Reconstructing The History Of The Ājīvikas

Reconstructing The History Of The Ājīvikas

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In my previous articlesA new dating of Mahāvīra based on Mālava era” and “A new dating of Buddha based on the evidence of Sumatitantra, I derived a new dating of Buddha and Mahāvīra in the 13th-12th century BCE based on independent considerations. According to my calculations, Mahāvīra lived between 1244-1172 BCE and Buddha lived between 1258-1178 BCE. While we are familiar with Mahāvīra and Buddha, we have forgotten about one of their contemporaries and an equally prominent personality of that time. His name was Gosāla and he was the most important teacher of the now extinct order of the Ājīvikas.

The 13th century BCE was a very important period in the history of ancient India. A prolonged drought starting in 20th century BCE caused the decline of Vedic Sarasvatī civilization, commonly known as Indus Valley Civilization. Over the next couple of centuries, Vedic Aryans, the inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilization, had to abandon their cities as the economic system collapsed. Some of Vedic Aryans moved westward towards Persia and Europe, while others moved eastward and southward to the rest of current day India. Over next several centuries Vedic Aryans formed great kingdoms of Kuru, Panchāla, Kāśī, Kośala, Vatsa and Videha. In 13th century BCE, another great kingdom started its dramatic rise, the kingdom of Magadha. It was the frontier of Vedic religion at that time and the followers of Vedic religion were vying for the attention of the general populace along with the Buddhists, Jains and Ājīvikas.

We don’t have any extant texts of the Ājīvikas. Our knowledge of the Ājīvikas comes from the Jain and Buddhist texts, especially the Bhagavatī Sūtra of Jains, Sāmaññaphala Sutta of Buddhists and the commentary on Sāmaññaphala Sutta by Buddhaghosha. Since, both of these religions were in direct competition with the Ājīvikas, the description of the Ājīvikas is not very flattering in these texts and is full of sectarian bias. The teacher of the Ājīvikas order has been called Gosāla Maṅkhaliputta by the Jains and Makkhali Gosāla by the Buddhists [1]. B.M. Barua in his books “The Ājīvikas: A short history of their religion and philosophy” [2] and “A history of pre-Buddhistic Indian philosophy” [3] and A.L. Basham in his book “History and doctrines of the Ājīvikas: A vanished Indian religion” [4] have tried to reconstruct the history of the Ājīvikas based on the Jain and Buddhist texts.

A description of Buddha’s contemporary philosophers and their doctrines is presented in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, which is the second book of the Buddhist text Dīgha Nikāya (the long collection). It is a dialogue between Buddha and Ajātasattu (Ajātaśatru). Once upon a time Ajātasattu, the king of Magadha, felt the need for spiritual guidance. One after another six different spiritual teachers were recommended by his ministers. Their names were Pūraṇa Kassapa, Makkhali Gosāla, Ajita Kesakambalī, Pakudha kachchāyana, Sañjaya Belatthiputta, and Nīgaṇṭha Nātaputta. Each of these teachers is referred as a founder of an order (titthakāro), a leader of an order (gaṇāchariyo), a respected saint (sādhu-sammato) and a homeless wanderer for a long time (chira-pabbajito). Ajātasattu was not satisfied by the counselling received from any of them and finally approached Buddha at the suggestion of his doctor Jīvaka. Buddha was staying at Jīvaka’s mango grove in Rājagaha (Rājagṛha), then capital of Magadha, with 1,250 disciples.

Ajātasattu asked the same question to Buddha that he had asked the six teachers. The question was whether any appreciable benefit was derived from asceticism? Upon Buddha’s request, he repeated the replies given by the six teachers. Pūraṇa Kassapa said that no merit is received by giving alms and performing sacrifices. Similarly, no sin is committed by murder, theft, robbing and adultery. We will discuss the views of Makkhali Gosāla later in this article. Ajita Kesakambalī also believed that there was no merit in almsgiving. According to him there is no afterlife. Body is made of four elements, which return to their sources after death. His teachings are similar to that of Chārvakas. Pakudha kachchāyana preached the doctrine of seven elements, earth, water, fire, air, joy, sorrow and life. Nīgaṇṭha Nātaputta said that sins are avoided by restraint and by continued practice of restraint sins are washed away. Nīgaṇṭha Nātaputta is identified with Mahāvīra by historians. Sañjaya Belatthiputta refuses to commit to anything. If he is asked a question, he neither says it is so, nor says it is not so. Out of these six teachers, some belonged to the now extinct order of the Ājīvikas.

Early teachers of Ajivikas

The greatest teacher of the Ājīvika order was Makkhali Gosāla. However, there are reasons to believe that he was not the founder of the order. A detailed description of interaction between Gosāla and Mahāvīra is found in the Bhagavatī Sūtra. According to this text, Gosāla and Mahāvīra had stayed together for six years and Gosāla had gathered a large following at Sāvatthi (Śrāvastī) after parting ways with Mahāvīra. Gosāla gained a high reputation due to his great character and austerity, but things changed drastically, when Mahāvīra came to Śrāvastī. Mahāvīra denounced Gosāla as a charlatan and an enraged Gosāla came with his followers to confront Mahāvīra. He declared that the Gosāla that Mahāvīra knew was dead and the person before him has the soul of Udāī Kuṇḍiyāyaṇīya, who has passed through seven bodies in succession. The name of these seven people and duration of stay of the soul of Udāī in their bodies are given as 1. Enejjaga, 22 years; 2. Mallarāma, 21 years; 3. Maṇḍiya, 20 years; 4. Roha, 19 years; 5. Bhāraddāī, 18 years; 6. Ajjuṇa Goyamaputta, 17 years; and 7. Gosāla Maṅkhaliputta, 16 years. It is conceivable that the names of the earlier teachers of the Ājīvika order are enumerated through this story. Since, the duration of stay of the soul of Udāī in each teacher decreases in a linear progression, these numbers are probably meaningless except for Makkhali Gosāla, who had headed the order for 16 years. Makkhali Gosāla was thus the eighth teacher of the Ājīvika order, starting from Udāī Kuṇḍiyāyaṇīya.

Life of Makkhali Gosāla

Makkhali Gosāla is said to have been self-restrained, practicing penance, keeping silent, equable and truthful in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta. He practiced extreme austerity. He did not accept food that was specially prepared for him and from people who were eating fearing they would get short. He did not accept food, when supply was scarce as in a drought. He did not accept food, when a dog or flies were around as he did not wish these animals to go hungry. He was a vegetarian and did not use intoxicants. He used to stay naked. Many of his practices were similar to Digambara Jains and therefore many times his followers were confused with the followers of Mahāvīra by the Buddhists. According to Jain text, Bhagavatī Sūtra (xv.540), Gosāla’s mother was named Bhaddā and father was named Maṅkhali. Maṅkhali is derived from the word Maṅkha, which means a type of ascetic, who carries a picture with him. Before the birth of Gosāla, Maṅkhali and Bhaddā came to a village called Saravaṇa and Maṅkhali left Bhaddā in the cowshed of a wealthy householder, while he looked for a proper accommodation. He could not find one and Bhaddā gave birth to a boy in the cowshed. Since he was born in a cowshed (Gauśālā), his parents named him Gosāla. Gosāla and Mahāvīra spent six years together as mendicants. Bhagavatī Sūtra narrates many incidents of this period and claims that Gosāla had become a disciple of Mahāvīra. These stories do not show Gosāla in a positive light as the motivation seems to be to show the superiority of Mahāvīra. Gosāla claimed to have attained enlightenment six months after parting his ways with Mahāvīra. Gosāla arrived at Sāvatthi (Śrāvastī) one and half years later around the time Mahāvīra became a Jina.  Gosāla lived at Sāvatthi for 16 years as the head of the Ājīvika order. The headquarters of the order was located in the workshop of a potter-woman named Hālāhalā. Mahāvīra outlived Gosāla by 16 years, according to Bhagavatī Sūtra, but this is doubtful as the author of Bhagavatī Sūtra has used the same number of years for the leading of Ājīvika order by Makkhali Gosāla [5]. Gosāla had cursed Mahāvīra with rapid death, but the curse turned back on Gosāla himself due to the power of Mahāvīra, according to Bhagavatī Sūtra. It would indeed be a poetic justice to show that Mahāvīra outlived Gosāla by the same number of years as Gosāla had led the Ājīvikas order. Gosāla’s death took place during the war between Magadha and Vaiśālī, which was ruled by a powerful Vajji federation. Ajātaśatru, the king of Magadha, sent his minister Vassakāra to Buddha to get his counselling on how to conquer the Vajji federation. Buddha opined that the victory is impossible till the Vajji are united. Ajātaśatru sent Vassakāra as a refugee to Vaiśālī to sow the seeds of dissension among the Vajji federation. Vassakāra spent three years in Vaiśālī towards this goal at the end of which Ajātaśatru invaded Vaiśālī and occupied it with little opposition. Though the Buddhist texts suggest that Vajji federation did not offer stiff resistance, Jain texts make it a prolonged and fiercely contested affair. There were two fierce battles according to the Jain tradition. Other evidence from Buddhist texts also supports this viewpoint. The fortification of Pāṭaligrāma, which later became the metropolis of Pāṭaliputra and the capital of Magadha Empire, suggests that Ajātaśatru was expecting a counter-invasion from Vajji federation. Gosāla’s death took place shortly after the first invasion of Vaiśālī by Ajātaśatru, which must have taken place between the coronation of Ajātaśatru and death of Buddha. Basham places the death of Gosāla in 484 BCE, one year before the death of Buddha in 483 BCE [6].

