The Ajivika cult was established by Gosala - Mahavira's
once pupil but subsequent rival. Gosala had many followers in the times of
Mahavira and Buddha and even subsequently for hundreds of years. It
vanished in the north but sustained for many more years in the south.
It has however totally vanished from the surface of the
earth as a distinct cult though its principles do survive in modified
form. We have not got any direct evidence about its principles and
whatever material we get, is obtained from what the rival religious
systems of Jainism and Buddhism have said about it. Though these
materials, being the materials supplied by rivals, may be taken to be
tendentious and prejudicial, there cannot be any doubt about the
fundamental and basic concepts of the Ajivika cult.
Mr.A.L. Basham has rendered a very great service in
compiling all available materials regarding this cult in his book "History
and Doctrines of Ajivika" (a vanished Indian religion). This book was
published by Motilal Benarasidas, Varanasi.
Dr.Zimmer, the well kwown Indologist, explains the
etymological meaning of the word ´┐ŻAjivika' as meaning "As long as the life
monad has not completed the normal course of evolution." The word ´┐ŻJiva'
means life monad. The prefix ´┐ŻA' signifies ´┐Żas long as'. Reading the
whole, ´┐ŻAjiva' means ´┐Żso long as the life monad lasts.' Reading the whole,
´┐ŻAjiva' means ´┐Żso long as the life monad lasts'. This interpretation of
Dr. Zimmer fits in with ´┐ŻGosala's doctrine of absolute determinism called
´┐ŻNiyati', because according to him, every life has to go through a fixed
number of inevitable births before getting final realization. This natural
biological advance is predetermined and cannot be accelerated by means of
efforts like practicing cannot be accelerated by means of efforts like
practicing virtues and asceticism or undertaking penances, nor can this be
retarded by developing vices. Thus, according to this theory, there is no
place in our lives for human efforts. The theory of Karma is thus rendered
irrelevant. According to this theory, after the series of 84 thousand
existence every ´┐ŻJiva' gets release which comes by itself just as
everything else happens by itself.
In his above referred book Mr.Basham, the learned
author, treats the Buddhist scripture ´┐ŻSamanna-phala-sutra' as the basic
source which throws light on the Ajivika doctrine of ´┐ŻNiyati' as preached
by Gosala, as under :
"There is neither cause nor basis for 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. ...no human action, no strength, no courage, no human endurance
or human power (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 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.... 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."
The above is an acknowledged summary of the Ajivika
doctrine. This doctrine makes serious departure from the Jaina doctrines
on the following points :
(1) There is no place of human efforts in shaping ones
destiny because everything is pre-determined.
(2) As a corollary, the theory of karma on which the
whole structure of Jainism is based becomes irrelevant.
(3) Each Jiva is an involuntary victim of his own
destiny and hence should not care for developing virtues or avoiding
vices. If there is social disorder resulting from this attitude, it should
be taken as predetermined and even if there is human effort to develop
virtues and avoid vices, that also should be taken as pre-determined.
(4) Principles of Samvara (stopping the inflow of
karmas) and Nirjara (shedding of accumulated karmas) are useless as both
the processes are pre-determined.
(5) Fundamental human feelings and emotions are useless
as every Jiva has to suffer its own course and nobody can be helpful in
changing that course.
(6) All knowledge and inquisitiveness are useless as
the whole universe is bound to progress or regress in accordance with its
(7) Best way to get happiness is to enjoy, to eat, to
drink, to dance and to make yourself merry without taking any problem of
Any such doctrine was bound to fail, as it has, in
fact, failed very miserably. Lord Buddha compared this doctrine to a hemp
garment (Anguttara Nikaya). Both the Jainas and the Buddhists have
vehemently protested against the mechanistic inflexibility of this
doctrine. Obviously the doctrine demands human resignation to a previously
determined course without any compensation and affords no answer as to who
determined the course and why ? The answer that the whole scheme is self
evolving is no answer or solace to a seeking soul who is in search of
peace. The doctrine of Karma has destroyed the concept of an omniscient
and all determining God, but has given a substitute for God by evolving
the theory of cause and effect coupled with the authorship of the self for
all karmas. The Ajivika doctrine also destroys the concept of God without
giving any rational substitute.
Moreover, it is an acknowledge position that Ajivikas
were believing in severe penances. But no explanation is found to explain
for what purpose they were undertaking penances if human efforts and
karmas were irrelevant. In fact, Mahavira himself posed such questions to
Saddalaputta, a very prominent potter and a rich disciple of Gosala.
Mr.Basham records this incident as under :
"Mahavira asks (Saddalaputta) whether the pots were
made by dint of exertion or not, to which the Ajivika replies that it is
made without exertion. Mahavira then asks what Saddalaputta would do, if
one of his workmen stole or broke his pots, or made overtures to his wife.
To this the potter indignantly replies that he would beat and strike the
culprit or even kill him. But such actions, Mahavira retorts, would be
quite inconsistent with the doctrine of Niyati and of no exertion. If all
the things are unalterably fixed and there is no exertion. no man can
steal or break the pots and the potter cannot revile or strike or kill the
culprit. Yet such things do happen in every day life, and so the claim
that there is no exertion and that all thins are determined is false."
The only reply which Saddalaputta could have given was
that even his reaction of reviling the culprit was governed by Niyati. If
this was the reply (which is practically the same as suggested by Shri
Basham) it would follow that if every little things in life is governed by
Niyati and if you do not know what is in store of Niyati why should you
bother about Niyati at all ? You may better go on exerting in the best
possible manner or reap the real results. This would be the reality and if
one has to choose between the reality of life and an abstract doctrine of
Niyati the contents of which are unknown, one should better choose the
However, the Jainas, who are ready to take into account
all the different aspects of a theory by application of their doctrine of
Nayavada, have given a partial recognition of the idea of Niyati in their
theory of karma and also by recognising the fact that certain natural
phenomena do occur only at a determined time. So far as our past karmas
are concerned the fruits thereof have to be borne by us. But here also the
Jaina thinkers have devised a way out by their doctrine of Nirjara. It
says that you can shed your accumulated past karmas by voluntarily
undertaking penances, which is known as ´┐ŻSakama Nirjara'. This, the Master
did by undertaking serve austerities for twelve years. However, the theory
does recognize the existence of some karmas the effect of which cannot be
wiped out even by severe penances. The fruits of such karmas have to be
borne. This is a partial recognition of Niyati. But once we recognise the
potency of human exertions, it is entirely in our own hands. We can always
resort to the process of ´┐ŻSamvara' and prevent the new flow of karmas, and
improve our future. In other words our future ´┐ŻNiyati' is in our own
There are of course certain natural phenomena which
occur only when their time is ripe but here also science has proved that
there is some scope of changing their pattern as well as the time of
In short, the Niyati principle as propounded by the
Ajivikas could not have proved socially or individually useful and carried
to its logical conclusions, it was nothing but a new version of the theory
propounded by Carvaka.