Ajivika (also written Ajivaka; correct transliteration Ājīvika) was an ancient philosophical and ascetic movement of the Indian subcontinent. Philosophically, the Ajivikas were contemporaries of the early Buddhists and historical Jains and their movement may have preceded both of these groups. The Ajivikas may have been a more loosely organized group of wandering ascetics (samanas or sanyasins).
The Ajivikas believed that transmigration of the human soul was determined by a precise and non-personal cosmic principle called Niyati (destiny or fate) that was completely independent of the person's actions. In contrast to other schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, Ajivikas were strict fatalists, who did not believe in karma or the possibility of free will.
Very little concrete information is known about the Ajivikas since their scriptures and history have not been directly preserved. Rather our understanding of Ajivika doctrine comes from fragments preserved in Buddhist and Jain sources, as well as inscriptions from the Mauryan empire (322–185 B.C.E.). As a result, it is unknown to what degree the available sources reflect the actual beliefs and practices of the Ajivikas since the existing materials were highly polemical. Thus, most of what is known about the Ajivikas derives from the literature of rival groups and it is quite possible that bias and distortions are infused into the records. Even the name 'Ajivika' may have only been used by observers from outside the tradition.
Some regard Makkhali Gosala (Pali; Sanskrit: Goshala Maskariputra) (c. 484 B.C.E.) as the founder of the Ajivika faith; other sources state that Gosala was a leader of a large Ajivika congregation, but not himself the founder of the movement. Purana Kassapa was another leader of the Ajivikas. Gosala is believed to have been a friend of Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism. The Jain Bhagavati Sutra depicts Gosala as having been a disciple of Mahavira's for a period of six years, after which the two had a falling out and parted ways.
The emperor Ashoka's father, Bindusara, was a believer of Ajivika philosophy, which reached its peak of popularity during Asoka's lifetime, and then declined into obscurity. The Ajivikas may have continued to exist in India until as late as the fourteenth century, but the extent to which the tradition survived is unclear. Inscriptions from southern India make reference to the 'Ajivikas' as late as the thirteenth century, but by this point in history the term Ajivika may have been used to refer to ascetics from other traditions rather than followers of the Ajivika tradition that existed during earlier centuries.
Beliefs and practices
As with the history of the Ajivika movement, the practices and beliefs of the Ajivikas are difficult to reconstruct, as they were only preserved in polemical (hostile) sources. Ajivikas seem to have been exponents of a philosophy of absolute determinism, in which human actions and choices are unable to overcome the forces of fate. Ajivika adherents followed a strict regimen of asceticism, similar in many ways to the practices undertaken by the Jains such as extreme fasting, indifference to physical discomfort, and living exposed to the elements. Makkhala Gosala was often described as having lived without clothing, as are some other senior Ajivika adherents. It is not clear if all Ajivikas lived as naked wanderers, or if this was a practice that was only undertaken by the extremely devout.
They were also strongly against the caste system and, much like their Jain and Buddhist counterparts, were mainly non-theistic. However, there were a few theistic figures as well including Goshala Mahakali who was a devotee of Shiva, and Makkhali Gosala was a devotee of Vishnu. Ajivika leaders were sometimes depicted as ending their lives voluntarily when they felt that their bodies or minds were beginning to decline—either by fasting to death, or, in the case of Purana Kassapa, by drowning.
The Ajivika are believed to have possessed a collection of scriptures, based on references made to such a collection in Jaina sources. Of these purported scriptures, the only surviving portions are scattered verses in Buddhist and Jain sources that seem to represent quotations from the Ajivika scriptures. The Ajivika scriptures were ever committed to writing, and their contents are unknown outside of these fragmentary quotations. Additionally, there are lists of Ajivika titles recorded in non-Ajivika sources.
One such list collected by a Jaina commentator identifies the primary collections of Ajivika texts as follows:
- Divyam (of the divine)
- Autpātam (of portents)
- Bhaumam (of the earth)
- Āngam (of the body)
- Svāram (of sound)
- Lākşanam (of characteristics)
- Vyāñjanam (of indications)
An alternative listing substitutes Divyam for Suvine (dreams), and indicates that all of these collections were used for the purposes of fortune telling, an activity in which Ajivika mendicants are described as engaging in several sources.
- A. L. Basham, History and Doctrines of the Ājīvikas (Delhi: Moltilal Banarsidass Publications, 2002), 214.
- Ibid., 216
- Ibid., 213
- Ibid., 213
- Ibid., 214.
- Basham A. L. History and Doctrines of the Ājīvikas, Delhi: Moltilal Banarsidass Publications, 2002. ISBN 8120812042
- Chakroborti, Haripada. Asceticism in Ancient India: In Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jaina and Ajivika Societies, South Asia Books, 1993. ISBN 9788185094694
- Thapar, Romila. A History of India: Volume 1, Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition. September 1, 1990. ISBN 9780140138351
- Thrower, James. Alternative Tradition: A Study of Unbelief in the Ancient World, Mouton De Gruyter, 1979. ISBN 9789027979971
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