The Ajivikas are believed to have evolved from one of the many ascetic groups of the times. According to Buddhist records, Nanda Vaccha was considered the founder of the Ajivika sect. He was succeeded by Kisa Samkicca, followed by Makkhali Gosala, who was the third and the greatest of the Ajivikas. Gosala met Mahavira for the first time in Nalanda and their friendship lasted for six years. They separated due to doctrinal differences. Gosala then went to Sravasti, where he was patronised by a rich potter woman called Halahala. He believed in the doctrine of reanimation, and criticised and ridiculed the severe austerities of the Vedic ascetics. Being rival sects, both the Buddhist and Jaina accounts portray Gosala as a person of vicious character. Sravasti was the headquarters of the Ajivika sect. The Ajivikas were naked ascetics. The basic principle of the Ajivikas was niyati or fate: they believed that nothing in this world could be changed as everything was predetermined. Everyone has to pass through a series of transmigrations to put an end to pain. According to Ajivikas, there were six inevitable factors in life, viz. gain and loss, joy and sorrow, and life and death. Two other preachers, Purana Kassapa and Pakudha Kacchayana, joined the Ajivikas after the death of Gosala and infused new life to it.
Purana Kassapa held the view that actions did not have any merit or demerit. No evil is caused by torture, hurting and killing others. Similarly, no merit is acquired by generosity, self-control and truthful speech. Humans cannot change anything by action as everything is predetermined. According to him, non-action is the way out of life. Pakudha Kacchayana believed that the world was made of seven substances that were “unmade, irreducible, uncreated, barren, stable as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar – that do not alter, do not change, do not interfere with one another, are incapable of causing one another pleasure, pain or both pleasure and pain”.
The Ajivikas had rich lay disciples such as potters and bankers. The Ajivika sect spread across the length and breadth of the country, though their influence was much less compared to that of Buddhism and Jainism.
Ajita Kesakambalin (Ajita of the Hair Blanket) was a materialist. He believed that every human was made of four primary elements: fire, water, wind and sense. After death, these elements return to the earth. There is no life after death. He said, “Generosity is taught by idiots. The words of those who speak of existence after death are false, empty chatter. With the breakup of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death.”
The term “lokayata” signifies materialist thought. Indian materialism has also been named Carvaka after one of the two founders of the school. Carvaka and Ajita Kesakambalin are said to have established Indian materialism as a formal philosophical system. Carvakas developed the concept of scepticism and believed in the pursuit of knowledge through experience. They questioned the authority of Vedas.
There was intense rivalry among the various heterodox sects. This is evident from the various religious accounts of the period. Buddhist and Jaina texts not only mention other heterodox sects but also belittle them. For example, Bhagavatisutra, a Jaina text, provides a poor account of Makkhali Gosala.
He is described as born to a poor mendicant in a cowshed. It accuses Gosala becoming a disciple of Mahavira for material comfort as the latter had many wealthy patrons. It describes “the greatest Ajivika teacher as a person of most contemptible character, a man of low parentage, and (sic) of low profession”. Buddhagosa also ridicules Gosala in his commentaries. He describes Gosala as a servant fleeing naked from his master on committing a mistake even disregarding the fact that his garment had fallen. A Buddhist Jataka story “compares the heretics with the fire-flies, whose faint light faded before the rising glory of the sun, i.e., the Buddha”.