorted Ajivika doctrine. Lucas thinks that "it seems doubtful whether a doctrine which genuinely advocated the lack of efficacy of individual effort could have formed the basis of a renunciatory path to spiritual liberation" (Dundas 1992, 26).


In the sixth to fifth centuries BCE there were large numbers of wandering ascetics, sometimes in groups, caused perhaps by the break up of the old tribal way of life and the rise of great kingdoms in the Ganges basin. This was the time of the emergence of Buddhism, Jainism, and the Ajivikas.

The name Ajivikas was given to the sect by their opponents. The word ajivika is derived from ajiva, meaning one who observes the mode of living appropriate to his class. Because Gosala held peculiar views as to the ajiva of a mendicant not affected by karma, it is likely his sect was known as the Ajivikas, those who held the peculiar doctrine of ajiva. The name was supposed to be opprobrious, since Gosala was an ascetic not for reasons of salvation but as a livelihood (ajiva) and so they were professionals.

There is a reasonably reliable account of the life of Gosala in the fifth anga of the Jain canon. He was born in Magadha, son of a mankha, professional mendicant, in a cowshed (gosala). He became a mankha and met with Mahavira, the great Jain, and insisted on becoming a disciple. After six years he felt he was more advanced than Mahavira, and started austerities which led to magical powers and a challenge to Mahavira. Gosala then set up a rival sect, the Ajivikas, with his headquarters in the house of a potter woman in the city of Savatthi. Sixteen years later Mahavira visited Savatthi and condemned Gosala and his followers as "the slaves of women." The two sects came to blows and two of Mahavira's disciples were disabled, but Gosala was discomfited by Mahavira in a personal encounter and disgraced. As a result his position in Savatthi was untenable and he became unhinged, turning to drinking, singing, dancing, and the potter woman. After six months of riotous living he was filled with remorse and before he died he told his disciples that what Mahavira had said about him was true, and that he should be buried with dishonour and public shame. The disciples did not carry out their master's dying instructions. The Jain 'Exposition of Explanations' says that Gosala was furious at Mahavira for not accepting his status and attacked him with a blast of ascetic heat from his body. However, this was bounced back from the adamantine body of Mahavira causing Gosala's eventual death. Mahavira later said that Gosala would eventually attain enlightenment. Gosala may have died a year or two before the death of the Buddha, about 484 BCE.

Since the Jains and Buddhists saw the Ajivikas as their most dangerous rivals, this shows how popular the sect was. This was especially so in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE when the different sects were forming in India. They were influential during the Mauryan empire, and the second emperor had an Ajika fortune-teller at court. Asoka in his Seventh Pillar Edict ranks the Ajivikas third in importance of the religious groups he patronised after the Buddhists and Brahmans. They were therefore ahead of the Jains. Asoka also presented caves to them as monasteries in the Barabar Hills and Nagarjuni Hill, fifteen miles north of Gaya, near the place of the Buddha's enlightenment. These caves and their inscriptions are probably the oldest excavated ascetic caves in India and impressive evidence of the Ajivikas. The walls of the caves are brilliantly polished. But these are the only significant surviving archaeological remains of the Ajivikas.

After this period the Ajivikas declined and the main references to them come in Tamil literature. There is evidence that they survived in South India until the fourteenth century. It seems that at the end there were two schools of Ajivikas. One was absorbed by the devotional Vaishnavas, the other was closer to Gosala's original teachings and was absorbed by the Digambara Jains.

Gosala started his ascetic life as a mankha, an ancient class of mendicants, whose symbol was the carrying of a bamboo staff. The practice of strict nakedness that Gosala followed may have influenced Mahavira and the Digambaras, in what was to become the major symbol of that branch of Jain asceticism. Another influence of Gosala was to use the hands as a bowl and to lick up food. Such ascetics were known as hatthapalekhana, hand-lickers.

The South Indian Ajivikas seem to have made Gosala a deity called Markali in Tamil. The Nilakesi says he has become a tevan, god, who occasionally comes to earth to inspire the faith of his devotees.

There were probably large numbers of ascetic groups into Mauryan times, then a scattering of smaller numbers that extended to South India. Inscriptions of village tax for temple upkeep mention Ajivikas, and from this evidence the main concentration was in Karnataka, east and northeast of Bangalore, and in the Kolar district of Tamil Nadu. Ajivikas, though, were found as far as Guntur district, south of the Krishna River, and Kilur, inland from Pondicherry.

In the time of Gosala this was Savatthi (Sanskrit, Sravasti), then a city of importance. Savatthi is near Ayodhya in central Uttar Pradesh. In later times the Ajivikas centred on Karnataka and the Kolar district in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Revised from

Compiled by PK


Click on categories below to activate or deactivate navigation filter.

  • Culture
    • History / Studies
      • Ancient and Medieval
        • Share this page on:
          Page glossary
          Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
          1. Ajiva
          2. Ajivika
          3. Anga
          4. Ardhamagadhi
          5. Ayodhya
          6. Bangalore
          7. Body
          8. Buddha
          9. Buddhism
          10. Concentration
          11. Digambara
          12. Digambaras
          13. Guntur
          14. Jainism
          15. Jiva
          16. Karma
          17. Karnataka
          18. Krishna
          19. Lakh
          20. Magadha
          21. Mahavira
          22. Nirvana
          23. Niyati
          24. PK
          25. Pradesh
          26. Prakrit
          27. Sanskrit
          28. Soul
          29. Tamil
          30. Tamil Nadu
          31. Tirthankara
          32. Uttar Pradesh
          Page statistics
          This page has been viewed 3011 times.
          © 1997-2021 HereNow4U, Version 4.5
          Contact us
          Social Networking

          HN4U Deutsche Version
          Today's Counter: