Justice T.U.Mehta


Ajivika Philosophy

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 ‘Ajivika' as meaning "As long as the life monad has not completed the normal course of evolution." The word ‘Jiva' means life monad. The prefix ‘A' signifies ‘as long as'. Reading the whole, ‘Ajiva' means ‘so long as the life monad lasts.' Reading the whole, ‘Ajiva' means ‘so long as the life monad lasts'. This interpretation of Dr. Zimmer fits in with ‘Gosala's doctrine of absolute determinism called ‘Niyati', 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 ‘Jiva' 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 ‘Samanna-phala-sutra' as the basic source which throws light on the Ajivika doctrine of ‘Niyati' 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 predestined course.

(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 life seriously.

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 former.

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 ‘Sakama 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 ‘Samvara' and prevent the new flow of karmas, and improve our future. In other words our future ‘Niyati' is in our own hands.

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 happening.

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.