Let us try to estimate the date of Makkhali Gosāla in the framework of the alternative timeline developed in my previous articles. In my article “A new dating of Mahāvīra based on Mālava era”, I had estimated that Mahāvīra lived between 1244-1172 BCE. As Mahāvīra lived as Jina for a little less than 30 years [7], he became a Jina in 1201 BCE. Makkhali Gosāla and Mahāvīra had stayed together as mendicants for six years before parting ways. Six months after parting ways, Makkhali Gosāla received enlightenment and reached Śrāvastī one and half years later to head the Ājīvika order around the same time, when Mahāvīra received enlightenment and became a Jina. Thus, Makkhali Gosāla and Mahāvīra stayed together as mendicants from 1209-1203 BCE. Makkhali Gosāla received enlightenment sometime in 1203 or 1202 BCE and became head of the Ājīvika order in 1201 BCE. As Makkhali Gosāla headed the order for 16 years, he was head of the Ājīvika order from 1201-1185 BCE. We don’t have precise information to calculate the year of birth of Makkhali Gosāla. However, Mahāvīra is shown as being younger than Makkhali Gosāla in Jain texts. As Mahāvīra was born in 1244 BCE, it will be reasonable to assume that Makkhali Gosāla was born a few years earlier than Mahāvīra in circa 1250 BCE. Thus, Makkhali Gosāla, the greatest teacher of the Ājīvika order lived between c. 1250-1185 BCE. In my earlier article “A new dating of Buddha based on the evidence of Sumatitantra”, I had estimated the reign of Ajātaśatru to have taken place between 1185-1160 BCE. The meeting of Ajātaśatru with six philosophers described in Sāmaññaphala Sutta can then be said to have taken place in 1185 BCE, the year of his coronation. The cause for this spiritual quest may have been the remorse from killing his father Bimbisāra. Soon afterwards, Ajātaśatru started the invasion of Vaiśālī resulting in the first war with the Vajji federation in 1185 BCE. Makkhali Gosāla achieved Nirvāṇa in the same year.

The beliefs of the Ājīvikas

The main scripture of the Ājīvikas was called Mahānimitta, which consisted of eight books called Divyam (of the divine), Autpātam (of portents), Āntarikṣam (of the sky), Bhaumam (of the earth), Āṅgam (of the body), Svāram (of sound), Lākṣaṇam (of characteristics), and Vyāñjanam (of indications). The most important belief of the Ājīvikas was the concept of Niyati or fate. Makkhali Gosāla was a rigid determinist, who did not believe in free will. In the Sāmaññaphala Sutta, he says, “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 either by oneself or by others (which can affect one’s future births), no human action, no strength, no courage, no human endurance or human prowess (which can affect one’s destiny in this life). All beings, all that have breath, all that are born, all that have life, are without power, strength, or virtue, but are developed by destiny, chance, and nature, and experience joy and sorrow in the six classes (of existence). … 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. Saṃsāra 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.” [8] The Ājīvikas worshipped two Yaksa gods called Pūrṇabhadra and Maṇibhadra. Their duty was to test the dying ascetic on the last night of his penance. If the ascetic yields to their temptation, he is born again. If the ascetic does not yield to their temptations, he achieves salvation. The Ājīvikas were called Trairāśikas as they declared everything to have triple characters such as 1. living, not living, and both living and non-living; 2. world, not world, and both world and not world; 3. real, unreal, and both real and unreal. It is fascinating to note that a remarkable parallel exists in the field of modern physics regarding the nature of fundamental particles: particle, wave or both particle and wave.

