Ajivikas: An Enigmatic Force in Indian Philosophy

Ajivikas: An Enigmatic Force in Indian Philosophy

  • 29 March, 2024
  • Motilal Banarsidass

The rich tapestry of Indian philosophy is characterized by diverse schools of thought that have contributed significantly to the intellectual landscape of the region and beyond. Among these, the Ajivikas stand out as a fascinating and enigmatic group whose influence reverberated throughout ancient India. This article delves into the origins, beliefs, and role of the Ajivikas in shaping Indian philosophy.

Recommended Reading: History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas by A.L. Basham

History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas: A Vanished Indian Religion


Origins and Founder

The Ajivikas were a philosophical sect that emerged in ancient India during the 5th century BCE. Founded by Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, the Ajivikas attracted followers with their distinctive doctrines and ascetic practices. Gosala, himself a disciple of the renowned sage Mahavira, was the 24th (last) Tirthankar in this half-cycle of time. There were 23 Tirthankars before him and Jainism was prevalent even then. The biggest evidence of the existence of Jainism before Mahavir Swami is 'Kankali Tila'


Core Beliefs

Central to Ajivika philosophy was the concept of niyati, or destiny, which asserted that all events in the universe, including human actions, were predetermined and beyond individual control. This deterministic worldview stood in contrast to the doctrines of karma and free will espoused by other Indian philosophical schools. According to Ajivika belief, human beings were powerless to alter their destinies, as everything was governed by an inexorable cosmic order.

Another fundamental tenet of Ajivika philosophy was the concept of ajiva, or non-living substance, which posited that only physical matter existed, devoid of consciousness or divine intervention. This materialistic outlook rejected the existence of a creator deity or a transcendent soul, emphasizing instead the primacy of natural forces and deterministic laws.

Recommended Reading: History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas by A.L. Basham

History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas: A Vanished Indian Religion

The book presents the history and the doctrines of the Ajivikas who formed a third heretical sect besides the sect of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and that of Mahavira Vardhamana, the twenty-B fourth Tirthankara of the Jainas. The three heterodox sects react against the ritualistic creed of the Vedists.

The cult of Ajivikas was founded by Makkhali Gosal, the contemporary of Mahavira Vardhamana, on the basis of strict determinism with a belief in the all-embracing rule of Niyati (principle of order). According to Gosal, it was Niyati which ultimately governed our action, controlled phenomena and left no room for human volition.

It will throw new light on any interesting and significant aspect of India’s past, and will encourage further research.

This book is divided into fifteen chapters discussing elaborately different aspects of the subject matter. The comprehensive Bibliography and index are the added features for the researchers for comparative as well as further study of yet unexplored areas.


Ascetic Practices

Ajivikas were renowned for their rigorous asceticism and strict adherence to a minimalist lifestyle. Followers of this sect practiced severe austerities, including fasting, celibacy, and renunciation of worldly possessions, in pursuit of spiritual liberation. Asceticism was seen as a means of transcending the cycle of birth and rebirth, ultimately attaining liberation from the cycle of existence.


Impact on Indian Philosophy

Despite being a relatively minor sect compared to contemporaneous schools like Buddhism and Jainism, the Ajivikas exerted a significant influence on Indian philosophical discourse. Their radical ideas challenged prevailing orthodoxies and stimulated intellectual debate within ancient Indian society.

The deterministic worldview of the Ajivikas provoked philosophical inquiries into the nature of free will, causality, and moral responsibility, contributing to the development of diverse philosophical perspectives in India. Although the Ajivika school eventually declined in prominence, its legacy endured through its impact on subsequent philosophical movements.

In the annals of Indian philosophy, the Ajivikas occupy a unique and intriguing position. Their radical doctrines and ascetic practices left an indelible mark on the intellectual landscape of ancient India, prompting profound reflections on the nature of existence, destiny, and liberation. While the Ajivika school may have faded into obscurity, its philosophical insights continue to resonate with scholars and seekers of wisdom, underscoring the enduring legacy of this enigmatic sect.

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