A class of naked ascetics (see, e.g., Vin.i.291), followers of Makkhali Gosāla, regarded, from the Buddhist point of view, as the worst of sophists. Numerous references to the ājīvakas are to be found in the Pitakas, only a few of them being at all complimentary. Thus in the Mahā Saccaka Sutta (*) they are spoken of as going about naked, flouting life's decencies and licking their hands after meals.
(*) M.i.238; see also S.i.66, where a deva praises Gosāla as a man who had attained to perfect self-control by fasting and austere practices. He had abandoned speech and wordy strife with any person, was equable, a speaker of truth, a doer of no evil. That the life of the ājīvakas was austere may be gleaned from their condemnation of monks carrying parasols (Viii.ii.130).
But they never incurred the guilt
It is mentioned that they did not always find it possible to adhere to this rigid code of conduct.
It is stated in the Tevijja Vacchagotta Sutta (M.i.483) that far from any ājīvaka having put an end to sorrow, the Buddha could recall only one ājīvaka during ninety-nine kappas who had even gone to heaven, and that one too had preached a doctrine of kamma and the after-consequences of actions. Elsewhere (M.i.524) they are spoken of as children of a childless mother. They extol themselves and disparage others and yet they have produced only three shining lights:
A fourth leader, Panduputta, of wagon-building stock, is mentioned in the Anangana Sutta (M.i.31); there is also the well-known Upaka.
There is no doubt that the ājīvaka were highly esteemed and had large followings of disciples (See, e.g., Pasenadi's evidence in S.i.68, apart from Ajātasattu's visit mentioned in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta; also S.iv.398). They had eminent followers such as high court officials (Vin.ii.166; iv.71) and that, for centuries at least, they retained an important position, is shown by their being thrice mentioned in the Asoka Edicts as receiving royal gifts (Hultsch: Asoka Inscriptions, see Index).
The doctrines held by the ājīvaka are mentioned in several places, but the best known account is in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta where they are attributed to Makkhali Gosāla by name (D.i.53-4. See also M.i.516f). He maintained that there is no cause or reason for either depravity or purity among beings. There is no such thing as intrinsic strength, or energy or human might or endeavour. All creatures, all beings, everything that has life, all are devoid of power, strength and energy; all are under the compulsion of the individual nature to which they are linked by destiny; it is solely by virtue of their birth in the six environments (chalabhijātiyo) that they experience their pleasure or pain. The universe is divided into various classes of beings, of occupations and methods of production. There are eighty-four hundred thousand periods during which both fools and wise alike, wandering in transmigration, shall at last make an end of pain. The pleasures and pain, measured out as it were with a measure, cannot be altered in the course of transmigration; there can be neither increase nor decrease thereof, neither excess nor deficiency.
The fundamental point in their teaching seems, therefore, to have been "samsāra-suddhi," purification through transmigration, which probably meant that all beings, all lives, all existent things, all living substances attain and must attain, perfection in course of time.
According to Buddhaghosa (DA.i.161), in the classification of the ājīvaka:
The division of men into six classes (chalabhijātiyo) is noteworthy. Buddhaghosa describes these as being kanha, nīla, lohita, halidda, sukka and paramasukka. This closely resembles the curious Jaina doctrine of the six Lesyas. Given, e.g., in the Uttarādhyāyana Sutra (Jacobi's Jaina Sūtras ii.213). This seems to involve a conception of mind which is originally colourless by nature. The different colours (nīla, etc.) are due to different habits or actions. The supreme spiritual effort consists in restoring mind to its original purity. Cp. with this the Buddha's teaching in A.iii.384ff. and M.i.36.
In the Anguttara Nikāya (iii.383-4) a similar doctrine is attributed to Pūrana Kassapa.
Gosāla's theory (D.i.54; see also S.iii.211) of the divisions of the universe into fourteen hundred thousand principle states of birth - (pamukhayoniyo) and into various methods of regeneration - viz.,
seems to show that the ājīvaka believed in infinite gradations of existence, in the infinity of time, and also in the recurrent cycles of existence. Each individual has external existence, if not individually, at least in type. In the world as a whole everything comes about by necessity. Fate (nigati) regulates everything, all things being unalterably fixed. Just as a ball of string when cast forth spreads out just as far as, and no farther than it can unwind, so every being lives, acts, enjoys and ultimately ends, in the manner in which it is destined (sandhavitvā, samsaritvā dukkhassantam karissanti). The peculiar nature (bhāva) (DA.i.161) of each being depends on the class or species or type to which it belongs.
Among the views of the Puthusamanas (other teachers), the Buddha regarded the doctrine of the ājīvaka as the least desirable. It denied
and was therefore despicable (patikhitto) (A.i.286).
The Buddha knew of no other single person fraught with such danger and sorrow to all devas and men as was Makkhali; like a fish-trap set at a river mouth, Makkhali was born into the world to be a man-trap for the distress and destruction of men (A.i.33).
According to Buddhaghosa (DA.i.166),
It has been suggested (E.g. Barua: Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy, p.314) that Makkhali Gosāla's doctrine of the eight developmental stages of man (attha purisabhūmi) was a physical antecedent of the Buddha's doctrine of the eight higher spiritual ranks (attha purisapuggalā).
Buddhaghosa gives the eight stages as follows: manda, khiddā, vīmamsana, ujugata, sekha, samana, jina and panna. DA.i.162 ; see also Hoernle's Uvāsaga-Dasāo, ii. p.24, where pannaka is given for panna. op. J.iv.496-7, mandadasaka,khiddā-dasaka,anna-dasaka,etc.
This seems to indicate a development of the mental and spiritual faculties, side by side with physical growth, an interaction of body and mind.
There seems to have been a great deal of confusion, even at the time of the compilation of the Nikāyas, as to what were the specific beliefs of the ājīvakas.
There was a group of ājīvakas behind Jetavana. The monks saw the ājīvakas perform various austerities, such as squatting on their heels, swinging in the air like bats, scorching themselves with five fires, and they asked the Buddha whether these austerities were of any use. "None whatever," answered the Buddha, and then proceeded to relate the Nanguttha Jātaka (J.i.493f).
The ājīvakas used to be consulted regarding auspicious days, dreams, omens, etc. (See, e.g., J.i.287 and MT.190).
There was a settlement of ājīvakas in Anurādhapura, and Pandukābhaya built a residence for them. Mhv.x.102.
Thomas, following Hoernle, thinks that the term (ājīvaka) was probably a name given by opponents, meaning one who followed the ascetic life for the sake of a livelihood. Op. cit., p.130. But see DhA.i.309, where the different kinds of religieux are distinguished as acelaka, ājīvaka, nigantha and tāpasa.
For a detailed account of the ājīvakas see Hoernle's Article in ERA. and Barua's paper in the Calcutta University Journal of the Dept. of Letters, vol.ii. Hence we cannot infer that the name which was found as late as the thirteenth century always refers to the followers of Makkhali Gosāla. This point is certainly worth investigating.