The decline of the Ājīvikas

The Ājīvikas were flourishing in North India till the time of Bindusāra, father of Aśoka Maurya. An Ājīvika mendicant was an advisor in the court of Bindusāra. The Ājīvikas received a serious blow at the hands of Aśoka Maurya. Aśoka, who is considered an apostle of non-violence, was not so tolerant, even after his conversion to Buddhism. Aśoka massacred 18,000 Ājīvikas in a day, according to Aśokavadāna [9]:

“A follower of the Nirgrantha (Mahāvīra) painted a picture, showing Buddha prostrating himself at the feet of Nirgrantha. Aśoka ordered all the Ājīvikas of Pundravardhana (North Bengal) to be killed. In one day, eighteen thousand Ājīvikas lost their lives. A similar kind of incident took place in the town of Pāṭaliputra. A man who painted such a picture was burnt alive with his family. It was announced that whoever would bring the king the head of a Nirgrantha would be rewarded with a Dinara (a gold coin). As a result of this, thousands of Nirgranthas lost their lives.”

Such a mass-murderer has been foisted on us as Aśoka the great. The Ājīvikas never recovered from this brutal massacre at the hands of Aśoka. Basham says: “After the Mauryas, the Ājīvikas although occasionally mentioned in the Sanskrit literature, never again appear in Northern India as serious rivals to the greater sects.” [10]

Aśoka’s grandson Daśaratha had donated Nāgārjunī hill caves near Gaya to the Ājīvikas. Nearby Barābara hill caves were donated by king Priyadarśī to the Ājīvikas. There are doubts whether this king Priyadarśī was Aśoka [11]. Some Ājīvikas were present in the Eastern Bengal during the reign of Vainyagupta. A copperplate grant dated 184 Gupta era has been recovered recently from Dhaka [12]. This date corresponds to 503 CE in currently accepted history using the Imperial Gupta era of 319 CE. In the alternative timeline, it corresponds to 125 BCE using the Imperial Gupta era of 309 BCE (a detailed justification for this starting date of the Imperial Gupta era will be provided in a later article). Some other Ājīvikas found more flourishing conditions in South India, where they survived till at least the fourteenth century. In the Tamil work “Nīlakechi”, Pūraṇa is described as the Ājīvika teacher. Since, the views of Pūraṇa Kassapa in Sāmaññaphala Sutta are similar to those of the Ājīvikas, it is probable that Pūraṇa Kassapa was also an Ājīvika teacher. He may have become the head of the Ājīvika order after the nirvana of Makkhali Gosāla.

It is interesting to note that there was no Brahmin teacher among the six teachers of note asked to advise Ajātaśatru. According to history books, Jainism and Buddhism were a result of the revolt against Brahmanism. However, from the example of these six teachers, it is more likely that Brahmanism was not a major force in Magadha at that time and there was no reason to revolt against Vedic culture. Both Buddha and Mahāvīra were princes and did not suffer any discrimination. They chose their paths based on their own spiritual quests. The spiritual quest has always been encouraged in the Vedic culture. Ancient India was a land of intellectual freedom and everyone was free to preach his own faith. It was in this intellectual climate that Ājīvikas had gathered a sizeable following and become a dominant faith.


  1. J. Charpentier, “Ajivika”, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Jul. 1913, pages 669-674
  2. B.M. Barua, The Ājīvikas: A short history of their religion and philosophy, Part I, 1920, Calcutta, India: University of Calcutta.
  3. B.M. Barua, A history of pre-Buddhistic Indian philosophy, 1921, Calcutta, India: University of Calcutta.
  4. A.L. Basham, History and doctrines of the Ājīvikas: A vanished Indian religion, 1951, London, UK: Luzac and Company Ltd.
  5. ibid, page 70.
  6. ibid, page 74.
  7. ibid, page 50.
  8. ibid, pages 13-14.
  9. S. Mukhopadhyaya (1963). The Aśokavadana. Delhi, India: Sahitya Akademi, page xxxvii.
  10. A.L. Basham, History and doctrines of the Ājīvikas, page 161.
  11. ibid, page 151.
  12. R. Furui, Ājīvikas, Maṇibhadra and Early History of Eastern Bengal: A New Copperplate Inscription of Vainyagupta and its Implications, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, May 2016, pages 1 – 25.
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Dr. Raja Ram Mohan Roy

Dr. Raja Ram Mohan Roy earned his B. Tech in Metallurgical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from The Ohio State University, USA. He has worked as a Research Scientist and Project Manager for over 20 years in Canada. He has written four pathbreaking books on Indian civilization titled "Vedic Physics: Scientific Origin of Hinduism", “India before Alexander: A New Chronology”, “India after Alexander: The Age of Vikramādityas”, and “India after Vikramāditya: The Melting Pot”. He is currently working on his fourth book on Indian history titled “India before Buddha: Vedic Kingdoms in 2nd Millennium BCE”.