By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia
(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)
Around the 6th century BC, at the time of the Buddha, there was an explosion all across India of different schools of thought and philosophy. While traditional Hindu Vedic practices continued to thrive, there were many other sects called ‘matas’, whose beliefs varied from one extreme to the other – some who denied the existence of God altogether to those who believed in utter predestiny. Many of these sects had influential followers like kings and businessmen, and so endured for centuries. In fact, the best known of these other sects are Buddhism and Jainism! Others gradually withered out over time, until today we only know of a few, mainly as they are referred to in Buddhist and Jain texts.
One of the most popular was the Ajivika sect. Though it had been around for ages, its most important leader Makkhali Goshala was a contemporary of both the Buddha and Mahavira.
Life is a Ball of Thread
The Ajivikas’ central belief was that absolutely everything is predetermined by fate, or niyati, and hence human action has no consequence one way or the other. According to them, each soul’s course was like a ball of thread that is unravelling. It will go as it has to go, and similarly each cycle of life and death will have to be experienced, as will joy and sorrow. Once the ball of thread is fully unwound, its journey will end, and so the soul will be liberated through nirvana.
No caste or creed
Like Jains, Ajiviks wore no clothes, and lived as ascetic monks in organised groups. They were known to practice extremely severe austerities, such as lying on nails, going through fire, exposing themselves to extreme weather, and even spending time in large earthen pots for penance! There was no caste discrimination and people from all walks of life joined them. Interestingly, the oldest rock-cut caves in India, the Barabar Caves in Bihar dating from the Mauryan Empire, were made for Ajiviks and Jains to retreat and meditate!
Their reputation for such fearsome penance spread far and wide, and appeared in later Chinese and Japanese literature.
Buddhist and Jain texts are very critical of the Ajiviks and Makkhali Goshala, which shows us that the Ajiviks must have been considered fairly important rivals of both. For instance, Ajivik monks were known to eat very little food, but Buddhists accused them of eating secretly! Jain texts describe a violent quarrel between Mahavira and Makkhali Goshal, which naturally, was won by their leader!
Ajiviks were quite influential, and had many powerful followers. The sect reached its peak during the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s father’s (Bindusara’s) time. Ashoka himself, best known for his spreading of Buddhism all over India and Southeast Asia, was an Ajivik for most of his life.
(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the recently released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India. Follow on twitter @shrutigarodia_)