Makkhali Gosala (c. 484 B.C.E.) (also known as Maskarin Gośāla or Gosala Mankhaliputta) was an ascetic teacher in ancient India, often identified as the founder of the Ajivika movement. He was a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and of Mahavira, the last and 24th Tirthankara of Jainism.
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. Nevertheless, it appears that the Ajivikas were likely a group of wandering ascetics (samanas or sanyasins).
Details about Gosala's life are sparse. As stated above, all of the available information about Gosala and about the Ajivika movement generally comes from Buddhist and Jain sources. As Gosala's teachings appear to have been rivals of those of the Buddhist and Jain leaders of his day, this information is regarded by most scholars as being overtly influenced and colored by sectarian hostilities.
Some regard Makkhali Gosala 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 an acquaintance 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.
Two primary sources describe Gosala's life and teaching: the Jain Bhagavati Sutra, and Buddhaghosa's commentary on the Buddhist Sammannaphala Sutta. The Bhagavati Sutra goes into detail about the career of Makkhali Gosala and his relationship with Mahavira; the Sammannaphala Sutra itself mentions Makkhali in passing as one of six leading teachers of philosophy of the Buddha's day, and Buddhaghosa's commentary provides additional details about his life and teaching.
According to the Bhagavati Sutra, Gosala was born in the cowshed of a Brahmin named Gobahula, who was a Kosalan determinist, in the village of Saravana, a name meaning 'thicket of reeds'. This may indicate that Gosala was claimed by his followers to have been born or found in a patch of reeds—like a number of figures from Indian mythology—and the report was later distorted and forgotten, and the patch of reeds transformed into the name of a village. His mother's name is given as 'Bhadda', a name used in many Jaina sources to refer to the unknown mother of some mythological figure, while his father's name is given as Mankhali. Gosala's father was said to be employed as a mankha, a somewhat obscure class of mendicant or ascetic that seems to have been occupied with carrying an image of a god or goddess, and with singing religious songs.
The name 'Gosala' literally means 'cow shed', and both the Bhagavati Sutra and Buddhaghosa claim that Gosala was so named because he was born in a cow shed, his parents being unable to find more suitable lodgings in the village of Saravana. The Bhagavati Sutra reports that Gosala went on to follow his father's profession, becoming a mankha. Meanwhile, Buddhaghosa claims that Gosala was born into slavery, and became a naked ascetic after fleeing from his irate master, who managed to grab hold of Gosala's garment and disrobe him as he fled.
While it is possible that the broad outlines of Gosala's birth story or early life are correct—that he was born into poverty in a cowshed—it may be equally likely that these versions of his early life were concocted by Buddhist and Jain partisans to bring a rival teacher into disrepute.
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. Nevertheless, Goshala Mahakali appears to have been 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 Bhagavati Sutra states that Gosala became Mahavira's disciple three years after the start of Mahavira's asceticism, and traveled with him for the next six years. A commentary to the Jain Avasyaka Sutra provides details of these six years of association, many of them reflecting poorly on Gosala—another likely indication of sectarian bias. Several incidents in the narrative show Mahavira making predictions that then come true, despite Gosala's repeated attempts to foil them. These incidents were likely included in the narrative to provide motivation for Gosala's later belief in the inevitability of fate. Some of these incidents may in fact have been adapted from Ajivika sources but recast by Jaina chroniclers.
Another possible adaptation of an Ajivika story is found in Mahavira's explanation of the end of the association between himself and Gosala, recorded in the Bhagavati Sutra. On coming to a plant by the roadside, Gosala asked Mahavira what the fate of the plant and its seeds would be. Mahavira stated that the plant would grow to fruition, and the seed pods would grow into new plants. Determined to foil his master's prediction, Gosala returned to the plant at night and uprooted it. Later, a sudden rain shower caused the plant to revive and re-root itself. Upon approaching the plant again later, Gosala claimed to Mahavira that he would find his prophecy to have been foiled. Instead, it was found that the plant and its seeds had developed exactly as predicted by Mahavira. Gosala was so impressed by the reanimation of the plant that he became convinced that all living things were capable of such reanimation. The terms used in the story of the Bhagavati Sutra for reanimation mimic a technical term for reanimation of the dead that is also found elsewhere in Ajivika doctrine. Mahavira disagreed with this thesis, and this seems to have been the cause of the separation of the two ascetics. Mahavira is, however, later depicted as having rescued Gosala from an attack by an enraged renunciant using magical powers acquired through the practice of austerities; this is claimed to motivate Gosala's pursuit of the same sort of magical powers.
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